Better Business: Should You Use a Designer For Your Next Project?

Sep 10, 2012

A high-end build requires an array of talents to turn a nebulous dream into a finished product that delights the customer and justifies the invoices that keep you in business.

For a fraction of the total build cost, a designer can turn a concept into a vision of the finished product while bringing a builder’s business to a new level of professionalism.

“Design is imagination meeting reality,” said Barry Penfound of Elyria, Ohio-based Penfound Design, who acts as a general contractor, finding shops to do subcontractor work.

“A custom car or hot rod can be the fastest, best-handling vehicle on the planet, but the first thing anyone notices is how it looks. Design can make the difference between an average car and a truly special one.”

Murray Pfaff of Pfaff Designs in Royal Oak, Michigan, likened design renderings to inexpensive insurance for the builder and car owner that ultimately saves money over the course of a build.

“A designer to a car project is like an architect to a house renovation, you need a blueprint,” he said. “The rendering visually describes what changes to the vehicle should look like and makes sure that owner, builder, fabricator and painter all have a clear understanding of the final result.”

Gary Ragle of Ragle Design in Cincinnati, Ohio, agreed.

“Working with a designer can be extremely beneficial for all builders, from the average guy building a car himself to a shop building a million-dollar Ridler [Award] contender,” said Ragle, who started Ragle Design in 2009 after designing concept cars for Mitsubishi and consulting for the auto and toy industries. “Consulting with a designer as early as possible in the build process, preferably before the build even starts, maximizes the designer’s effective contribution to the project.”

“The designer’s output serves as a master plan and establishes the look of the car that all parties involved can agree upon before any metal is cut,” he added. “In addition, having a nice rendering of the finished car on the shop wall can motivate builders as the project wears on, serving as a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Eric Peratt of Pinkee’s Rod Shop in Windsor, Colorado, begins every project in the shop’s dedicated design/viewing room.

“When you are building high-end cars, it is necessary to show the customer ideas and a vision prior to [them] spending an extraordinary amount of time and money on a car,” said Peratt. “We feel it’s a good way to streamline the project and build customer excitement before diving into the project.”

There are many advantages to working with a designer and different ways to use their expertise.

For Peratt, artwork is a key and functional element of the build. Working with in-house designer/fabricator Justin Brunmeier and Jimmy Smith of Jimmy Smith Hot Rod Designs in Glendale, Arizona, concepts start out as sketches.

Once the final concept is decided, the sketches grow into full-color prints that help direct the build team and provide a cool wall hanging that keeps the customer involved in the process.

“When they’re working in their office doing business, they can look on the wall and see the car they’re having built,” he said. “It reminds them why they’re spending so much money and keeps their enthusiasm up. Secondly, there are no discrepancies about what it’s going to look like.”

Eric Black of e.Black Designs in Portland, Oregon, winner of this year’s Goodguys C10 Giveaway Truck Design Contest, is often brought in to help sign a potential client.

“An accurate and believable concept rendering can work wonders on getting buy-in from a client and a project can often be kick-started into high gear once the client sees exactly what the car will look like,” he said. “Sometimes I’m brought in to test the feasibility of an idea that pushes the envelope.”

“A good rendering package will translate the design intent to the build team in ways that put everyone involved in the build on the same page,” he added. “Sometimes I’m brought in to handle a specific design challenge, be it an interior design rendering or some particular detail on a project that helps tie it all together.”

Having designer renderings of your project can attract sponsors, according to car designer Keith Kaucher of Santa Monica, California-based Kaucher Kustoms.

“Having a drawing by a well-known designer adds value and legitimacy to the build, which can help the owner get potential sponsors,” said Kaucher. “If you go to a manufacturer asking for product and you don’t have a drawing of what you’re building, they won’t take you seriously.”

“If you’re building a show car, the more original the theme, the better,” Kaucher added. “Getting that creative input is important. That’s not to say that just being different guarantees a win, but across the board in the last 10 years, more Ridler and AMBR winners had designers involved from the beginning than not. Additionally, the resale of the car will be stronger if the car was designed by a well-known designer and built by a well-known shop.”

Another advantage is you can look at several possibilities and choose what works best.

