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Automotive Design & Styling Versus Technical Realities

Andreas Wolfsgruber

This article will cover automotive design/styling in greater detail. It will explain the difference between styling and design, what are features of "good" styling, and which elements of a vehicle impact styling the most.

Since styling is an ongoing process that extends throughout the vehicle development phase, the styling and “technical” development of a vehicle are mutually dependent on each other, a topic which will also be explored here. Moreover, you will learn what the technical automotive challenges in world of design are.

> An introduction to automotive design/styling
> Automotive design or styling – what’s the difference?
> Styling visions vs. technical realities
> What’s next?

Features and practicality undeniably make up the “core” components of the overall vehicle project. However, it is equally important that the vehicle looks good, too! Most vehicle visions start with a vision of the vehicle, meaning its look and feel, acoustics, as well as other aspects.

To create a positive first and lasting impression, the look and feel must connect with customers, investors, and the new entrant itself. The discipline encompassing the look and feel of an automotive vision is called design. Styling covers the visual and aesthetic aspects whereas design respects form and function.

Grey car on white background, futuristic


A clear vision of the vehicle must exist before the styling can be created. In the early stages of a vehicle project, the vehicle’s look and feel are closely aligned to its creator’s original vision.

As there are no legal and technical limitations at this point in the process, the show car1, which is the first time the vehicle is revealed to the public, is a highly stylized and idealized version of the future vehicle.

Show cars anticipate future trends and are not limited by today's constraints, technical, legal or otherwise. In that sense, they are to be seen more as a preview of what is to come than part of the actual styling process during vehicle development.

How the Vehicle Styling Process Takes Place

The styling process itself starts and runs in tandem with the product vision phase. The vehicle's styling can gradually be implemented at the beginning of the concept phase once the initial targets have been clearly defined.2

First, stylists create several theme sketches, which are the artists' impressions of the future vehicle. From those sketches, the management team chooses the key sketch that they will work from. This then serves as the blueprint for the future vehicle’s styling, and already includes all the features and aesthetic elements of the new vehicle.

Sketches of a car cockpit; black on white

From Styling Blueprints to Styling Freeze

During the concept phase, the styling is transferred from paper onto the computer and further specified and validated, all in tandem with the complex target requirements for the overall vehicle, its systems, and, lastly, its components.

The level of detail in the design process increases gradually, from the overall proportions to the vehicle's exterior and interior through to the tiniest details of the individual vehicle modules. Systematic, detailed solutions are essential in order to achieve a satisfying overall design experience.

The “end” of the general styling phase is reached at the milestone referred to as the "Styling Freeze." At this point, only changes that are absolutely essential or that do not impact the design in any significant way should be made. This milestone is generally achieved roughly halfway through the development process and is necessary for the project to proceed on schedule.

Learn more about "Seven Essential Considerations for Your Automotive Concept Phase"



Vehicle styling is often confused with vehicle design. In general, vehicle or automotive design is an interdisciplinary term that overlaps with different aspects of vehicle development. The term “design” also covers engineering-related tasks, such as the vehicle's construction. Styling, however, is largely limited to one part of the overall vehicle design process which is focused on aesthetics.i

So, what exactly is automotive design/styling?

Here's the short answer:
As described above, styling is essentially the process of defining a vehicle’s form and look. The main focus is on style and aesthetics. It is less about customers requirements in terms of the vehicle itself and overall driving experience.

And the longer answer is: styling is the art of capturing the “spirit” of a vehicle from an aesthetic perspective.

The two things most commonly associated with styling are the core elements of the vehicle’s design language: the interior and exterior surfaces as well as the overall look and feel. It is a visual language reflecting the key values of a brand that seeks to connect with the expectations of the target group.

Styling is therefore not just about a vehicle's exterior and interior surfaces or its overall form; it also relates to intangible elements that make the vehicle what it is. From the vehicle’s HMI (Human-machine Interface), its UI/UX (User Interface/User Experience) to its acoustics, styling is an ever-present factor in vehicle development.

Who is responsible for styling?

