Transportation design students learn emerging mobility skills here in Detroit

Ever since he was a young boy, Deven Khatri has always had a passion for cars. He studied transportation design back home in India and landed a job after graduation working on an urban mobility solution to address the high rate of motorcycle deaths due to accidents. Motorcycles are a popular mode of transportation and with many Indians not wearing seat belts or helmets, Khatri says his company developed a vehicle to keep the riders safe.

After a few years he decided it was time to head to the United States to pursue a master’s degree in transportation design.

“Because cars are my passion I had to come to the only city that offers me that holistically,” he says.

He applied to several schools, including one in California where he received an acceptance offer, but he ultimately decided to go to the College for Creative Studies (CCS). Now almost done with his first year of studies, he’s glad he made the choice to come to Detroit. He says schools more or less offer the same educational tools, but CCS has introduced him to a few new software programs such as Zbrush, which is used by animators who make films.

“It’s pretty interesting because CCS really broadens our horizons,” he says.

Khatri is among scores of international students in the relatively new MFA program in Transportation Design. When he graduates he wants to stay in the U.S. and ideally work for an original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

“It’s important to use your education as a gateway to settling down in a country, or looking for work in the country you want to settle down in, so for me, I really want to settle down in the States,” he says.

As more automakers shift from being car companies to mobility companies, transportation design education is evolving to address that. And Detroit is the place to do it.

“Detroit is making the future of mobility right here,” says Paul Snyder, the Paul & Helen Farago Chair of Transportation Design at CCS. “I think there’s a lot of (work in mobility) happening in China … (and) in Germany. We’re getting a lot of Asian students coming here to learn how to do that and taking that technology or that information back to China or Korea because it’s just not as available there yet in terms of the level of sophisticated industry knowledge. Detroit’s the best place to do it still.”

Education Evolves

At CCS, mobility design is one of three areas of specialization in addition to automotive design and vehicle design. Students today studying transportation design need to know so much more before they graduate, says Snyder, who is a class of 1987 alumnus of the school.

Students are still studying the standard content from the past 30 to 40 years, but on top of that, transportation design education today addresses the changing needs of the users, he says.

CCS’ mobility classes also focus a lot more on research.

“The kind of aptitude that students need to succeed in mobility is a little bit different than the aptitude they need to succeed for, let’s say, just exterior design. And really understanding who the user is is much more critical. And a lot of the OEMs like Ford, for example, and General Motors, they’re transitioning into being mobility companies,” he says.

There’s a personal connection between the person and the product, says Keith Nagara, college professor and director of the bachelor’s programs in industrial design and transportation design at Lawrence Technological University.

In addition to providing the skills necessary to use typical tools and computer-aided industrial design software like Alias, modern transportation design education has become much broader at schools like CCS and LTU, much like the field of mobility itself.

Snyder says students are touching on deep ethnographic research as well as biology in a class called Science and Technology. The school brings in specialists for guest lecturers to explore anthropology.

At the master’s level, the school has incorporated mobility “into everything we do,” while still “100 percent taking on the issues in the craft of designing vehicles,” says Raphael Zammit, chair of the MFA Transportation Design program at CCS.

Master’s students also partner up with CCS’ other grad programs. This collaboration on a curriculum level is a major advantage, Zammit says.

CCS brings in companies to sponsor projects. Students work in the studio where they design and build according to a brief.

“The briefs that companies come up with for sponsored projects are extremely indicative of their advanced research and development plan,” Snyder says. “When I arrived here nobody was doing mobility-sponsored projects.”

At LTU, the bachelor’s program was established in 2007 after auto executives asked the university to start up a design program that integrated design, engineering, and technology into the curriculum, Nagara says.

Clay modeling and CAD start freshman year, Nagara says. Students already come to LTU with strong drawing skills that they have to prove in a portfolio as part of the application process.

“We’re probably the only program that basically just does clay modeling in the first year,” Nagara says. “Typically clay modeling with a lot of different programs is done in maybe sophomore year or senior year. We do it only for one semester in the freshman year.”

Hands-on modeling first, digital design second

Clay modeling dates back to at least the 1930s. Sketches are the starting point for the design process, and the next step is to take that drawing into a clay model. With all of the software and technology today, clay modeling may seem like an antiquated educational tool.

“Clay modeling is a traditional form of design, which may seem to be outdated for today’s high-tech world of computer simulation programs. However, companies invest millions of dollars into a vehicle program, and clay still provides the closest form to the physical reality that provides designers and engineers the true perspective of a vehicle.

This is something that no software today can completely provide,” says Jim Carlson, an engineering and technology professor and digital sculptor program adviser at Macomb Community College, which is the only community college in Michigan that offers a digital sculpting program.

Before a Macomb digital sculpting student begins courses using software, they learn “manual” techniques, Carlson says. “The content of our classes range from orthographic drawings, rendering, and lighting techniques. Our belief is to have the foundation of ‘manual’ knowledge before the students use any software,” Carlson says.

Clay modeling still plays a role in the design process, but design technology is evolving.

“I think we’re getting to the point where you can also walk around a property that’s in virtual reality or holograms,” Nagara says. “But the technology has to be equal to the physical property of what it is today. We’re not just there yet but it’s getting very close.”
Mobility design questions asked

Mobility is not just a transportation design issue but a social issue, Zammit says.
“It’s going to change our lives in the way cellphones have changed our lives,” he says.

Students research and explore what the world will look like in 10 years, Nagara says. The current world population tops 7 billion and is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2020; by 2050 there could be nearly 10 billion, according to the U.N. That poses a lot of questions for the transportation design student who must find the answers.

“What does that really mean for design?” Nagara says. “What’s happening for food or buildings? What does that mean for mobility as people are moving more into urban centers? How does transportation and the transportation product change? What does it look like? Is it still private? Does it become more public? (In cities like) L.A. they’re beginning to reject even public transportation … and so they’re moving into products and services like Uber.”

When Snyder returned to Detroit from L.A., where he was working as a designer at Honda, “mobility was like a bad word because it foresaw doom for the traditional automotive industry,” he says. But that’s changing.

“It’s a paradigm shift. And you know it may be painful for some and it may be revelatory for others. But one thing’s for sure: There will be something to fit everybody’s needs and wants and different tastes they might have. … Everybody is going to have to embrace this or risk becoming obsolete.”

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Photos by Nick Hagen