David Cole is an award-winning automotive designer who is currently the Director of Industrial Design for the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. He previously worked for Volkswagen, Ford and Hyundai, including design work on VW's New Beetle for which he received a Gold Award from the Industrial Design Society of America.
Some of Mr. Cole's other high-profile projects in automotive design have included work on VW's new Golf and Passat and Ford's Fiesta Be-Bop, Mondeo, and Scorpio. In product design, he has worked on projects for Nike, Apple and Motorola.
At the Academy of Art, he is responsible for the undergraduate and graduate curriculum for the product, furniture, toy, and transportation design programs. He has developed a range of Alias classes to meet the ever-increasing CAD requirements for today's designer, and he teaches transportation and product design.
Mr. Cole & His Career
How did you discover you had a talent for automotive design?
As a child growing up in Northern Ireland, I developed a strong interest for the local motor sports which were almost entirely run on public roads. The Ulster Grand Prix for motorcycles and the Circuit of Ireland Rally for cars were a couple of my favorites which ran close to my home. At the same time I was a keen artist (a talent I inherited from my father), and I suppose the combination of the two interests is what ultimately put me on the path to automotive design.
How did you decide to study automotive design? And how did you find a school?
Nobody at my high school knew of a car design course, so my career advisor told me I should aim for a career in architecture. I arranged to spend my 1980 summer break working in an architect's office in Belfast, but after two weeks I left because it wasn't for me - too many technical drawings for my liking. I still had one more year at high school, and during that year I came across a car design competition in a British car magazine. The winning designs from students and professionals were published, and the artwork just blew me away. There were brightly colored drawings using marker, airbrush and chalk the likes of which I had never seen before. At the end of the article two schools were listed where one can study to be a car designer: Coventry Polytechnic (now Coventry University) and the Royal College of Art in London (Masters degree). I promptly put a portfolio together and applied for admission, and was accepted into Coventry's Industrial Design/Transportation program beginning fall 1981. So in the in the end it was a bit of luck that pointed me in the right direction.
How did your career unfold?
When I graduated from college I had two options: I was offered a place at the Royal College of Art's two-year Masters program in London, and I was also offered a job at a Coventry based company called Motor Panels, which designs and manufactures commercial vehicles in Coventry. The RCA offer was very tempting, but I decided to go for the job and immediate working experience. Motor Panels was a good introduction into the industry for me, and within a year I had put together an automotive design portfolio and earned a position at Ford's Design Studio in Cologne, Germany.
What has been your key to success?
When I began working at Ford they were just getting into computer aided design, and although I had no prior computer experience I expressed an interest in being one of the first to try it out. I ended up working with a handful of chosen designers from Ford's English and German studios to help develop a 2D paint system. Being one of the first developers, I soon became one of the experts, and it is for this reason that I was hired away by Volkswagen four years later. There, I continued to develop my computer experience and switched to Alias 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional software, and it is due to this experience that I ended up where I am today.
The Academy of Art College (AAC) wanted to begin an automotive design curriculum and include computer-aided design into its major. AAC has over 500 computers, mostly Macs, followed by PC's and Unix workstations. At the time I came on board in 1998, Alias was being used for special effects and animation, but the Industrial Design department was not using it at all. Today the department has its own computer classrooms where we teach the latest computer-aided design software.
So, overall I would have to say that my interest and knowledge of computer-aided design has had a lot to do with my success.
What do you enjoy most about your job, your career?
As a car designer, to actually see the results of a design project driving on the road gives me great pleasure. Throughout my automotive design career, I have also been fortunate enough to meet and work with some great and talented designers whose expertise and company I have enjoyed. I still enjoy working with computer-aided design as there are no limits to what you can do with the right system and software. And today, it gives me great satisfaction to see my students learn from my experience.
What was your greatest success and biggest setback?
My most notable success has to be the work I was responsible for on the New Beetle, although there are plenty of other lesser known, but equally challenging projects I am proud of.
My biggest setback was when Volkswagen's concept studio in Dusseldorf, Germany, burnt down and I was relocated from there to Wolfsburg awaiting a new position. My son was just a few weeks old, and I had to commute to Wolfsburg (250 miles away) for 8 months while my family remained in Cologne.
You received an IDEA Gold Award from the Industrial Design Society of America. What was this for and how has this kind of recognition benefited your career?
