Vehicle designer

 13 March 2013

Vehicle designers are product design specialists. They help create cars, buses, military vehicles, motorcycles, planes and more.

Vehicle designers work with large teams which include engineers, marketers, and manufacturers. Image: The Design Museum
Vehicle designers work with large teams which include engineers, marketers, and manufacturers. Image: The Design Museum

What do vehicle designers do?

Vehicle design is a specialist area of product design and includes cars, trucks, vans, lorries, buses, coaches, military vehicles, motorcycles, marine and aerospace.

Vehicle designers have to consider many different factors in their work. Firstly, they must design vehicles that are aesthetically pleasing and that function well.

But vehicle designers also need to consider the materials used, the aerodynamics of the vehicle, its environmental impact, and relevant laws, including health and safety issues.

As a designer of vehicles, you will often be helping to create a vision for the brand you are working for.

What is the job like?

Your work will usually involve:

  • making initial pencil or pen sketches on paper
  • using software tools such as Adobe Photoshop to make scale and full-size 2D drawings
  • making 3D computerised models to see all angles of the design
  • choosing colours and materials, and designing the external finish of the vehicle
  • completing a 'virtual build' on a computer, enabling a design team to piece the vehicle together digitally and testing assembly feasibility
  • preparing full-size models, often out of clay
  • making design prototypes before extensive testing in demanding conditions
  • refining parts of the design, such as body details, surfaces and lines.

You will work as part of a team that includes engineers, experts in marketing, planning and manufacturing, and sculptors who make the clay models.

You need to keep up-to-date with the latest design trends.

There is often a separate team working on the vehicle interiors, but whether you are working on the interior or the exterior, you will need to keep up-to-date with the latest design trends.

Communicating your ideas to other team members is an important part of the work, which often involves making presentations.

There are good opportunities to work abroad in Germany, Italy, France, Japan, the US and elsewhere, as well as within the UK.

How do I become a vehicle designer?

This is a highly competitive and popular career, so you’ll need to develop the right blend of skills in order to succeed.

You will need:

  • strong visual creative skills, including hand-drawing and the ability to use 2D and 3D design packages effectively
  • a good imagination, and an innovative approach to problem-solving
  • a high level of analytical ability
  • excellent written and verbal communication skills and the ability to work well in a team and independently
  • the ability to work well with engineers and to understand the technical aspects of the work
  • good commercial awareness and the ability to work under pressure to tight deadlines.

Relevant school subjects include Art and Design, Maths and Sciences, Design and Technology, English and IT.

What training and qualifications do I need?

Vehicle designers are always highly qualified, either to degree or postgraduate level.

Further education

Further education qualifications at Level 3 can provide the entry requirements for university degree courses; you may be asked for a merit or distinction.

Further education courses relevant to vehicle design include:

  • BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma in Engineering – entry is with a minimum of four GCSE passes (A-C) including Maths, English and Science. Certain minimum GCSE grades may be specified, such as a grade B in Maths and Science.
  • BTEC Level 3 Diploma in Art and Designentry is with a minimum of four GCSE passes (A-C) including Art and Design and English. As well as this, you will normally need a portfolio of your art and design work.

You can also progress to the BTEC Level 3 courses from a Level 2 qualification such as the BTEC First Diploma in Art and Design, Engineering or Science. Entry to BTEC Level 2 courses is with a minimum of two GCSE passes (A-D).

This is a highly competitive career, so you’ll need to develop the right blend of skills.

BTEC Level 3 courses last for two years full time, and are an alternative to A levels. They can lead on to higher education courses, such as an HND (Higher National Diploma), a foundation degree or a degree course.

If you plan to study vehicle design at university, it is advisable to contact the admissions tutors of different degree courses to find out the acceptability of different further education qualifications or A level subjects.

Degree Courses

Degree courses in vehicle design are listed on the UCAS website. In the section for design courses, there are various subjects that encompass vehicle design, including Automotive Product Design, Automotive Engineering Design, Automotive Design, and Aerospace and Yacht Design.

Engineering courses for automotive, aerospace, motorcycle and marine engineering will often include design, although the emphases can vary. Industrial and product design courses may also include vehicle design.

Course titles include:

  • BSc Off Road Vehicle Design
  • MDes Automotive Design
  • BA Automotive Design
  • MEng Aeronautics and Astronautics/Structural Design

Always visit the university open day before applying.

The entry requirements for a degree are a minimum of two A levels or equivalent such as a Level 3 Diploma (as detailed above) plus a portfolio.

You will also need an English GCSE pass (A-C) or equivalent, and often GCSE Maths (A-C). Some universities may ask for three A levels, often at specified grades. Relevant A level subjects include Physics, Maths and Art and Design.

Two-year HND (Higher National Diploma) courses in Engineering are also available. Entry is with 1-2 A levels and GCSE English (A-C) or equivalent, and sometimes GCSE Maths (A-C).

Postgraduate courses in vehicle design are also available.

What can I earn?

  • Junior vehicle designers can expect to earn around £18,000 - £22,000 per year.
  • With more experience, salaries can rise to between £25,000 and £35,000 per year.
  • Very experienced vehicle designers can earn between £45,000 and £55,000 per year and sometimes more.

Salaries may be higher in London.


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