The Problem With Design Academies

Matteo Licata presents an acerbic critique of how automotive design is being taught. 

Not a car…  (c) BMW Group

Looking back at my ten-year stint as a designer and my various collaborations with academies, I’ve come to realize just how much has gone wrong in how the discipline is taught. Have you tried to Google “Behance Car Design Sketch” lately? Please open a new tab and do it. Look carefully at these sketches: do you see realistic, well-detailed wheels, can you see any suspension clearance? Do you see a usable glass area? I bet you don’t.

What you will see are out-of-proportion, often even out of perspective drawings with bright colours, with massive wheels whose presence is only suggested. They are all fighting for your attention, yet they all look the same. It seems to me that we have been fetishizing sketching to a point where we have lost sight of what matters, especially in the world of the design academy.

Over the past thirty years, many automobile design courses have popped up in various locations all over the globe, all seemingly with the same goal: to separate rich kids’ families from an often atrociously big chunk of their cash, in exchange for the tuition needed to enter the field. Except that’s not what happens, in most cases.

Also not a car…  (c) Top Speed

The proliferation of for-profit design schools is flooding the market with young hopefuls who can sketch but nevertheless know nothing of how to design a vehicle. The result? The market value of “junior designers” has been driven below zero, as supply often far outstrips demand.

Such a situation badly affects even seasoned professionals, if for some reason they lose their gig: there simply are too few places available, and many companies actually prefer to recruit less qualified, younger staff, because it’s cheaper. This is not unique to the automotive design field though, and it’s not the worst part.

I’ve seen plenty of talented design students, young designers… And even many supposedly “senior” ones, blissfully ignoring fundamental manufacturing realities: I’ve seen 1:1 scale “epowood” (rigid resin material used to make vehicle mock-ups) models milled with bonnets that were unfeasible, who couldn’t place shut-lines properly according to conventional production technology and have never seen a technical drawing and a typical section. Once, and this is one I’ll never forget, I’ve “taught” a supposedly experienced colleague how to calculate the diameter of a tyre.

Some “typical sections” of the 1977-85 Alfa Romeo Giulietta bodyshell (c) FCA Group

I’d love to say I’ve been immune to mistakes thanks to my superior knowledge… But it would be a lie: I’ve learned my lessons the hard way too. Which is fine and a part of life, but how come that I graduated without ever seeing how a milling machine works?

In my view, the situation has become so bad that it will take years to fix, as first the amount of youngsters that each year enrol to transportation design courses must somehow drop sharply… Which is not going to happen overnight. Then the academies should carefully select only a handful of them, the most motivated and enthusiastic, the ones with gasoline flowing in their veins, to paraphrase the great Bill Mitchell.

Speaking of academies… There simply are too many of those, as you can see for yourself here. The world doesn’t need that many: one in the USA (California or Michigan), one in Europe (France or Germany), and one in China because that’s where the present is and the future will be.

This is a car… 1974 Ital Design render (c)

That’s as many as there should be: call me ruthless, but it’s reality that’s harsh, even if many prefer to delude themselves.

Those few academies would then have to teach ‘proper’ five year degrees that include everything that a car designer will likely encounter on the job, not simply sketching and digital modelling: a car designer should be able to tackle an engineer in a productive work conversation from day one.

Is it difficult? Yes it is. But nothing that’s worthwhile is easy…

Author: Matteo Licata

I've been obsessed with cars for as long as I can remember, and I started drawing them the very moment I could hold a pencil in my hand. Being born in 1980s Turin, it wasn't long before I realized there were people actually drawing cars for a living: I remember I had a Giugiaro Design school diary, sometime in the late 80s, and every month there was a glossy picture of some of his concept cars: Aspid, Asgard, Capsula, Machimoto... From then on, my path was set: I was going to be a "car designer", come hell or high water, and have now been living the dream for about ten years. As an AlfaRomeo historian, I'm an expert of the post-war years of the Marque, about which I've so far published two books, with more to come. Find out more at

11 thoughts on “The Problem With Design Academies”

  1. Greath article Matteo, and I can’t agree more.

    And what it’s worst, this lack of common sense and functionality translates on absolutelly weird car philosophies and car designs.

    1. Whilst I appreciate your perspective, you undermine your own argument by saying that older, more experienced designers are being replaced by younger ones – surely this means the car companies value the naivety of the new guys? Coming from a design field outside automotive, we really value the inexperience, as they are the ones that will push things forward. If you already know all there is to know, you’ll never move things on or come up with anything new. Designing is about what comes next, what can’t be manufactured YET.

  2. Having been through an automotive MA I can agree with Matteo. I was lucky to be able to leverage my mediocre skills into something passing a career in the industry but I have learned vastly more afterwards than in it.
    The matter of fetishising sketching is acute. In part the process is a function of the design part of development atrophying. We know what a car does which means the variation comes from often meaningless styling. That´s why the designers exaggerate wheels and minimise windows – they know what these things done; it´s taken for granted the shape will be stretched back over a realistic package. These sketches only convey mood and nuance. The advent of CAD means realistic renderings are obsolete – and so the drawing is freed of a strong need to be realistic.
    The design education generally is woefully lacking in presentation of deeper design-philosophical matters and I imagine semantics and topology are not discussed. In a sense, what ought to be a process of discovering the needs of the user and exploring different ideas about design solutions has become ritualised.

