A new method for shape optimization with relatively large number of design variables is proposed. It is well known that gradient-based methods converge to a local optimum. As a result, utilization of a richer design space does not necessarily lead to a better design. This is demonstrated via the design of an airfoil for maximum lift for Re = 1000 and α = 4° flow. The airfoil is represented by fourth-order non-uniform rational B-splines, and the control points are used as design variables. Starting with a NACA0012 airfoil, it is found that the optimal airfoil obtained with 13 control points has far superior aerodynamic performance than the ones obtained with 39 and 61 control points. For effective utilization of a richer design space, it is proposed that the number of design variables be increased gradually. The method is demonstrated by designing high lift airfoils for Re = 1000 and 1 × 104. The objective function is the maximization of the time-averaged lift coefficient for α = 4°. The optimization cycle with 27 control points is initiated with the optimal airfoil obtained with 13 control points. The process is continued with gradual increase in the number of design variables. Beyond a certain number of control points, the optimization leads to a spontaneous appearance of corrugations on the upper surface of the airfoil. The corrugations are responsible for the generation of small vortices that add to the suction on the upper surface of the airfoil and lead to enhanced lift. A stabilized finite element method is used to solve the unsteady flow and adjoint equations. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.