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Starting Out: How to become a car designer

Mon, 25 Sep 2006

It's a common predicament. You're 16 years old and desperate to become a car designer but have little idea about how to achieve that burning ambition. Well, discovering Car Design News is a good start, but if you're serious about training as a designer to work in a major car studio then you need to do a course in Transportation Design, a branch of Industrial Design (sometimes known as Product Design). Whereas several hundred design schools around the world run Industrial Design courses, only around 20 wordwide offer courses that specialise in Transportation or Automotive Design and most of those are listed here in the Careers section of the CDN website.

So where should I apply?

Car design has always been one of the most competitive design careers around and the struggle starts with gaining a place on one of these courses. Competition for places is fierce and schools can often afford to choose the best applicants. Simply sending in an application isn't enough, in addition you're going to need a good portfolio of work to back up your application.

Amongst the variety of courses on offer, you need to select one that suits your requirements. Obviously a school that's reasonably close to where you live is one starting point, although that may not be so easy if you're outside a region where a course is located. The philosphy and reputation of the course and the teaching faculty are also important factors.

Some schools have strong links to nearby car companies or motor industry, where practicing designers will be involved on a part-time basis or for sponsored projects. A few of them have a stronger engineering bias, others may have more impressive modelling and workshop facilities or 24 hour studio access. It's important to visit a few school degree shows and talk to students at the school to find out what the course entails, what the classes are like and to get in touch with the applications department early on. Many schools have open days and arranging to visit on one of these days is thoroughly recommended before making any decisions.

What qualifications do I need?

Most Transportation Design courses will require you to demonstrate your creative and artistic talent before short-listing you for an interview or offering a place, so good 2D drawing skills remain the prerequisite requirement. In terms of high school subjects, art and design qualifications are therefore an absolute must, so too is being able to work fluently with numbers, in order to cope with basic calculations for engineering topics, such as 3D volumes, aerodynamics or model scales. Therefore, good grades in maths or physics are the next key priority. After that, the ability to express your thoughts fluently in writing is a strong element of many course structures, with research reports or dissertations often forming a key element of final year studies. So, good grades in your national language and grammar should also feature in your high school qualifications.

Foreign languages are increasingly valued, as speaking only one language is likely to severely restrict your career options upon graduation. Don't forget, the car industry is totally international in outlook and designers will typically work in several countries during the course of their careers. So, if you want to become the next Chris Bangle or Frank Stephenson a few languages might help...

Application and Course Structure

You need to prepare a good portfolio of design work, usually A2 or A3 format, although a digital portfolio on a CD-ROM may be accepted for overseas applications to schools. While computer skills such as Adobe PhotoShop or Rhino are increasingly expected, these should be seen as an additional design and representation tools, not replacements for basic 2D sketching skills. Remember, drawing is still the language of designers.

Most undergraduate courses are of 3 or 4 years duration, sometimes with the inclusion of an internship placement with a design studio in the third year. Courses usually offer several routeways (or majors) and students can decide these later on in the course once the core design skills have been taught. Typically the first year will be spent following a general Industrial Design programme of drawing skills and design theory, with later years focusing on more specialised presentation techniques, model making and computer skills.

What about an MA course?

These are for designers who wish to hone their skills further. The normal requirement is for a first Degree in Transportation or Industrial Design, but other areas of design such as graphics, furniture, architecture or interior design are generally accepted too. The best known course is probably the RCA in London but other courses now exist in other major design schools. In terms of being hired, there may not be a big advantage over a BA graduate, but many companies will offer a slightly higher starting salary or job grade. Another factor is that, when jobs are tight, companies may favour the broader design background and more mature approach to design that an MA graduate should be able to offer.

I'm an engineer. Can I become a designer?

Not as easily as you might think. It's a popular misconception that having an engineering background will be a big advantage, but that's not necessarily the case. In many ways, the requirements are quite different. The ability to get highly creative ideas down on paper fluidly is not something that can be easily taught and the rational approach of engineering may hamper more creative solutions at the early stages. It's a lot easier to take an original sketch idea and seek to make it more practical than taking a mundane-but-feasible theme and try to inject some flair into it.

Another point to consider is that the ratio of engineers to designers in most car companies is around 20:1, so there are far better chances of being hired as an engineer than as a designer. Companies increasingly need good, creative engineers and, if your overwhelming desire is to work in the car industry, engineering may offer an alternative route into the business and prove just as satisfying as a career. Studio Engineers work closely with designers and modellers in the design studio to ensure that both the design and engineering objectives are met.

Useful Resources:
See our list of schools with transportation design courses
Find more information in the Design Schools section of our Forums


By Nick Hull