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Why Frank Stephenson wants to bring back pen and paper car design

Published: 13 February 2024 Updated: 13 February 2024

► Gavin Green talks to Frank Stephenson
► Why Stephenson thinks we need to bring back the pen and paper
► Were the best car designs sketched first?

My month began at the Royal College of Art in Battersea, London. One of the world’s most celebrated car designers, and certainly the most cosmopolitan, was urging pupils to learn to draw. Frank Stephenson reckons youngsters spend too much time on their screens. Design students should get out their pen and paper instead.

Frank and Gavin

What’s more, says Frank, if car designers could draw better, cars would look better. The creative flow from mind to medium is less constrained using pen and paper than with a computer: more human and more inventive. ‘Using pen and paper, you’re less inhibited. You’re expressing your inner thoughts in the purest form.’

He’s the designer responsible for probably the two most iconic small cars of this millennium – Mini hatch and Fiat 500 – and some of the most memorable supercars, including the McLaren P1 and Ferrari F430. But if you think he’s degenerated into a design Luddite – Jacob Rees-Mogg in a black turtleneck – then think again. His current projects include designing flying taxis and space capsules. 
Moroccan-born, educated in Spain and America, fluent in five languages – ‘and I can get by in two more’ – Frank is also a great sketcher using a pen. That’s unlike quite a few senior car designers these days and even more youngsters.

He fears sketching is a lost art and wants to revive it. To help, he’s offering an online course, ‘Learn to Sketch With Frank’. It was launched at the RCA, mostly to (highly receptive) students. Journalists were also invited. I have no skill in sketching, never mind that my dad was once a cartoonist. So Frank’s lessons are as relevant to me as a course in dairy-herd management. But when a leading designer has a new theory explaining why modern cars are, generally, neither beautiful nor innovative – a view I share – I want to know more.

Frank believes modern designers are too reliant on computers. This affects creativity. Often their work is also too rushed, as development times shrink. Few new cars satisfy Frank’s criteria for great design: ‘You see it and want it immediately.’

Only one student, sponsored by a Chinese car maker, challenged his championing of paper and pen. She said that, in China, sketching was unnecessary. They increasingly use AI. ‘And it shows,’ said Frank.

Now, I don’t know a lot about AI. But I do know that the Ferrari Dino and 288 GTO were designed by Leonardo Fioravanti using a pencil and paper, and Marcello Gandini didn’t use Photoshop or AutoCAD when he designed the Lamborghini Miura. Alec Issigonis used pencil and paper when he conceived the Mini.

Frank Stephenson sketching

My car-design friends all sing the praises of CAD and AI, and I don’t doubt their usefulness at honing and developing designs. Rather, Frank wants sketching to be a bigger part of the design process at the beginning, when creativity really matters. After all, the world’s most beautiful and innovative cars were all sketched on paper.

They still are. The best artists still design the most beautiful cars. Look at Ferrari design boss Flavio Manzoni’s proficiency with pen and paper in a video of him sketching the Roma on

The lack of imagination, as well as absence of desirability, in modern EV design is especially disappointing. EVs have different architectures, presenting new and exciting design opportunities. Yet the last truly ‘think different’ EV – with its cab-forward stance to liberate passenger space – was the Jaguar i-Pace, launched way back in 2018. You can question its styling desirability: but it’s certainly innovative. And, yes, the i-Pace started with a pencil on paper, says its designer, Ian Callum: ‘I love the spontaneity of sketching.’

Frank Stephenson drawing course

Even in the high-tech world of Formula 1, the drawing board still has its place. Adrian Newey, greatest F1 designer of the modern era, uses a pen and paper to begin the design process of his championship-winning Red Bulls.

‘I’m a dinosaur,’ he admits. Maybe. But it just shows that a great designer is far more important than any design software.

‘Gandini didn’t use Photoshop when he designed the Miura. Issigonis drew the Mini with a pencil’

By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience