How to Become an Automobile Designer

How many of us grew up obsessed with cars? Back in the day, so many kids could hardly ever put down their Hotwheels toy cars, and this is often where the need to create begins. Fewer have been bitten by the bug to such an extent as to commit to all that is required educationally, and to pursue a career in which one has the joy of using his or her imagination designing real cars!

It is a daunting task to first obtain the acquired skills and to keep stoked the fires of enthusiasm to actually create the next new model of an automobile. Those who conceptualize and then design automobiles are considered industrial designers. This requires a convergence of both art and engineering in order to successfully create new car designs. The use of computers for design work, and even industrial machinery for prototype creation, is part and parcel to this career and, if you are uncomfortable with the idea of engineering and math being a big part of your education, this may not be the right career path for you. Designs must ensure the safety of the vehicle and operate within regulatory parameters while still creating a great looking and comfortable product that appeals to consumers. So, be forewarned, automobile design is a highly competitive career choice.

Of course, transportation design is not just limited to cars. Many programs can also prepare the student for a career in the design of motorcycles, marine craft, airplanes, commercial transport such as semi-trucks, small personal mobility vehicles, and public transit like buses and trains. The student learns to investigate form and function, as well as to develop the talent to create concepts that, ideally, offer style and improved function. These ideas might also one day lead to broad social change, especially in the area of green and sustainable design.

In general, anyone wishing to go into this profession would need an advanced education similar to what any industrial designer would pursue. At the least, an automobile designer would certainly require a bachelor’s degree to be considered for work in this area. Over time it is also essential for the budding designer to build a comprehensive and impressive portfolio of design concepts. It would also be extraordinarily helpful to learn a second and even third language, as employers who hire automobile designers are often from international companies.

Here is an infographic to give you a glimpse into the industry.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Sherry Wheelden

Founder of United States Car Shows

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Understanding My Career Path

  • During my adolescent and teen years my father had a business purchasing salvaged insurance vehicles at auction. I did the detail and finish work. I learned body work, fill and introductory customization at this time. By this time, I was an expert detailer.
  • In my late teens my prized Camaro was totaled by a drunk driver. I kept the car and did all the bodywork myself.
  • As an adult I worked in the business field. Learning financial and sales techniques helped me to develop solid relationships with automotive vendors. I use vendors to help me build products that I customize. It takes many back and forth conversations and prototypes to build something, and it often takes a lot of patience as well. Even now, it typically can take a couple of months to get a solid item completed that is usable for show.
  • I build prototypes for engine parts, body panels, emblems, screw-on covers, and even floor mats that are customized. 3D printers can be great. I now show my customized, sponsored cars on the car show circuit for the international detailing company, Meguiar’s, as a Brand Ambassador, featuring and demonstrating their products as I show the vehicles. I also have a new book coming out shortly that will be available on Amazon entitled, Organizing Car Shows.

Advice

On whether or not she recommends a formal education
I say with hesitation that yes, a formal education can help, but there really is no substitute for due diligence. I don’t believe you can walk out with your degree and walk into a sweet and perfect position. Anyone now can design exotic vehicles with a PC or Mac. This doesn’t qualify a person to be a car designer; a cartoon designer or video game designer perhaps. You have to understand more about the engineering of automobiles and how to speak about that in order to have big companies listen.

Stay focused and strong
I believe you have to continue to work at what you want and not give up. If it’s something you want, it will be a never-ending pursuit. So, you may need to seek unpaid internships, several mentors, and fight off negative people. I have had many negative people (and still do) as I go along my path. Somehow, just one negative person has a lot of power, so you really have to work hard to overcome that.

Recommended Organizations

  • ASE – ASE is short for the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. They are an independent, non-profit organization that maintains the ethics and standards of vehicle repair by testing and certifying automotive professionals. They have many different testing criteria, and you should be certified by one or some to give yourself credibility.
  • Specialty Equipment Market Association, or SEMA. This trade association consists of a diverse group of manufacturers, distributors, retailers, publishing companies, auto restorers, street rod builders, restylers, car clubs, race teams and more. Each year, an annual expo is held, which can be a great place to make contacts once you’ve gotten a little experience.
  • The third depends on your area of expertise, and being certified in that. I am a master detailer, and went for additional training for certification. Not only was this important to me in my field, but it was also important for me as I presented myself to Meguiar’s and eventually became Brand Ambassador.

