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Observe and learn:
One of the most important skills pertaining to designing cars is the ability to focus on the details. Details are what separates great design from the mediocre. It's critical to not only study the stylistic elements of a car, but also its practical features. During this process be sure to analyze and learn about any unfamiliar component. Examine and compare the various suspension and drivetrain setups, for example. Strategically compare and contrast textiles, fabrics and their applications.
Study the history of the automobile:
This is easily accomplished by researching a vehicle which holds extraordinary personal interest. From there research its development, the people and processes involved and the competition. Be sure to be mindful of the context in which the vehicle was produced as well. The more one studies the context, people and development of the vehicle, the easier it is to understand the design process. Also, be sure to research masters of the art like Raymond Loewy, Larry Shinoda, Giorgetto Giugiaro, Tom Matano, Bill Mitchell, Harley Earl and Marcello Gandini.
Drive and analyze different vehicles:
Every vehicle has attributes which creates an individual and unique driving experience. It's important to drive vehicles from as many genres as possible to highlight differences and similarities for the driver's point of view. In addition, make an effort to drive in inclement weather and cover a broad spectrum of road conditions.
Learn design techniques:
A car designer is valued for possessing a wide array of technical skills. Work on honing as many as possible since they usually build upon each other. Learn to sketch, paint and sculpt. Broaden one's horizons beyond the automobile and embrace adjacent disciplines like figure drawing and even digital illustration. Automobile design is an amalgamation of numerous disciplines, so every conceivable skill will be useful.
Also, study graphic design as this aids in communicating one's concepts, and hones the ability to recognize spatial relationships. A vehicle is composed of carefully assembled visual elements which have to work in unison. Graphic visualization is an invaluable skill to possess.
Wash, paint or polish a car:
While this may seem overly basic, it isn't. It's difficult for the untrained eye to see the form transitions in even the most simple vehicle surfaces. When washing a car, guide one's hand along the body and focus on the forms. Even a seemingly flat door panel is usually composed of multiple compound curves.
Study vehicle reflections:
Reflections on a vehicle can convey surprising surface changes which may be ignored at first glance. Watch how light effects the surface and distorts during form transitions.
Utilize technology to customize the learning experience:
Advancements in technology have made professional design and engineering tools more accessible than ever. AutoCAD 360 is available affordably for Mac and PC and there are countless free tutorials online as well. For surfacing the automakers use a expensive program called Alias, however the novice can develop their surfacing skills with Rhino 3D (also available for Mac and PC). For instruction, begin with free or low-cost options like YouTube tutorials or Gnomon Workshop. These teaching tools are accessible on an unprecedented level and Gnomon Workshop tutorials even feature teachers from the illustrious Art Center College of Design.
Learn building/fabrication techniques:
Take the time to experiment by building a custom center console or create carbon fiber fenders in the garage. Every skill learned applies to one's development as a designer. To be honest, the pace of development by the backyard hobbyist is much faster than an OEM. A manufacturer may take years to redesign component to meet legislation, tooling and cost requirements. However, the enthusiast can potentially be more creative in a far shorter span of time. Supplement one's creative endeavors with learning how to weld or work with wood and composites. Most community colleges offer courses for tradesmen and some house cutting-edge tools/facilities. For example, Southern California's Cerritos College (composites department) actually has an autoclave on-site!
Beyond the skills listed above, the auto industry (much like any profession) is saddled with politics, accreditation, ambition, ego and funding issues. Perhaps, it's worth the effort to take adventurous steps of self-discovery to find out what brings the most individual satisfaction. Embarking on a career is never easy, but the first step can be taken today.