Inferior Design

Driven to Write is pleased to welcome a new contributor from the world of automotive design, Matteo Licata. Today, he talks interiors.

Hyundai Intrado Concept sketch (c. Car Body Design)

When interviewed on the subject, most design directors will often say something along these lines: “…Of course Interior Design is very important to us, as the interior is where our Customers spend most of their time…” Yet, inside the design studio walls, the truth can be rather different. I’ll get back there later. I’ve been a car designer for the best part of a decade, and I’ve spent most of that time designing interiors. Not that I wanted to.

Nobody actually does.

Let me explain: Automotive design awareness has never been more widespread, and there never has been as many design academies around the world. Yet to actually become a full-time car designer has never been more difficult: the number of applicants and their average level is so high that competition to enter this small (and shrinking) field has never been so tough and merciless. Even to sustain the considerable pressure of the design academy environment, you need the kind of motivation that the great Bill Mitchell famously defined as “gasoline in the veins”.

In other words, you need to love automobiles more than pretty much anything else. Having said that, it’s pretty much fair to say that nobody has ever got very excited about grey plastic mouldings and faux leather, right?

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Yet I soon started enjoying myself a lot doing interiors, for a number of reasons that often aren’t apparent to outsiders. Automobile interiors are complex: there are a lot of different components to be designed and the design professional needs to be very knowledgeable about manufacturing techniques, properties of each material and ergonomic principles.

While an exterior is designed as a single, homogeneous volume, an interior will inevitably be the result of many interacting objects. This makes them very rewarding to design, as during development you are constantly resolving actual problems, constructively dealing with engineering to reach the desired outcome.

Buick Avista Concept interior design clay model (c. Car Body Design)

For the same reasons, I’ve seen that interior design proposals tend to be less subjected to the whimsical interference of outside parties, as they are rarely under the upper management’s spotlight. When upper company management does review the projects, most of their time and attention will be focussed on the exterior drawings and mock-ups, as it’s something they think they understand (even when they don’t).

My experience taught me that the complexity of interiors make them far less likely to receive one of those blunt, “from the belly”, feedback from upper company management that can derail a project and frustrate designers immensely. Because interior designs are more difficult to “take in”, the usually design-illiterate upper company manager will often make few and constructive remarks…

Well, unless the designers made a complete hash of their work, but that’s a rare occurrence. The same is often true for the company’s design director himself, as he (this is still very much a man’s world, unfortunately) will inevitably have risen through the exterior design ranks and he’s likely to have never even sketched an interior in his life.

Yes, you read that right: designing interiors is not good if your target is a meteoric rise through the company ranks, precisely because of the situation described above, which hasn’t changed much over the years, despite public declarations of the contrary.

Author: Matteo Licata

I've been obsessed with cars for as long as I can remember, and I started drawing them the very moment I could hold a pencil in my hand. Being born in 1980s Turin, it wasn't long before I realized there were people actually drawing cars for a living: I remember I had a Giugiaro Design school diary, sometime in the late 80s, and every month there was a glossy picture of some of his concept cars: Aspid, Asgard, Capsula, Machimoto... From then on, my path was set: I was going to be a "car designer", come hell or high water, and have now been living the dream for about ten years. As an AlfaRomeo historian, I'm an expert of the post-war years of the Marque, about which I've so far published two books, with more to come. Find out more at

10 thoughts on “Inferior Design”

  1. Welcome aboard the good ship DTW, Matteo. Always great to hear from new contributors and ones with insider information. Chief designers being men, not listening and not drawing? Who’d a thought that!

  2. Welcome to DTW, Matteo. Great to have you on board.

    Your inaugural contribution confirms my impression that automotive interior designers are often (always?) working in the shadow of their exterior design colleagues, yet the demands on their skills appear to be even more complex, and potentially constricting. They have to deal with a wide range of requirements such as ergonomics, comfort and tactility that are alien to exterior designers. The success or otherwise of a good interior design only becomes really apparent to the user after many miles and hours of interaction with it, yet it also has to exude an initial “showroom” appeal to draw potential customers in (in both senses).

    I look forward to reading your critiques on good and bad design in due course.

  3. “The same is often true for the company’s design director himself, as he (…) will inevitably have risen through the exterior design ranks and he’s likely to have never even sketched an interior in his life.”
    The exception that proves the rule is Flavio Manzoni, I remember his wonderful drawings for Lybra and Thesis when he was interior designer in the Centro Stile Lancia.

