Interview With Sasha Selipanov On Hardline 27 And Forces Driving The Future Of Automotive Design

Known for his design expertise, Sasha Selipanov, founder of Hardline 27 and the former head of design at Koenigsegg, recently speaks to Automotive Design Planet about his latest venture and the forces driving the future of automotive design. Leaving Koenigsegg in March 2022, Selipanov entered a new phase, driven by a desire to explore new frontiers in the automotive industry.

This new venture stems from Selipanov's commitment to addressing a market gap, leading to the creation of his innovative studio, Hardline27. Before being announced on 3 August last year, the Hardline27 team has been actively working on various projects, collaborating not only with established OEMs but also with start-ups and tech companies.

Selipanov Press Photo (Copyright © Bugatti)

Automotive Design Planet: Congratulations on your new venture! Could you provide insights into the motivating factors that led you to initiate your venture, following an extensive tenure within established automotive brands?

Sasha Selipanov: I bring over two decades of experience to the table and was recently recognized as a veteran in the field. After graduating from the Art Center College of Design in 2005, I embarked on my journey with the Volkswagen Group, starting as a young designer and eventually working on iconic brands like Lamborghini and Bugatti. My role extended to overseeing exterior design for Bugatti, including projects like the Vision Gran Turismo and Bugatti Chiron.

However, my journey wasn't straightforward. After realising early on that to truly excel creatively, I expanded my skills beyond sketching to include 3D modelling, engineering, and business aspects. After leaving Volkswagen Group, I joined Genesis, leading the design process for the Essentia show car. My passion for sports car design led me to Koenigsegg in 2019, where I served as Head of Design. At Koenigsegg, While at Koenigsegg, a close friendship with Christian inspired me to venture into entrepreneurship. This led to the creation of Hardline27, a design consultancy. Starting in Berlin, we later expanded to LA, maintaining two sister companies. The first year proved successful, operating somewhat stealthily, and we decided to establish a presence in California due to its clientele for design services.

"From prestigious automotive projects to entrepreneurship, each chapter has been rewarding and influential."

ADP: You maintained secrecy for a long duration after you departed from the industry in 2022. Was there a deliberate strategy in place for this? Furthermore, was the idea of starting your own venture something you had in your mind over a significant period, or did you decide within the last year?

Sasha Selipanov: Several factors influenced the timing of announcing my new venture. Firstly, I wanted to ensure the venture was solid before making any announcements to colleagues and the industry at large. This allowed me to gain momentum and confidence. Additionally, the unfortunate outbreak of war in Ukraine affected my mood, and I was not very comfortable with regards to creative new announcements and saying guys check out this exciting new venture that I'm working on. 

Copyright © Hardline 27

We decided to postpone the announcement until a suitable time, ultimately choosing Monterey Car Week last year. Regarding the term 'departure from the industry,' I don't necessarily see myself as departed rather I see myself as more involved than ever. Our team is engaged in diverse projects, ranging from established OEMs to startups and tech companies. While the decision to leave Genesis presented a choice between Koenigsegg and starting my own business, the experience with Koenigsegg reinforced my desire for independence. Inspired by Christian's free-thinking approach, I decided to pursue my dream of starting my own business, driven by my long-standing non-conformist mindset.

ADP: “HARDLINE27" is a unique name. Could you elaborate on the inspiration behind this distinct name?

Sasha Selipanov: A significant influence on the name 'Hardline27' comes from my business partner and wife, Inna Selipanov who has consistently contributed excellent names for various products and projects we've been involved in. She oversees the branding and marketing aspects of our company. For me, 'Hardline' symbolizes a departure from arbitrary and random creativity. Contrary to the notion of discarding limitations and thinking freely, I believe in achieving good results by establishing clear parameters. In my approach to projects, I define guiding boundaries, considering factors such as performance, comfort, cost, and aesthetic constraints. This approach sometimes leads to spirited discussions with colleagues who may have more fashion-driven design preferences.

The number '27' holds a personal significance. It dates to my early fascination with cars, particularly a red car with the number 27 on it. Cars bearing this number always struck me as fascinating, driven with bravery and passion—qualities that serve as a counterpoint to the rigid and cerebral nature of the term 'hardline.' The inclusion of '27' adds warmth, a touch of philosophy, and passion, reflecting my roots and what initially captivated me about the world of cars.

ADP: You have been associated with the sports car industry for a long time before starting the Hardine27! What would you highlight as the most rewarding aspect of being involved in the sports car industry?
Sasha Selipanov: My passion for sports cars and high-performance vehicles has been a constant throughout my life. From an early age, I've been drawn to things with extreme quality, which extends to my taste in music and various other interests. What fascinates me the most are projects with an edge, those that push boundaries and redefine norms, such as the iconic Ford GT40, a Le Mans winner. The audacity, bravery, and passion invested in such skunkworks projects, where individuals aim to challenge the laws of physics, have always fascinated me.

