How to Become an Automotive Designer

By TACP Staff on August 17th, 2019

Are you an absolute ‘gearhead’ who loves most any vehicle that rolls down the road on four wheels? Do you thrive in a collaborative environment and are you looking for a career that bridges the gap between art and engineering? If so, then a career as an automobile designer just might be for you.

1. Learn the Basics of Automotive Design

In terms of car-related professions, gainful employment tends to fall into one of two different categories. You have the people who build, manufacture, and work on cars – the ones that are tasked with making sure a particular vehicle is running as intended at all times. Then, you have the people who are responsible for defining what “as intended” means. This, in essence, is what automobile design is all about; an industry replete with hardworking men and women who design not only the appearance, but the larger functionality of cars, trucks, vans, busses, and more.

Commonly, automotive designers work in one of three areas – interior design, exterior design, or color and trim design. Exterior designers sketch designs of what the outside of the vehicle should look like, and then convert them into digital formats. They then go on to sculpt their designs using clay, 3D modeling, or another similar process.  Interior automobile designers focus their efforts on making the inside of the vehicle as comfortable and functional as possible, by taking into consideration the placement of gauges, controls, and buttons that are accessible without affecting the safety of the driver or passengers.  To make the vehicle visually appealing, color and trim automobile designers decide what materials, such as leather, fabric, metal, and carpeting will be used, on both the outside and interior of the vehicle.  Color and trim designers don’t usually build models but are researchers who have advanced knowledge of color theory, color mixing, and the visual effects of specific color combinations.

Understand the Job & the Industry

Automobile designers specialize in the ideas, layouts, and overall make-up of automobiles and automotive components. This process begins with brainstorming and deliberating with supervisors and clients about the requirements, specifications, and preferences for the design, followed by an enormous amount of research into the production of the vehicle. Once everything is decided, an automobile designer will sketch a drawing, typically using CAD software, but initially sometimes with pencil and paper.

An automobile designer will draft layouts of all the integral parts of the vehicle, including the assemblies, components, structure, and systems using models, prototypes, and sketches.  The designer will also look at previous car models to determine if any design factors will affect or limit manufacturing by collaborating with automotive engineers. Based on a set of mathematical formulas and detailed calculations, as well as computer programs, the designer will then develop a unique and innovative design to fit the needs of supervisors, clients, and consumers, but that also reflects the company’s standards and values.

Automobile design is a creative-driven profession. It is a profession that also depends on a high level of technical skill and attention to every detail. Every car – from the cheapest on the market to the most expensive in the world – begins with a simple idea on paper. An automobile designer has the artistic instinct to understand the way a particular model should look, how it should be shaped, what features it should have, and more. Then, they’re responsible for taking that idea and turning it into a functional vehicle, based on the core principles of design and how cars are intended to function.

Automobile designers work on every aspect of a vehicle’s design, from the final appearance to overall functionality. They choose how a car is shaped, along with what color it will become to be as attractive as possible and attract sales. However, they are also responsible for functionality – including making sure the vehicle functions as well as it looks.

2. Learn Advanced Concepts & Techniques

As stated, automobile design usually begins with a simple idea – “here’s how I think this vehicle should look,” or “here’s what I think this car, truck, SUV, van, etc., can do that will make it unique and appeal to customers.” Those ideas are then created in the form of drawings, which are then further honed and developed until they become a full-fledged concept. During this process, designers may work alone, but will usually they work in teams, bringing in both other designers and engineers to help create the most realistic concept possible as early in the process as they can.

Once that concept is finalized, however, the truly technical part of the design development takes over. CAD, or computer-aided drafting, is often used to bring these concepts to life in three dimension. This allows a designer to bring more detail to their concept than they ever could on paper, taking into account everything from the shape of the door handles to what the vehicle looks like on the inside. Once the concept has been further honed, a sculpture or other type of scale model is produced – offering the industry decision-makers the opportunity to make changes and additions, but also the chance actually to feel something tangible in their hands.

All throughout this process, a few core skills will serve an automobile designer well. Creativity is always important for this type of job, but basic drawing skills is also a requirement. A deep, intimate knowledge of how cars work, how individual components function, and how they all fit together to form a cohesive whole is imperative.

Most employers require automobile designers to earn at least a bachelor’s degree in engineering, industrial design, transportation design, or mechanical engineering with an automotive design concentration. Design schools require students to submit portfolios or samples of work during the application process. They also sometimes offer summer programs to help applicants still in high school to prepare to enter a design program.  Coursework may include 3D design and modeling, vehicle systems, mechanical engineering, design theory, design for manufacturing, vehicle dynamics, and powertrain systems. An automobile designer will also take classes in sketching, design, physical science, CAD, mathematics, industrial materials, and other related coursework.

It’s also important to note that the education you need and the skills you will require while earning your degree go beyond simply an understanding of cars – knowledge of math and physics are also required. Building an attractive car is one thing – building an attractive car that meets safety standards, regulatory requirements and offers a terrific experience while working within the confines of physics and other logistical restrictions is often something else. And, as the automobile industry is often international, with many companies having locations all around the world, you would also do well to study at least one foreign language. Depending on how your career as an automobile designer chooses to develop, it is very easy to end up working outside the United States.

3. Pursue Higher Education & Build Your Brand

One of the skills that will carry an automobile designer far is the ability to develop his or her own “voice.” This means that you bring something fresh and unique to the table that is entirely your own. Your concepts are not derivative of anybody else’s and your ideas are not ideas that feel like they could have come from other people. Your creativity is unique and that uniqueness doesn’t just help separate you from the competition, but it also helps you develop the type of personal brand that is essential in a competitive industry like automobile design.

Developing your brand takes time, but participating in an internship can help get you started.  Many automobile manufacturers offer internships for students who are entering, or thinking about entering the automobile industry.  Internships give you the opportunity to develop a professional portfolio, which can greatly help when applying for a position following graduation.  A portfolio can also show your talent and progress and can be either in hard copy or in digital format.

Due to the competitive nature of automobile design, and the importance of the business end of the field, aspiring automobile designers may want to consider earning a master’s degree in business administration, industrial design, or mechanical engineering after earning their bachelor’s degree.  Earning a master’s degree makes graduates more marketable to employers, and may lead to supervisory positions and higher wages.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), jobs for automobile designers (more specifically, industrial designers) is expected to grow two percent between 2014 and 2024, which is slower than average for all career fields.  This is due in part to a slowdown in manufacturing and consumer demand in the US.  So, individuals who wish to work overseas and have learned a foreign language while in school may prove to be more fitting candidates when entering this field. In 2015, the median annual salary for people in this profession was $67,130 for those working in a commercial environment.  Of course, experience, company size, advanced education, and geographic location all play a part in overall wages for this profession.

About one in four automobile designers are self-employed. Most work in manufacturing, for companies specializing in design services, or for engineering firms.

Helpful Organizations & Resources for Automotive Designers

Additional Guides