The secret to how Tesla gets its cars to look so good

The Tesla Model 3.

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The Tesla Model 3.
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Timothy Artman/Tesla

  • Designer Franz von Holzhausen had an impressive resume before joining Tesla.
  • But the combination of his frustration with the traditional auto industry and Elon Musk’s distinctive ideas about how to solve problems has taken his work to a new level.
  • He’s followed an unlikely path to becoming the most influential car designer of his generation.

Before Franz von Holzhausen signed on with what was then called Tesla Motors in 2008, he was on his way to being a member of the automotive design world’s elite.

He had graduated from Art Center College of Design in the early 1990s, making him an alumnus of the world’s most prestigious transportation design program, counting among its graduates the likes of J. Mays, Chris Bangle, and Henrik Fisker.

At General Motors, he designed a pair of exquisite roadsters, the Pontiac Solstice the Saturn Sky. From there he went to Mazda North America, where he ran the entire show and garnered praise for his concept vehicles.

If von Holzhausen had remained on that track, he would have been a car-design aristocrat. Instead, he took a huge leap of faith and joined a buzzy Silicon Valley startup, far from the automotive capitals in Michigan, Japan, and Germany. And he became the most influential designer of his generation.

Yes, I know that’s a big statement. Jaguar’s Ian Callum or Aston Martin’s Marek Reichman might object, and Luc Donckerwolke is capturing plenty of attention for his work at Hyundai, following a stint designing Lamborghinis.

But the key factor for von Holzhausen is that as Tesla rolls out its Model 3 sedan, attacking the mass market, he’s witnessing the return on his risky decision to join CEO Elon Musk back when Tesla was selling only one car, the original Roadster. Many designers of high reputation who are about von Holzhausen’s age (he’s 49) continue to imagine the future within the context of the past.

Von Holzhausen gets to envision the future on its own terms – gorgeous electric cars that will someday be able to drive themselves. The car designer of the coming decades might admire the legends of the profession’s history (and there have been many). But when it comes to crafting a career and a reputation, they will look to Holzhausen.

I recently got the chance to speak with von Holzhausen and he shared some details about how he came to join Tesla and what guides his design philosophy.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that von Holzhausen joined Tesla in 2010; he joined in 2008.


It was von Holzhausen, not Musk, who was the budding superstar back in the late 2000s.

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Wikimedia Commons

When von Holzhausen joined Tesla in 2008, the company was contending with a near-bankruptcy. The company had only a single vehicle to sell – the Lotus-based Roadster – and although it had stoked enthusiasm with all-electric cars that were fast and sexy and would raise $226 million in an IPO after von Holzhausen arrived, the carmaker lived on the edge of a knife.

Even though the traditional auto industry had endured its own near-death experience during the financial crisis, by 2010 General Motors had staged its own IPO, returning to the public markets after a government bailout and bankruptcy. Moribund auto sales had begun a recovery, and other electric-car startups were showing the strains of introducing new technologies; most would fail. A lot of experts figured Tesla would be out of business in a few years, as the cost of launching new vehicles killed the company.

But von Holzhausen was frustrated with the traditional industry and ready to leave Mazda. A few chats and meetings with Musk proved that the experienced designer and the entrepreneur with a designer’s sensibility were on the same page, sharing vision and values.

For von Holzhausen, it was Musk’s and Tesla’s absolute commitment that cinched the deal. Musk has said that he and von Holzhausen share the same taste, so beyond that critical aspect of the relationship, it boiled down to how serious Musk was about completely remaking the landscape of transportation.

The bottom line for von Holzhausen?

“Tesla was all in,” he said in an interview with Business Insider.


Von Holzhausen mission was to create a “world-class design competency” for Tesla. The company’s first car was cool, but the Roadster was based on a Lotus design. Von Holzhausen would have the nearly unique opportunity to start from scratch.

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Tesla

Tesla’s roadmap, drawn up by Musk, was straightforward. The company had to first create an exciting electric car that would change the impressions that EVs were glorified golf carts. That car would be sold at a high price to early adopters and fans of high-performance, exotic sports cars.

The money would fund additional, luxurious, pricey electric vehicles, and that money would provide the funding for the first major endgame: a mass-market vehicle intended to bring long-range electric mobility to the masses.

The Roadster’s Lotus underpinnings meant that when those ran out, Tesla would need a new car. For von Holzhausen, going to work at Tesla’s earliest design studio in Hawthorne, CA, at SpaceX headquarters, that meant about two years to come up with a new vehicle – a rare opportunity to pen a “clean sheet” design.

Roadster production would phase out by 2012. And regardless, Tesla had to start selling a more versatile lineup of vehicles. While a snazzy two-seater was fun to drive and thrilling to look at – more so when you realized you were running only on electrons – people wanted to buy sedans and SUVs.

Von Holzhausen had a lot of work ahead of him.


Tesla zigged rather than zagged with the Model S, which was revealed in 2011 and went on sale the following year. And von Holzhausen introduced his own design philosophy.

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Tesla

The auto industry is over a century old. Tesla is the first new carmaker to emerge in decades. So it’s just about the rarest thing imaginable for a car designer to be able to imagine a new vehicle without feeling the explicit burden of the past. Just try to sketch a new Mustang at Ford or Corvette at Chevy.

Tesla was announcing itself as a real car company with the Model S, so von Holzhausen knew that his ideas would define the visual vocabulary of numerous vehicles to follow: SUVs, sports cars, coupés, probably even pickup trucks and vans. The whole tamale.

