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.