You might not have heard of Sasha Selipanov, but you’ve most definitely seen his work. He penned the outrageous Bugatti Chiron. More recently, in his new gig as chief designer of Genesis Advanced Design, he led the creation of the stunning Essentia concept that stole the New York International Auto Show.
Actually, “penned” isn’t quite the right word for it. See, he created the Essentia digitally, solely using computer-aided design. Nary a pen nor pencil touched paper in the design studio—other than for the most basic of thematic representations. Everything else was CAD. And Selipanov is very, very proud of his process.
Selipanov cuts a persuasive figure: broad-chested, shaved head, coarse black beard, piercing gaze, Metallica T-shirt. So you pay attention when he brusquely asserts that today’s design school graduates lack basic design-software skills—that all they want to do is sketch.
“Sketches are misleading,” Selipanov said in an interview. “The digital process is liberating. It allows for instructions like, ‘Go for it,’ or, ‘Push the back end down 10 millimeters.’ In one week I can have a well-resolved design based on a data set, not just a drawing.”
He’s just getting warmed up. Standing next to his concept car, it’s hard to tell whether it’s the Essentia or Selipanov that is vibrating with scarcely restrained energy. In what likely will spark howls of outrage from sculptors, Selipanov feels clay modeling is overrated—and perhaps unnecessary.
“If you hand off a sketch to a modeler, it becomes his vision,” Selipanov grumbled. “There’s a confusing amount of conversations. What to tape, what to cut, what to mask. One model will have too much volume, others not enough. It never looks like you want it to.”
In the case of the Essentia, 13 Genesis designers teamed to create three-dimensional data that became the concept. And the result is thrilling.
Here’s the twist: In 2002, I interviewed Doug Halbert, who was executive designer of Honda R&D Americas. He lamented that all the new designers solely knew Alias keyboard shortcuts. They couldn’t sketch their way out of a paper bag. Heck, they couldn’t even sketch the bag.
Halbert’s tirade was backed at the time by Nissan Design International founder Jerry Hirshberg, who laid down one of his typically piquant quips: “The seductive speed of the computer makes people think they can make soup from scratch in 15 minutes. But the soup you get sucks.”
I mentioned this to Selipanov, and he had a ready retort: “The computer is not stiff. The design is still in your hands. If the design is stiff, it’s your fault.”
So who’s right?
I asked Chris Theodore, our Car of the Year juror whose career highlights include running product development and engineering for Ford and Chrysler. He knows design, especially in how it affects (and is affected by) the unbending laws of engineering and physics. Theodore sees the answer as somewhere in the middle. He sees sketches as a great communication tool, but he also agrees that CAD has grown in its ability to directly translate a designer’s vision.
“The industry is in a state of transition with the technology,” Theodore said. “It’s important that a designer has the ability to sketch, as this creates a deep understanding of how to project 2-D ideas in 3-D and add emotion.”
The initial CAD and surfacing tool software was crude, but it has evolved to allow for more realistic and refined forms to be created. However, “it takes a deep understanding of the capabilities of the software to make everything look right in the real world,” Theodore added.
As such, a team can get very close to the designer’s vision using only today’s CAD tools, but most still require a clay model, cut off the CAD model, for fine tuning of surfaces and full appreciation of scale and highlights.
That the Essentia was done entirely in CAD “is more a testament to the almost compulsive level of detail required to achieve the desired result,” Theodore said. In other words, designers, look before you leap.