Sports car projects from Sasha

As I've grown older, I've come to appreciate the genuine nature of sports car projects, among a few others. Unlike projects aiming for a marketing facelift, sports cars have tangible, real targets. Performance metrics, weight considerations, aerodynamics, and structural aspects provide a robust foundation for creative arguments and decisions. This reliance on hard scientific facts and physical constraints, rather than just business considerations is what attracts me to sports car design. 

What particularly excites me about the sports car world is the ability to use these guiding principles, rooted in logic and real-world constraints, in the creative process. While not every project needs to set lap records, the fundamental, logical constraints of sports car design can be extended to other products. Whether it's enhancing user experience, improving safety, or optimizing efficiency in different contexts, This approach adds a sober, slightly scientific dimension to design, bringing a realistic and effective perspective to various creative endeavours.

“The principles learned in the sports car industry can be applied across a range of projects.”

Sports car projects from Sasha

ADP: Throughout your career, you've always been the man to challenge conventional approaches. So, now how do you aim to revolutionize the conventional methods through hardline27?

Sasha Selipanov: We (our team) are not strangers; we've teamed up on numerous projects before as colleagues in car companies. They've been my right and left hands, peers, friends, and collaborators. This familiarity enables us to work directly and efficiently, minimizing unnecessary steps in the design process. My approach to design emphasizes a logical and scientific methodology. Unlike the conventional belief that creativity requires complete freedom of thought, I prefer treating design challenges as mathematical equations or tangible problems awaiting solutions. Rather than relying on tools that offer limitless creative freedom, I prefer those that guide me toward tangible results. 

Working with my current team, we prioritize quality over quantity in the ideation phase. we'd rather have one truly on-point idea than 30 half-baked sketches. This approach helps us focus on bringing impactful ideas to the table, fostering meaningful conversations among team members. In our design discussions, we aim for a mature and focused dialogue, treating each other as equals and problem-solvers. The emphasis is on a step-by-step sequence involving CAD and 3D modelling, understanding packaging challenges, and addressing problems with practical solutions. This approach reduces redundant aspects of the design process.

ADP: So we can assume that hardline27 will operate as a fully digital or digitally oriented studio, utilizing digital tools in its processes?

Sasha Selipanov: Absolutely, that has been our standard practice for many years. My last interaction with a clay model was likely more than a decade ago. Throughout projects with Bugatti, Genesis, Lamborghini, and Koenigsegg, my work has become fully digital, adopting a more rational and sober design approach. This may seem unconventional, but it has proven effective. While working digitally we still often decide to produce a relatively simple full-size foam model. The power of such a full-size model should not be underestimated, it's very beneficial for the design process when budgets allow. Especially in the case of a brand-new vehicle category or new engineering platform, it's crucial to see the volumes in real life and on a one-to-one scale.

Sasha Selipanov working on Koenigsegg Gemera (Copyright © Koenigsegg)

Importantly, we refrain from making direct modifications to the car during this stage. Instead, we thoroughly examine the model, tape, discuss, and take photographs. All modifications are then translated back to CAD, maintaining precision and control. In our workflow, each designer possesses the ability to model their own CAD making collaboration between digital sculptors and designers more effortless; blurring the lines between the two trades. This collaborative approach ensures a more equal and effective creative process. Our approach fosters collaboration and equity, acknowledging the collective effort that goes into designing a successful car.

ADP: With the increasing integration of digital tools in the design process, there's a shift in how we approach traditional methods. You've mentioned the importance of clay modelling and how it holds a part of the industry's heritage. Will these advancements make clay modellers or the entire clay modelling department obsolete?

Sasha Selipanov: I have quite mixed feelings about the ongoing debate on the relevance of clay modelling. My own proficiency in CAD is dedicated to the insights gained from skilled clay modellers and teachers. They, particularly those who explained their process while working on sculptures, significantly influenced my development. They would articulate how volumes, plan shapes, and sections interact within the car, guiding me through the details of the process. My gratitude for the learning experience is immense.

However, looking at it from an entrepreneurial or business standpoint, especially as a chief designer reporting to a board, you always have to account for expenses. While I acknowledge its influence on my skills, when considering efficiency it becomes challenging to advocate for the continued use of clay in today's digital age. CAD offers a comprehensive toolset, provided one has the necessary skills, determination, and focus. I often encounter designers who resist embracing CAD, claiming it's not their job or that they're not paid for it. In my perspective, understanding that their role encompasses both sculpture and CAD would empower them to excel. The focus should be on mastering these tools.

