Author’s Note

The following story is 100% real. Pat’s real name is used preserve his/her privacy and anonymity.

Months of COVID lockdowns drove everyone insane but at last, home confinement was over.  I never thought I would miss shopping so much.  One of the workers in the store (Pat) recognized me and said hello.  We had met about two years before when Pat worked in the automotive industry. Not able to find more permanent work, Pat had to work retail. I flipped burgers before catching my own break, so I respected that. I was in a hurry but incredibly grateful for the great customer service, so I handed out a business card: “let’s catch up some time”.  Nothing happened until about a year later.  Pat was struggling about what to do and was asking for some advice because the situation had not changed.  I called Pat and we properly met up online.  I had an idea:

Me: “Still want to work in the industry?”

Pat: “Yes.”

Me: “How bad do you want it?”

Pat: “Really bad.”

Me: “Alright.  Let’s get started.”

Pat: “Really?  Great!  Thank you!  Get started on what?  Now???”

Me: “Yeah now.  Do you really want it or not?”

Pat: “I do.”

From that point on, I was Pat’s informal mentor for digital modelling.  The portfolio showed promise.  My pupil was enthusiastic, a good person who could use a break and I felt the urge to help.  It reminded me of my own situation more than 20 years ago.  In a way, I was paying it forward.  I brought it back to the basics of modelling like framing and filleting.  I found problems in the models and gave suggestions on how to solve them.

We hit the first bumps.  Even with a day job in the middle, the pace of work was too slow.  Something Pat said struck me: “I am a perfectionist”.  That can be symptomatic of a bigger more serious problem.  I kept repeating myself: “volume, volume, volume”.  The aim is to get the volume of a car done.  Anybody looking at it should recognize it even without all the minute details.  It is amazingly easy to get lost in a corner.  Keep moving and refine the big stuff before caring about the tiny radii.  Pat finished a car by Christmas, on to the next.

The main thing was to try and keep Pat motivated: “many things frustrate me”.  It had been such a long and upward struggle that frustration would be inevitable.  I could feel it in some of our exchanges. I also noticed a pattern, something that cannot be taught.  Every time Pat was down, I would get another email not long after: “I am happy with whatever you ask me to do”. Pat got down but got back up every single time. By April, there was another car in the portfolio.

The next one was going to be a surprise: Pat had to model a never seen before car (courtesy of a friend of mine).  “Ugly as hell” was Pat’s answer.  “That is your designer’s opinion.  You are my modeller and I need a model so let’s go” I replied.  A month later, there was a breakthrough: “congratulations, you have your first volume”.  Things were picking up.

Now Pat was about ready to send applications and about to experience what I call “the business from the business”.  I introduced Pat to various people in my network.  Pat even came to some of the public events I attended.  The rejections came fast and furious or worse, complete and total radio silence (yes, that business).  It had been a year since we started our collaboration, and the clouds were not breaking.  Asking for my advice, I wrote the following message:


“There are only two options. You can quit. If you had enough, honestly, I completely understand. Or you can grind it out.  Either way, know that I respect and support your decision. You’re the person in the arena.”

The predictable response came: “my decision was taken years ago…  I can’t give up.”

Things got better.  Pat made the final cut for some positions but was never chosen.  In June Pat decided to change things up and seek help with another professional, and I was fine with that.  I did not need convincing anymore. There was not much else I could do.

After a long year, Christmas break finally came and I was incredibly happy to wander the house in my PJs.  The phone rang and I had some thoughts: “first of all, someone is actually calling and not texting and second, who could it be two days before Christmas?”  It was Pat: “I accepted a fantastic job offer as a modeller. You are the first person I am telling”.  The frustration, the years of waiting, the sacrifices, the long hours of waiting or battling 3D models, it all finally paid off. We met up a few days later to toast. That made my Christmas. I am guessing it was a sweet one for Pat too.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Jaguar C-X14
Jaguar C-X14 – Image Courtesy Jaguar

More than 15 years ago, an Autoweek article put the odds of being a car designer about the same as making it into the National Football League (the Premier League will work fine if you are not American). As a 21-year-old with no outstanding skills, that was my goal.  Every year, hundreds of design graduates will try, as I have. As my former boss said, “it’s really heartbreaking to see so many graduates with the ‘green circle’ around their profile pictures”.  How did we get to so many designers and so few opportunities?  What can schools do?  And most importantly, what can students do to improve their odds?