A lot of designers would have let it rip and tried to be the next Giorgetto Giugiaro, the crucial Italian designer of Ferraris, Alfa Romeos, and Maseratis. In a sense, von Holzhausen did become the next Guigaro, minus the more flamboyant efforts. Giugiaro designed dozen of cars, and not all of them made viewers automatically weak in the knees.

Von Holzhausen let Musk be his guide. Musk embraces something called “first principles thinking” and has made it into a mantra at Tesla. The idea is to avoid thinking by analogy – let’s make this car look like that car, just sort of different or better – and instead deal with problems by stripping them down to the core and working your way up.

Von Holzhausen’s version of this has been to embrace what he calls “efficiency.” He assumes that every Tesla has to be beautiful, and besides, making a piece of industrial design beautiful doesn’t really cost anything. It’s more a matter of choosing beauty as a first principle because, in a competitive market, the best-looking product stands out.

With efficiency, von Holzhausen had a concept that could inform not just the design of the Model S sedan but also the entire, evolving Tesla brand.


The Model S embodies radical restraint. It draws attention without demanding attention. For von Holzhausen, it’s a vision of the future that just about anyone can understand.

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Tesla

It’s also representative of von Holzhausen’s restrained approach at Tesla. The Model S essentially looks the same as it did when it debuted. The main update was to the front end, when Tesla eliminated a faux-grille nose cones and went with a smooth treatment.

With an electric car, there’s no need for a traditional grille because there’s no internal-combustion engine to feed with oxygen or cool with airflow and a radiator.


The relatively conservative nature of a Tesla’s exteriors is echoed inside. But predictably, there’s a radical approach tucked away in here, too.

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Tesla

The entire interior of all Tesla’s is organized around a large central touchscreen that controls almost all vehicle functions. It’s even slanted slightly toward the driver for better viewing.

To be honest, although it looks spectacular, it isn’t always as functional as what you experience in vehicles that have retained knobs, switches, and buttons. But it doesn’t matter. What Tesla, von Holzhausen, and the company’s design team – including Musk – recognized is that a gigantic screen would reinforce the impression that Tesla’s are about technology.

Nobody else in the auto industry has put a screen this big in a car. You can’t avoid it when you slip behind the wheel or plop down in the passenger seat, so it automatically reinforces Tesla’s branding.


The Model X was von Holzhausen’s second all-original design for Tesla.

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Tesla

But the Model X is something of a conundrum.

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Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On one hand, it’s an extension of von Holzhausen’s design language to the larger shape of an SUV. On the other, it’s a departure from the efficiency philosophy because although the design is streamlined, the engineering isn’t.

Tesla overdid it, by admission, with the Model X. The vehicle was delayed for years before launching in 2015, beset with problems: the falcon-wing doors had to to redesigned, rear-seat production was brought in-house, and the vehicle faced recalls not long after it hit the market.

But the Model X is greater than the sum of its parts or flaws. It’s easily the most technologically advanced vehicle currently on the road, and although von Holzhausen didn’t depart from the Model X template, he showed that it was flexible enough to work on the two most important genres in the luxury space.


Von Holzhausen’s third effort for Tesla was the Model 3.

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Tesla Model 3.
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Timothy Artman/Tesla

The Model 3 really is a triumph. The Model S design scaled up beautifully for the Model X, but beauty doesn’t always scale down. Not so with the Model 3, which manages to be more modest than the relatively big Model S without being a squashed-down version of that car.

This is the key to von Holzhausen’s influence. He’s the rare professional who’s creating both a physically specific piece of industrial design while also developing an overall visual impression, which could be identified as the Tesla brand.

The only other carmaker that has consistently done this is Porsche, building on the basic original look of the 911 sports car. Von Holzhausen’s efficiency approach is particularly evident on this front. If it doesn’t evoke Tesla, he takes it away.


And that taking away extends inside the Model 3.

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Tesla

Von Holzhausen makes no bones about it: The Model 3’s ultra-minimalist interior – completely defined by a horizontal version of the Tesla touchscreen – anticipates a day when cars won’t need controls for human drivers.

The Model 3’s majestically uncluttered dashboard is the most striking influential thing I’ve ever seen in an automobile. You can look at the picture, but it’s hard to describe the experience of getting behind the wheel and seeing absolutely nothing that you’re used to.

And then you go ahead and drive the car and within seconds, it all makes sense. What von Holzhausen has achieved here is a three-part user interface: beautiful exterior, minimalist interior, and North Star for the entire Tesla brand.


That Franz von Holzhausen — the unlikeliest superhero to ever take up the task of designing cars.

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Getty Images/Jason Merritt/TERM

I’ve probably talked to car designers more than I’ve talked to anyone else in the automotive profession. To a one, they’re impressive, but von Holzhausen is at another level.

The crazy thing is that although he had done great work before Tesla, he didn’t have the right context for his considerable talents before he paired up with Musk’s carmaker. He was willing to take a risk, and now he’s enjoying the results. Tesla has certainly endured its ups and downs, but von Holzhausen is universally admired for his designs.

As Tesla continues to move forward, he’ll be even more admired for his unique ideas not just about what cars should look like, but how they should make our lives better.


And one more thing …

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Thomson Reuters

Well, even Franz gives in to a little car-designer temptation from time to time. Sedans and SUVs are fine, but sometimes you want to create a road-going rocket that can do 0-60 mph in less than two seconds. Behold the all-new Tesla Roadster, revealed last Thursday night.