January 26, 2016
Collaborations helping to create well-rounded designers
What makes a great car designer? A passion for the industry and drawing chops, for sure. But industry leaders say there’s something else, too: a strong foundation – the kind that students get at the Cleveland Institute of Art.
CIA’s reputation for turning out talented automotive-design graduates is supported in part by longstanding relationships between the institute’s Industrial Design program and auto industry leaders. For years, car companies have sent their own designers to Cleveland to teach classes on weekends. They also sponsor projects that give students experience solving real-world problems.
In 2015, the college took another leap forward by hiring Haishan Deng as the first CIA faculty member devoted to transportation design. Deng previously taught at the School of Industrial Design at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in China.
The move was spurred by CIA board member Joseph Dehner (‘88), head of RAM and Mopar Design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Chrysler had a long history of sending staff to teach those Saturday classes, but Dehner believed the institute needed a full-time auto-design faculty member.
Industrial Design Chair Dan Cuffaro “was all ears,” Dehner said. “He took it to the front office, and … they started a worldwide search.”
Eric Stoddard (’98), design manager at Ford Motor Co., also has been an instructor and adviser at CIA. Those Saturday classes led by industry veterans were good, he said, but “it was really up to the students during the week to find their own way. Having someone on the ground is hugely important.”
CIA made a smart choice with Deng, Stoddard said. Deng gives the school an important window into the Chinese car market, “the hottest growing segment of the car industry,” Stoddard said. “It’s the future of the car industry.”
He points out that Deng hasn’t been just a car designer. Experience designing more than 50 products gives Deng an important advantage. “He has a very open mind and conceptual (perspective),” Stoddard said.
And that gets back to the strong foundation that Stoddard and Dehner agree is where CIA’s advantage lies. A number of U.S. schools have good automotive design departments, Dehner said, but “they have very specialized curriculums that have you focus totally on auto design.”
He’s a fan of what the Cleveland Institute of Art’s fine art tradition and wide-ranging industrial design department do for the mind of the young auto designer. “As the students’ careers mature, they get a nice balance of interior design, product design — all the things that go into making a great designer,” Dehner said. “As a result, they have a better, more balanced portfolio, and their problem-solving skills become better. They’re not getting a 24/7, constant diet of cars, cars, cars, cars, which can lead a designer to be very close-minded.”
As the smallest of the Big Three American car manufacturers, Chrysler has fewer opportunities to hire new talent. Up until this year, it hadn’t hired a CIA grad since 2009, Dehner said, though CIA students have enjoyed Chrysler internships.
In spring 2015, CIA graduated five auto design students. All five found jobs; Chrysler hired Jenn Baugher, whose senior thesis project was to design a lightweight, entry-level sports car.
Baugher joins an industry that Dehner says has changed its attitude toward designers.
“Back when I graduated, it was expected that you played a support role in whatever was coming out of that studio,” he said. “So a younger designer would be doing detail support that was not (their) design but somebody else’s.
“Today, it’s so much different. When designers come out of the school today, they are contributing,” Dehner said. “May the best sketch win, and if it happens to be somebody right out of school who does the best sketch for a multi-billion-dollar program, we’ll do everything in our power to support that designer and make sure they succeed. The trajectory is much like a rocket. It’s vertical.”
To succeed in that environment, however, the designer needs multiple advantages. As a member of Ford’s recruitment team, Stoddard interviews candidates and makes recommendations. The first quality he looks for is innate talent and sense of design.
“As we go through the interview process, we get to know them as a person,” Stoddard says. “Are they good at speaking? What’s their confidence level? What’s their work ethic like?”
CIA’s fine arts-based program seems to encourage a more well-rounded, “complete” designer, Stoddard said. “They really do a great job thinking outside the box. They’re not just doing hot sketches, they’re really thinking through problems.”
Heidi Bliss, Creative Talent Recruiter at General Motors, which employs 32 CIA alumni, concurs. “CIA alumni are known for their tenacity when it comes to solving problems,” she says. “They take the lessons they’ve learned from the product design world about how to focus and define consumer-centric problems, then they use their foundational skills in drawing and ideation to work it through. It is what sets them apart.”
Dehner also noted that design colleges often lack in-school studio space, which means students do much of their work in isolation. CIA’s studios encourage student-to-student collaboration, which makes for good teamwork training.
All in all, Dehner believes that transportation design students at CIA have never been better situated for success. The new one-campus location in Cleveland’s Uptown neighborhood, a college president who embraces change and a new faculty member dedicated to car design makes their CIA years unlike any that have come before. “
I mentioned this to the students,” Dehner said. “I said, you are in a special place right now. This is a special time.”
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