New video! This one I made late, late, LATE at night and it is a hot ball of crazy town. This is either really deep and profound or just totally dumb. Let me know in the comments below. Here’s the video but first, click this link for some actual, usable advice on becoming more creative and thinking creative.
I sat down to create a video answering the question, “what is art?” I did just that. See for yourself.
For those of you that watched and shared the Kony video, did you feel (just a teensy bit) that there was something a little off about the whole thing? Not the video per se but the entire explosion of discussion/criticism that followed in its wake? Did you have this odd feeling that by sharing the video you were telling people to buy something cool and shiny but also to do something really selfless and sacrificial at the same time? That paradoxical feeling that so many of us had (or are having now) is merely the modern brain freeze of the salty/sweet drink we call consumerism. Here’s a little backstory:
• We believe that something is important based on how many online sources and friends talk about it.
• We sometimes feel guilty about how many toys, trinkets and jingle jangles we have, especially when we see commercials for malnourished children, homeless people or child soldiers.
• We’ve been told that everyday life, unless radically punched in the face, will eventually smother our spirits and make us corporate zombies (think Fight Club, Truman Show, etc…)
So when we see a film like Kony 2012 all of the above subconsciously sets in and we’re left with a weird desire to both share this and also critique and dismiss it at the same time. The proponents of Kony 2012 say this is a powerful movement driven by a passion to help and the response proves that this generation believes in the good and the strength of community. The critics say the whole thing reeks of indie/hipster consumerism and is just this week’s cool new thing. I want to suggest that the paradox we’re all feeling is merely the spirit of western consumerism compressed into a week’s time, that activism is hopelessly ensconced in consumption but simultaneously driven by a deep desire to make lasting change for good in the world.
Capitalism for a Cause
Blatant all-out Capitalism is a no-no. Even Donald Trump, the most capital of the capitalists, now talks more about giving to charity and “making a difference” than anything else. No one cares about making hoards of cash for cash’s sake anymore; in fact, you can’t unless you want to be ostracized by the ruling idea class. David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise explains the modern spirit of moneymaking, highlighting how one becomes rich “incidentally” while chasing your creative vision. You have to have a cause; no one makes money just to have it any more, that’s just ugly. The ever-blurring line between money-making and personal meaning has made cultural objects like Kony 2012 and Justin Bieber concerts almost indistinguishable.
Addicted to Radicalism?
If you want to get a read on how our culture thinks about money and the world, just watch primetime commercials. Products like detergent and cars tout their functional benefits but always remind you that by purchasing their product you are protecting the earth, saving the whales, helping kids read, etc…. Brooks says, “Ice cream companies now possess their own foreign policy doctrines.” It’s the era of company-caring, world-wide sharing and “making a difference,” a phrase that you will hear 460 times on TV before 10pm tonight. Nothing that’s pitched to consumers merely extols it’s benefits, it has to contain some ingredient that benefits the world and makes consumers feel that they are helping to save it (and ultimately themselves).
When products like Chapstick or beef jerky tell you that you can change the world by consuming their product, you begin to think like that about everything. A lot of the imagery of modern consumption has incorporated key radical elements, as if to further the “Fight Club” motif and make people feel that they are really, truly breaking out of their WASPy bubbles by buying whatever-it-is, and therefore attaining personal meaning. Enter Levi’s. Did you know that if you buy a $79 pair of jeans you will become a shirtless radical? You will wave your flag, flaunt your rippled abs and fight for freedom even if it costs you everything. It’s the Revolutionary War in the Beverly Hills. You can see how the imagery in this Levi’s campaign captures the same radical spirit as the Kony video (and everything aimed at youth in advertising).
[Warning: It’s a little racy FYI]
Ultimately, what comes through is the following:
• Radicalism is cool, you should have a cause and be willing to give up everything for it
• Radicalism is a collage of images, vignettes (bonfires, running, etc…) and has no over-arching story, just loosely inter-connected experiences.
