Since taking on the former Argonaut Building, now called the Taubman Center, the university has encouraged the transportation design course to grow. It’s still very popular for the new intake of students to want to be exterior designers at major OEMs, but with all these students coming in, it has made it very challenging for the carmakers to sift through 100-plus portfolios to find the hidden gem for the best exterior and interior designers.
When that came to our attention, we decided that we should start curating the portfolios. However, when we started this process, we noticed that there were some students working out of their element and not fulfilling their potential. As a result, we’ve just implemented a very rigorous review procedure where the students submit their work from the most recent semester and a panel of judges, made up of the full-time faculty and myself, goes through and scores them based on their aptitudes in certain categories, then uses an algorithm to better identify the direction a student should take in their studies.
This starts with academic skills, including the student’s ability to identify a problem and how to design a concept that solves it, and their technical knowledge, such as how much they know about the architecture of vehicles and how they are put together. Next are the broadly recognised design skills – sketching and perspective, their ability to create beautiful renderings, their understanding of surface construction in both clay and digital modelling.
We also judge aesthetics, a student’s understanding of proportion sensitivity and form that derives from an understanding of Western classicism, and go through their professionalism and personal development. The students are then scored from 1 to 5 in all those categories, and the algorithm created by our academic technologies department calculates what they’re going to be best suited to do. It sounds a bit antiseptic, but there’s also lot of personal counselling that goes on along the way too – it’s not just ‘these are the numbers so that’s what you must do,’ it’s there to help students fulfil their potential.
The first of three major categories that we’re sifting students into is Automotive – so this encapsulates exterior and interior design. This requires a minimum B average, OEMs just won’t look at students with less than that. On top of that academic achievement, the students also need to have the aptitude – outstanding visualisation skill, very high aesthetic sensitivity and professionalism.
The Vehicles category relates to everything that is either industrial or recreational. So that includes things like a new farming combine for Case New Holland, or a new bike for Harley Davidson. This one requires the student to be really into the mechanical workings of things. They have to be passionate about how things are put together – it’s almost engineering combined with aesthetics, and more like how a product designer might approach a transportation project.
Last but not least is Mobility, which is the direction that a lot of the industry appears to be trumpeting right now. For now, this pertains more to public transportation and how that might be impacted by urban planning. Systems thinking is a huge part of it, so students with really strong analytical skills and passion for doing research, not just of aesthetic trends but actual ethnographies of locations, will be at home here.
When I announced to the students that this was going to be the new policy in the first week of classes in the Fall semester, there was some joking around that the system was very Darwinian in some respects. But ultimately this is a very competitive business and I got a lot of support from students. We’ve had to develop this kind of structure just to make sense of it all and provide the students with some sort of clarity and organisation for what they’re spending their tuition on. They don’t want to be put into a position where they’re not going to get a job, so a course that’s tailored to their aptitudes will give them the best chance of reaching their absolute potential. That’s the goal.
It was a hell of a lot of work to devise the system. I had a plan outlined by mid-July and it was constant effort to get approval by the end of August. It involved a huge amount of writing – really thinking deeply, both philosophically and pragmatically, to come up with descriptions for each one of these things, how to articulate exactly what is meant by aesthetics, for example.
We were in very close contact with the OEMs in developing the categories, too. We consulted with the VPs of all the local OEMs, and more candidly with friends of mine in the industry. It was very interesting to have top designers from GM, FCA and Ford, along with our institutional leadership, at the table having this conversation. I’ve known Moray [Callum, Ford] for years, and Ralph [Gilles, FCA] is always accessible, but I didn’t know [former GM vice president of design] Ed Welburn so much. Over the course of the summer, I’ve got to know him, and Ed will be teaching some senior exterior design next year. I’m intrigued what his critiques will be.
The skill sets we needed when I graduated in 1987 were basically that you had to have that high level of artistic sensibility and mechanical reasoning. Now in addition, there are so many digital platforms that students have to be fluent in – the Adobe and Autodesk suites, for example. On top of that, the standards are so much higher – generations build on generations, so the competition and expectations are higher than they have ever been before.
There are a lot of jobs out there. We’re getting more and more sponsorship from Tier 2 suppliers, and from recreational manufacturers like BRP and Harley Davidson. A few of our students are working down at Confederate making one-off $500,000 motorcycles. We’ve placed students into Crown, which makes everything from industrial vehicles to factory robots. If it’s got wheels, our students should be able to do a better job than anyone else doing it.
This interview is from our Car Design Review 5, a beautifully-produced 200-page book published this Spring and containing the past year’s finest concept and production cars, plus trend reports, an in-depth feature on our lifetime achievement award winner, industry legend Wayne Cherry, and interviews with many of the world’s foremost designers. If you’d like more details or the chance to purchase your own copy, go here.