Automotive Designers working in design studio - AI Generated

Legacy car manufacturers often hesitate to adopt more efficient approaches due to considerations and respect for existing employees. However, for new companies starting from scratch, leveraging modern tools throughout various departments, including engineering and design, offers a competitive advantage. Eliminating outdated processes, streamlining departments, and adopting modern tools can lead to substantial cost savings and faster, higher-quality product development. So, the longevity of clay modelling may depend on the evolving business sense within the industry, especially as new companies disrupt traditional approaches and embrace more efficient, modern methodologies.

ADP: And do you think, this change is happening due to the introduction of EVs and autonomous vehicles?

Sasha Selipanov: I believe that the integration of autonomous vehicles isn't necessarily linked to the optimization of the design process or workflow. The key factors driving these optimizations are more rooted in realistic business constraints and concerns. While the primary goal is to create outstanding products for user enjoyment, there's also a responsibility to generate value for shareholders and contribute to the overall revenue of the business. In cases where millions are allocated to research and development, finding ways to achieve similar or better outcomes with less expenditure is a constant incentive for optimizing workflows.

ADP: As electric and autonomous vehicles become more prominent, the automotive industry is undergoing rapid changes. How do you foresee hardline27 playing a role in helping brands adapt to these transformations in the future?

Sasha Selipanov: We've been involved in a variety of interesting projects related to autonomous driving, distinguishing between clients with different approaches. Some are original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) showcasing their visions, and demonstrating futuristic autonomous concepts. However, the more practical clients are those genuinely eager to bring a product to the market quickly. In our experience, the current state of autonomous technology isn't yet at a level to support a fully dedicated autonomous vehicle for immediate road use. While there will be increasing degrees of autonomy integrated into conventional cars, the vision of passengers facing each other in a digital bonfire-equipped car isn't feasible for real projects just yet.

Tesla Model 3

When discussing more realistic applications, we acknowledge the potential enhancements by autonomy within the next two years. However, we advocate for a grounded approach, recognizing that some traditional aspects of car design, like the direction of travel, ergonomics, crash safety, and dashboard layout, will persist. Tesla Model 3 is cited as a significant example that challenges conventional interior architecture but still retains familiar elements like a steering wheel and A-pillar.

“While we embrace innovation, we strive for realism and practicality”

Rather than encouraging clients to pursue impractical concepts, we focus on delivering feasible solutions that align with the current capabilities of technology and production.

ADP: Creating a brand from the ground includes shaping its identity. Could you throw some light on the fundamental values and identity that characterize your new venture? And how does your new venture differ in terms of design philosophy and approach compared to your previous work for well-known automotive brands?

Sasha Selipanov: Certainly, it's a question that I reflect on quite often. In the past, design houses like Bertone, and Giugiaro were iconic, creating legendary looks primarily centered around their unique design vision. Back then, OEMs would approach design houses asking for a " Giugiaro car," and that's what they received—a car with Giugiaro's distinct design DNA, prominently featuring the Giugiaro name. Today, the landscape is completely different. Companies recognize the value of design differentiation for their business success. Unlike in the past, where many clients wanted a specific designer's vision, today’s car companies seek a unique design DNA just for themselves.

Selipanov Bugatti Chiron Sketches (Copyright © Bugatti)

Our approach is a fusion of these two worlds. We aim to create radically different designs tailored to the unique needs of our various clients. Reviewing our past work, we've showcased a broad spectrum—from sculptural to Bauhaus, Boolean to free form, loud and expressive to understated and subtle. Throughout this diversity, our consistent goal is to infuse each project with our unique sense of purpose, logic, and rationale.

Unlike sticking to a signature style like Zagato's double bubble, we focus on processing each project through our lens. We strive for the most pure and elegant execution of the brief, treating each project as a unique riddle. While the intellectual property (IP) of most projects rests with the client, in cases where our contribution is acknowledged, we hope to impart a sense of clarity and purity across our diverse portfolio. There might not be a unifying visual signature, but instead a shared essence of logical, pure, and clear design.

ADP: Sasha, could you share insights on the duration of the design process, considering the changes in the automotive design landscape? In the past, it used to be a different story, but now, with OEMs and new-age startups releasing cars and products within 2-2.5 years, how would you describe the actual timeline of the design process? Specifically, how long does it typically take for a design team to present the initial concept to the management?

Sasha Selipanov: The presentation of the first concept to the management typically takes around three to four weeks of work. We have a streamlined process, and it's not a challenge to come up with brilliant concepts within that timeframe. However, I want to emphasize that the design isn't the sole driving force behind the product life cycle. It's a business decision that aligns with the company's goals, growth projections, and other targets. Design plays a crucial role, but we work within the framework set by the business. Our tools enable us to stay on schedule and deliver high-quality work. The real question lies on the business side—what are the company's expectations and when do they want specific outcomes? The industry trend of shortening development cycles and releasing new products frequently is impressive, but sustainability might become a concern. It depends on whether the market will continue to embrace the rapid turnover of cars every two to three years. 