• You can make a difference in the cause by buying something
I’d like to suggest that youth in the West are addicted to radicalism. Not any particular ideology, just the spirit of being a radical. Like being in love with love. You’ll see evangelical youth groups, Occupy Wall Street, hardcore bands, Gatorade, and Universities all tapping into this same idea. It’s why one semester a student can be passionate about sharing their faith and being a Christian and the next semester be just as passionate about Occupy Wall Street with no particular qualms about transferring their radicalism to another cause. It’s because we’ve been taught to be restless with Suburbia and embrace a “radical” lifestyle instead (even though we never do). It doesn’t matter for what, it just matters that it’s radical. Since free-floating radicalism is never attained, we examine rather the experience of being a radical, an experience I categorize under the heading of “consumerism.” Vincent Miller in his book, Consuming Religion, captures this in his assessment of all consumerism: “Consumer desire is, surprisingly, not really about attachment to things, but about the joys of desiring itself. It is the joy of endless seeking and pursuit. Actual consumption always comes as something of a disappointment, as the object can never live up to its promise.” Enter Kony.
The Commodification of Dissent
Miller also states that one of the most disturbing aspects of our consumptive age is that it’s impossible to have a voice of dissent without becoming packaged, branded and marketed in the very same way as the capitalist culture you oppose. Churches struggle with this all the time. “We’re not marketers,” says Pastor X to Pastor Y, trying to remind/hope/believe this statement as he talks about promoting the Christmas service or outreach event. It’s the paradox of the age- everything is marketing, in the same way that in agricultural societies, “everything is land.” Yet somehow we’re shocked or confused when we see the paradox emerge more clearly in instances like the Kony 2012 video, a video that perfectly illustrates the triple paradox of radicalism-addiction, “making a difference” and buying cool stuff. Here, Miller again hits the nail on the head, “Advanced capitalism has show itself to be strangely immune to ideological criticism. It seems capable of selling anything, including the values of its most committed opponents. It turned the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto into a marketing opportunity.”
If You Really Cared
So let’s say you’re the Invisible Children leadership team. How will you make a difference? Should you have a website? What about T-Shirts? Should you spend thousands on this film? Why ask people to buy a promo pack? If people really cared wouldn’t they spread the word without any of these things? The short answer is No. You, me, Invisible Children, churches and non-profits are all trapped. We’re trapped in consumer culture, in a cycle of consumption… or maybe “trapped” is the wrong word. Just accept it. It is the climate in which we find ourselves and we should stop being shocked that we have to package and sell things in order to achieve our goals. Some people see this as selling out, others have no qualms with it and sometimes lose themselves in the maelstrom of bumper stickers, CD’s, web video, Facebook campaigns and T-Shirt design contests. I wish I had a more lofty approach to take but I conclude by merely suggesting the pragmatic approach. Does it work? Did the Kony video work? Is it working? Is your church’s marketing “working”? This is actually a far less tacky way to think about things because, to be honest, many of us don’t have a metric to use to answer the question of effectiveness for the causes we’re involved in. Pragmatic thinking in consumer culture isn’t that easy after all… It’s not just fun websites and cool videos; it really forces us to ask the question, “what do we want to happen?” If you really cared about your cause you would just call or visit people and tell them about it. But you’re not… and you most likely never will. The reason is because we’re not that kind of society any more.
Mixed Emotion is an Emotion
To summarize, Invisible Children did a great job with their film. We can’t conclude whether or not it has worked yet but we do have a tangible metric of success and that is the arrest of Kony. Many organizations cannot put together any such goal as clear as that. Is it exploitative or reductionistic? Maybe, but I believe that only those who are familiar with the organization (for more than 30 minutes) can comment on it. For 99% of the Likers and Posters of this video, we simply don’t have enough to go on to make that call. God judges the hearts. Is the video a slick, shiny campaign to buy something? Yes, but so is everything. Don’t be so lofty, this is the West and everything we do is through the lens of consumption. You have to play the game if you want to be heard and that’s what Kony 2012 has done. The trick is not to lose yourself in it. Invisible Children has been open with their financials and yes, they want you to buy something. The reason is probably that they’ve tried everything else and haven’t found nearly the same responsiveness with the previous less-consumptive approaches they’ve tried. Ultimately you have to come to terms with this paradox and realize that it’s not going to resolve anytime soon. Consumption is the new agriculture and we have to realize that our response to radicalism is somewhat contrived. It’s a Pavlovian response based on thousands of Levi’s, Chevy Trucks, and Rihanna videos coupled with our deep-seated hunger to do something meaningful with our lives.
