Become an Automobile Designer: Education and Career Roadmap

Jul 10, 2020

Should I Become an Automobile Designer?

Automobile designers are industrial designers who use both art and engineering to research and create new car designs. Their designs must ensure the safety of the vehicle and operate within regulatory parameters while still creating a great looking, comfortable product that appeals to consumers. Automobile design is a creative but highly competitive career choice.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Bachelor's degree; optional master's degree
Degree Field Transportation design, industrial design
Experience Internships and professional portfolio development
Key Skills Creativity, critical-thinking, communication, problem-solving, technical knowledge of cars
Salary (May 2014) $64,620 per year (Median annual salary for all commercial and industrial designers)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

A few schools offer 4-year bachelor's degree programs in transportation design, and some have programs in industrial design with a transportation design concentration. Typical coursework includes design fundamentals, 2-D and 3-D drawing skills, car technology, research skills development, model-making, and computer aided drafting or CAD. Since both transportation and industrial design programs are rare, admission can be quite competitive. Students can consider earning an associate's degree in industrial design before applying to an automobile design program. Students should begin building a car design portfolio during this time.

Success Tips:

  • Complete an internship. Internships, sometimes paid, may be available for advanced students. These provide an opportunity to gain work experience with professional car designers at major automotive companies. A portfolio review is often part of the selection process for internships.
  • Learn CAD. With the increasing use of computer-aided design (CAD), car designers who are fluent in this technology may improve their job prospects.
  • Learn another language. Since the automobile industry is an international one, car designers may travel to other countries in the course of their work. Speaking a second language increases versatility and could provide an edge when applying for jobs.

Step 2: Build a Portfolio

A professional portfolio of high-quality, innovative work is essential throughout the career of an automobile designer. It is used to show the designer's creativity and capabilities and can help with gaining employment and/or entrance to graduate school. Bachelor's programs include creation and development of a portfolio, but it's important to keep working on and adding to it over time.

Step 3: Gain Work Experience

Job prospects for graduates holding an automobile design degree come mainly from car manufacturers and design companies specializing in automotive design. A college with close ties to such companies can be helpful in placing recent graduates. According to the BLS, industrial designers are expected to see a 4% job increase during the 2012-2022 decade, which is slower than average for all occupations. Consumer demand for innovative designs, however, should ensure the continued need for all types of industrial designers.

Step 4: Consider a Graduate Degree in Automobile Design

After completing a bachelor's degree and/or obtaining some professional experience, returning to school to earn a graduate degree in automobile design may demonstrate a designer's dedication to the profession. For example, earning a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Transportation Design advances design skills and contributes to portfolio work. An MFA or Master of Industrial Design (MID) degree program can take 2-4 years and requires rigorous research, emphasizing real-world experience with commercially-oriented projects. Classes, design labs, and internships or externships improve the designer's overall knowledge of design practices and further develop innovation skills, which can lead to career advancement.

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