Automotive Designers

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QUICK FACTS about this job:

  • School Subjects: Art, Mathematics
  • Personal Skills: Artistic, Technical/scientific
  • Work Environment: Mostly indoors, Primarily one location
  • Minimum Education Level: Bachelor’s degree
  • Salary Range: $31,510 to $66,510 to $125,00
  • Certification or Licensing: None available
  • Outlook: More slowly than the average
  • DOT: 142
  • GOE: 01.04.02
  • NOC: 2252
  • O*NET-SOC: 27-1021.00


Automotive designers, also known as automotive stylists, are specialized industrial designers who combine their technical knowledge of mechanics, production, and materials with artistic talent to improve the style, appearance, and ergonomic and aerodynamic design of automobiles. They work full time at automobile manufacturers, or may work as consultants. Approximately 48,000 industrial designers are employed in the United States. Only a small percentage are employed in the automotive industry.


Although industrial design as a separate and unique profession did not develop in the United States until the 1920s, it has its origins in colonial America and the industrial revolution. When colonists were faced with having to make their own products rather than relying on imported goods, they learned to modify existing objects and create new ones. As the advent of the industrial revolution drew near, interest in machinery and industry increased.

The industrial revolution brought about the mass production of objects and increased machine manufacturing. As production capabilities grew, a group of entrepreneurs, inventors, and designers emerged. Together, these individuals determined products that could be mass produced and figured out ways to manufacture them.

In the early 1900s, manufactured products—including the Model T, the first mass-produced automobile—were designed to be functional, utilitarian, and easily produced by machines or assembly line workers. Little attention was paid to aesthetics.

Once the novelty of the early automobile began to wear off, con sumers grew increasingly dissatisfied with the design and aesthetic appeal of these vehicles. Automobile manufacturers did not initially respond to these complaints. For example, Henry Ford continued to manufacture only one style of car, the Model T, despite criticism that it looked like a tin can. Ford was unconcerned because he sold more cars than anyone else. When General Motors started selling its attractive Chevrolet in 1926, and it outsold the Model T, Ford finally recognized the importance of styling and design.

Advertising convincingly demonstrated the importance of design. Those products with artistic features sold better, and manufacturers realized that design did play an important role both in marketing and manufacturing. By 1927, automotive manufacturers were hiring people solely to advise them on design features. Industrial design came to represent a new profession: The practice of using aesthetic design features to create manufactured goods that were economical, served a specific purpose, and satisfied the psychological needs of consumers. One of the most famous early designers was Harley Earl, who designed the 1927 Cadillac LaSalle, the first car designed by a stylist. In that same year, Earl founded General Motor’s Art and Color Department (which became the Styling Section in 1937). He is best known, according to the Industrial Designers Society of America, for creating “dozens of innovative designs including the hardtop convertible, wrap-around windshields, two-tone paint, heavy chrome plating, and tailfins.”

In the following decades, automotive manufacturers paid more attention to style and design in an effort to make their products stand out in the marketplace. They began to hire in-house designers and, following the lead of General Motors, established their own design departments. Today, automotive designers play a major role in both designing new automobiles and other vehicles (motorcycles, recreation vehicles, buses, trucks, coaches, and vans) and determining which models may be successful in the marketplace.


When beginning a new project design, automotive designers confer with the manufacturer’s product development team to address several issues. What is the theme and concept of the new vehicle? What are specific functions expected by the manufacturer? What are the expectations of the consumer? Automotive designers take these concerns into consideration as well as the size and shape of the vehicle, its weight, color, and materials used. They also must take into account how this new model will fit into the manufacturer’s existing fleet of cars, safety of the vehicle, and cost of the final product.

The design process begins with a model of the exterior design. At Chrysler’s Design Institute, designers draw manual sketches of possible designs. They also rely on computer-aided design (CAD) programs and tools to visualize their concepts. CAD technology is useful as it gives designers easy access to modify their sketches, and many CAD programs can communicate instructions to auto mated production machinery. Mangers from the design department choose from among the ideas of their staff to present to the heads of Chrysler as possible new model designs.