Finally, the true litmus test of authenticity is longevity. If you really care and there really is a cause then you won’t just hit “share” and be done with it. You’ll be a part of it for the long haul and you’ll see yourself less and less of an observer and more and more as a creator. Similarly the critics owe this to the things they criticize, to come back and observe again and again, over time, until it is seen whether their critique is accurate or not. An organization that is trying to create substantial good and is doing their best to “play the marketing game” and not lose themselves in it will ultimately be tried and found true. These are not the one-hit-wonders of our age, these are the organizations led by the Wilberforce’s of the world, those who know that their motives aren’t perfect but are trying their best in humility. If you understand the difficulty inherit in creating meaning in an age of consumption then you know the importance of supporting those that have chosen to take a risk and step out into a paradoxical landscape. If Invisible Children proves to be one such organization then we should support them.
*Update: I just wanted to add a quick “about me” since so many people are reading this. I’ve been on the inside of non-profit world as a full time pastor, been on the inside of advertising as an ad agency CEO and have had the opportunity to help non-profits like IC work through this weird paradox I’m talking about and have acted as both critic and creator.
Here’s a screenshot courtesy of Hallmark’s Love Saga featuring the very first ipad, circa 1854. Apparently Steve Jobs travelled back in time using only his mind and spiritual power and blessed the humble pioneers with this visionary pre-electronic ipad. Even here you can see that the ipad brings prosperity, joy and total coolness to all within it’s shiny reach. Please enjoy:
We’ve all had our share of reality TV.
From the pioneering Real World episodes to Survivor and Hogan Knows Best; there are more reality shows than there are hours in the day to keep up with them! Although the reality TV phenomenon is no longer cutting edge, it still captivates millions of viewers and continues to inform a mass cultural viewpoint of what “normal” behavior is. With all these years of indoctrination under our belts however, there is one simple lesson that we should be learning from all of these reality shows…they’re not real at all.
That’s right, a reality show by definition is not real. It’s a show! So in order to combat this grievous error on our airwaves, I have created the perfect prescription for how to create the first REAL REALITY SHOW. Here’s what we’ll need to do:
Keep It A Secret
First, no one can know they’re on the show. They can’t even know that they might be on a show or know that there’s a chance they might be on a show. 100% hidden cameras in 100% of the people’s lives are needed. (This creates some sticky legal issues but if we’re going for true reality then that’s a chance we’ll have to take.) So let’s put cameras in every conceivable place the people will be and avoid any possibility that they could know about it. When people know they’re going to be on a reality show, it’s no longer real! Their actions and attitudes are going to be influenced by the fact that they know what they’re doing will be shown to millions of people.
Don’t Cut The Boring Stuff
Second, we have to show the people’s lives 100% of the time and the people watching the show must watch ALL of it, even when the people on the reality show are asleep, doing nothing, watching TV or ironing (think “Truman Show”). Our REAL reality show cannot be edited for time, content or anything like that. No highlights. No clips. We’re going to have to watch people groom themselves and mow the lawn, that’s just part of it. If this is to be a true reality show then we can’t just edit out all the boring stuff. That makes people’s lives look like a non-stop party or chain of successes and meltdowns which is a completely hyperbolic version of real life. We need to see the people on the show fall asleep, drive their cars, eat bagels and be couch potatoes for hours on end. Without this daily grind content it is not “true time” and time is the main ingredient in reality.
Feel The Pain
The last thing we need to do is find a way to make the audience actually feel the discomfort, hardship, loneliness and pain in the lives of the people on the show. All the excitement surrounding the free alcohol and surfing must be balanced out with the tears, heartache and depression that so many people are carrying around. And the audience can’t just see it. They need to FEEL it! I would suggest inventing some sort of machine that could be hooked up to the TV and to the person at home watching the reality show (Brave New World anyone?). Depending on which character was being shown, a special “pain or pleasure recipe” would be electronically pulsed into the veins of the viewer, helping them experience the emotions that the person on the reality show was experiencing. This would take some testing, exorbitant legal fees and a very pricey electroencephalograph machine, but it could be done. Having a pain framework would help viewers at home understand why the people on TV are doing what they’re doing and making the choices they make. It’s easy to criticize someone from a cushy sofa but it’s quite different if you’re shadowing their life and feeling the pain that they feel.