"As designers and engineers, we are up for the challenge and will adapt to the demands as long as companies seek our expertise"

ADP: Marketing and branding are also an essential part of any new venture. What strategies do you plan to employ to effectively build a strong brand presence?

Sasha Selipanov: Dropping a product into the market without a compelling story, without understanding its alignment with the market, its position relative to competitors can impact its success. The brand's landscape, message, tone of voice, visual narrative, corporate identity, logo, and unveiling strategy all play crucial roles in determining the fate of a product. Drawing from our experience, successful projects often result from a harmonious collaboration between branding, engineering, marketing, design, and sales—a comprehensive 360-degree approach.

While we may not cover every aspect of the full 360, we specialize in design and branding. The goal is to seamlessly integrate branding with our design work, creating a unified and holistic vision for our clients. Our marketing support, branding expertise, corporate identity development, and product design work together like pieces of a puzzle. For customers who value this comprehensive approach, it adds a layer of context to the vehicle or product design, transforming it from an isolated concept into a part of a broader, holistic vision.

Sasha Selipanov working on Bugatti Vision GT (Copyright © Bugatti)

ADP: What’s the most annoying automotive design trend today?

Sasha Selipanov: I've encountered this question frequently in recent interviews, and my response tends to revolve around the frustration I feel regarding the connection between cars and fashion. When you consider that an average vehicle weighs around 2 tons, it's not just a matter of mass; it represents a culmination of efforts from various disciplines, sciences, engineering, art, and business constraints. It's essentially the peak product of our civilization, a refined output that has required substantial resources and effort from our planet. What frustrates me is the tendency to treat such a significant investment and output as a mere object of fashion—a product that can become obsolete with the change of seasons, trends, moods in marketing, or customer preferences.

“Sustainability should be viewed not only in terms of emissions but also in the longevity of these products and their enduring place in our lives”

It's disheartening to think that an object like a MacBook can have a longer shelf life than a modern car. People still use their early 2010 model MacBooks, and with a couple of battery replacements, they remain functional. They're designed to be precise, portable, comfortable, and built with lasting value that doesn't fade with the release of a new CPU. In contrast, cars don't wait for technological advancements but rather for cosmetic changes like a new front fascia, bumper, or headlight, making the previous model seemingly obsolete. 

This connection to fashion, in my view, contradicts the principles of sustainability and goes against the idea of responsible consumption. Products, especially significant ones like cars, should endure for more extended periods. It should be a genuine challenge to replace a vehicle, triggered by a fundamental life change such as having a new family member or a significant shift in lifestyle. While I understand that my perspective may not align with the business priorities of some OEMs, who aim to sell as many cars as possible, I believe, as a designer and an individual with a genuine concern for the environment, it's almost disrespectful to witness these valuable vehicles being discarded and destroyed just a few of years after their debut, considering the immense effort invested in their creation.

ADP: How do you see AI shaping the future of automotive design?

Sasha Selipanov: In many ways, AI tools mimic what designers do. They search through extensive datasets for inspiration, analyze them, and generate outputs inspired by the vast learning they’ve done. This bears some resemblance to the routine of a designer in an automotive company who spends time scrolling through various sources, absorbing information, and translating it onto paper during the creative process. Personally, I've grappled with the challenge of this almost automatic approach throughout my career, where the work involves understanding information and reflecting it on paper without a distinctive visionary moment.

A significant challenge for designers arises when they realize that machines can successfully perform these tasks. The question emerges: Why should a company invest in human designers when machines can seemingly fulfil the same role? The answer lies in the unique and irreplaceable aspect of human creativity—the "Uh-huh" moment of pure inspiration. These moments are rare in a designer's career but are the driving force behind truly groundbreaking ideas. While AI can contribute to optimizing certain aspects like weight and performance in the design process, it cannot replace the profound and almost divine connection to the inspiration that a human experiences. Creativity, in essence, remains a unique and deeply human quality that machines cannot replicate… at least for now.

Read more about how AI is shaping the future of Automotive Design

ADP: What do you have to say to the young automotive design students who are dreaming or are ready to enter this world of automotive design?

Sasha Selipanov: In my perspective, there isn't a universal recipe applicable to everyone. It's not a matter of prescribing specific steps to follow for guaranteed success. What's crucial is recognizing that you'll be competing against individuals driven by intense passion in their respective fields. Instead of attempting to outshine them, identify your unique passion. Discover what truly resonates with you and believe in it wholeheartedly. Strive to become the exceptional talent in that domain, establishing yourself as the go-to authority.

The notion of breaking out of comfort zones, similar to thinking outside the box, isn't a concept I fully endorse. I believe in playing to one's strengths. Rather than becoming a Jack of all trades but a master of none, I advocate honing in on your strengths until you become a formidable force that's challenging to compete with.

Sasha Selipanov