The award was for my contribution to the design of Volkswagen's New Beetle - I was manager in charge of the exterior design. These awards are presented annually and celebrate the best in new industrial design. I appreciate the recognition for my work, but I cannot say that it has influenced my career in any way.
What are some of your other favorite projects that you've completed in your career and why?
My final year college project was very unique: I designed and built a full scale working prototype of a one manned recreational hydrofoil water craft which I tested successfully on a lake in Birmingham, England in 1985. To see it grow from sketches on my drawing board to riding it on the water six months later was immensely satisfying.
At Ford, my first project was to work on a show car called the Be-Bop which was a collaboration with Ghia in Turin and was based on the 1986 Ford Fiesta. This project was a lot of fun because generally I would be working on production oriented projects, whereas the Be-Bop was purely a show car.
My first project to be produced and sold on a vehicle was the Scorpio exterior mirror - not a major project but one I will always remember simply because it was my first production piece.
While working at Volkswagen in Germany I was assigned a project at SEAT (part of the Volkswagen family) in Spain where I was responsible for designing two cars, the 1996 Cordoba and Polo Variant. This project was most interesting because it was a collaboration between two countries with differing cultures, and I was solely responsible for everything from design to production.
You're also Director of Industrial Design for the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. How has the move from industry to academic worked for you?
It has been quite a challenge, and I find it very rewarding. Three years ago the department totaled about 75 students, and today we have 200 and have relocated to a new facility to accommodate the ever expanding department.
You still freelance in automotive and product design, too. What are some of the companies and projects you've worked with in this field?
The projects are confidential, but some of the companies I have worked for include: Ford, Hyundai, Nike, Apple, Motorola. It is very important to me to keep practicing design as well as teaching it.
Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?
At high school, I was interested in architecture and was inspired by the works of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright. At college, I learnt of many other designers and was inspired by Syd Mead and Luigi Colani.
In the 1980s, Ford put together a couple of calenders, including their designers' artwork. This was very inspiring for me as a young designer just starting out in the industry, as it represented fresh work straight out of Ford's design studios.
The Actual Work
What do automotive designers do?
Draw cars: Put their ideas down on paper, transfer those ideas to 3D either by working with a team of clay modelers, or using computer software.
Describe a typical day of work for you when you were working as an automotive designer for Volkswagen.
I worked in two very different working environments at Volkswagen: The concept studio in southern California, and the Headquarters in Germany.
A concept studio is a more an informal workplace where new ideas are created without the expectation of going into production: Working hours are flexible, but in average would amount to 10-12 hours per day. Depending on the stage of a particular project time would be spent sketching either on paper or on the computer, and also clay modeling or computer modeling. The day would be interspersed with various hobbies such as table tennis, radio controlled model racing, mountain biking, and a few beers at the end of the day.
Volkswagens' headquarters in Wolfsburg is different: The atmosphere is more serious and no toys are allowed. That is not to say that you cannot have any fun. In addition to designing and overseeing a project, presentations and meetings happen on a regular basis, especially if you happen to be working on a car that is headed for production. There are meetings with engineers, surface developers, marketing, and also suppliers. A meeting with a supplier may require a trip to another country just to check on the progress of eg. a headlamp design. In this environment everybody has a specific job to do and they are expected to do it. So, the two environments are very different although both are extremely rewarding in their own ways.
Are there specialty software programs for automotive design professionals? If so, what are they and what do they do?
There have been several different programs over the years, but today the industry has settled mainly for Alias Autostudio and Studiopaint. These are high-end tools; Studiopaint is for two-dimensional digital sketching, rendering, and retouching, and Autostudio for three-dimensional wireframe modeling. If used properly they can greatly reduce the development time of a project.
Exactly what is CAD and how does it work for automotive and product design?
The Computer Aided Design software that I mentioned above works as follows: Studiopaint is basically an electronic sketchpad that allows designers to draw with the use of an electronic stylus and tablet, with the image appearing instantly on the computer screen. With a single stylus you can pick on-screen tools to simulate pen, pencil, marker, airbrush all without getting your hands dirty. Electronic masking techniques are also available as are unlimited 'undo' levels.
Autostudio is used to build three-dimensional NURBS models and can work in conjunction with Studiopaint: You can take an electronic sketch and build a wireframe around it. The wireframe model can be rendered and animated, and ultimately milled to produce a physical model. Data from a wireframe model can be passed on to engineers thereby reducing the time required to measure data from a clay model. In this case engineers can work on the design parallel with the designer as opposed to waiting until the clay model is completed.