Never Stop Watching (Unless You’re Dead)
Lastly, our true reality show can never end. Anyone who watches it must be hooked up with the feeling machine and must watch the show 24 hours a day, every day until either the characters or the viewer perishes. Shortcutting any one of these avenues will neutralize our goal of making a real reality show. If it can’t be done then what we’ll be left with is what we have now. A bite-sized, edited down snapshot of the best, worst and most dramatic parts of people’s lives. I challenge a network to take this project on.
Have You Noticed That Our Culture Hates Categories?
There is a strong underlying disdain for clear-cut, single-item categories and labels for things. What used to be “cars” and “trucks” is now “hybrids,” “cross-overs” and “SUV’s”. Old music genres like “classical” and “rock” have now been outmoded by creative new crossbreeds like “trip-hop” and “acid-jazz.” I recently shot a music video for a band whose self-described style was “post-melodic death-core!” (i.e. “heavy metal” for the over-40 crowd).
It’s All About The Hyphen
One of the hallmarks of the modernist experience in contrast to the postmodern experience is that modernism embraces clear, rational categories to the exclusion of the mysterious and ambiguous. Postmoderns can’t stand this seemingly arrogant and corner-on-the-market view of reality so they overreact and avoid all categories like the plague. Michael Stipe famously summed up this viewpoint when he said in relation to his sexual orientation, “my feeling is that labels are for canned food.” Labels are out. Hybrids are in. We live in a post-categorical climate.
Another nail in the coffin of categories is the modern distrust of words. Images have kicked words to the curb through the simple dominance of the home television set but also we’ve been trained to distrust words in general thanks to decades of political scandals, corporate double-speak, historical revisionism, and the politically correct trend of re-wording definitions into new “less-offense” versions. “I’m not a janitor, I’m an ‘institutional hygiene consultant.’” Crimes have become “temporary insanity,” stealing has become “misaligned financial jurisdiction,” and lunch-lady’s everywhere are enjoying their new title of “educational nutrition-systems analyst.” Some of these efforts are worthwhile and attempt to rightly correct derogatory insinuations but the overall result to grind the meaning of word descriptors into nothingness. This trend is an over-compensation.
What Does This Mean for Christians and Church Leaders?
There are certainly some opportunities and challenges for us living in the post-categorical age. There has been wide-sweeping acceptance of swapping the label of “Christian” for “Christ-follower” (ironically that’s still a label). Denominations are still going strong but in the younger generation there is more fluidity and temporal irony when you hear them talk about their church affiliation. It’s like when a first-year college student tells you what school he or she is going to and it’s a community college; “I’m going to XYZ Community College this year but after that I’m transferring to ___ University.” Permanence, classification and exclusivity are soooo 1980s!
The benefit of loose-category affiliation is that it does make it more difficult to hide behind a label as a safety umbrella. When you can’t stand being labeled as anything so outdated as “Lutheran” or “evangelical,” you are forced to think through your most cherished beliefs a little farther than someone who is just looking to coast and use their denomination as a way out of thinking for themselves. The flip side however is that if you never join a category or label you might never actually have to decide about anything! In “Bobos In Paradise” David Brooks calls this the “ever-widening spectrum of possibilities”. When your buffet of spiritual options widens endlessly before you it ultimately flattens and cheapens any beliefs that require an exclusion of their opposites. For instance, you can’t be a “Christian-Buddhist-Agnostic” because each component of those three beliefs requires disbelieving a core component of the other! It’s ultimately not a hybrid-belief system it’s a stillborn-belief system. This obvious paradox doesn’t seem to matter in today’s world however. Making your own hybrid un-category is really popular.
For church leaders it’s hard to get commitment from a generation that distrusts institutions and never commits to anything except the priority of being uncommitted! There are certainly exceptions but the bottom line is that if you never risk being “labeled” then you will only invest your energy in yourself. As church leaders we have to help the technological/online/spiritually-homeless generation understand the beauty of believing exclusive claims, making commitments outside themselves and sticking with the hard truths instead of disposing of them when things get uncomfortable.
Jesus Was a Category-Smasher.
