Automotive Designer Careers: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of an automotive design career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a automotive designer is right for you.
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An Automotive Design Career: Pros and Cons

Automotive designers come up with ideas for overall car designs or specific components within an automobile's structure. Read on to get a greater sense of the pros and cons for this profession so you can see if becoming an automotive designer would be a good career fit for you.

Pros of an Automotive Design Career
Strong salary (roughly $67,000 mean annual earnings for all commercial and industrial designers)*
Allows for regular creative output*
Able to design valuable products and features for practical use*
Necessary computer training and portfolio-building are already part of bachelor's degree program curriculum*

Cons of an Automotive Design Career
Mediocre job growth (4% increase between 2012-2022 for industrial designers, slower than average for all occupations)*
Relies on creativity - can be challenging when inspiration is lacking*
Increasing numbers of designers pursue graduate studies in business to gain a competitive edge*
Independent or contract designers must regularly seek out new work projects*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Information

Job Description

As an automotive designer, you'll brainstorm ideas for overall car designs or specific components within an automobile's structure. You'll attempt to fuse principles of art, engineering and business together to create items that are aesthetically pleasing, functional and marketable. As you imagine different designs, you'll want to create methods for both constructing and testing ideas to make sure they are practical.

Your creative process will be unique to you, but you'll certainly want to regularly conduct research related to improvements in automotive design and then sketch out various concepts and blueprints for presentation. Computers will play a major role since you need to be highly familiar with computer-aided design (CAD) software, which will help you make changes quickly and provide you with the ability to present various iterations of your designs as you showcase them. You'll likely also be involved with looking over the necessary costs and materials to make a design happen once it's ready to be made.

Salary Info

According to the BLS, commercial and industrial designers earned a mean annual salary of roughly $67,000 as of May 2014. Job growth for industrial designers in general is expected to see a four percent increase between 2012 and 2022, which is a slower than average growth rate for all occupations. Automotive designers could see somewhat greater growth than this due to the current emphasis placed on developing electric, hybrid and generally more fuel-efficient vehicles.

What are the Requirements?

In order to become an automotive designer, you'll most likely need to complete a bachelor's degree program related to industrial design, mechanical engineering or automotive design. Through programs like these, you'll gain insight into drafting and design software, manufacturing processes and sketching. Several course examples from an automotive design curriculum include visual fundamentals, human factors and design psychology, as well as mobility, chassis, engine and transmission design courses. More general industrial design programs may also include training in the prototyping process and let you use more advanced instruments like rapid prototyping and laser cutting.

Design programs like these typically require students to spend time working in a design studio, creating their own designs. During this time, you have the opportunity to build a portfolio of your automotive designs. Building a portfolio of your best designs will be crucial to your eventual employment search. As you construct and present your designs, you'll need to develop a strong team outlook, accepting suggestions and critiques of your work as you collaborate with others.

What Are Employers Searching For?

A strong portfolio along with significant experience with CAD modeling and design software is highly prized in the eyes of employers. Here are some actual jobs postings for automotive designers from May 2012.

  • A large automotive manufacturer in Auburn Hills, MI is seeking an automotive product designer with a bachelor's degree related to fine arts, industrial design or automotive design, at least one year of experience and knowledge of modern industrial design software.
  • A manufacturer of automotive parts and accessories in Phoenix, AZ is looking for an automotive designer with 1-2 years of experience, some college coursework completed and strong computer skills, including an understanding of CAD modeling and 3-D printing.
  • An electric vehicles manufacturer in Memphis, TN is searching for a senior mechanical designer with 3-5 years of automotive experience, a bachelor's degree and strong familiarity with CAD modeling.
  • An automotive engineering company in Union City, IN is seeking an automotive designer with a bachelor's degree and CAD modeling experience to collaborate with other engineers in developing ideas for manufactured automotive products.

How To Stand Out in the Field

Since this field thrives on creativity, you'll want to build the strongest and most diverse portfolio possible in order to have your most compelling work ready to present to employers at all times. You'll also want to find the best workspace, tools and time of day with which you can do your most inspired and productive work. The stronger your creative output, the greater control of your career you'll likely have.

In addition, you may want to consider pursuing education beyond a bachelor's degree. Since you're designing specifically for commercial products, you could benefit from graduate-level studies in business (such as an MBA program). This would help you understand not only the principles of design but also how they correlate with an organization's overall marketplace strategy.

Alternative Career Paths


Perhaps you're not as interested or skilled in the actual work of design but think you would excel at planning and implementing the designs of others. You could consider becoming a drafter, someone who takes designs and converts them into plans and technical drawings needed to begin actual production. You would, however, make somewhat less money (roughly $49,000 median annual salary for mechanical drafters, according to the BLS) and experience a decreased job outlook (only six percent growth between 2010 and 2020).

Automotive Technician

If you'd simply like to have a career in the automotive industry but not in as advanced a role, you might look into becoming an automotive service technician. You would not earn as much money (around $36,000 median annual earnings, according to the BLS) but you would have the opportunity to inspect and maintain a variety of vehicles on a daily basis. And, if entrepreneurship interests you, the BLS reports that about 18% of automotive technicians are self-employed.

Graphic Designer

If you'd like to focus more on design for artistic and presentation purposes and less on industrial applications, you could consider becoming a graphic designer. The BLS reported that the median annual salary of graphic designers was about $44,000 with job growth progressing at 13% (about as fast as average for all fields).

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