Designers then work with clay modelers to make prototypes to better visualize their concepts. Full-scale prototypes of vehicles are often made of a wood or iron base covered in Styrofoam. They are further enhanced with a thick layer of clay or industrial plasticine that can be molded and smoothed using special tools such as the slick—a styling tool with rounded edges. With this prototype, designers and engineers can get a feel for the model’s aerodynamic potential. Workers from manufacturing engineering, production, and marketing work closely with designers to ensure the new vehicle design meets their department’s specifications.

Some automotive designers focus on the interior specifications of a new model. In this capacity, designers are concerned with the ergonomic placement of controls on the instrument panel, including controls for the overhead lights, doors, and windows. They may tweak designs or placement to address function and aesthetic and ergonomic features of controls—all within the limited space of a car’s interior. Designers must adhere to safety standards as established by the government, while at the same time ensuring that the interior design theme meshes with the car’s exterior design.

Once the exterior and interior designs of a new model are approved, the designers move on to other details of the car’s appearance.

They also research popular trends in color when selecting the paint and finishes made available for the vehicle. Designers also choose interior colors and fabrics and other materials used for seats, dashboard, and trims for the interior of the car.


High School

In high school, take as many art and computer classes as possible in addition to college preparatory classes in English, social studies, algebra, geometry, and science. Classes in mechanical drawing may be helpful, but drafting skills are being replaced by the ability to use computers to create graphics and manipulate objects. Science classes, such as physics and chemistry, are also becoming more important as automotive designers select materials and components for vehicles and need to have a basic understanding of scientific principles. Shop classes, such as machine shop, metalworking, and woodworking are also useful and provide training in using hand and machine tools.

Postsecondary Training

A bachelor’s degree in fine arts, industrial design, or automotive design (often called transportation design) is recommended, although some employers accept diplomas from art schools. Training is offered through art schools, art departments of colleges and universities, and technical colleges. Most bachelor’s degree programs require four or five years to complete. Some schools also offer a master’s degree, which requires two years of additional study. Often, art schools grant a diploma for three years of study in industrial design. Programs in industrial design are offered by approximately 50 schools accredited (or that are in the process of accreditation) by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. There are only about 20 schools worldwide that offers courses or programs in automotive design, according to Car Design News. Visit its Web site,, for a list of programs.

School programs vary; some focus on engineering and technical work, while others emphasize art background. Certain basic courses are common to every school: two-dimensional design (color theory, spatial organization) and three-dimensional design (abstract sculpture, art structures). Students also have a great deal of studio practice, learning to make models of clay, plaster, wood, and other easily worked materials. Some schools even use metalworking machinery. Technically oriented schools generally require a course in basic engineering. Schools offering degree programs also require courses in English, history, science, and other basic subjects. Such courses as merchandising and business are important for anyone working in a field so closely connected with the consumer. Most schools also offer classes in computer-aided design and computer graphics. One of the most essential skills for success as an automotive designer is the ability to use design software.

Other Requirements

Automotive designers are creative, have artistic ability, and are able to work closely with others in a collaborative style. In general, designers do not crave fame or recognition because designing is a joint project involving the skills of many people. In most cases, automotive designers remain anonymous and behind the scenes. Successful designers can accept criticism and differences of opinion and be open to new ideas.


An excellent way to uncover an aptitude for design and to gain practical experience in using computers is to take a computer graphics course through an art school, high school continuing education program, technical school, or community college. Some community colleges allow high school students to enroll in classes if no comparable course is offered at the high school level. If no formal training is available, teach yourself how to use a popular graphics software package.

Summer or part-time employment in an industrial design office, or even at an automotive design firm, is a good way to learn more about the profession and what automotive designers do. Another option is to work in an advertising agency or for a market research firm. Although these companies most likely won’t have an automotive designer on staff, they will provide exposure to how to study consumer trends and plan marketing promotions.

