The Future According to Art Center

19 December 2016 | by Karl Smith

Last week we made our annual autumn trek up the hill to Art Center in Pasadena for their Fall Transportation Graduate Show – look for that report to come to you shortly.

A few weeks earlier, however, before the end-of-term madness set in, we got a few minutes with Stewart Reed, Chair of the Department of Transportation Design and Jay Sanders, Executive Director, to discuss the current and future state of transportation design education.

Our main question to both was: “Have the changes in society, technology, regulations, and business models in the transportation sector (particularly the automotive industry) changed the pedagogy and curriculum of transportation design schools?”

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Jay Sanders and Stewart Reed (left) with Hyundai/Kia representatives, including Peter Schreyer, at the opening of the Art Center's new Innovation Lab

Stewart Reed noted that Art Center was started by an advertising executive who wanted an institution that could channel the artistic and design talents of students into skills which would be marketable in the business world. With that as the fundamental bedrock of the program, the Transportation Design department is dedicated to producing graduates that reflect the current needs of the industry and go beyond them.

The fundamentals of the design program have remained the same – drawing, modelling and product planning. In particular, drawing remains on the core skills of every designer. Reed cited the example of Leonardo Da Vinci, who drew, as Reed put it, “for artistic and architectural purposes, for research, and for technical illustration, or to summarize – ART – Artistry, Research, Technical Illustration. It underscores the fundamental need to go beyond proficiency in drawing and visual communication – mastery is needed, and that can be a lifetime pursuit.”

Both Reed and Sanders emphasized proficiency in computer technologies as part of the bedrock of a designer’s skillsets. Photoshop, among other programs, is being introduced at an earlier level than ever before.

Looking to the future, advanced technologies such as virtual reality and simulations will be required for automotive design. Toward this end, Art Center has partnered with Hyundai/Kia of North America to open the Hyundai/Kia Innovation lab, a center for students and industry collaborators to design simulations not only of exterior designs, but of interiors, vehicle assemblies, and human interaction projects.

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The interior of the new Hyundai/Kia Innovation Lab

We asked what automotive companies were asking for in current and future graduates, and Reed noted that graduates with UI/UX experience, along with interior design graduates, were being looked at closely. Graduates with a wider business education and experience are in demand as well. All of these skills are expected to increase in significance in the future.

Along with undergraduate studies, Art Center’s Graduate School of Transportation Design continues the learning path for young designers. Here the emphasis is, as Executive Director Geoff Wardle puts it, on “the view from 30,000 feet”. Transportation modes and systems are part of the core of the program and although individual vehicles are occasionally designed, it is most often the system that is studied. Here, too, UI/UX systems, often in conjunction with wider transport networks, are being explored.

Some of these skills don’t dovetail neatly into existing job opportunities.
That’s fine with Art Center, though their expectation is full employment of their graduating classes. “Our goal is not to imitate what is being done in industry, but rather to lead,” Stewart Reed noted.

“We teach students to constantly learn new skills, to be adaptive to new opportunities, and to have multiple skillsets,” summarised Jay Sanders. “We are looking to the world of tomorrow. We prepare our students for jobs that do not yet exist.”