Driven by ambition

Could you take an idea from drawing board to test track? Simon Walsh talked to Dale Harrow from the Royal College of Art's vehicle design department
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They show you're successful in your business, proclaim you a devoted spouse and parent, or a young rebel, or a solid, dependable sort, or a bit of maverick; and just look at the spoilers on that one.

Just as the clothes we choose to wear and expect to be physically comfortable in are a statement of how we wish to be perceived, so it is with the cars we choose to drive.

That's why it is not only a car's performance that determines how it sells, but also the look and the feel of it, both inside and out; which is why, for a graduate with a passion for cars and the things that make them stand out from other cars, a post-graduate degree in vehicle design can lead to a rewarding and well-paid career.

Dale Harrow, deputy course director at the department of vehicle design at London's Royal College of Art, offers this overview of a career in vehicle design and the graduates most likely to be attracted to it.

"Most of the graduates enrolling will have been interested in car design from an early age. Maybe they were fascinated by cars, and then come to look for an opportunity to become involved professionally.

"We're not teaching people to specify engineering components, or create the precise type of engine or the precise type of fuel, however, because they will invariably end up being team players, working with a team of engineers. It's very important that they can hold their own in their discipline, and then learn to work with the other disciplines.

"While a lot of students on the course will have been through some model of technical training where the outcomes are fairly tangible from the beginning, what we try and do here is have people take on a high degree of risk in their projects. We want them not to know what the end object will be until they have actually gone through the process of research, developing it and designing it.

"This can take many forms. It could be looking at the social market the vehicle is intended to appeal to, or at technical developments. More often it is to do with finding a visual language for the product. They would develop what we call here a visual thesis. This would be a series of images and development drawings eventually leading to a product.

"For example, if you are designing a German car, what qualities would you ex pect a German car to have, and how do you reflect that in the design?

"We do projects here that are basically about trying to identify characteristics and then putting them into a vehicle so it's distinctive, but in a subliminal way.

"If someone was designing, say, a Japanese car, they might look at Samurai warriors' outfits as an inspiration for the way that the forms on the surface of the car or its interior components might be developed. The overall feeling of the object may have a Japanese feel but in quite a subtle way. It wouldn't be just a matter of taking a samurai helmet and putting wheels on it."

While the 34 students currently on the RCA's course between them represent 15 nationalities, the experience of studying in such a multi-cultural mix is in itself an important part of learning about car design in the global market. Dale Harrow explains why.

"We could find a South Korean designer here studying in London and then going off to work for a French company designing cars for an Italian market. So, it's very important that they are able to grasp the cultural and social implications of their design work. This is what we try to involve in the course.

"Within one large corporation you can often find yourself being transferred to different part of the world. If you take a company like Volkswagen- Audi, it has studios in Spain and Germany. Within Europe, most of the Japanese manufacturers are represented in satellite studios, and at Ford you could find yourself working in Basildon or in the US.

"People tend to re-locate overseas for two-to-three years, because most will follow the programme for producing a new car through from conception to production, which involves a couple of years at minimum.

"Within the studios most of the language used is English, so you can go and work in a German studio and it would be exactly the same as working in an English studio - a multinational mix of colleagues, among whom the first language is usually English."

While traditionally the car has had predominantly masculine associations, this is now changing. Says Harrow: "For about four years we have started getting female graduates on the course and we only take people strictly on merit; we don't have a proactive campaign to take on female graduates.

"I think what's changing is that more people are becoming aware of the option of a career in design at a much earlier age. Consequently, there are more women studying such disciplines as product design and engineering who are in turn starting to see the possibilities of a career within automotive design."

Salaries in car design are not ungenerous, but can vary country to country. While a junior designer might earn pounds 25,000 a year in the UK, his or her counterpart in Germany might earn up to pounds 45,000.

Further up the scale, according to Harrow, a director of design could expect to earn up to pounds 130,000.

Candidates wishing to enrol on the RCA vehicle design course submit applications in January, followed by a portfolio in February. A short- list is gathered from the portfolios, and interviews are conducted and places offered to successful applicants in April, to commence studies in September.

Tuition fees are in the region of pounds 3,700 for EEC nationals, or pounds 15,000 for students outside the EU. However, there is the possibility of acquiring scholarships or bursaries from car companies to help towards tuition fees.