Pursue hobbies such as sculpting, ceramics, jewelry making, woodworking, and sketching to develop creative and artistic abilities. Reading about industrial and automotive design can also be very beneficial. Publications such as Car Design News (http://www., Automotive Design & Production (, and Design News ( contain many interesting and informative articles that describe different design products, offer profiles of automotive designers, and detail current trends. These magazines can be found at many public libraries. Read books on the history of automotive design to learn about interesting case studies on the development of automobiles.


Approximately 48,000 industrial designers are employed in the United States, but only a small number work in the automotive industry. Some of the major employers of automotive designers are the Big Three U.S. automobile makers (General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler LLC) and major foreign automakers that have factories or divisions in the United States (Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Hyundai, Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz).


Most employers prefer to hire someone who has a degree or diploma from a college, art school, or technical school. Persons with engineering, architectural, or other scientific backgrounds also have a good chance at entry-level jobs, especially if they have artistic and creative talent. When interviewing for a job, a designer should be prepared to present a portfolio of their work.

Job openings may be listed through a college career services office or in classified ads in newspapers or trade magazines. They can also be found at the Web sites of publications such as Car Design News ( Qualified beginners may also apply directly to companies that hire automotive designers.

Several directories listing industrial design firms can be found in most public libraries. In addition, lists of industrial design firms appear periodically in magazines such as Business Week and Engineering News-Record. Also, a new industrial designer can get a free copy of Getting an Industrial Design Job at the Web site ( of the Industrial Designers Society of America.


Entry-level automotive designers usually begin as assistants to other designers. They do routine work and hold little responsibility for design changes. With experience and the necessary qualifications, the designer may be promoted to a higher-ranking position with major responsibility for design. Experienced designers may be promoted to project managers or move into supervisory positions. Supervisory positions may include overseeing and coordinating the work of several designers, including freelancers and automotive designers at outside agencies. Some senior designers are given a free hand in designing products. With experience, established reputation, and financial backing, some industrial designers decide to open their own consulting firms.


According to the Industrial Designers Society of America, the average starting salary for all industrial designers is $36,000. Designers with five years’ experience earn an average of $58,000 a year. Senior designers with 10 years’ experience earn $73,000. Industrial designers with 19 years or more experience earn average salaries of $125,000. Managers who direct design departments in large companies earn substantially more. Owners or partners of consulting firms have fluctuating incomes, depending on their business for the year.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, industrial designers employed in motor vehicle parts manufacturing earned mean annual wages of $66,510 in 2006. Salaries for industrial designers employed in all fields ranged from less than $31,510 to $92,970 or more.

Automotive designers usually receive paid vacations and holidays, sick leave, hospitalization and insurance benefits, and pension programs.


Workplaces for automotive designers vary depending on the stage of their current project. They work in comfortable offices when doing preliminary sketches, when using computerized design programs, or when brainstorming with other industry professionals. However, they may shift to different areas for other design processes, such as studios when building or modifying prototypes. Some travel may be involved when meeting with different fabric or leather vendors or paint distributors. Automotive designers usually work a regular 40-hour week, but longer hours may be required to meet an important project deadline.


Employment in the motor vehicle and parts manufacturing industry is predicted to decline by 14 percent through 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDL). Despite this outlook, automotive designers will continue to be needed to create new car designs—especially as competition between automotive companies increases. Designers who combine business expertise with an educational background in engineering and computer-aided design will have the best employment prospects.

Employment of all industrial designers is expected to grow about as fast as the average through 2016, according to the USDL.


For information on opportunities for women in industrial design, contact:

Association of Women Industrial Designers

Old Chelsea Station

P.O. Box 468

New York, NY 10011


For information on careers, educational programs, and a free copy of Getting an Industrial Design Job, contact:

Industrial Designers Society of America

45195 Business Court, Suite 250

Dulles, VA 20166-6717

Tel: 703-707-6000


For information on accredited design schools, contact:

National Association of Schools of Art and Design

11250 Roger Bacon Drive, Suite 21

Reston, VA 20190-5248

Tel: 703-437-0700


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