Jon M. Quigley

Value Transformation LLC

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  • Jon M. Quigley
  • Lexington, NC
  • 20+
  • Value Transformation LLC
  • @JonMQuigley

Understanding My Career Path

  • After high school I was not sure what to do for a living and worked at a fast food restaurant. After a few years of fast food, I realized that my disposition and talents were a good fit for electronic engineering. So I left work at the fast food restaurant and started my education toward engineering.
  • After school, I had two job offers. One was a large business networking firm, this was before the ubiquitous Computer Science degree and many engineers went to work at what would become Information Technology companies. The other was a very small company that developed industrial products. I chose to take the position at the smaller company that paid a little less. The reason for choosing the smaller company; they were looking for a design engineer to develop new products that required electronic hardware and software (we call that embedded) products. It was a highly collaborative organization with few engineers and I was the only one with microcontroller and software experience.
  • I continued my work developing industrial products when I was approached about a product development engineer position at an automotive embedded product development organization. This company designed new products for the automotive industry as proof of concept. Proof of concept is usually radically new ideas, and this provided me yet a larger creative outlet to create things useful. I was able to learn so much more.
  • I have gone on to work at a tier 1 supplier where I was fortunate enough to work on tire pressure monitoring systems for new vehicle platform – the Prowler and the Viper. This was the infancy of tire pressure monitoring. These cars required such a system as they had run flat tires. That is you cannot tell by looking that the tires have no air in them. I also worked with other engineers to develop a prototype run flat system for exploration with Harley Davidson. I took the system to Talladega for testing and learned much about the vehicle and the design.
  • Eventually, I moved on to what is called the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) first PACCAR (they build trucks) and then to Volvo, they also build trucks. I worked on vehicle display systems and telemetry systems. In these roles I learned more about collaboration as many of these designs are so complex and require a variety of skills to deliver. The positions were still quite creative; finding ways to solve problems and in some cases try to understand what can be the problem using both creative side and engineering analytics.

Advice

On whether or not he recommends a formal education
To get into developing, designing or creating automotive products requires some education. There are universities that offer coursework for specific engineering degrees. Think of the quote attributed to Pablo Picasso – “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Formal education will only go so far, but it is needed. Always ask questions and explore a variety of interests.

Explore internships or co-op opportunities
If you are going to a university or even a technical school, you can explore internships and co-op opportunities. Many companies provide these opportunities to learn about the industry in a controlled and incremental way. These opportunities are not only at the producers of the final product. It is possible to enter like I did, as a supplier to the automotive industry. There are considerable creative/engineering opportunities at these tier 1 suppliers (Tier 1 is the supplier that ships the parts to the Original Equipment Manufacturer.).

Study and read
It is not necessary to have a professional teacher in front of you to learn. Start early trying to understand things, not just from what you read but explore and take an active role in your education and learning. I consider myself a lifelong learner. I have 4 degrees and multiple certifications. I have studied on my own to learn things that I just want to know. Take science and math classes in high school pushing to know more. Work your way into those advanced classes.

Take up programming
Take up programming/writing software as a hobby. There are interesting kits, such as the Lego Mindstorm and other such kits for using your imagination to create and learn the fundamentals of mechanics, logic and software/programming.

STEM
Another site for high school students or younger to explore what being an engineer may be about. Spend the summer with Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM).

Recommended Organizations

  • The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is “a knowledge source for mobility engineer.” SAE is one of the automotive industry’s top organizations. This organization provides opportunities for collaboration and exploration of product use and development of product standards. For example, in the heavy vehicle industry electronic equipment there is document; J1455 Recommended Environmental Practices for Electronic Equipment Design in Heavy-Duty Vehicle Applications that describes the types of abuse the vehicle electronics may be subjected. Developing new products for heavy vehicles will warrant some time spent with this document. There is plenty more than just recommended practices at SAE, there are numerous standards to aid the design engineer in the creation of compatible and capable vehicle product. Compatible in the sense that the product will work in the context of the other vehicle systems.
  • The Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG) is not like SAE at all. This organization is less about the specific design attributes and more about bringing the new product to a successful launch. Instead of product design standards, there are product development standards. These are process related including the multi of quality assurance activities associated with bringing a high volume product to market.

Alex Dudick

Automobile Engineer and Designer

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  • Alex Dudick
  • Detroit, MI
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On handling two roles:

It can, at times, be difficult to be both an engineer and designer, though product design and certain industries keep design and engineering positions very close, such as automotive, biomedical, and consumer products… I recommend that any designers with the aptitude for either engineering (physics too) or business, pursue degrees that appeal to both the creative and technical disciplines; this gives the best perspective and opportunities… (Also) having a good grasp and background or some hands-on experience in manufacturing helps one to understand what it takes to actually make the product, and not just one, but hundreds to millions of them.

