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An automotive designer is part artist, part engineer. They design the interiors and exteriors of the vehicles that get us where we need to go -- cars, sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans. Automotive designers mix the functional with the creative, so that the vehicle’s control panel is easy to read, the car is easy to maneuver and looks appealing, whether sitting in the driveway or on the showroom floor.
Auto Designer Job Description
An automotive design engineer is responsible for the ergonomics of the car, along with the look of the car and its components. While the functional aspects of a vehicle are the job of engineers, the aesthetics are up to the designers. Designers collaborate with engineers to make sure the designs are not only appealing, but functional. You’ll probably work on designs using CAD software, so you should be familiar with that.
Education Requirements for Auto Design
To start with, you should be interested in all things cars. Basic mechanical knowledge is good; if fixing cars is a hobby for you, even better. A love of drawing and sculpting is also helpful. You’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree, and you may need some additional certifications. Most auto designers have a background in industrial design and art. A streak of personal creativity is invaluable in auto design. There are a few dozen colleges that offer training specific to automobile design. It’s good if you attend a school with ties to the car industry. Competition is tough to get into colleges with these programs. If you get a degree in industrial design, not auto design, you can consider a master’s degree in auto design, which may make you more competitive.
Industry Work Environment
You’ll probably work in an office or a studio, probably with a team of people. You may have to travel to a factory or testing facility which could be in North America, or in any number of places around the world. You’ll need to be a team player. You’ll also need good communication and listening skills, you'll need to be able to meet deadlines and be good at working under stress. Hours are usually typical Monday through Friday day hours, although there may be some overtime and weekend work during crunch times.
Average Car Designer Salary
Car designers tend to make about $82,499 as the average base pay, according to Glassdoor, although that depends on where you live, your specialty and your manufacturer. The top-end car designer salary tends to be about $110,000 annually. An automobile designer salary for someone with no experience begins around $68,000 a year. Lead designers will average around $99,000 per year, according to Indeed. The median annual wage for industrial designers is $65,570, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
History and Growth
When cars were first driving onto the scene, in the very early years of the 20th century, most cars looked like the horseless carriages they were. Manufacturers simply took the designs of horse-drawn carriages, added a motor and a vehicle was created.
Most cars built before the 1920s were built by hand. They were mostly functional, wheels, chassis, enclosed passenger area, engine and trunk. Even the earliest Model T’s, which debuted in 1908, were open buggies with upholstered seats, a large steering wheel, large wheels with spokes and protruding headlights. Over the next two decades, closed body designs replaced the open-air, buggy look. The arrival of paved roads meant a longer, lower design with running board accents.
Cars became as much about design as function beginning in 1927, when Alfred P. Sloan Jr., chairman of General Motors, hired Harley J. Earl to start the General Motors Art and Colour Department. Earl was a custom-car builder in Hollywood at the time. Sloan had decided that a company could sell more cars if it makes them look better, and Earl was happy to test this theory. Art deco was all the rage, and that included cars. The single-hull chassis made cars lighter, easier to produce and structurally sounder. The sleek, teardrop design became a mainstay of automobiles for decades. Color came a long way from Henry Ford’s declaration that customers could order the Model T in any color they wanted as long as it was black.
Eventually, things like running boards, headlights and fenders were blended into a single, uninterrupted form. Cars became more aerodynamic. The larger cars of the 1950s and ‘60s gave way to smaller, compact cars in the 1970s and '80s, as cars became more efficient. At the same time, muscle cars spawned a whole new hobby.
Cars of today offer designers a smorgasbord of options in which to specialize. There are fluid curves, elegant lines and even throwback styles in cars ranging from the Mini Cooper to the Lexus. Colors have not disappeared, but white, silver, black and gray have dominated in recent decades.
The job outlook for car designers and other industrial designers is about 4 percent a year, which the BLS considers to be slow than average, although it says consumer demand for new products and new styles should sustain the demand for designers.
Karen Gardner is a writer and editor who spent many years in community journalism. Her worklife began as a Library Page, shelving books in a local library, and selling children's clothing in a department store. Those early customer service experiences gave her the foundation she needed to navigate through tricky office situations in later jobs.