A car designer is responsible for the exterior styling and overall aesthetic values for a motor car in current development, or for non-production concept models.
The act of crafting an overall design aesthetic for a motor car is more challenging now than ever. Due to the ever-increasing demands in terms of crash safety legislation and multi-lateral market-specific legislative requirements, the job of the car designer is to manage and implement these requirements, whilst still delivering a design which is appealing. The overall design direction depends on the type of vehicle being worked upon; it is not necessary for every car to be “beautiful.” For example, in the family SUV sector, buyers look for innovation, flexibility and a subconscious perspective of utilitarian appeal; a six-seat family car which is very pretty may not sell, because buyers may believe their purchase criteria are not being met by the overall design theme. It is a complex area which differs from company to company, and model to model. Some designers specialise and stick to a certain sector, although most are flexible enough to move between marques and design a whole model range.
The designer’s main job is to engineer a general theme for an ongoing design portfolio in line with the manufacturer’s “corporate look”. Ford, for example, use a theme called Kinetic Design, which is based on the idea of a motionless object looking as if it is moving. It is a thesis which affects all of their cars, from the tough, sporty Focus ST, all the way through to the family-focussed 4×4 people-carrier. It is the “family look”, and the car designer must deliver a series of design ideas within this given brief. The designer will use a small quantity of sketch ideas in the first instance, but most of the work is completed using computer-aided modelling and eventually, one-eighth scale physical clay modelling.
The car designer, upon successful graduation from university, will need to be prepared to go where the work is, and in the automotive industry, that means looking internationally. First year placements can be unpaid, although remuneration becomes favourable on completion of successful placement. In the UK, the average salary is estimated to be around £50,000. Rates for second and third-year designers with automotive giants in the US range from $43,500 to $57,391. This does not just cover US-based manufacturers (General Motors, Ford, Chrysler), but also international makers with US-based design houses (Mazda and Volvo being two examples). The reason this is relatively unfavourable compared to the UK is probably due to the fact that UK manufacturers tend to focus on niche sports or prestige markets, and not the mainstream “consumer” vehicles.
- Ability to interpret concept brief and overall idea
- Colour development, thesis portrayal and mastering
- Coordinate with headquarters on the development of new products
- Work directly with the research and development technical team
- Identify new business opportunities through direct design ideas
- Work with Sales and marketing to identify programme opportunities
- Ensure that product developments are completed in a timely manner
- Knowledge of product sector and marketing techniques relevant to its sale
- Assist in creating advanced design presentations
- Ability to convey concept and finished design in various forms (graphic or electronic)
- Ability to travel when necessary
It is essential to have completed a design degree to be considered for this highly specialised design role. The candidate will need to select an education centre which will deliver the appropriate course; some focus on engineered design, whereas others are entirely CAD-based. Candidates need to consider the area on which they would like to focus after completion. Some schools, particularly in the Midlands, have strong links to manufacturers, which is a major boon to the graduate.
Before applying for a Transport Design course, the candidate will need an A-level in art or design, and be expected to demonstrate a high competence in 2D presentation and drawing in order to be considered for the course. An A-level in a second language is a huge advantage upon graduation, and some designers opt to add this to their package of university schooling.
- Ability to be creative under pressure and work quickly
- Ability to deliver innovative concepts within established limitations and parameters
- Understanding of eventual project aim and sales-orientated goal for the project
- Broad understanding of automotive design principles, marketing and budgeting
- Excellent communication skills across a broad spectrum of platforms
- High level of competence with Computer Aided Design software
- Be able to deliver convincing presentations
- Knowledge of at least one other language is very important to avoid limiting placement options
- Be able to work as part of a team or on own initiative
A key factor of working as a car designer is the extensive travel which the job entails. Even candidates who are not expected to travel on a regular basis can expect to complete several years of placements abroad. The car industry is truly global, and it is rarely possible to practise and remain in one’s own country. The EU in particular is a central hub for global design, and it is not uncommon for a designer to do a year in Germany, a year in Italy, move to Holland to work and never return home. The job will not suit everyone in this respect.