By the way, Jesus loved turning labels upside down and disrupting the institutional status-quo. He upturned the day’s categories and stood concepts like “the Sabbath” on their heads! What do we learn from Jesus about choosing labels and categories?
Future-church demands as few labels as possible. As church leaders we wield extraordinary power about choosing which labels and categories are Biblical and indispensible and which labels are superfluous, counter-productive or extra-Biblical. It may be exciting or risky at times but we can certainly assume that it will be a messy but worthwhile adventure.
Do you consider yourself to be a creative person?
If you’re reading this blog, have an interest in technology or stumbled across this post because of some creative and witty tweet then chances are that you’re a very creative person/thinker. For those of us who create, be it in visual media, drama, music, writing or anything else, there are certain modes of living that bind us all together. I suspect that you are very in touch with your creative side at least to the degree that you know when you’re “in the groove” and doing what you love to do. Unfortunately there is a downside to being a creative person. There are traps and mistakes that we are more prone to make and weaknesses that we tend to struggle with that are unique to our breed. Let’s take a look at 5 of the most common weaknesses that creative people face.
Time and Deadlines
Creative people often feel restricted or constrained by having to fit their artistic project into someone else’s deadline. Part of that comes from an “it will come to me” way of thinking where we believe we can’t force our art to materialize; it simply has a schedule of its own. The other side of the coin is that creative people often are just not good managers of their time, struggle to plan ahead and tend to orient their lives based more on feelings than facts.
Releasing Creative Control
Creative people often have a vision in their minds for what a project should look like yet react defensively and protect it when others want to enter the process, contribute or recommend changes. Creators guard their intellectual property like investors guard their stock investments. Creative people are often wary of allowing well-intentioned assistance because we secretly fear others derailing our artistic vision, holding up the process, “not getting it” or just plain hijacking the project to make it their own. Most times if we would just let others help and communicated the goal up front we’d be less stressed out and things would get accomplished faster!
Perfectionism is a distortion of excellence. Excellence is the true goal of creating. Perfectionism is the idolization of a project and assimilation of the creator with the created. If you can never finish a project because of a constant fear that it won’t be “perfect” then chances are that the issue is not with the actual task but with your self-identity as a creator. Perfectionism often rears its head in the lives of creative people, turning what could be an extraordinary and powerful artistic vision into a joy-less never-ending nightmare.
Inability to Communicate
Creators and artists often have trouble communicating what’s going on inside their heads. We know when something is artistically compelling or when we’re having “writer’s block” but often can’t get the words out when we try to talk about our work with others (especially others who are not right-brainers). We are used to “just feeling it” and “being in the groove” but have difficulty telling non-artists why we don’t have something finished or why a certain idea just wouldn’t work. We are oriented towards our work emotionally which is often tough for us to communicate verbally.
Distrust of Goals and Organization
We all know the stereotype: Creative people, while profoundly talented, are sloppy and unorganized, living a life of total chaos and disarray. They make great art but don’t know what month they’re living in. This stereotype is partly true although often exaggerated. Creators often distrust linking time and art because we feel that you can’t put limits and deadlines on our creations. Somehow we feel that it cheapens the mystery of the creative process. We also have difficulty getting organized simply because order and linear thinking resides in the left side of the brain and artists are driven by the creative right-side.
Take it from G.I. Joe: “Knowing is half the battle.” Be aware of your weaknesses and pick a couple of these areas to work on in 2011. Take a deep breath, see where your weaknesses are and make a commitment to stay one step ahead of your most nefarious weakness. You’ll be glad you did (and so will your clients).
It’s Tradition This Time of Year.
It starts sometime around Thanksgiving on television or maybe by the checkout lady at the supermarket. “Happy Holidays,” we hear. “Merry Christmas,” someone says. It won’t take long after the first days of well-wishing for the age-old quarrel to start up again. “It’s ‘Merry Christmas’ not ‘Happy Holidays’!” People will begin to argue that we should not say “Happy Holidays” but instead say “Merry Christmas” because it is only out of fear of offending people that we have kicked the “Christ” out of “Christmas” and we should not forget the real reason for the season by adopting the mongrelized “Holiday” salutation in lieu of the Christian one. Well, the unfortunate news this season is that it’s all been a hoax. The whole thing. No one is offended if you say Merry Christmas. Few Christians are actually put out if someone says “Happy Holidays” to them.