“All parties involved can evaluate multiple variations in the design,” said Ragle. “A professional hot rod designer will have a vast amount of knowledge on current trends as well as the history of hot rods and will most likely have a forward-thinking mind with the ability to consider where the hobby is going in the future.”

Though builders dream of blank-check projects, that’s rarely the reality. A designer can help you get the most impact for the least amount of money.

“Instead of seeing the budget as a restriction, the best approach is to see how far those dollars can go,” said Penfound. “Can an off-the-shelf part be slightly modified to make it look custom? Can less trim mean more visual punch? There are dozens of places to consider cost and finding the most style for least investment is a continuing learning experience.”

Changes are inevitable during the build, simply because “what-if” ideas happen and one sparks another.

“Things consistently change throughout a project,” said Peratt. “It’s just part of how each one goes. The initial drawing of the full car defines the overall feel of the project, but we [continue[ design[ing] throughout the entire process for the details.”

The downside is that an artist’s pen can add to the build total.

“The customer might ask, ‘What happens if we lay the fender back just slightly?’ and that idea could cost $20,000 or $30,000 worth of metal work in 15 minutes worth of sketching,” Peratt said.

Sometimes changes are good, switching out an expensive component for a less-expensive option.

“The various designers in our industry work with different media,” said Black. “Along with full renderings, working drawings and detail sketches are important to the design/build process that keeps things moving efficiently. I have a process that allows me to alter a rendering without affecting its quality, which allows us to test ideas and change the direction as seamlessly as possible.”

Lack of communication can be another issue, but one that can be avoided.

“Confusion and misunderstanding involving cost, time or the designer’s final output are problems that can occur,” said Ragle. “Clear communication between the designer and the client can solve most of these problems before they start.”

As in anything else, there are disadvantages.

“It takes time with back-and-forth designs,” Peratt explained. “But now that we have a full-time designer, I can make instant changes, tell him what I’m thinking, kind of sketch it out and let him go with it, take my idea and expand or improve on it.”

Of course, paying the designer is another cost.

“There is some up-front cost, but it’s minimal in comparison to the total cost of the build,” said Kaucher.

How do you choose a designer? Ragle suggested consulting with other builders.

“Find builders who have worked with designers and see who they suggest,” he said. “Also, search for sketches or renderings that you like online or in magazines. Check to see if the designer has a website with a portfolio. Everyone has a different style, so take that into consideration. If your build is very in-depth and design-intensive, it may help if the designer has more capabilities or services than just sketching and rendering.”

Another good place to find a designer is at top industry events.

“A good designer should be an automotive enthusiast and attend many of the top car events across the country,” said Pfaff, who creates around a dozen renderings during a project. “Renderings are often published in car magazines and should list the designer. The Internet can also be a good source for top designers.”

Pfaff suggested that you make sure the designer has actual design training.

“A degree in transportation design or industrial design is the gold standard,” Pfaff advised. “Beware of those who simply know how to use Photoshop. A designer who is also familiar with fabrication or has built their own cars can pay off in spades.”

Ragle agreed.

“There is a difference between a designer and an illustrator or drawer,” Ragle explained. “A true designer will not only have an understanding of aesthetics, but will also understand the mechanics, engineering and fabrication involved to achieve the desired aesthetic look. Typically, anyone who has chosen automotive design, and particularly hot rod/custom car design, as a career path is a gearhead at heart and has a bit of grease under their fingernails.”

Bottom line; be sure the designer you choose is qualified.

“There are so many want-to-be designers out there now that can draw cool stuff on paper or on the computer, but have no idea how the work should be done,” said Kaucher. “It’s important that whoever you choose has transportation design or industrial design as their primary field of study in college. Just being able to sketch out a car does not make someone a car designer.”

Working with a designer can breathe new life into a project and give you someone to bounce around and generate ideas with. A designer can also make sure that your project stays on track from an aesthetic point of view.

“Too many projects go wrong simply because they don’t maintain a focus or actually try too hard to impress,” said Pfaff, whose renderings start around $400 and go up from there depending on how many views, number of modifications or versions of the vehicle are needed.

“A good design needs to create a theme or style and maintain it through every aspect of the project, so when you look under the hood, undercar, in the interior or anywhere, you see common design elements and the car is tied together as a whole.”