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”.



Ford F150 Lightning
Ford F150 Lightning


Did I channel my inner Jeremy Clarkson a little too much? This question will frame it better:


“Think of an American company with billions of dollars in revenues.  Coca Cola, Nike, McDonald’s, Visa.  Do you know what is bigger than any of those?”


On May 19th, 2021, that was the question asked by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow.  The show bearing her name is one of the highest rated news shows in the USA.  Her lead story is usually the big deal of the day in America, mostly about politics.  Surprisingly, the answer was completely non-political.  It is not another company but a truck: the Ford F-Series pickup truck.  Peter DeLorenzo, a.k.a. The Auto Extremist adequately named it The Franchise.  The next day, Ford was going to reveal the F-150 Lightning, the electric version of the best-selling pickup truck in the USA for four decades.  You can watch the news segment here.  Two things are happening.  First, the entire industry is shifting to electricity.  Second, this is creating a huge opportunity for the usual competitors and new start-ups to grab some of those dollars.  From lifestyle to utility, from out of this world design to conservative, there is a huge design bandwidth in the upcoming electric pick up wars.


The usual suspects

Ford’s cross-town rivals are not resting on their laurels.  Both Stellantis and GM have announced electrified versions of their trucks.  Ram has teased an image of its Revolution, a rather futuristic looking truck.  However, you will have to wait until 2024.  It is also working on a mid-size truck.  GM has cornered the high-end market.  Rising from the ashes, Hummer is ditching its gas guzzling image for a state-of-the-art electric GMC sub brand.  With all the bells and whistles, the EV truck will have 1000hp, Ultium batteries, “crab mode” and a UX powered by Unreal Engine.  The more mainstream electric 2023 Chevrolet Silverado was unveiled at CES .  It even channeled a famous television series for the Super Bowl…


Chevrolet Silverado EV
Chevrolet Silverado EV

If finding a charging station worries you, you will probably want to wait for the Tesla Cybertruck.  If you need the most capable truck with the most mainstream design, it is not the truck for you.  Plenty of ink has already been spilled about the Cybertruck (and lately it has been about its giant wiper).  To its credit it has pushed the boundaries of design to an absolute “low poly” extreme.  Elon Musk has just delayed production until late 2022 because of the global chip shortage.  There is a good chance you will not see any on the road until 2023 or later.


The rest of the field

A few years ago, some Faraday Future employees left to form a new start-up called Evelozcity before changing to its new name in 2019, Canoo.  With its cab forward look, the Canoo truck has optimized its electric platform and is thoughtfully executed in every way, like a Swiss army knife.  Canoo broke off the discussions with Hyundai to have its cars built.  However, its cars should roll off the assembly line in a new plant in Oklahoma in 2023.  Other lesser-known start-ups will come after the F-150 such as Lordstown, Bollinger or Atlis.  Lordstown just agreed to build Fisker cars at its plants.  There is no word about its own pickup truck.  Atlis has a camouflaged truck on its Twitter account, a heavy-duty pickup truck, good for 500 miles and a 15-minute recharge time.  The equally utilitarian looking Bollinger is aiming for real heavy-duty work.  At this point each one of them must roll down the assembly line to assess their real viability.



Canoo Pickup Truck
Canoo Pickup Truck

The real contender

If you want a historic date in automotive history, you will probably want to mark down September 15th, 2021.  The first all-electric Rivian R1T pickup rolled out of the old Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Illinois.  After coming out of “stealth mode” at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show, Rivian beat everyone else to the production line.  It is one of the most serious challengers to Ford and ironically with investment from Ford itself (and some guy named Jeff Bezos).  The R1T is a little smaller than an F-150 yet very capable.  It will go over 300 miles on a charge, it is very well designed and cleverly positioned in the market for well-heeled outdoor fans.  Charging stations will be available at parks and other recreational spots.  The first reviews are coming in and they are glowing.  The R1T is the real deal and perhaps already a favourite to win the electric pickup wars.


RJ Scaringe with the 1st R1T
RJ Scaringe with the 1st R1T

Final thoughts

There are challengers coming for Ford but let’s be clear: the Blue Oval has its franchise, and it is building a moat around it.  Ford just announced three battery factories and a truck plant creating 11000 jobs.  EV and ICE versions of the F-Series share a most common design.  Ford left a traditional whip antenna so you could catch AM radio signals in rural America.  All accessories fit across the entire range.  The pricing has been kept close between versions.  How is it going so far?  Ford stopped taking reservations as three years of production capacity are already spoken for.  How big of a deal is this car?  Let Maddow close the segment in eye popping terms:


“The revenue from the F-Series is more than 42 billion dollars.  Nothing else in America comes anywhere close.  It has been that way for decades.  If Ford can transition the F-Series to an electric vehicle, it’s good-bye gas cars in America.”