Are there distinct differences in how you approach automotive design, as opposed to your product design work?
Not really. Cars are large products with complex surface development on the exterior and a multitude of products on the interior that take up to four years to develop until they are in production. Every car is full of products, from the exterior mirrors to the grills, badges, and door handles; even antennas are getting individual treatment these days. When working on such an immense number of parts, it is important to remember that they are all part and parcel of the same design and so must relate to one another.
Product design is generally less complex in terms of form development, and with fewer parts, the development cycle is considerably shorter.
I would say my approach to design is similar in both cases - "less is more" is my design philosophy. I do not believe in overstyling - every line and surface should have a purpose. What makes the work different is the differing scale of the projects. In both cases I use computer software for my design development, from sketching to modeling. Computer modeling allows me maximum control over my design and model.
What are some of the professional organizations for automotive design professionals?
I am not aware of any organizations specific to automotive design. Within car design, the world is so small that designers get together at organized "Designers' Nights" at the major auto shows such as Detroit, Tokyo, Geneva, Paris, Frankfurt, and Turin. Otherwise: IDSA is the Industrial Design Society of America and includes automotive designers amongst its members.
Is it important to collaborate with your automotive design colleagues? How have your professional collaborations benefited your career?
Collaboration is always important. As Director of Industrial Design at AAC, I am looking for collaborations with companies to create sponsored projects and internships for students. Currently, Ford and Toyota are sponsoring projects in the department, and AAC students are achieving internships at many major companies in the USA and abroad. The Ford-sponsored project is unique in that it is an inter-departmental collaborative project involving many departments at the AAC including Fashion, Graphic Design, Web Design, Motion Pictures, Photography, Advertising, and of course Industrial Design.
Education Information & Advice
Tell us about your education. What did you like and dislike about your automotive design-related education?
It was a four-year BA degree which included a six month practical training period in the design industry. The entire four years were structured from the first day of class according to a strict curriculum, which meant that I graduated with the same group of students that I began with four years earlier.
I liked the guest lecturers who would come from Ford and Rover to teach us how to draw and design. The six-month internship I spent at Ogle design, a major design consultancy in London, was one of the most valuable parts of my education. I did not appreciate the lack of involvement from some of the less motivated staff.
How does a prospective art student assess their skill and aptitude for automotive design?
I would recommend they present their artwork either to an automotive designer or an automotive design department at a college for feedback.
Are there many academic programs that specialize in automotive design? Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious automotive design schools, departments or programs?
There used to be only a few schools specializing in automotive design worldwide, but today there are several each in Europe, the United States, and Asia. The Royal College of Art in London and Art Center College in Pasadena have had a good reputation, but today the competition is much greater and lesser known schools are creating some strong competition.
If someone has the art talent already, should they go to automotive design school and why?
Talent alone is not enough - qualified training and a college degree is necessary for landing a job in the automotive design industry. The Academy of Art College offers free classes to high school students in ten different majors. This allows the students an opportunity to experience a course they are thinking about before committing to it, and also gives them a feel for that department.
What can students applying to your program do to increase their chances of being accepted?
AAC has an open enrollment policy which allows every student an equal opportunity regardless of their ability.
What is the background of your faculty members?
The majority of our faculty are practicing designers in the San Francisco bay area who give up one or two days a week to come and teach at AAC. We offer both evening and Saturday classes to accommodate instructors' schedules, and sometimes we will fly an instructor from LA (or even further away) to teach a class, too. Fortunately, the Bay Area is very rich in design talent, so there are many experienced designers of products, cars, toys, and furniture who live locally.
AAC keeps its full-time faculty to a minimum. Part-time instructors currently outnumber full-time instructors by about of 5 to 1. What this means for our students is that they are being taught by working professionals.
What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in automotive design?
For those students specializing in automotive design, this will be easier than industrial design because there are fewer schools to choose from. Wherever possible, students should visit the school and create a personal impression of the school and its staff; it is important to feel comfortable with your choice. Another important factor should be the school's employment statistics. Location is important, too - e.g. the San Francisco Bay Area has the highest concentration of IDEA-winning design studios, providing many internship and teaching possibilities.
How the school/department is equipped is also important - AAC have been very supportive in providing the Industrial Design department with the latest state-of-the-art equipment.
