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Automotive Designers


Although industrial design as a separate and unique profession did not develop in the United States until the 1920s, it has its origins in colonial America and the Industrial Revolution. When colonists were faced with having to make their own products rather than relying on imported goods, they learned to modify existing objects and create new ones. As the advent of the Industrial Revolution drew near, interest in machinery and industry increased.

The Industrial Revolution brought about the mass production of objects and increased machine manufacturing. As production capabilities grew, a group of entrepreneurs, inventors, and designers emerged. Together, these individuals determined products that could be mass produced and figured out ways to manufacture them.

In the early 1900s, manufactured products—including the Model T, the first mass-produced automobile—were designed to be functional, utilitarian, and easily produced by machines or assembly line workers. Little attention was paid to aesthetics.

Once the novelty of the early automobile began to wear off, consumers grew increasingly dissatisfied with the design and aesthetic appeal of these vehicles. Automobile manufacturers did not initially respond to these complaints. For example, Henry Ford continued to manufacture only one style of car, the Model T, despite criticism that it looked like a tin can. Ford was unconcerned because he sold more cars than anyone else. When General Motors started selling its attractive Chevrolet in 1926, and it outsold the Model T, Ford finally recognized the importance of styling and design.

Advertising convincingly demonstrated the importance of design. Those products with artistic features sold better, and manufacturers realized that design did play an important role both in marketing and manufacturing. By 1927, automotive manufacturers were hiring people solely to advise them on design features. Industrial design came to represent a new profession: The practice of using aesthetic design features to create manufactured goods that were economical, served a specific purpose, and satisfied the psychological needs of consumers. One of the most famous early designers was Harley Earl, who designed the 1927 Cadillac LaSalle, the first car designed by a stylist. In that same year, Earl founded General Motor's Art and Color Department (which became the Styling Section in 1937). He is best known, according to the Industrial Designers Society of America, for creating "dozens of innovative designs including the hardtop convertible, wrap-around windshields, two-tone paint, heavy chrome plating, and tailfins."

In the following decades, automotive manufacturers paid more attention to style and design in an effort to make their products stand out in the marketplace. They began to hire in-house designers and, following the lead of General Motors, established their own design departments. Today, automotive designers play a major role in both designing new automobiles and other vehicles (motorcycles, recreation vehicles, buses, trucks, coaches, and vans) and determining which models may be successful in the marketplace.

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