Advice

Tips for the aspiring designer
Network and meet people whom you look up to. There are a lot of good designers out there, so it is still relatively competitive to find the right job. Developing a portfolio that showcases original designs and any other skills can definitely be hugely helpful too. Familiarize yourself with different software packages when possible; most colleges usually offer free or discounted licenses, so take advantage of opportunities to play, and get accustomed to what other great tools are available. Learn as much as you can about 3D printing and scanning, additive technologies, and anything else cutting edge, as this will be a growing part of all product design in the future (already is, really).

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become an Automobile Designer?


Some schools offer degree programs specifically in transportation design, while others have an industrial design section that offers a concentration in transportation. As there are many aspirants wishing to pursue a career in auto design, coupled with relatively few educational programs of this type offered, getting into a good and reputable school can be very competitive. Students might contemplate first earning an associate degree in industrial design, as this will enable the student to see if this career path resonates, and it also offers a less expensive way to build up a design portfolio. Doing well at the trade school or community college level before applying to an automobile design program might be the smart choice for many. Again, having an impressive portfolio of car designs cannot be over emphasized.

A bachelor’s degree in transportation design normally requires four years to complete. During the first two years, the focus is on the fundamentals of design, drawing skills (both 2D and 3D), the investigation of interior and exterior design of cars, and the latest technology being the thrust of study. The last two years of instruction are devoted to model-making and various design projects with an emphasis in hands-on studio work. Many programs include computer training for drafting with CAD programs.

SOME OPTIONS FOR AUTOMOBILE DESIGN SCHOOLING

When considering schools, keep in mind that any of the colleges and universities that are actively involved in Formula SAE (FSAE), Supermileage, or Clean Snowmobile competitions would be an excellent way to narrow down the field of choices, especially if engineering is also your focus. Schools that have been a part of the DARPA Grand Challenge to produce driverless, automated vehicles or competed in the Automotive X Prize competition to create ever-cleaner, performance-oriented, and fuel-efficient cars would also be encouraged.

Two top tier examples of design-specific schools with extraordinary instruction and with established connections to industry heavy weights are Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA and College of Creative Studies in Detroit, MI in the United States. Outside of the U.S., Coventry University and Royal College of Art, both in the UK, are fantastic schools.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

As with any budding artist, regardless of the medium, a professional portfolio with a variety of the best and most noteworthy work is absolutely essential for an automobile designer. It is used to show the designer’s creativity and capabilities, and it can help with gaining employment and/or entrance to graduate school. Associate and bachelor’s programs include creation and development of a portfolio, but it’s important to keep working on and adding to it over time.

In order to continue developing one’s portfolio and to add more hands-on experience as well as design skill prowess, it may behoove those who have completed their undergraduate studies to seek out a graduate degree in automotive design or a similar area of study. Doing so can help to make the job-seeker more competitive, or it can perhaps enhance an existing career. Earning a Master of Industrial Design degree or an MFA in a related studies program can take up to an additional 4 years. These programs demand rigorous and intensive research with an emphasis on design experience in real-world conditions. Projects are assigned or concocted by the student. Often, internships are a terrific way to greatly enhance the designer’s overall competence and knowledge of current design practices and business norms.

Those who attain the appropriate level of education and training necessary will obviously be seeking employment with car-makers and support companies that provide assistance in specialized areas of car design. A school that has an established rapport and connection to these kinds of companies will be most helpful to graduates ready to seek careers in the industry.

In the end, what truly matters to those who are in the position to hire is not so much about where you attended school, but ultimately about what you can accomplish for them. Auto companies, suppliers, and other car-related companies are looking for people with practical experience and, of course, an inherent and genuine passion for design. Those who have concrete examples of extraordinary work to share will often have a leg up on the competition. For example, if you have a working vehicle that you designed and put together in your spare time, or if you have done custom work in a previous life in an auto body shop, or worked on restoring to mint condition a ‘70s pony car, you will likely gain more attention than someone who graduated from a prestigious school but with fewer hands-on, real-world examples to show for him or herself.

IN CONCLUSION…

As Sherry suggests, finding someone in the industry who has reached the heights of success to which you aspire, someone who is kind enough to devote a little time and energy to guide and support you, can be a big boost. They are out there, and by networking at your school or by even something so simple as a letter requesting a professional’s mentorship, you can have positive results. There is certainly no downside in trying and then trying again. Persistence (and requisite talent) will always pay off.

As Alex shared, being familiar with the manufacturing process, getting hands-on experience, and obtaining a multi-disciplinary education will certainly make one vastly more employable in this industry.