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What They Do

Commercial and Industrial Designers Career Video

Insider Info

Every car begins as a simple idea. Stylists, researchers and product developers work on ideas for the future. Rather than calling on engineering skills, these people let their imaginations run wild. They envision cars that will be on the road up to 30 years from now. They hope their ideas will become the trend of the future.

"These creative people work with storyboards and make sketches to come up with ideas," says Christine Parry, a car body designer in Michigan.

"Stylists are a small, exclusive group who work well into the future," says Norm Robbins, a car body designer also from Michigan. Because their ideas are top secret, stylists aren't allowed to share information about their work with others.

However, when they have come up with a general idea for a car, they make clay models that are then scanned into computers for engineers. An engineer then figures out how to make the new shape work.

Engineers look at the design and ask questions such as: Where is the engine going to fit? And how are drivers going to be able to steer this? The conceptual design is modified by the engineers to fit the practical, working parts of the car.

Next, the model is passed on to the actual car body designer. The car body designer's desk is where the actual drafting and final design is done. "Engineers give the car body designers general design concepts and limitations on a part," says Parry.

The designer sits down at the computer and draws a part that will complement the overall look of the car, and also fit the engineering specifications.

Car body designers work in four general areas. The first type works on the exterior and overall body shape of the car.

"We work with the body shape itself, which is usually sheet metal -- except for the Corvette and the Saturn, which are plastic," says Jerry Richard, a car body designer in Detroit.

A second type of car body designer works on the inside of the car. "Once you start to think about it, there's a lot that has to be designed in the interior, like the side-wall trim, the instrument panel, a back shelf or the interior trim," says Richard.

The third type of body designer is a packaging designer. "Putting together a car is like building a house. A contractor won't build the fridge and stove, but they will put them in for you," says Richard.

The same is true for a car. Electronics engineers create the car radio, heating specialists design the heaters, but car body designers must create space for all of these components.

The last type of designer works on creating working components for the car, and is involved in the mechanics and systems design, such as the suspension, the powertrain and the drive shaft.

In all areas of car body design, the designers work closely with automotive engineers. The engineer will send out specifications, and the designer will attempt to make them fit with other components of the car.

"About half of my time is spent at meetings with other designers and engineers, trying to accommodate all of the components of the car, without limiting my own design," says Robbins.

The dialog goes back and forth until the final product satisfies the designers and the engineers. However, the process continues after the design is completed. "Actual parts look different than drawings, and during production you may have to redesign pieces," says Robbins.

Designers work for large automobile companies and for suppliers. Suppliers are companies that manufacture parts for an automobile company. For example, one of the major roles of Parry's company is to design clutches for Chrysler.

Approximately 8,000 people are employed as car body designers in America. Almost all of these designers live in southern Michigan, where the three large automotive companies are located. England, Italy, Spain, France, Japan, Australia, Germany and Sweden also employ car body designers.

"In fact, people are leaving the Detroit area to work in these other countries," says Richard.

At a Glance

Conceptualize and design the interior and the body of cars

  • There are only 8,000 of these specialists in North America
  • Most work in Michigan
  • A background in CAD and engineering is a good idea


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