There is No Real Conflict Between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” It’s a Sham.
Have you ever met, in person, someone who was genuinely offended by your use of “Merry Christmas?” Has someone actually said to you, “hey, when you say that, you offend me.” Chances are for most of us this has never happened. The reason why is because no one cares. People who don’t celebrate Christmas don’t care if you say it to them. No one is offended if you write “Merry Christmas” on your card or “Happy Holidays.” People who aren’t Christians don’t care if you say it. People who are Christians don’t care either. No one cares. Say whatever you want. The whole notion that this is an actual controversy is a mass media byproduct. Regular people like you and me have never, ever offended anyone from our use of the Christmas salutation. It’s a huge hoax. People are only offended when Christians act like idiots, no matter what greeting they use.
Sticking Up For Jesus?
A lot of people think that by saying “Merry Christmas” over “Happy Holidays” that they are in some way sticking up for Jesus or taking a stand for him where others have shamefully fallen away. They think that if they mention the name of Christ in their salutation that they have really kept on the straight and narrow and not sold out to materialism or subjectivism or postmodernism or any other –ism. But here is the sobering reality. Even when people do say “Merry Christmas,” more often than not they aren’t wishing you anything religious. In fact what they are really wishing you is more like, “happy warm-feelings and cozy wintertime happiness day.” Let’s be honest here. Even people who use the name of Christ in their Christmas greeting aren’t even thinking of Christ when they look forward to the holiday. To a lot of Christians in America, it is about feelings of happiness and family, cozy images of Thomas Kinkade wintertime scenes, snow, fireplaces, nice decorations and a general feeling of goodness that happens during a once-a-year holiday. I suspect that for most Christians only 1 out of every 40 “Merry Christmases” are about the Savior. Those other 39 greetings have the word “Christ” in them but they express the same secular feeling of generic goodwill that people intend when they say “Happy Holidays.” You’re saying X but you mean Y.
Want to Be a Real Rebel?
Say “Merry Holidays.” Say “Happy Christmas.” Say whatever words come in to your mind, it doesn’t matter, it’s a mandatory phrase that comes out of everyone’s mouths for a month each year and nine times out of ten doesn’t even mean anything significant to the person saying it. If you want to be a real rebel then just say whatever greeting you feel like but then actually care about people. Give to the poor. Help someone who needs help. Don’t freak out because someone cuts you off in traffic. Be patient in line. Want to really take a stand for the true meaning of Christmas? Stop caring about the two words that people use to greet each other and start caring about the things that God cares about like loving your enemies and speaking up for those who have no voice.
“Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.” 2 Timothy 2:14
1. When you first check in ask the registration volunteers where the VIP section is. When they tell you there isn’t one get really angry and shout, “Do you know who I am?!”
2. Try to get people in line to do the wave with you.
3. Right before you walk into your booth strike up your best cheerleader pose and shout, “GO TEAM!”
4. Ferociously scratch your stomach and left side of your neck simultaneously every 30 seconds no matter what.
5. Wheel in a stroller holding a giant family sized metal can of peaches. Every so often talk baby sounds to it and cover it with a blanket. If anyone asks what you’re doing just ignore them and whisper to your peaches, “It’s ok baby, they didn’t mean it.”
6. At the end of your voting time in your little booth suddenly yell out, “I WON, I WON!” and then grab your stuff and rush out of the room, arms flailing.
7. Show up with no pants.
8. Show up with all your clothes inside out.
9. Once you’re in line start nervously looking around and whispering to yourself. If anyone asks if you’re ok scream at them; “DO I LOOK OK? I LOST ALL MY MUFFINS!”
10. Go on ebay and purchase all the Jimmy Carter election propaganda you can afford. Show up to vote decked out in “Jimmy Carter in ‘76” gear and start urging people to vote for him.
11. Wear alternating red and blue garments. For example: 1 red sock, 1 blue sock, red pants, blue shirt, red hat, blue jacket, etc… If anyone smiles at you give them a slight nod for appreciating your subtle yet ironic political humor.
12. If things get quiet or the conversation lapses, lean out of line, look to the far corner of the room and whisper, “Here, kitty, kitty…”
What are some design projects you’ve been a part of and with what companies?
