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Job Description: Automotive Designer

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Automotive Designers are the minds behind the machines that have to understand not only what looks good aesthetically but how it’s going to work mechanically. It’s a very specific skillset and it’s one that is always going to be in high demand.

Also known colloquially as “automotive stylists,” automotive designers are the rarest of breeds - a unique combination of technical knowledge and creative talent. They are highly specialised creatives with an in-depth insight and understanding into the mechanics and production of automobiles that are as comfortable designing for appearance as they are for ergonomics and aerodynamics.

Remember that classic episode of The Simpsons when Homer is given free rein to design the car of his dreams? Remember how that ended up? That, in a nutshell, is why automotive engineers are such an important part of both the automotive sector and the creative industries. 

Job Description, Salaries and Benefits

Automotive designers design the appearance, the components, and 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.

Daily tasks may include:

  • Coordinating and managing multiple projects in varying stages of development; from initial architectural contact to the completed installation
  • Making preliminary sketches of car designs, including interior and exterior design and colour scheme
  • Developing new body style designs or altering automobile designs to conform to current safety standards and government emissions regulations
  • Using computer-aided design (CAD) software to create three-dimensional mockups, including body style, trim, headlights, grill, taillights and exhaust systems
  • Creating layouts and clearance studies of folding and removable seat assemblies involving body components and occupant considerations

Automotive designer jobs usually take place during a typical 36 - 40 hour week and working hours are usually Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm. Salaries may range from around £50,000 to £100,000 or more a year.

An automotive designer should have:

  • A creative eye and an interest in all things vehicular
  • An analytical mind and an inquisitive nature
  • A curiosity about how things work
  • Creativity and imagination
  • Interest in following trends in the field
  • Specific technical skills
  • A flair for technical subjects
  • The ability to absorb information
  • An expert understanding of CAD software, such as Autodesk, and graphics imaging software, like Adobe Photoshop.
  • The artistic ability to create preliminary sketches and transfer them to a computer
  • Strong maths, physics, language and grammar skills
  • An understanding of automobile designs and engineering, as well as the ability to create full-scale models

What is the work like?

Automotive designer input is required for a wide variety of activities, including:

  • Researching current body styles and safety flaws
  • Completing solid models for direct manufacturing
  • Creating other models and prototypes for physical and computer verification testing
  • Updating production drawings based on new design changes
  • Preparing components and assembly drawings for new design proposals
  • Contracting out to other companies to redesign non-functioning machines & automation
  • Interpreting customer processing layouts
  • Designing light fixtures to customer specifications

Automotive designers, like other designers, use creativity and knowledge of automobiles to create attractive, functional designs of cars, trucks, SUVs, vans and buses. Your work begins with an initial idea and may end with a three-dimensional scale model. You explore aerodynamics, ergonomics, safety and calibration when coming up with ideas.

An automotive 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 colour 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.

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 and the timeframe for completion of the proposed design. Once everything has been sorted out, sketches are drawn, typically using CAD software, and final designs are presented.

Hours and Environment

Automotive designers usually work a typical 36 - 40 hour week and working hours are usually Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. However, automotive designers may be required to work longer hours to finish projects on time, depending on client demands. 

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 centres, testing facilities, client’s workplaces, and manufacturing plants.

Salary and other benefits

These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and where people live.

  • Salaries for automotive designers may start at around £50,000 a year
  • With experience, earnings may rise to above £80,000 a year
  • Senior automotive designers may earn up to or even over £100,000 a year

Skills and Personal Qualities

There are certain skills that many automotive designers have in order to accomplish their responsibilities. These include:-

  • A strong visual sense and the ability to dictate those ideas in a three dimensions context
  • Strong computer skills and a familiarity with AutoCAD and CATIA modelling software
  • The ability to interpret customer processing layouts
  • The ability to analyse engineering drawings and documents for compliance with industry standards and regulations
  • Experience and knowledge of the automotive industry
  • The confidence to present and explain ideas to clients and colleagues
  • The ability to grasp client needs and consider practical solutions
  • The ability to balance workloads on several projects at a time
  • Superior writing and drawing skills
  • A foreign language can be a huge asset in the ever-increasing field of international automotive design

Interests

It is important for automotive designer to have an interest in:-

  • Vehicles and vehicular design
  • New developments in design software
  • Current trends and techniques in the automotive industry

Getting in

Between 2018 and 2028, the automotive designer career is expected to grow 4% and produce 12,800 job opportunities. Most automotive designer jobs are for automobile manufacturers and car companies and the competition for jobs is high.

Entry for young people

Automobile designers typically need to complete at least a bachelor’s degree in automotive design, automotive engineering or industrial engineering, which are offered through colleges, universities and art schools.

Entry for adults

Mature applicants may be accepted for courses without the usual qualifications as long as they have relevant experience. You may find that experience in other jobs will help you become an automotive designer. In fact, many automotive designer jobs require experience in a role such as designer. Meanwhile, many automotive designers also have previous career experience in roles such as draftsman or industrial designer.

Training

Employers generally expect new entrants to have learned the essential skills while completing their qualifications. In addition to completing courses in maths, model-making and CAD, you could also complete an internship in the field to enhance your portfolio and network with professionals. Some programs may also allow you to work closely with the Society of Automotive Engineers to complete projects and designs.

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.

Getting On

The job outlook for industrial designers as a whole is projected to grow only 2% by 2024. This is due in part to slow employment in the manufacturing sector. Those individuals who design precision instruments (as in automobile designers), however, 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.

Further Reading

How to Build a Car: The Autobiography of the World's Greatest Formula 1 Designer by Adrian Newey - The world’s foremost designer in Formula One, Adrian Newey OBE is arguably one of Britain s greatest engineers and this is his fascinating, powerful memoir. How to Build a Car explores the story of Adrian’s unrivalled 35-year career in Formula One through the prism of the cars he has designed, the drivers he has worked alongside and the races in which he s been involved.

How to Design Cars Like a Pro by Tony Lewin - This comprehensive new edition of How to Design Cars Like a Pro provides an in-depth look at modern automotive design. Interviews with leading automobile designers from Ford, BMW, GM Jaguar, Nissan and others, analyses of past and present trends, studies of individual models and concepts, and much more combine to reveal the fascinating mix of art and science that goes into creating automobiles.

H-Point: The Fundamentals of Car Design & Packaging by Stuart Macey - Currently used as the educational handout for the transportation design students at Art Center as well as institutions around the world, H-Point is now available to aspiring car creators everywhere, clearly organising the packaging standards that apply to car and truck design; along with insightful graphic explanations, this book demystifies the automotive design process and allows designers access to illustrious careers' worth of knowledge.

Automobile Design: Twelve Great Designers and Their Work by Ronald Barker and Anthony Harding - This book takes an in-depth look at the lives, personalities, and technical achievements of twelve preeminent engineers who made significant and lasting contributions to the design and development of the automobile.

Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design by David Gartman - This much needed book is the first to provide a comprehensive history of the profession and aesthetics of American automobile design. The author reveals how the appearance of the automobile was shaped by the social conflicts arising from America's mass production system.

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