Most everyone agrees there is risk in design. The more you push the envelope, the more opportunity there is to fail. Styling that is too forward-thinking can become outdated more quickly than classic design. Bad styling also hurts residual values.

But Hunter says designers must peer two to five years into the future. “All we can do is look at customers’ values and assess what people will want, and try to find that answer. But it’s worth the risk.”

It’s important for auto makers to pick their battles when it comes to pushing the design envelope, Gilles says. Taking a calculated risk in one area is acceptable, but creating an entire vehicle with a progressive design can be a recipe for disaster.

“You have to balance it and be careful the whole car isn’t a cacophony of risks,” he says. “Companies are experimenting with finding their identity.”

Having an eye-pleasing interior has become just as critical, the designers say, and auto makers are pouring more resources into the cabin.

“Bottom line, whether driver or passenger, the interior is where we spend our time,” Parkinson says. “It cannot be an afterthought or merely the result of the exterior theme.”

A topnotch interior design is essential not only in high-end vehicles, but also entry-level cars that in the past offered drab cabins laced with inferior materials, Hunter says. That won’t fly in today’s market, where car buyers, regardless of price point, demand high-quality interiors.

“Cheap doesn’t cut it anymore, and customers will reject those cars,” he says. “The challenge is how to bring a premium-looking interior at a reasonable price.”