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”.


Image Courtesy Autodesk

I was asked this question so many times recently that it warranted a post. There are tons of great software out there you can use to get your creative ideas across. However, there is one big hurdle: production. Whatever software you use for form exploration, you might come to a point where you want to have your design built in real life, for either 3D printing, concept car or production. For speed, accuracy and the creation of production ready data, Alias is hard to beat. The question is: how do I learn? If you are a student, you could get yourself an industrial design degree. You could also get some specialized courses from some trusted partners like Symetri. If you want to do it yourself, you could go ahead and download the learning edition of Alias. Then, keep on reading!

Note: to download the course material below, I used Firefox because Chrome and Edge gave me some issues.


F1 Interface Fundamentals

F2 Geometry Fundamentals

F3 NURBS Fundamentals

F4 Projecting, Intersecting, and Trimming

F5 Building with Curves & Surface Tools

F6 Aligning & Matching Surfaces & Curves

All this material can be traced back to the OG: Alias Workbench.

Image Courtesy Autodesk
Image Courtesy Autodesk

Don’t miss:

The Golden Rules.

Learn the golden rules about control vertices (i.e. CVs). Everything derives from the proper use of CVs. It is a cascading effect. If your curves are not well drawn, the surfaces derived from them will not look good. It is vital to understand proper CV placement with the golden rules.  

Theory Builders

Once you have a good grasp of CV placement on curves, it is time to move on to surfaces. What the hell is curvature anyway? Read on and find out.

SubD modelling

Linkage Design has a great 8-part course on how to get started with SubDs.

Class A Modelling

The best tutorial I have seen out there is by Adrian Biggins. No wonder he was on my team back in the day.

Image Courtesy Autodesk

In conclusion, as you gathered by the amount of material included, Alias takes time to master.  When people start learning Alias, they want to build a car right away. I was no different. The first car I ever built in Alias under the tutelage of Brian Baker was a car built with the chicklet method. Imagine flattened bread dough that I tried to shape into a vehicle. No, it was not pretty. Take my word for it, take the proper steps. If you do not learn Alias methodically you will not be successful. Crawl, stand then walk first. And when you can finally run in Alias, you will never look back.

Note: the information in this article is either publicly available or my own opinion.

Midjourney Rolls Royce Sketch by Matt Swann

Look at your phone. Now imagine a computer that is eighty times slower and about the same multiple bigger. I know what you are thinking: that is one obsolete piece of computing. On May 11th, 1997, that antiquity captured the world’s imagination. IBM’s Deep Blue beat world champion Gary Kasparov at chess. For the first time, computer programming beat human intelligence. And it only went downhill from there. The machines became exponential better. They beat us at increasingly difficult games like Jeopardy (IBM again with Watson) and Go (Google Deep Mind). They even pass bar exams. As I went through my presentation at the first ever online Creacion Forum, the anxiety about A.I. bubbled up to the surface with questions from the audience. Some of them barely got started in their careers and they were nervous: A.I. was coming for them.

FelGAN’s creations are especially useful when pictured at scale.

A few years ago, computer made patterns were the rage all over my LinkedIn feed. Today it is Dall-E, Mid-Journey, or Chat GPT. Trends come and go but A.I. is something different. Siri landed on your phone a dozen years ago. It is sweeping all fields of human endeavours, everything everywhere all at once, just like the movie.  Automotive design is one of its targets. Audi was the first to use A.I. in a design studio context to generate rim ideas with FelGAN. Other A.I. examples include generative design and machine learning. Both disciplines will play a key role in electric vehicles, with definitions given by Wikipedia: 

Generative design is an iterative design process that generates outputs that meet specified constraints to varying degrees. In a second phase, designers can then provide feedback to the generator that explores the feasible region by selecting preferred outputs or changing input parameters for future iterations. Either or both phases can be done by humans or software. You can optimize weight and materials costs with this method.

Generative Design with Fusion – Image Courtesy Autodesk

Machine learning algorithms build a model based on sample data, known as training data, to make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed to do so. Machines can learn how to make the most aerodynamic shape using this method. After thinking about it, here is my idea (for free, you’re welcome). Feed A.I. a clay scan and a matching 3D Alias model. After a while, it might learn how to build a model without human input and turn it around in minutes.

Where is all this leading to? A.I. is a huge weapon but like any weapon, it needs to be calibrated and aimed properly. In meetings with students this year, they already generate sketch alternatives with A.I. It is out of the box; you might as well embrace it.  Much like today, the use of technology will be on a sliding scale. A design director like Matt Swann can use accessible A.I. like Midjourney with spectacular results.

Midjourney Rolls Royce Sketch by Matt Swann
Midjourney Rolls Royce Sketch by Matt Swann

As you get more technical, people will use it to write scripts, to produce patterns or to automate tasks. As demonstrated by Nick John, modellers will be able to extract basic 3D math from the A.I. sketches to start their 3D models.  As we get more technical other users will optimize weight or aerodynamics. If you want to accelerate design cycles, those activities will need to be concurrent to or integrated with design. I predict a new form of I.T. will be in place within the studio to support all those creative activities. For those young people worried about their jobs, it might generate careers for them that are not even being thought of today. Ten years ago, nobody heard of a “parametric modeller”.

Midjourney to 3D by Nick John

To go back to the chess analogy, there are now championships that allow the use of computers. Computers crunch the possibilities while humans direct strategy: that is the key. You calibrate and aim. The choices and the possibilities are endless. That might lead us to a vastly different conundrum: what if there is too much choice?