How to be an Automotive Designer

Featured Image – “Press Panel- TAD – Porsche” by Juan David Cadena ValldeRuten is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This is an interview with my friend Panos Totamanoglou who is currently studying Automotive Design at Coventry University. Hopefully it will give those interested in the field some insight as to what it takes to make it in this highly competitive industry.

It’s easy to think of automotive designers as artistic robots churning out futuristic looking sketches and clay models 24 hours a day, but their understanding of the industry is what will lead to the possibility of a job within the highly competitive field.

“You might be good designer, you might be the best at hand-drawing or Photoshop but if you can’t understand what it is you have to design its pretty much useless.  It might look good but if its not what they want its worthless,” he states calmly.

Panos, originally from Greece, is only in his first year, but already visible is the quality of instruction he is receiving from Coventry University’s world-renown Automotive Design course.

“For facelifts, its not just a design, you have to know what your designing.  Like the Mustang I’m doing now, we have to do a company profile first and understand the direction they want to take with the car and their other cars and apply that into the design.”

Understanding a company’s design language is only the first step in the overall design process of a vehicle.  Panos says that technical knowledge is also a must.  “We have to be able to understand what the mechanical limitations are and also the safety limitations.  Cars have to be safer for both the driver and the pedestrian, so that limits or directs the design somehow.”

Panos follows up by saying that communication skills and an ability to work well in teams is also a must.  Although it sounds like a job advertisement, there are reasons why all design companies require these abilities, “It’s not like your a mad scientist in the movies, working alone, coming up with designs.  Later you might be the design director and you might have to manage a project, you so you have to be able to communicate your ideas and the company’s ideas.

Automotive journalists say that cars built before today’s ultra-stringent safety regulations have designs and shapes that can never be matched, but Panos does not agree completely.  “You’d have more freedom, its not like you can’t design something beautiful now, but theres things you can’t leave out of the creation.  It’s more a matter of including anything rather than being limited.  Car design nowadays its a more complex organism than it used to be.  There’s more things that get into the car now than lets say, 30-40 years ago.”

One of the tradeoffs between the modern constraints of car design is the advances in technology we now enjoy.  Panos says: “Technology gives you new forms to work with, like the Toyota iRoad they are designing now, it’s a new form of transportation that is enabled by advancements in technology, so as new technologies appear, new departments of design appear.”

So as of 2013, where are we in terms of automotive design?  Have we gone backwards or forwards?  Panos explains its cyclical, like most fields of design.  “Like right now, it looks as if there is an over-design trend in the industry with cars, like the ones unveiled in Geneva.  Or even the LaFerrari.  I don’t think it’s necessarily bad, I like the LaFerrari mostly, but I think it’s going to fade away.  It’s going to go back to more simple designs maybe.”

For Panos it is important to buck the trend of falling in line with temporary fluctuations in consumer or market preferences and create designs that “will stand the test of time.”  When asked what his favorite car’s were in terms of design, he says: “If I had to name one it would be the Alfa Romeo 8C.  It’s perfect proportion-wise.  It manages to look modern and classic at the same time, few cars do that.”  Interestingly, he also mentions a vehicle that not many would associate with beautiful automotive design.  “I really like the Toyota iQ.  You’d expect if you ask someone about [their] favorite design it’d be sports cars, but I think the design is very interesting, very beautiful, it’s different.  As a city car, it’s very practical.  The smart [car] I don’t really like it, but you don’t have to compromise design for practicality, you have get both with that car, [Toyota iQ] that’s why I like it.”

His affinity for the Alfa can be traced back to his influence from famous Italian designers Pininfarina and Giugiaro.  “In general, I prefer Italian design.  I think they look more elegant than other cars.”  No small secret then that Panos would love to eventually land a job at the Pininfarina design studio.  “I’d love to one day put my name on a Ferrari.  Look at the car and say, yeah, I did that.”

When Panos is asked if he draws influence from sources other than automotive related, he immediately replies: “Architecture.”  In a hurry to get his words out he continues, “I think Tadao Ando’s buildings are quite interesting.”  Besides architecture he is also interested in product design, which he mentions he’d like to do on the side if not professionally, and also the same for boat design.  After a brief pause and a smirk on his face he adds: “Women, I guess.  A woman’s smile is one of the best designed things in the world.  [jokes] I’m a poet.”  And with that profound statement, it’s clear that no matter how far off and distant design-majors may seem at times – in the end, there just blokes like you and me.

About the Author: Daniel Kim is a graduate of Coventry University’s Automotive Journalism Master’s program. He has worked at Ferrari North Europe, Evo magazine, Autocar and Formula Drift.

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