Hands-on education for tomorrow's auto designers

Inside a sparkling, $9 million, steel-and-glass structure overlooking the San Gabriel Mountains, 15 design students from various parts of the globe are hard at work on a project for the United States government.

The study, financed by a $25,000 grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), will focus on such things as ''good visibility'' for the operator of a car, says Keith Teter, chairman of the industrial-design department at the Art Center College of Design here. Among the goals: easier-to-locate controls and instrumentation.

Come January, the students - who hail from such diverse points as Florida, Taiwan, West Germany, and, of course, California - will deliver the results of their 14-week study to the federal government. And whether or not their findings become regulations, the project has provided valuable hands-on experience for students who aspire to put their mark on what the world drives over the next 30 or 40 years.

There's little doubt that students from Art Center College of Design can leave such a mark. About half of all the car designers in Detroit are graduates of the school; other Art Center-trained professionals pepper the design staffs of European carmakers.

Besides Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, and American Motors, Citroen, Renault , Saab, Volkswagen, Volvo, Honda, and Toyota have all sponsored advanced student assignments at the school.

And who are the best students? You may have already guessed.

''The Oriental students generally are among our most talented and hardest-working people on campus,'' declares Donald Kubly, president and director of the school since 1969. The school's largest active alumni chapter, in fact, is in Tokyo. ''We have designers in every auto company in Japan, and in most cases the head designers are graduates of the Art Center College of Design.''

There is no mystery about why this is so. The Japanese recognize that their products have to be sold in the world market and not just in Japan, and they bring young people along with this in mind. Illustrative of this, the latest edition of Japan's Vision magazine is devoted entirely to global design.

''When I visited with Mitsubishi's research-and-development group in Okazaki during a term break not long ago,'' says Mr. Teter, ''right there on a bulletin board was the Art Center newsletter.''

The practical thrust of the NHTSA study is typical of the projects undertaken by Art Center students. The now-prestigious design school was started 54 years ago by Edward Adams, a New York commercial art director who fled west for rest and inspiration. Then and now, says Mr. Kubly, a former art director himself, ''the whole premise was that dilettantes should not apply.''

Teter, who spent 12 years with Ford Motor Company in Detroit before taking over the Art Center's industrial-design department in 1969, puts it this way: ''We demand good, workable design, and not the far-out shapes that have no practicality or merit for the road.''

Designers nurtured here occasionally opt for a job in Europe rather than Detroit. There's a good reason for that, says Kubly. ''In Europe the designer has much more responsibility to not only conceive the solution, but then to follow that solution all the way through the process. It really is a one-designer car, whereas in Detroit it's often an amalgamation of many people, so that by the time it is finalized it is nobody's car.''

Inside the school's gleaming facilities are 1,200 full-time students, about 200 of whom are enrolled in the industrial-design department. There are also 200 full- and part-time instructors.

The transportation-design program, which includes automobiles, is part of the industrial-design department. The school also offers programs in communications design (advertising), illustration, fine arts, photography and film, and industrial design.

The Art Center College of Design has three terms a year. A student can get a BS or BA degree in 2 years and 8 months. About two-thirds of all entering students graduate.

The training is intensive. Students go to class and work in the design studios from early morning till night. A majority, upon entering, have already had from one to three years of college, and a quarter of them have bachelor's degrees.

While the school may have its critics, it's hard to find them. Gerald P. Hirshberg, director of Nissan Design International in nearby San Diego, makes one point, however. ''I think the Art Center has a tremendous strength, but there is also the danger of too many people from one resource, and that begins to affect the school as well.''

On the positive side, he observes: ''There is something rather refreshing from mixing people from a lot of different places - even students who have done only one car in their life before they come to a design firm.''

Even so, the Art Center School of Design, in looking ahead, will open an affiliated European campus, its first, near Vevey, Switzerland, in October of 1986. What the school hopes to achieve is a uniquely international perspective for design education.

Some observers might say that already exists, right here in Pasadena.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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