Established OEMs generally perform styling in-house, whereas new entrants tend to work with partners, like design studios. If new entrants plan to set up an internal styling department from the start, they should search for people with skills in drafting, 3D modeling, surfacing, coloring, and UI/UX design. Additionally, project experience may also prove to be positive for the undertaking.


It is sometimes assumed that styling plays a secondary role in the vehicle development process, with function coming before form. However, styling isn't just a single, clearly delimitated step in the development process. Rather, it's a vitally important aspect of the process.

Just like the features list, styling is an integral part of a vehicle. Both must be developed parallel to each other. After all, as many engineering features of vehicles become more and more standardized, the importance of the design experience as a unique selling point, also on an emotional level, will continue to grow.

That said, styling and functionality often do not go hand in hand. From the show car to the production vehicle, every car will undergo major, far-reaching changes and may lose much of its initial stylized character to meet legal standards, manufacturing conventions, and technical requirements. On the other hand, vehicle stylists will look to stay as close as possible to the key sketch. This means that engineers and stylists have to discuss every inch of the vehicle in order to bring vision and reality together.

Vehicle stylists work with emotions, vehicle engineers work with numbers

A common source of conflict for designers is that they cannot put their visual concepts into numbers, whereas numerical data is the primary tool of engineers. Still, as customers’ decisions are often made on an emotional level, the designers’ point of view and their focus on future target groups are crucial for market success.

Take advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), for example. For an ADAS system to function properly, numerous external sensors are required. From blindspot monitoring sensors to parking assistants and all-around-vision, all of these sensors have a fixed position on a vehicle. Moving just one of them could affect the functionality of the overall ADAS system, not to mention some of the safety and legal implications this would entail.

The secret ingredient is consistent decision-making

As you can see, there are a lot of technical automotive challenges within this process. To this end, technical and styling teams working on a project need to work closely together and, more importantly, understand the other teams. Good styling teams have excellent knowledge of vehicle development and the respective requirements and challenges.

On the flip side, skilled vehicle developers have a keen eye – or at least an open ear – for design conventions and aesthetics. Ideally, there will be a studio engineer to act as a go-between between the vehicle styling and development teams.

It’s best to keep retroactive styling changes to a minimum

Much like in the overall development process, retroactive changes to components and systems that have already been agreed upon should be kept to an absolute minimum. In particular, the new entrant should be clear on the key cornerstones of their vehicle’s vision.

Even seemingly minor changes to the design, be it slightly larger tires or a small change in the angle of the windshield, could affect the vehicle.. Such changes may affect not only styling or design, but often many components, systems, or even the overall platform. This could affect the schedule or timeline and lead to budget overruns.

Futuristic car inside; cockpit


To summarize, automotive design and styling is much more than creating glamorous show cars. It’s the art of capturing a vehicle’s DNA. Iconic elements, which characterize future cars and give them a unique personality, are key factors in meeting the demands of the next generation of customers in all forms of mobility.

From the vehicle’s form to its exterior and interior surfaces, colors, materials, and the final experience through to UI/UX and acoustics, vehicle styling is a broad discipline which extends across all aspects of the manufacturing process. Because of this, styling will often come in conflict with the vehicle’s technical requirements. Good stylists should know the technical requirements of a vehicle, while good engineers should be mindful of the aesthetic requirements.

In fact, it could be argued that styling is the discipline that a new entrant’s vision is most concerned with. Styling is a key factor in successfully realizing an automotive vision. And this makes it an indispensable part of the vehicle development process.

What’s more, as cars are becoming more autonomous, the requirements of users in terms of the driving & ride experience will continue to grow. As a result, future generations of designers will face the challenge of creating a new and better world of mobility. Creativity, innovation, visionary thinking and knowing the technical automotive challenges will be the key factors in future mobility design.

i: It’s important to keep in mind that the exact definitions can vary depending on who is asked – the following paragraphs explain vehicle styling in the way it is commonly used within Magna.

Learn more about "Seven Essential Considerations for Your Automotive Concept Phase"

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Andreas Wolfsgruber

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