By Stephanie Vozza
In 2005, General Motors Chairman of GM North America Bob Lutz joined other auto execs at Lawrence Technological University seeking a program that could integrate automotive design and engineering. The school’s chancellor, Dr. Lewis Walker, was ready to talk.
Two years later, the university’s transportation design program was launched, using the school’s “theory and practice” approach to learning. Keith Nagara, an alumnus who had worked on advanced concepts in the design studios of Chrysler, Jeep and Ford Motor Co., was tapped to write the curriculum.
Today, the program — which has been recognized by designschools.com as one of the country’s top eight automotive design programs — draws students from around the world.
“The group is very diverse and very talented,” says Nagara, who serves as program director. “Only 30 to 40 percent are from Michigan. We have students from Mexico, Europe, Korea, India, Ethiopia, Slovenia and Russia,” he says.
Merging Left And Right Brain Talent
The transportation design program blends creative design talent with a comprehensive understanding of automotive technology concepts. As a bachelor of science degree, there is a strong emphasis on engineering and technology, but artistic ability and a passion for creating is vital. Students are required to submit a portfolio to enter the program.
“We’ve been able to recruit students who are creative and highly intelligent with an ability to understand the compound complexity this program requires,” says Nagara. “We look for a balance of artist and scientist — an inventor who utilizes the left and right side of their brain and thinks in the abstract. We require students to create beautiful designs that also function.”
Incoming freshmen begin the program by studying vehicle architecture, body structure, interiors, chassis and powertrain — the components that make up the overall “package” of a vehicle. The second year provides an in-depth look at vehicle architecture, with sophomores introduced to “futuring,” the process of evolving a vehicle by removing certain constraints. Juniors study human factors such as ergonomics and are introduced to interior design.
“Many don’t have a strong interest in interiors at first, but fall in love with it and excel in that area,” Nagara says. “We get a lot of interest from companies for our students who choose interior design because the majority of design schools focus on exteriors.”
The program’s seniors study manufacturing processes and rapid prototyping technologies, completing a thesis project that deals with both design and engineering concepts and integrates exterior and interior design through a holistic approach.
Each year, 12 students enter the program directly from high school, and Nagara says there are currently no plans to increase this number. “We want to retain the high quality we have,” he says. “We never want to grow the program by watering down standards. We’re also constrained by facilities and funding. Once we admit the 12 best, we move to a wait list.”
A Vision For Success
One of the qualities Nagara looks for is vision. “This is not just drawing pretty pictures. Students understand how to sketch and draw and understand engineering and packaging. They also need to understand branding.” He points to a Jaguar’s branding as “voluptuous and sexy. It wouldn’t have the same lines as a Lamborghini, which is branded around performance and speed. One would have soft lines, the other stealthy, hard angles,” he says. “What makes a successful designer is someone who understands the balance of design, engineering, marketing and branding.”
Students participate in real-world projects and present designs to industry professionals. Nagara says he has solicitations from companies all over the world with requests for his students to work on their projects. Suitors include Ford, Lincoln, Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep, GM, Buick, Chevrolet, Nissan, Visteon, Lear, Black & Decker and Adidas.
“Companies are pleasantly surprised at the level of creativity,” says Nagara. “Through the projects, we become an extension of their company, and we often generate ideas they weren’t necessarily expecting. That’s because students don’t have the challenges and constraints that often exist inside corporations.”
And the designs are winning awards, including first place in the design competition at Formula Zero, an international racing series for zero-emission, hydrogen fuel-cell-powered go-karts, and second and third place in the 2008 SABIC Innovative Plastics Car Design Contest.
The high level of work has given Lawrence Tech opportunities for funding. Companies can sponsor a class’ studio from freshman through senior years. This year, Ford is sponsoring the senior class; Lear and Buick are sponsoring juniors; Chevrolet is sponsoring sophomores, with students redesigning the new Volt; and freshmen are being sponsored by Ford and Industrial Warrior Sports.
In addition to class and project work, students serve internships at domestic and European companies.
“Our students are heavily recruited,” says Nagara. “We’ve had two graduating classes, both with 100 percent placement. They’ve done apprenticeships at companies such as Peugeot, Mercedes and Volkswagen, as well as GM, Ford and Chrysler.”
First In Class
The program graduated its inaugural class in 2011, and Taylor Manuilow was one of those graduates.
“I was really interested in pursuing a design career, but I didn’t want to go to a traditional art school,” she says. “I’ve got a strong background in math and science and was looking for a place that let me combine all of my interests.”
Through the program, Manuilow had internships at Peugeot in Paris and Chrysler in Auburn Hills, and was hired as a creative designer by General Motors in June 2012.
“More than anything, Lawrence Tech prepared me for a career in the working world,” she says. “We took classes on leadership and professional practices, such as networking. Many other design schools don’t even touch on those things. We had the opportunity to practice presenting our work to industry professionals on an almost weekly basis, and we got to attend a ton of events and parties to practice our networking.”
Gregor Dular graduated from the program in April 2012. While a student, he served two internships, one at GM in Detroit and another at Volkswagen in Germany, and was hired as an interior designer at Volkswagen upon graduation. He says he chose Lawrence Tech for its unique program and believes it gave him an edge while interviewing for a full-time job.
“What’s different about this program is that we learn from current professionals from a wide range of departments, such as rapid prototyping, manufacturing, electric and alternative propulsion engines, ergonomics and more,” he says. “One of the most interesting things I learned is how much effort is put into every little detail, every line. It’s sad that often the customer doesn’t notice or realize the amount of work put into everything.”
But, while the customer may not notice all the attention to detail, auto companies throughout the world can’t ignore the talented students coming out of LTU’s transportation design program.