All of my recent design work has been with Ford Motor Company. I’ve worked on the exterior designs of the 2005 Ford Mustang, 2005 Ford Fusion, 2008 Ford Edge, 2008 Lincoln MKX, 2010 Mercury Milan and 2010 Lincoln MKZ, as well as a couple concepts. One of the concepts eventually led to the Ford Flex but I had nothing to do with the production version that everyone gets to buy.
In school I did projects for PPG, Peugeot, Michelin, General Motors, Mazda and Renault. Working with Renault was tremendous for me because I’ve always been intrigued by the creativity of their concept vehicles. But my hat goes off to Michelin for their contest which earned me two scholarship awards to help pay for school.
What kind of school or education do you need to be an automotive designer?
You need a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) in Transportation Design or Product Design from an accredited Art College. I got my BFA from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan.
It also helps to have a grasp of engineering. I “lucked out” by first attending a very well respected, but little known engineering school, Rose-Hulman, before I moved to Detroit to attend CCS.
How much of it is art and how much of it is math?
Designing is 80% art and creativity, 15% reality checks (so your design can actually be built and fit normal sized humans), and 5% deals with the numbers. You have to know exactly where your axles, tires, roof, and bumper beams are supposed to be or the rest won’t matter. The math is a small but important part because more times than not, we’re working over existing platforms. So you need to be able to understand engineering drawings and have a sense of proportion.
Is it really hard and competitive to get into this field?
Yes, I’ve read that there are more professional basketball players than there are Car Designers. The field is extremely competitive… to the point where most cheat to gain an advantage. Here I’m referring to the proportions of a model or the way a sketch of an SUV is rendered so it looks more like a sports car than anything else. The hot sketch wins almost every time, but effort and attention to the little details goes a long way in pushing you higher than your competition.
What do people in this field usually make on average?
Salary varies by company and experience level. An entry level Designer, fresh out of college with their BFA and nothing else might expect anything between 50k and 70k. But, with more experience comes the opportunity of being hired in at a higher level and salary. Design Directors easily make six figures and the performance bonuses at that level are HUGE. As in, “Go and buy yourself an expensive new car with cash,” kind of huge.
What are the best and the worst parts of your job?
The best part is the ideation process which includes the sketching phase (my favorite) and working on scale models in clay. This is the time when the creative juices are expected to flow and the limitations are kept to a minimum. The worst part is when I’m asked to go back and redesign an already completed part of the vehicle due to a feasibility issue. The job can really wear on you when your “solutions” are shot down by yet a third party due to additional restrictions that weren’t communicated to the team earlier in the project. In summary, good communication is very important in this profession and makes everyone’s job more pleasurable.
What’s an average day like for you? What are the hours?
That depends if I’m working on a clay model or not. If my day involves clay I have to be in the studio around 6:30 – 7:00 AM because that’s when my sculptors are there. If I’m just sketching or building models in the computer I show up around 8 AM. Whatever time I do arrive, I usually don’t leave the studio until 6 PM. Designers often stay later because that’s when nobody else is around to bother us while we’re “zoning in” to a sketch or model.
Do you design other stuff too like the wheels, inside dash gauges, seats or logos?
Everything has to be designed. Including the stuff most people don’t want to “waste their time on” like mirror supports and door handles. If a designer isn’t a part of working out the details there’s a high probability that piece will end up looking like “It was designed by an accountant.” If you can see it, it has to be designed. Even if you can’t see it, but it mates up to something that is visible – well that has to be worked out by Designer’s too.
How much of car design is by hand and how much is by computer?
Some Designers like sketching on the computer but I like to do all my early stuff on paper and then get into Photoshop when I want to do a real juicy rendering. After that you hit the clay and get all the lines to work in 3D. Then we scan the clay model and begin building math models of the clay. Then it’s a repetition cycle. We mill out our latest math onto the clay, visually inspect it, then tape up any changes on the clay and then make those changes in the computer.
This goes on and on until all the surfaces look good and are feasible for metal stamping or plastic injection molding etc. So in summary, it’s an 80% / 20% division. In the early stages its 80% by hand, 20% on the tube and in the later stages its the reverse.