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What is an Automotive Designer?

Automobile designers design the appearance, the components, and often to the ergonomics of automobiles and other road vehicles, which may include vans, trucks, motorcycles, and buses. The functional development of a vehicle, including the mechanical, electrical, software, electronic, and safety aspects, are usually completed by a team of automotive engineers, whereas the aesthetics and appearance of the vehicle are left in the talented and artistic hands of an automotive designer. Most commonly, automotive designers are industrial designers with an art background and creative sensibility.

The design process will most often begin with a consultation between managers, supervisors, and clients who together identify the various requirements of a design.  Meetings are usually followed by a great deal of research regarding costs, production, vehicle use, the timeframe for completion, etc., of the proposed design. Once everything has been sorted out, sketches are drawn, typically using CAD software, and final designs are presented.

The job duties of an automobile designer include drafting layouts of automobile components, including fenders, the hood, the lamps, console, doors, mirrors, and more, the assemblies and systems using prototypes, models, and dozens of sketches.  Much of the design process involves collaborating with automobile engineers to ensure all calculations and mathematical formulas are correct and that the final design is not only innovative but meets the needs of the consumer and reflects the image of the company.

Although creative talent and artistic ability are a given is you want to become an automotive designer, there are also a number of other skills that are equally important. For example, they must be effective communicators, as well as have good listening skills. They must be able to work with others, and take criticism. They must handle deadlines, and work well under stress, find innovative solutions to complex issues, and make every effort to keep up with the changing auto industry, as well as any software and technology used in designing. Superior writing and drawing skills are imperative, and a foreign language can be a huge asset in the ever-increasing field of international automotive design.



Prior to going to college, gaining hands-on experience working with and around cars and other vehicles, and developing a passion for everything that has a motor and runs on two or four wheels is essential.  Reading car magazines and enlarging your knowledge about automotive design and industry trends is also key. 

Nearly all employers require job candidates to at least hold a bachelor’s degree in industrial design or transportation design, although a degree in automotive design or automotive engineering is ideal. Unfortunately, there are only a few dozen schools worldwide that offer a degree program specific to automotive design, and competition is fierce for a place in one of the programs. Most automobile designers will also have an art background, and specifically sculpting and drawing skills. 

Some schools, including some technical schools, have strong ties to the auto industry, so prior to applying to a college or university, check to see if the school you’re most interested in has a program that aligns with your career goals. Common classes include drawing, 3D design, computer-aided design (CAD), design and color theory, model-making, and industrial materials. Most university programs also offer a portfolio class that helps students put together a body of work showcasing their artistic and design abilities, and progress.  Some schools also offer internship opportunities for students to gain valuable experience, and some employers will recruit graduates of these programs.

Upon graduation, you may also consider earning your master’s degree in automotive engineering, industrial design, or industrial engineering. An advanced degree can expand your knowledge and skill set, as well as qualify you for higher pay and make you much more competitive employment.



For the most part, an automobile designer will work with a styling team during the design process for each specific model. The team typically consists of a chief designer, exterior designers, and interior designers. There may also be a trim and color designer involved in the process, as well as a clay model team and digital model team. Sometimes all these roles are fulfilled by one designer, but that is very unusual. Aside from these roles, there will be a studio head, managers, prototype engineers, and others involved in the overall design of each automobile. Sometimes a team can consist of 25 to 40 members. 

A designer’s work environment consists of an office or studio. Workspaces will include work tables for sketching, meeting rooms with whiteboards for brainstorming, and computer tables for preparing designs. Sometimes, designers will travel to design centers, testing facilities, client’s workplaces, and manufacturing plants. Most automobile designers work full-time, five days a week, but may be required to work overtime to meet deadlines. Some, but very few, designers work freelance, as it usually takes a team to see the design process from start to finish.  If self-employed, you may work evenings or weekends to meet client’s schedules and may spend a good deal of time looking for new projects. In addition, since many automobile factories and manufacturing plants are overseas, designers may often travel abroad to meet with factory personnel during the design process.



The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not specifically list salary or job outlook statistics for automobile designers. That said, the BLS does supply information for industrial designers.  The median annual salary for industrial designers in May 2015 was just a little more than $67,000. The top ten percent of industrial designers who hold a degree and have years of experience in the field make more than $104,000, and those with no or very little experience make about $37,000. 

The job outlook for industrial designers is projected to grow only two percent from 2014 to 2024, which is much slower than average for all career fields. This is due in part to slow employment in the manufacturing sector during the same time period. Those individuals who design precision instruments (as in automobile design), will see continued job growth because of the degree of technical ability and design aptitude.  Those individuals who hold a degree, have a strong background in CAD design, and industry knowledge will see the highest job prospects. 

The states with the highest employment of industrial designers are Michigan, California, New York, Illinois, and Ohio.

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