The Car Design Process: From Concept to Road

The automotive design process, from a simple idea to a showroom-ready car, is nothing short of artistic endeavour intertwined with engineering prowess. It’s the perfect blend of form and function, creating a car that people want to drive as well as ensuring it meets rigorous safety, efficiency, and environmental standards. But what are the key car design steps? Let’s find out.

Automotive History
26 August 2023

At its core, the design process of a car is the multidimensional practice of defining and crafting the visual and functional elements of a vehicle. It isn’t just about creating an aesthetically pleasing form, but ensuring that this form reflects function, efficiency, safety, and the brand’s ethos. Rooted in basic principles such as proportion, balance, and aerodynamics, the car design process from sketch to production encapsulates the very spirit of innovation.

From market research through to the design brief, initial drawings, digital and 3D model development, interior and exterior design and engine selection, the process by which a car evolves from the drawing board to the showroom floor can be a long and winding road.

Indeed at any point along the path, designs can be changed, ideas reimagined and projects scrapped entirely. But when it comes together, the evolution of a new car can be a marvel to behold.

The Concept

The first of the car design steps doesn’t involve design at all. Before designers put pen to paper, and a manufacturer commits tens or even hundreds of millions of pounds into launching and marketing a new car, an exhaustive planning process takes place and dozens of questions are asked.

Is there a market for a new car? In other words, if we make it, will people buy it? What customer profile is the new car aimed at? What type of car will it be? Does it fit into the brand’s portfolio? How will it differ from the competition, i.e. what is its unique selling point? How much should it cost? Once the marketers and designers have settled on an overall concept and a market position, the artists can get to work and the car design process can start in earnest.

The Drawings

A designer sketeches plans for a new Jaguar sports car. Jaguar design studios, Coventry, UK (Credit: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

A team of artists can create hundreds of drawings, often spanning the sublime to the ridiculous, and the imagination behind the design process of a car can come from anywhere. The cross-pollination of ideas in design, where a concept from one industry can find its way into another, has often led to iconic and innovative creations.

Particularly in their earlier models, Saab often touted their aviation heritage in both design and marketing. Their dashboards, for instance, were often likened to aircraft cockpits in terms of layout and ergonomics.

The split rear window of the 1963 Corvette Stingray was said to be inspired by the twin bubble canopy of certain fighter jets, and the Lamborghini Reventón was directly inspired by modern warplanes, incorporating angular and aggressive features reminiscent of aircraft like the F-22 Raptor.

Boats, a marque’s historic portfolio or even objects in nature have all inspired the automotive design process.

The Models

The synergy between digital tools and traditional handcrafting is evident during the modelling process. While technology accelerates and aids accuracy, the human touch ensures that the design’s emotional and aesthetic intent is fully realised.

The hand-drawn designs are digitised and the 2D sketches are transformed into 3D digital models. This is one of the most important car design steps.

During this stage, designers and engineers collaborate to ensure the design meets not only the aesthetic standards but that it meets the required engineering standards including engine availability, drivetrain, chassis, brakes and other mechanical considerations. This is known as packaging.

While technology accelerates and aids accuracy, the human touch ensures that the design’s emotional and aesthetic intent is fully realised.

A physical model is then produced, usually 1:4 scale. Once the final design has been signed off, a full-sized clay or polymer model is created. Traditionally these models have been formed by hand, but with the proliferation of 3D printing, this element of the car design process has become much more efficient.

It’s at this stage where the exterior and ergonomic designs are evaluated, reviewed, modified and tested to ensure that all stakeholders are happy.

The Interior

Once the final exterior design has been signed off, the tricky task of creating the interior starts. There are hundreds of different types of woods, metals, fabrics, plastics, trim variations, colours and accessories as well as the dashboard layout and the full suite of driver’s controls.

Once the trim levels have been approved, a team of specialists fit the parts together like a particularly complex jigsaw puzzle. The company’s board will then give final approval.

From Design to Production

The design process of a car now enters a series of complex and meticulous stages to transform the design into a production-ready vehicle.


Engineers work to refine the design, ensuring it adheres to safety regulations, aerodynamic needs, and is mechanically feasible. At the same time, the car’s components, from the engine to the infotainment system are built. At this stage a prototype car may be built.

Read More About: How It’s Made

How Are Cars Made?


Every new car goes through an exhaustive series of tests to ensure it meets the environmental and safety standards required for the market in which it is to be sold. Crash tests, performance and handling tests, extreme weather tests and durability tests are carried out to ensure the car design process is as thorough as it can possibly be.


Parts suppliers are chosen and integrated into the car design steps and the manufacturer then has to design, produce and test the machines and tools required to build the new car. The assembly line needs to be set up and then a small batch of cars are produced to make sure the assembly process works as it should. The cars are then built, quality controlled and shipped out to dealers all over the world.

The Long & Winding Road

The automotive design process, from concepts to the gleaming models we see on roads and in showrooms, is a testament to human ingenuity and collaborative effort.

Through a seamless blend of design, engineering, and rigorous testing, cars evolve from basic drawings to tangible, dynamic entities. It’s important to note, however, that the overview provided here offers a general perspective on the design process of a car. Each manufacturer, with its unique legacy, challenges, and vision, will have its own bespoke methods and processes – including the sequence in which these elements are done – which they tend to keep as very closely-guarded secrets.

Variations in technological adoption, corporate cultures, regional regulations, and brand philosophies mean that no two carmakers’ journeys are precisely alike. Yet, the shared goal remains universal: to produce vehicles that captivate, perform, and serve their intended purpose with excellence.


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