The Cost of Mainstream

Back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, my own alma mater in Detroit was called the Center for Creative Studies (CCS).  It was a school so specialized the credits earned there might not even transfer to another similar school, Art Center in California for example: I know because as a student I asked.  All the CCS transportation design graduates (less than 20 a year at the time) had a reasonable shot at employment.  Not long after my graduation and responding to an ever increasing and lucrative demand, CCS rebranded itself as it is known today, the College for Creative Studies.  Think about it. You are parents paying the steep bills. Would you rather send your kid to some obscure glorified trade school or to a fully accredited university? When I taught in France years later, the Institut Supérieur de Design also felt the academic pressure to conform, as did many others. It all came at a cost.  Some of the most foundational classes I ever took in industrial design were classes worth 1.5 credits.  Now, these classes would have to change to three full credits, like at any other university. Those classes lost their focus or worse, disappeared.  CCS exploded in size when it expanded into the massive Taubman Center, the old General Motors research facility.  I taught part-time at CCS for a long time.  My class rosters were getting longer every year and filling up with foreign students. And they came to compete.  In summary, car design gains popularity, goes mainstream and global, foundational classes dwindle and the number of graduates goes up. Not good.

CCS Taubman Center
CCS Taubman Center – Photo Courtesy Dig Downton Detroit

What To Teach

You can talk about artificial intelligence or computer aided graphics all you want.  Learning how to draw is the foundation of any successful industrial design career.  This is never going to change (yes, never).  It is all about sketching and visual communication. Why?  Students must develop an artistic sensitivity to understand design.  It is all about lines, shapes, color, light, shadows, and proportions.  Typing prompt lines or learning 3D CAD is not going to teach you any of this. Drawing is the only way to learn it all.

Schools should seek as much industry exposure as possible, collaborating with automotive design studios and suppliers to give their students real life experience. Industry sponsored projects are crucial because there is an entire car design process to discover. What students must understand is that car design is about solving problems, to understand the brief before proposing a visual solution. The hot sketch on Instagram only shows up when a new car is released.  There is an entire department dedicated to its realization.  Those design careers are very well paid and highly in demand:  clay modellers, hard modellers, sketch modellers, CAS modellers, class A modellers, computational designers, visualization artists, movie makers, color and material designers and of course UX/UI designers.

CCS Models
CCS Models at the 2014 NAIAS – 3D models made watertight by yours truly

The Talent Stack

You might make it as a hot shot designer, but you might not.  The hard part for students is to have an honest understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. You know who the best sketch artist is in your class, and I quickly knew that it was not me. I had no interest in being average, so I had to find something else. You must stand out.  How?  First, if you are particularly good at sketching, consider pushing yourself to learn some 3D modelling or real time visualization.  A student who can sketch has good odds of getting hired.  One who can sketch equally but can model in 3D has the upper hand.  That is the very foundation of your “talent stack”.   Before his precipitous downfall, Scott Adams made a fantastic point.  He was not the best at drawing or writing but he had some business skills.  It all added up to the syndicated comic strip Dilbert.  Imagine you are a color and material designer.  You could add real time visualization, coding, and some artificial intelligence.  That can lead you to some spectacular results.  And he mentioned something near and dear to my heart: “if in doubt, add public speaking to your stack first.” Remember, your ideas are not going to sell themselves.  You are going to put your sketches on the wall, and you will have to eloquently explain yourself.  A lot.

Beating the odds

In the end I did not beat the odds. I gave CCS everything I had. I know I did because I ended up in the hospital twice from overdoing it.  I was always fascinated by computer generated imagery, so it all worked itself out.  So first and most important, if you want to give car design a shot, think about yourself first, in all seriousness. Take it from me, it is not worth risking your health over it. Second, I wish you the best of luck in all sincerity.  It is as wonderful a business as it is tough to crack.  Third, car design is glamorous so students will keep coming in ever increasing numbers. Schools do what they can, but understandably they need tuitions to pay their bills.  You will get a good education at a design school, but regardless of where you go, it will be extremely far from being complete. It will be up to hustle and to complete the gaps in your education yourself. Stay curious and hungry, know that the competition is ruthless, and then create a talent stack unlike any other to stand out.  One of the most successful people in the business gave you one of the best tips of them all: “keep your eyes wide open”.