- In the past and even today, many design VPs had little or no experience developing interiors before becoming responsible for the entire product.
- Designing an interior is considerably more difficult than the exterior, if for no other reason than the content of what must be designed.
- The author suggests a lot of the most innovative and exciting design is now happening inside vehicles.
If you ask a child to draw a car, most likely the result will be a side view of something approximating a vehicle with two circles indicating wheels. Even not so young aspiring automotive designers, before any formal training, will likely sketch in the same way, a side view of a vehicle.
This may be a result of the importance of the side elevation in determining the overall look and proportion, or simply from a lack of understanding of perspective. Whatever the reason, what you will not see these future designers doodling is automotive interiors. The simple reality is that most of them think of a vehicle from the outside, with the interior playing a secondary role, if they think of it at all.
For many years the automotive industry had the same priorities, with the design departments following in step and in culture. In the past and even today, many design VPs had little or no experience developing interiors before becoming responsible for the entire product.
Here’s the simple truth: Designing an interior is considerably more difficult than the exterior, if for no other reason than the content of what must be designed. Think about all that’s involved: Everything that you see, touch or even smell requires consideration.
Take seating, for example. The studio will initiate the physical design, which will likely have to fit within a corporate seat frame, with the seating supplier in consultation to ensure execution, functionality, and cost. The studio is responsible for establishing the sew pattern, details such as seam execution or piping, as well as developing and releasing surface data which includes hard trim.
The color and trim department will be responsible for fabric selection, in conjunction with the studio, and then there will be validation of seating comfort, with engineering, in extended rides.
Then there’s the instrument panel. It used to be simple when there were round analog gauges, before digital readouts and now fully reconfigurable screens. There is an ever-increasing amount of content and features without a corresponding increase in real estate.
Designing for all this considers ergonomics, the latest display and infotainment technologies, as well as input strategies, whether it’s simple round dials (please, more of this) or touch-sensitive switches or touchscreens with multiple layers and menus for all functions. Technology is ever evolving, and you don’t want to get stuck with a CD player when no one uses it anymore.
Also, it’s likely that multiple components—like steering column stalks, light switches, window controls, etc.—will be shared across corporate platforms or brands, so add designing those to the list as well as figuring out how to incorporate them without compromising the design theme.
Perhaps one of the most significant differences with interior design is the coordination of color, grains, and gloss levels. Unlike the exterior, the interior is made up of many different materials that must be color matched. A door panel, for example, may be made of both hard plastic and soft touch leatherette, with each material attempting the same appearance.
Add the complication that the graining—the texture that is molded or formed into the part—is also trying to be identical, even if different manufacturing processes are employed. And how about uniform gloss levels? It gets tricky trying to achieve them when different adjoining materials are chosen.
If all this didn’t make the job hard enough, a door panel may come from a different supplier than the instrument panel, further complicating attempts to make those match in color, grain, and gloss.
These are issues that exterior design simply does not have to contend with. It’s incredibly difficult to visually validate all these interior components together before production commitment. And when a program is over cost, it’s easiest for the program exec to pull content from the interior.
At one point in my career, I was assigned responsibility for General Motors’ interior design, color, and trim. It was a job I did not want, having done only exteriors up to that point and now being put in charge of a design discipline where seemingly everyone involved knew more about it than I did. It was intimidating.
But it was also a time when GM interiors were not competitive and there was a lot of opportunity. Five years later, GM was doing award-winning interiors, and I had become a better, more rounded designer—with a more complete understanding of what it took to design from the inside out.
Today, I think the situation is better, and the emphasis has changed. Maybe it's because the public expects more from interiors, as manufacturers have pushed for better perceived quality and execution.
Maybe it is because of all the emphasis on functional SUVs, but I think a lot of the most innovative and exciting design is now happening on the inside. Perhaps aspiring automotive designers will begin to think this way, too.
Dave Rand (pictured right) is the former executive director of Global Advanced Design for General Motors.