First year placements, particularly those organised by universities will often be unpaid. It is essential that candidates are able to work in true-life environments and develop their design portfolio as they progress. Candidates need to think long-term and make effective decisions based on this principle, rather than looking simply at near-term salaries.
This job can have the candidate travelling all over the world, working in a variety of differing marketing environments. Transport Design will equip the candidate to work with a variety of vehicles outside of the automotive industry: tyres, interiors, locomotives, aircraft, electronics. These are all potential sectors or sub-sectors looking for suitable candidates who are able to diversify their range of talents to other disciplines.
Second year placements are usually paid a full-time salary, and the starting salary is comparatively good. It is a career where it is possible for talented designers to progress very quickly. A candidate who is able to express themselves, even within the confines of working for a less-flamboyant design brief, will be well equipped to approach other competitors or design houses. Those with proven portfolios become well known in the industry, and can attract very high salaries and career opportunities.
The UK car industry has received half a century of constant battering, both from macro factors and from socio-political ones. Most of the industry in the UK is now foreign-owned, although the brands are still representative of being “home-grown.” There are some “knock-out” names too: Aston Martin, Rolls Royce, Bentley, Jaguar, Morgan, Ariel, Land Rover, Bristol, Nobel, Caterham, Westfield and Lotus.
Also known as…
- Automotive design engineer
- Design director
- Production planner
- CEO of automotive company
What’s it really like?
Marek Reichman is the Director of Design at Aston Martin in the UK. Aston Martin is one of the world’s most loved and respected manufacturers of highly bespoke supercars of outstanding ability and unparalleled beauty.
What made you decide or choose to get into this sort of career?
I was around 13 when I started to think seriously about a career as a car designer, and I found out about the RCA (Royal College of Art, London) when I was doing my exams at age 16. First I studied industrial design at Teesside University as I wanted to understand the philosophy and the history of design, and become a designer first. I thought, and still do, that it gives more of a balance. Teesside was great because it allowed me to do a car project for my last year. Then I got the great letter from the RCA to say I’d been accepted!
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of exercise?
It depends entirely on the project, and the particular company. You will usually have a dedicated team supporting you, but you need to interpret the objectives in a manner you can work with to make it ultimately successful.
What do you like most about the job?
Aston Martin is a brand which is known and loved all over the world. An Aston Martin is about style not fashion, so will not be in and out of vogue. I have to stay in touch with technological developments, but if you start styling from 15 years on then already you become irrelevant. I love the constant challenge.
What do you like least about the job?
The need to travel. This is part and parcel of the nature of the job.
What are the key responsibilities?
Working on specific projects, for example, the Aston One-77 Concept. The brief was simple: to design the ultimate Aston Martin. One-77 is the embodiment of the essence of Aston Martin, the ultimate in power, beauty and soul. We used some ultra-modern, technologically advanced aspects such as the carbon-fibre chassis for instance, and yet the panels are hand-formed aluminium to create beautiful forms and shape. The forms just wouldn’t be possible by any other means. The finished project is the designer’s ultimate responsibility, and so it becomes everything you work towards.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg A Levels?
It is after graduation that the possibilities begin to open up for you. First I worked for Land Rover, then owned by BMW, who had sponsored me before I was sent over to California in 1996 to work at BMW’s Design Works studio to start the next generation of Land Rover products. BMW had so many brands, and it was a great experience working with the likes of Chris Bangle (BMW’s former design director) and Henrik Fisker (former Aston Martin design director, currently at Fisker Automotive). The degree is essential, obviously.
What is the starting salary, and how does this increase over time with promotion?
The salary is appreciable after several years, and builds as your past portfolio does so. The bonuses and company perks can also be an incentive. My company car is a DBS Volante!
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
Flexibility, and being able to apply your talents to a range of briefs. In 2002 I joined Ford in the US where I worked on Lincoln and Mercury models. The products were designed for a different market and they had a different set of rules, which meant that you had to put yourself in a very different mindset. I stayed there until I joined Aston Martin; you always need to think about your long-term objectives.