  3. Matteo’s piece absolutely nails the problem. It’s similar to that which afflicts art colleges, where students are, apparently, no longer required to develop competencies in draughtmanship, figurative drawing, perspective etc. It’s now all about the idea: you can even get someone else to do the work! (e.g. Damien Hirst’s jeweller skull)

    I’ve spent the past three weeks in large part enjoying the mastery of artists such as Copley and Singer Sargent, while being left unmoved and rather depressed by much that passes for contempory art.

  4. Compare and contrast with these wonderful Project Toni (Ford Sierra) concept sketches by Harm Lagaay, Hulmuth Schraeder and Gert Hohenester (taken forward, bottom right) and from 1977:,h_668,fp_0.50_0.50,q_90/d0b2fe_57895d754174425a8c346c0e0161ae12~mv2_d_4267_4123_s_4_2.jpeg

    (From the fabulous-looking “The Cars You Always Promised Yourself” book

  5. “I’ve seen plenty of talented design students, young designers… And even many supposedly “senior” ones, blissfully ignoring fundamental manufacturing realities: …”

    Seems like an increasingly common phenomenon across many fields, where the “most educated generation ever” hasn’t learned or been taught the basics.

  6. Oh yes, this is so on the money! Giving people a “Professional” qualification based on doodles is insane. You may or may not wish to reread this without my quotation marks.
    I would also say that these aren’t “Proper” sketches. I was taught draughtmanship including the difference between perspective and orthographic projections and elevations [The Tipo 116 Guilietta drawing is perspective the Ital drawing has front back and side elevations, don’tyaknow] at school. I wonder if a graduate from a motor vehicle design course at the Former-Polytechnic-of-Who-Knows-Where would know the difference? This wasn’t the 1950’s era or a high-faluting accademy; I passed my GCSE in the distinctly humble Craft, Design and Realisation in 1994. The graphics part was all paper and pencils, no CAD applications or even fancy marker pens.
    I’ve long understood that management have to authorise design schemes based on these whimsical sketches, so they are setting themselves up for inevitable dissapointment when the 20″ alloy’d, ultra low profile tyre’d swept back machine has to gradually mature into a dumpy 13″ wheeled hatch back with an “Aggressive” gargoyle face as compensation. However I’d never have believed that a car could get to the full size model stage with serious design flaws.
    The problem with designers not letting reality get in the way of their bright ideas isn’t new though. The first sketches for what became the S.A.A.B 99- presumably drawn with the Sixten Sason’s own fair hand- show a ridiculously long front overhang. Early renderings of the BL 18-22 series are bizarrely wide. The finished cars were accomplished designs by talented designers though, the early oddities just people thinking aloud.

  7. A large can of worms has been opened.
    The design « process » in car companies is in terminal decline.
    This decline will be difficult to halt. The school system is but part of the illness.
    It would be aposite to ask the question « Why ? »
    The fault is not that of the schools. True, the education that is paid so much for is trite in its scope, design is indeed reduced to a mere illustration competition. Why? Because the current generation of Design management requires it to be so.
    Lower cost ideation is part of the attraction to the current cabal of chiefs. The meteoric rise to the top of the ranks is not made by chaps who can get to grips with the minutiae of car building. Minions exist for that task.
    My thirty years in the industry have taught me much, and I have become a professional. I won’t be writing any books, and I try not to lapse into nostalgic wallowing, harking back to the time when a drawing started with the fear of the A2 sheet of paper before me, pristine and white, waiting to be defiled by my striving to be memorable.
    Back then that shit mattered. Making a mark to make a mark. Plus ça change..
    The attention span of management is inversely proportional to its ambition. A young designer who knows little is useful for that very paucity of knowledge. Malleable, easily led. A little knowledge is the beginning of an end of one kind or another. Until then, sketch, sketch, sketch.
    The fact is, and always has been that the hottest sketches by the hungriest monkeys will be selected. That you can engineer said sketch for production straight out of the box is not necessarily what is required of you.
    Whether or not you can.
    And as for the sketches themselves?
    The act of drawing on paper with no possibility to « undo » a mistake focuses the mind.

  8. I myself graduated from one such ‘academy’. It is big business. The more you pay, the less they care. It’s almost impossible to fail the exams. The usefulness of classes depended heavily on the teacher. By fortune we had a magnificent guy for Photoshop. But also he could do only so much… In the end everyone got a job no matter what. Before car design, I studied industrial design for 5 years in a serious university. The difference was night and day. In car design world, all that matters is emotion and surprise. It’s not unlike the Eurovision Song contest: cartoonish exaggeration is often rewarded.

  9. That BMW at the top of the piece has been bugging me as I was sure I’d seen it before:

  10. Really interesting topic !
    Btw, the BMW sketch you are showing is one of the sketches for the BMW X5/X6 done by Pierre Leclerc who is today head of design at Citroen ..
    Part of the problem as well is that OEMs only share the sexy exaggerated sketches on press releases, and they never share the “real” sketches that are done for the modelers to turn the sketch into reality.
    Which leads the school to teach their students to do the same and only put the most attractive sketches, whereas sometimes showing you understand the process is as important !

    However as our society and car culture evolves and everything is uncertain, OEMs need to think about their future strategy, and that is why they need young designers that have more ideas and creative mindsets rather than realistic sketchers.
    I have been very lucky to graduate in a top french school that didn’t teach me how to draw, but taught me how to think!
    The way the process works today is young designers propose fresh themes that senior designers turn into reality !

    Technology will soon redefine the way products are created, and just as photoshop erased the good old marker/pastel/charcoal sketch, VR will erase 2D drawings. In the end, we are not working for our egos but to create desire and make people dream !

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