What are the relevant art-related specialties? What types of degrees can one get that will lead to a career in automotive design?
Automotive design is generally split into two areas: exterior design and interior design. Exterior design deals with the outer bodywork of the car and so requires much larger surface development, whereas interior design is made up of a multitude of products (seats, dashboard, steering wheel, door trim, in car entertainment, etc.). For this reason, you will find that more often it is product designers who are hired to design car interiors and automotive designers for the exterior design. Therefore, a degree in either transportation design or product design can lead to a career in automotive design.
When is it a good idea to go after a graduate degree?
Most graduate students start right after completion of their undergraduate degree, but occasionally we will get working professionals applying, too. We often get working professionals coming back to school just to learn the latest in computer software.
Job Information & Advice
Who are three of the most renowned automotive design professionals in the world right now? How did they get to the top?
There are so many to choose from but I am going to pick two designers that I know personally. J. Mays, Vice President of Design for Ford Motor Company (Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Mazda, Volvo, Jaguar, and Aston Martin), and Hartmut Warkuss, in charge of the entire Volkswagen design group (VW, Audi, Skoda, Seat, Lamborghini, Bentley, and Bugatti).
J. Mays started his career 20 years ago at Audi in Germany under the direction of Hartmut Warkuss and continued his career with Audi until 1995 when he left to start up a design studio in Southern California concentrating on Brand Imaging Design. One of his new clients was Ford Motor Company, which ended up hiring him for the top design spot in Dearborn a couple of years later.
Hartmut Warkuss began his career working for Ford in Germany for a few years before switching to Audi. Under his design direction Audi became one of Europe's most innovative car design companies as seen in its aerodynamic breakthrough cars of the 1980s. Now close to retirement, he can look back on a most successful career as head of design for the seven companies that make up the Volkswagen family today.
Today, both men find themselves in charge of the design of seven different brands of vehicles under one manufacturer. The trend lately has been for these large companies to buy up smaller ones so that each company covers the entire market from economy cars through to luxury and exotic cars.
I have worked personally for both gentlemen and have great respect for them.
What is the average salary for automotive design professionals in the US? What are people at the top of this profession paid?
Salaries vary from company to company and it is hard to pinpoint an average, but an average starting salary for a newly graduated student today is in the 40-50k range. People who reach the very top can obtain a seven-figure salary, but such positions are few and far between.
What are the best companies to work for in the field of automotive design?
This depends on personal design taste and the design philosophy of the company in question. Different companies and cultures have their own distinct design language which may or may not appeal to a certain designer.
What are the best ways to get a job in the field of automotive design?
To get a good job you need to have a strong portfolio - it is not enough to be able to draw pretty pictures. I have seen many flashy renderings, but that is not enough to make a good portfolio. A good portfolio will show a solid understanding of design development, including samples of sketches, renderings, model making and computer-aided design.
Direct interaction with the industry through internships and sponsorships is another important avenue to future employment.
How available are internships in this field?
Internships are available year round although most students tend to apply for the summer period, so as not to interfere with their academic work. Most automotive companies have internship programs and inform colleges when available.
How is the job market now for the automotive design industry? What do you think it will be in 5 years?
The current trend is positive as major companies are opening new satellite studios around the world, e.g. Toyota in Nice, Renault in Barcelona, and Ford in London. I believe that, in five years, there will be an even greater demand than today as companies expand their vehicle line-ups and look for new niche market designs.
What are the most challenging aspects of your academic career with the Academy of Art College?
One of the challenges is to find ways to improve the curriculum and update it with the latest computer software and state-of-the-art equipment. AAC recently purchased a rapid prototyping machine which will allow students to output their computer data as physical models. Searching for new internship and sponsorship possibilities is an ongoing challenge. Another is to motivate the students to raise the standard and quality of their work. Lastly, attracting todays' practicing designers to give up some of their valuable time to teach the designers of tomorrow is a challenge.
What are some of the trends that you see in the field of automotive design which could help students plan for the future?
Trends come and go, and you have to be flexible enough to be able to adapt to them. Future materials and manufacturing technology will make it possible for designers to create forms that may not be possible to stamp in sheet metal today. Companies are experimenting with plastic bodied cars. Computer-aided design tools continue to improve as does the interface with the user, and they will become more and more accepted in automotive design.
How has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?
As a design professional working almost entirely with computers the internet is an important communication tool. I can send files from my home office to a client anywhere in the world and receive instant feedback.