    1. There’s quite a few designers who worked in both exterior and interior design.

      Based on my non-representative experiences, those who worked on interiors at some point tend to have a more comprehensive understanding of design, whereas exterior designers are more prone to just try and make things look ‘sexy’.

      Exceptions proving the rule, obviously.

  4. Ouch!
    Even after thirty years, the fact that we interior designers are the plumbers of the car design world still stings.
    The styling boys getting promoted are even less likely to « get » interiors than they were in the past.
    Getting to the top is tough. Understanding stuff is tougher. Consequently focus is narrowed to get that Rolex.
    Interior design is increasingly becoming an arena where the electronic device content is seen as more important than design content. It is often apparent that an acne covered school leaver could comment on equal terms with our illuminati on the latest MMI content in the latest redundant SUV brought to market by whoever.
    The other way to « promote » interior design is to belabour the perceived quality gains therein of the latest (insert brand and model) brought to you by the team of (insert name of Rolex wearer) in HIS pursuit of Sensory Exaltation or some such BS.
    In exchange we console ourselves with our professionalism and we wear a Seiko.

    1. This bugs me as well. It annoys me because you can´t have a car without a car interior. Do the exterior people think the cars can be sold hollow? It annoys me because for many the quality of an interior is a selling point. Without one scrap of actual data to prove my point, I am very sure VAG has risen to where it is by understanding cloth-covered A-pillars and details of indescribable subtlety have wowed customers from Ford and Opel who, not unreasonably, thought some of those details were non-functional bullnonsense.
      It is something of pure random bad luck that people remember cars from the exterior form and see the exterior form first. That random fact doesn´t guarantee the eventual relative importance of either interior or exterior designs.

  5. I would also add Volvo of late.

    I researched Anders Bell’s Linkedin page since he is as close to a superstar who specializes in interior design as I have heard of. Here is what he reported for his job at Volvo:

    “responsibility for functional areas such as instrument panel, centre console, all interior surface materials, air bags, seat belts, cargo restraints, front and rear seat systems, door panels, overhead system, luggage trim, interior light, interior soft and hard trim.”

    It turns out he is an engineer, which caused me to hypothesize that an interior designer could be more dependent on engineers to realize their vision than exterior designers are, considering that there are way fewer materials and trim choices to be made when it comes to exteriors (unless the car is named Gina).

    Then again perhaps Volvo and Tesla are splitting responsibilities differently than say GM? I wonder, for example about the Avista clay which Matteo referenced.

    The Avista concept’s final interior turns out to be so stunning that my pendantic misgivings about the clay forms (a surfeit of blade-like forms here, aggressively Asian in aim and feel, how is this a Buick?) evaporate because it was executed so awesomely. So I wonder how much of the final result is attributable to designers vs. engineers such as Mr. Bell?

    1. I mention Tesla because the automotive press responded with thunderous applause, if not predictions of impending salvation when Mr. Bell was poached by Tesla in December 2016. Too late to affect the Model 3, actual results are still pending.

  6. From my own experience, I can confirm it all. I think for many people, interior design is inferior design being done by inferior people. Even though in every project the interior is a very complex business, there is less time and resources available for interior than for exterior. I myself find it very astonishing to see exterior guys panic about cutlines or detail designs, when we -the inferior kind- face these challenges all the time, mostly without temper tantrums. I suppose it’s what you sign up for. We will have our revenge when all cars become sexless shared pods with the interior as the biggest selling point.

    1. That phrase “interior design is inferior design” is not a statement of fact but a statement of the values of people doing exterior design, I imagine. It can´t even be all of them, can it? It´s horrifying to think the team doing the outside of the car dismiss the team doing the other parts. But then again, even in the military where your aim is to co-operate across disciplines to protect your country is riven with tribalism with the navy and airforce hating the army and the army being divided into brigades who despise each other. It´s pretty lame, all in all. You further your career by working collaboratively to help the company thrive while paying due regard to ethics generally. That´s my idealistic view but I suppose some will put their interests first and treat the company as a parasite treats its host.
      In the interior versus exterior rivarly, it´s very hard to see how denigration furthers anyone´s career even looked at selfishly.
      When I was an earth science student I remember the staff of one discipline tolerating and encouraging dimissive tribal rivalry. Looking back such I am contemptuous of that attitude. I may very well ask those concerned to think about it if I meet them again. The geologists called geographers “gardeners” and among the geologists those concerned with metamorphic rock looked down on those specialised in sedimentary rock. To a much lesser extent the physical geographers tended to dismiss the social geographers. Pathetic, really. I went along with it too, sad to say.

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