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Learn the Basics of Automotive Design

In terms of car-related professions, gainful employment tends to fall into one of two different categories. You have the people who build, manufacture, and work on cars – the ones that are tasked with making sure a particular vehicle is running as intended at all times. Then, you have the people who are responsible for defining what "as intended" means. This, in essence, is what automobile design is all about; an industry replete with hardworking men and women who design not only the appearance, but the larger functionality of cars, trucks, vans, busses, and more.

Commonly, automobile designers work in one of three areas – interior design, exterior design, or color and trim design. Exterior designers sketch designs of what the outside of the vehicle should look like, and then convert them into digital formats. They then go on to sculpt their designs using clay, 3D modeling, or another similar process.  Interior automobile designers focus their efforts on making the inside of the vehicle as comfortable and functional as possible, by taking into consideration the placement of gauges, controls, and buttons that are accessible without affecting the safety of the driver or passengers.  To make the vehicle visually appealing, color and trim automobile designers decide what materials, such as leather, fabric, metal, and carpeting will be used, on both the outside and interior of the vehicle.  Color and trim designers don’t usually build models but are researchers who have advanced knowledge of color theory, color mixing, and the visual effects of specific color combinations.

Understand the Job & the Industry

Automobile designers specialize in the ideas, layouts, and overall make-up of automobiles and automotive components. This process begins with brainstorming and deliberating with supervisors and clients about the requirements, specifications, and preferences for the design, followed by an enormous amount of research into the production of the vehicle. Once everything is decided, an automobile designer will sketch a drawing, typically using CAD software, but initially sometimes with pencil and paper.

An automobile designer will draft layouts of all the integral parts of the vehicle, including the assemblies, components, structure, and systems using models, prototypes, and sketches.  The designer will also look at previous car models to determine if any design factors will affect or limit manufacturing by collaborating with automotive engineers. Based on a set of mathematical formulas and detailed calculations, as well as computer programs, the designer will then develop a unique and innovative design to fit the needs of supervisors, clients, and consumers, but that also reflects the company’s standards and values.

Automobile design is a creative-driven profession. It is a profession that also depends on a high level of technical skill and attention to every detail. Every car – from the cheapest on the market to the most expensive in the world – begins with a simple idea on paper. An automobile designer has the artistic instinct to understand the way a particular model should look, how it should be shaped, what features it should have, and more. Then, they're responsible for taking that idea and turning it into a functional vehicle, based on the core principles of design and how cars are intended to function.

Automobile designers work on every aspect of a vehicle’s design, from the final appearance to overall functionality. They choose how a car is shaped, along with what color it will become to be as attractive as possible and attract sales. However, they are also responsible for functionality – including making sure the vehicle functions as well as it looks.

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Learn Advanced Concepts & Techniques

As stated, automobile design usually begins with a simple idea – "here's how I think this vehicle should look," or "here's what I think this car, truck, SUV, van, etc., can do that will make it unique and appeal to customers." Those ideas are then created in the form of drawings, which are then further honed and developed until they become a full-fledged concept. During this process, designers may work alone, but will usually they work in teams, bringing in both other designers and engineers to help create the most realistic concept possible as early in the process as they can. 

Once that concept is finalized, however, the truly technical part of the design development takes over. CAD, or computer-aided drafting, is often used to bring these concepts to life in three dimension. This allows a designer to bring more detail to their concept than they ever could on paper, taking into account everything from the shape of the door handles to what the vehicle looks like on the inside. Once the concept has been further honed, a sculpture or other type of scale model is produced – offering the industry decision-makers the opportunity to make changes and additions, but also the chance actually to feel something tangible in their hands. 

All throughout this process, a few core skills will serve an automobile designer well. Creativity is always important for this type of job, but basic drawing skills is also a requirement. A deep, intimate knowledge of how cars work, how individual components function, and how they all fit together to form a cohesive whole is imperative.

Most employers require automobile designers to earn at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering, industrial design, transportation design, or mechanical engineering with an automotive design concentration. Design schools require students to submit portfolios or samples of work during the application process. They also sometimes offer summer programs to help applicants still in high school to prepare to enter a design program.  Coursework may include 3D design and modeling, vehicle systems, mechanical engineering, design theory, design for manufacturing, vehicle dynamics, and powertrain systems. An automobile designer will also take classes in sketching, design, physical science, CAD, mathematics, industrial materials, and other related coursework.

It's also important to note that the education you need and the skills you will require while earning your degree go beyond simply an understanding of cars – knowledge of math and physics are also required. Building an attractive car is one thing – building an attractive car that meets safety standards, regulatory requirements and offers a terrific experience while working within the confines of physics and other logistical restrictions is often something else. And, as the automobile industry is often international, with many companies having locations all around the world, you would also do well to study at least one foreign language. Depending on how your career as an automobile designer chooses to develop, it is very easy to end up working outside the United States.

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Build Your Brand & Pursue Higher Education

One of the skills that will carry an automobile designer far is the ability to develop his or her own "voice." This means that you bring something fresh and unique to the table that is entirely your own. Your concepts are not derivative of anybody else's and your ideas are not ideas that feel like they could have come from other people. Your creativity is unique and that uniqueness doesn't just help separate you from the competition, but it also helps you develop the type of personal brand that is essential in a competitive industry like automobile design. 

Developing your brand takes time, but participating in an internship can help get you started.  Many automobile manufacturers offer internships for students who are entering, or thinking about entering the automobile industry.  Internships give you the opportunity to develop a professional portfolio, which can greatly help when applying for a position following graduation.  A portfolio can also show your talent and progress and can be either in hard copy or in digital format.

Due to the competitive nature of automobile design, and the importance of the business end of the field, aspiring automobile designers may want to consider earning a master’s degree in business administration, industrial design, or mechanical engineering after earning their bachelor’s degree.  Earning a master’s degree makes graduates more marketable to employers, and may lead to supervisory positions and higher wages.  

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for automobile designers (more specifically, industrial designers) is expected to grow two percent between 2014 and 2024, which is slower than average for all career fields.  This is due in part to a slowdown in manufacturing and consumer demand in the US.  So, individuals who wish to work overseas and have learned a foreign language while in school may prove to be more fitting candidates when entering this field. In 2015, the median annual salary for people in this profession was $67,130 for those working in a commercial environment.  Of course, experience, company size, advanced education, and geographic location all play a part in overall wages for this profession. 

About one in four automobile designers are self-employed. Most work in manufacturing, for companies specializing in design services, or for engineering firms.

Get to Know Our Experts

Sherry Wheelden

  • Title:
    Founder
  • Company:
    United States Car Shows
  • Where:
    Orrington, ME
  • Experience:
    N/A
  • 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

  • Title:
    N/A
  • Company:
    Value Transformation LLC
  • Where:
    Lexington, NC
  • Experience:
    20+ years in the industry
  • 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

  • Title:
    N/A
  • Company:
    Automobile Engineer and Designer
  • Where:
    Detroit, MI
  • Experience:
    N/A
  • Quick Look Bio

    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).

    Automobile Design Infographic