REARVIEW | Media and Messengers

“I wanted to get below the surface and demythologize the process.”

-Bill Porter, on the touring show he helped curate and oraganize, called Designing an Icon, Creativity and the American Automobile.

Unfortunately I found out about this show after the fact. I wish I had had a chance to see it.

The following is from an interview published in the 1989 book The Art of American Car Design: the Profession and the Personalities:

‘Car designers are almost always car crazy, in a positive sense, but very few who reach the top have any awareness of the other arts. Not only is Porter aware of the history of modern design and of the place of cars in it, but he also talks about his designs with the vocabulary usually reserved for painting, sculpture, and architecture.

Porter: My recipe for great design involves the blending of engineering and aesthetics.  Automobiles are complicated–it takes a long time and lots of individuals to design one.  In this context, the creative process, if it is truly creative, is an evolutionary journey where the designer’s initial inspiration undergoes a development process to its final fruition.

The trick is to retain the spark of that initial inspiration in the final product.  In the end, one hopes to get in a few good licks and beat the averages.

He searches for added visual complexity, having discovered during the sixties “a richer vocabulary’ based on subtly changing conic sections. Especially important to him are the aesthetics of visual transition, and he researches “evolving” form, correspondence, analogy, discontinuity, and particularly curve life (which he calls “spring”) within changing shapes. He also looks for suggestive metaphors and harmonies in those visual intricacies. Porter is a man whose vocabulary is dominated by two words: For him, the conscious search for the “exquisite” should produce the hidden satisfaction of the “subliminal.”  Ask him to explain what he is driving at with a form, and he responds with a metaphor expressing the unconscious “imaging” he hopes to achieve.’


Bill Porter was an important influence in my car design education, even though I didn’t know it then. His name came up fairly frequently in my first two years at CCS, in the context of instructive examples that we frantic students could not possibly have appreciated at that point. What he was working toward is completely irrelevant now, in terms of style and form, but totally relevant when it comes to process and understanding.

From here, now, I get it. And, actually, what I want to do with this post is mythologize, a little bit. The process, the art that lies behind every design on the road; I can promise that it’s totally esoteric, and probably a fun read.


I think this is about how the tools you use to envision something has everything to do with what the product becomes.


Up to the 1950s, colored pencils and airbrushes ruled in the design world.  Most often on a colored paper– white on black was very common through the early post-war years. Here’s a sketch from Bill Mitchell (who succeeded Harley Earl as GM’s design VP), which typifies the technique:


A sketch by Virgil Exner- very much a product of its time, both in its Deco style, and technique.

Airbrushing really came into favor in the ’50s– a great way to depict the long, sweeping bodyside sections in full-size renderings.  And color! Finally, color. Life imitating art, and vice vesa.

Airbrush, guache, and lots of masking– all the right tools for depicting big radii and tight, shiny details. Which is, of course, what the ’50s were all about.

Pencil on newsprint was a cost-efficient way of drawing (and still is), and some of those studio drawings survive today, even though they’re on a very impermanent medium.

In the 1960s, markers and vellum become the standard, along with a complete shift in car design– the pontoon and streamlined fenders are replaced with long, slabbed bodysides, a complete composition from headlight to taillight. Inseperable from that unification of form came the understanding that, with automotive finishes being what they were, the forms of the cars dictated how they looked moving through light and shadow– and the best shapes were the ones that managed and dictated the reflections as much as the underlying shape. Markers, pastel, and vellum helped designers illustrate these effects, bringing a glassy, liquid look to both the renderings and the final product.

Here’s a Bill Porter sketch:

And one from Kip Wasenko (later to head the Cadillac studio) of GM’s rotary engine studies:

and an absolutely beautiful Firebird sketch from someone whose name I can’t decipher. If they could actually have translated this into a production model (minus the gaudy radiator nonsense), it would have been one of the all-time classics. Perspective off by a few mils? Check. Weak stance? Check. (blame the product planners)

Right idea?




The late-70s-early-80s brought new challenges for car design, both internal and external. Oil crisis and this:

showed Detroit everything that was wrong with what they were doing, inside and out.

Aerodynamics became the buzzword throughout the industry, highlighted by the Ford Taurus and Audi 100. Ford’s  series of Probe concept cars brought the coeffient of drag down to .137– an absolutely stunning technical achievement, less than half the drag of a current ‘efficient’ production car.

While designers put pen to paper they described things like this:







Now we live digital.


And, like all techniques, it had an awkward inception.

Pontiac’s 1999 GTO Concept pretty much embodies this method. Dean’s Garage covers it as well as anyone can.   It was a proof-of-concept that proved the method, but not the shape, somehow. Too much was missing; there was an obvious lack of love. The numbers may have been right, but nothing else was.


Obviously, things have improved since then, but it proves the point that if the love for and behind an idea doesn’t carry through to the experience of living with it, it’s probably not worth it, and it doesn’t matter how it was rendered. We designers have the tools to make whatever we can imagine possible, and our job is to make the world expect what what will be, before it becomes reality.

One recently-published sketch seems to sum it all up pretty well:

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