FOR Japanese automaker Toyota, students in one classroom translate the emotions suggested by flowers, pea pods, sea animals - even insects - into clay models of cars.A class next door addresses "office comfort in the future" for Steelcase Inc., assembling a desk for use while lying face up, prone, kneeling, or standing. For the Kenworth Truck Company still more students are asked to "capture what it is" to be the truck driver of tomorrow - considering eating, sleeping, paperwork, changing of clothes. "These are people who hate the products of today and know they can do better," says Ron Hill, chairman of the industrial design department for the Art Center College of Design. The corporate world has dubbed the '90s as the decade of design (See story to left) and United States designers have dubbed this campus their Harvard, Yale, or Stanford. In a 1990 poll conducted by Wefler and Associates, an independent Chicago design consulting firm, 500 top design studios put the Art Center College of Design first in industrial, transportation, and graphic design by wide margins. Of 18 car design studios established in Los Angeles by the top world manufacturers, 10 are headed by Art Center grads. "Art Center produces the guaranteed quality level that professionals expect and know they are going to get," says Chuck Pelly, president of the Industrial Design Society of America. Founded in Los Angeles in 1930, the school moved to a mammoth, glass-and-steel structure on 175 acres in Pasadena in 1971. About 1,200 students follow 10 majors taught by 225 instructors who are also practicing professionals. "They allow you the luxury of being wildly creative without the constraints of commercial reality," says Richard Holbrook, a 1981 graduate. Mr. Holbrook now runs his own design studio and has won wide recognition for such products as Dacor Quintessence Cooktops and the Jasco One-control universal remote control for electronic devices. "It's the kind of break-loose attitude that is indispensable to solve design problems later," he says. "If you can't come up with new ideas, you don't belong here," says senior Paul Kirley, who in five years has designed bathroom scales, lamps, helmets, and toilets. "They can't teach creativity, but they can help you harness it and shape your ideas on a professional level." Some ideas click right away, he says, "like the guy who said it would be cool to have a motorcycle in water and invented Jet skis." Other ideas go too far, he says, like the classmate who made a car interior out of concrete. For one class project, Mr. Kirley says he has been asked to design an "Italian, high-end, avant-garde, pop culture, stylish sports car" to sell for about $50,000. "A market for that doesn't really exist," he says, though he is trying to create a cross between a Mercedes Benz and "Corvette muscle." That translates into forms borrowed from California architecture along Melrose Avenue: flowing box shapes, squares, circles, and perforated metals. Instructors here say the successful designer of tomorrow is an iconoclast, skeptic, and problem-solver rolled into one. "We can teach them how to draw, how to render, and communicate in two and three dimensions," says Marty Smith, head of product design at Art Center. "But they need innate creativity, the drive of dissatisfaction, and strong individuality. That's what design firms are after." "Emotion" is the new buzzword muscling itself into the timeworn design paradigm of form and function. But conversations here will produce no list of hot styles, trends, or new innovations beyond such vague notions as "softer lines,less linear,more organic." "This is the era of niche products and a new individualism," says instructor Andy Ogden. "There is no 'look' now - and if a trend begins to coalesce, the idea will be to break it." "The school is notorious for letting style run roughshod over function," says Nick Pugh, who graduated last year and is forming his own company to build exotic, handmade cars. "For now aerodynamic is the cliche, curvy organics are in." Mr. Pugh says the ideal designer is one who can subconsciously grasp the signature quality of the client firm and translate it into new forms. "You can't just slap a BMW grill on anything and call it a BMW." Today's budding designer juggles three sets of demands: marketers who want "bells and whistles" to drive advertising campaigns; consumers who want easier to use, safer, less-expensive or environmentally conscious products; and the designer's own standard in creating a coincidence of art and utility. Though students and instructors alike say there is no substitute for working with the materials they use to translate drawings into product prototypes - plastics, clays, metals etc. - a design-tool revolution is on the horizon. With the Alias Computer graphic software on Silicon Graphics computers in a basement classroom, students can create, render, and animate products almost as fast as the imagination can cook them up. "The computer will impact design like no other single force," says instructor Rob Hennigar. Brandishing the computer's mouse devices and menus - which he says can be mastered in about two semesters - Mr. Hennigar manipulates several viewpoints simultaneously, changing size, shape, and volume at will. He can then choose from millions of color, texture, and material combinations to render realistic photos of everything from engines to kitchens. In one short class demonstration here recently, Hennigar designed an airplane wing, manipulating length, width, and arc until it met his own aesthetic considerations. After cutting landing flaps, attaching fold-up tips, and choosing construction materials, he was ready to light and photograph his finished rendering - all on computer. Total time: 20 minutes. "Design is a complex visual language with tone, content, and vocabulary," says David Brown, president of Art Center College of Design. "We tell students that in the most brilliant and enduring of design objects you find them speaking of form, function, and emotion in even relation."