Profiles: Opening Doors to the Future

Columns From: 8/1/2008 Automotive Design & Production

As the head of the Art Center College of Design's Transportation school, Stewart Reed is having a profound effect on designs that have yet to be realized.

Doors are an apt metaphor for Stewart Reed's life as his career and vocation have been filled with those he opened for himself or for others, as well as those through which he influenced the auto industry. (See box at end of article.) As head of the Transportation Design Dept. at the Art Center College of Design (Pasadena. CA;, he now has a direct influence on the lives of the next generation of transportation designers, and is adamant about ensuring they get the broadest-and deepest-education possible. "Designers these days have to be responsible for so many more things than ever before," he says, "which means they have to be conversant with a whole range of deep topics within the engineering community that are safety- or materials- or manufacturing-related." Reed believes that designers have to become generalists: "A designer has to have a love affair with the popular culture and what people are thinking, and an understanding of what is going on in the worlds of art and science, fashion and architecture, because industrial design in general, and transportation design in particular, is at the intersection of art and technology in a way it never was before."

So to help students get a broader understanding, Reed and his colleagues have initiated a number of projects ranging from the school's Design Summit to undertaking a design project that involved BMW and its X5 SUV and computational fluid dynamics software vendor Exa Corp. ( This is in addition to continuing to encourage students to intern at both automotive OEMs and smaller companies to gain perspective and professional contacts. "The BMW-Exa project opened their eyes to what is possible as well as to how aerodynamics, like design itself, is shape-related," he says. It also caused a number of the students to question whether all vehicles will look like jelly beans if the design is controlled by aerodynamics. "I told them, 'That's the wrong question,' because the aero engineers aren't there to encumber them with constraints. They are there to help them understand areas of opportunity and what effect different shapes have on aerodynamics." The students remained unconvinced, so Reed asked them to consider the effect aerodynamics have on birds. "From pelicans to hummingbirds," he says, "each is instantly recognizable as a bird, though their details, flight characteristics, sizes, and shapes are quite different." Now they understood.

What sits behind that shape, however, is just as important. According to Reed, "We have specific 'vehicle architecture' classes that the students digest in thin slices in the early terms and thick slices in the later terms." This study area includes 3D occupant packaging, regulatory requirements, powertrain organization, vehicle structure and materials, and requires they wrap this together with demand, personality, branding, and the like "so they can see there's more to this job than just sitting there sketching shapes." By following this road map, Reed believes students will begin to understand that organizing the structure leads to great shapes, and this inspiration is not applied but comes from deep inside the individual. To inculcate this process within their consciousness, Reed teaches what he describes as, "a short, free-ranging class on Thursday afternoons where I get together with a group of younger students for two hours and try to stretch their thinking in these directions." One recent class studied how biomimicry encourages the designer to-like Leonardo da Vinci-observe the natural world and seek out answers for man-made products. "We talked about topics like artificial muscle, electro-active polymers, and BMW's GINA concept vehicle among other things," he says with eyes wide and twinkling. "But," he says, "I challenge them to defend their choices by playfully engaging them to think farther." Thus, designers of vehicles with massive C-pillars can't skirt the issue of visibility with vague references to embedded cameras and video screens any more than those whose vehicles have no cutlines can expect not to be asked whether they rely on "molecular zippers" to take their place. Often, however, the exchange goes both ways: "They laugh at my comments," Reed explains, "but I go away and think: 'Molecular zippers? That's probably possible!'"