Five Tips on Hiring a Hot Rod Designer
This is a story I written and had published in a few titles… with the hope of guiding any new builder (shop or private) in the search for a designer. I penned it in the hopes of helping first-timers make logical choices, and have an enjoyable time in the design and planning process. I know that from earlier feedback, it’s helped a number of folks, and that alone is the grand payback! Seek out a designer who fits your needs, and refer to the following for a start in your project… It obviously doesn’t cover everything, but it wasn’t meant to. It’s simply a primer to be interpreted with respect to your tastes, needs and project requirements. There are a number of extremely talented folks out there designing professionally (many of whom I’m proud to call friends), allowing for a wide selection… what a great time to be building a car!
Over the last decade, we’ve seen explosive growth in the hot rod and custom car industry and hobby as a whole. This can be attributed to the popularity of television shows like Overhaulin’, American Hot Rod and others, as well as Powerblock TV, the Barrett-Jackson Collector Car Events, and of course, access to great personalities like Chip Foose, Stacey David and others. This brings in new enthusiasts, and naturally, more project cars!
Not since George Barris snapped thousands of photos and wrote hundreds of articles promoting the hobby back in the 1950’s and ’60’s have we seen so much attention on our hobby, and it’s amazing to witness. Yet, while there’s all of this excitement, many of these new fans and participants are feeling lost when starting a project. It can be a daunting task to say the least, but when taking those first steps, having the right footing can make all the difference in the world.
Naturally, any success in a project requires a plan, and building or modifying a car requires very careful thought at this stage. I’ve often heard guys say “I just build as I go… no plan, just what feels right”, and sadly, it certainly doesn’t look like it must feel in many cases. Disjointed design, half-assed “fixes” to make parts fit, and often unsafe “engineering” (”engine-beering”, most likely) have sent many a project to an early grave… and I don’t think we need to dive too deep into this subject to discover why it’s “wrong” from any angle.
The best advice would be to bring on an experienced designer to help guide you along. As a professional hot rod and custom car designer with over twenty years experience in the auto industry (from parts and service to body repair/customization and after-market accessories), as well as training in design and fine art, I’m here to offer some advice on taking those first steps. This isn’t an advertisement for my services, but a primer for anyone going at this for the first time. I share my experience because I love this industry, and want to see anyone new to it have a blast, and keep coming back for more. Over the years, I’ve learned the importance of being an ambassador for my industry, and hope that others carry that same passion in what they do. That said… let’s get at this.
The importance of having a vision on paper, especially when working with shops and others on a team, can’t be overlooked. Often times, you’ll run into an individual who perhaps lacks that key “visualization” ability, and can’t form a mental picture… or worse, they can, but it’s nothing like yours. Communicating these visions can prove difficult, and as they say, “a picture is worth a thousand dollars”… and in many cases, much more… often, they are invaluable.
The end goal of selecting your custom car designer is:
- A vision of the finished product for everyone to work from
- Avoid gaps, mis-communications and errors in describing idea
- Get what you want for your custom car dream!
When it comes time to shop for a designer, keep these 5 must items in mind:
1. Pick a Designer Who’s Style You Like
Not only are you hiring someone to assist in laying the groundwork for your project, but the designer must also be able to convey your ideas and tastes, as well as create a piece that will inspire your build team. Often times, these drawings will set the one for a build. A bad-ass street or race machine deserves some nasty, double-bad-ass, throw-down art and setting to make everyone involved “feel it”. A surf wagon, naturally, deserves a ore sedate look to the art… Setting this tone early on will bring HUGE returns later on.
You’ll want some “wow” factor, but also be sure that your designer draws with proper scale and proportion! Taking a cartoon-like image or shoddy “Photochop” to an experienced builder will get you laughed out of the shop. The kid you hire in a forum might make that ‘58 Edsel bumper look like it fits your Monza in the drawing, but in reality, would it? And, are you looking to blow your budget on wild changes before the car even hits primer?
Look around, and study the artist’s styles and prior work.
Much like you choose a car that excites you, be it for nostalgia reasons, a certain feeling it gives you, or just the fact that you liked it overall, you’ll be miles ahead by selecting a designer in the same way. When the car is torn apart and things are looking bleak, the artwork will serve as an excitement generator.
2. Find A Designer You Get Along With
Spend some phone and email time talking with designers. Do you, “get along”? Can communicate freely? An open exchange with your designer will pay off in a HUGE way during the project. Approach this as you would any new friendship or business deal… after all, the relationship will fall somewhere between the two.
Look for a custom car designer who can help guide you if asked, but also take an idea you have and run with it. Simply hiring a “wrist” to make some lines based only on what you say is boring, and will leave your design “flat”. Look for someone with great communication skills (i.e. listens as well as they talk). Nothing can be more disappointing than a guy who doesn’t listen, or worse, who mis-interprets what you’re looking for. Is the designer looking to create a portfolio piece on your dime? You’re looking for a piece that conveys the project vision, not some stand-out eye candy for this guy’s website.
You’re looking for someone who is more than just a talented artist. Look for design sense… balance, ability to make things “work”, to ensure “flow”. You’re also looking for integrity. You want a guy who is creating YOUR art, not re-tracing an old piece, re-coloring in Photoshop or simply re-hashing the same model their last 40 customers got (but with different paint and wheels) because, you’ll get, well, the same car as those other 40 guys!
Beware of the guy who simply cannot follow your budget. This should be made known and understood on the first or second consultation. Make this a clear as possible. At the same time, make sure that you make your shop of choice or build skill known. Make it an open exchange where ideas can flow freely, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised how an idea can grow or be refined to mind-blowingly cool in the right hands. If you’re an experienced fabricator and painter, and aren’t afraid to tread new ground, run with it! If your skill level is pushed opening a love box door, be honest, and spare yourself the inevitable let-down of never being able to realize this dream that your designer penned.
3. Understand The Designer’s Terms
Get the terms and details of the design ironed out immediately. How many revisions will you receive? What’s the cost for additional revisions? How will the work be delivered? Hard copies? (one for you, the shop, and maybe for promotional purposes?) Digital copies for magazine ink? (how about sponsorship proposals?) Can you use the artwork to promote the car? Who owns the Copyright?
A professional designer will provide a contract explaining these important terms allowing for worry-free design time. Pay attention from step one, and you’ll avoid starting over when your forum buddy disappears with your PayPal payment. Understand, too, that “you get what you pay for” applies with car designers (even more so for lunch). If you want your designs quickly (or just on time) and at a high quality, be prepared to pay a bit more, and respect the time required to perfect a design. Much as you wouldn’t rush a surgeon reconstructing your body, give your car-body the same consideration for equally functional results!
4. Don’t Be The “I’ll know what I want when I see it” Guy
That guy is the enemy of designers and builders alike, and it translates to “headache” to any pro. Have an idea at the first consultation, even if it’s vague, and ask for direction/advice if needed (see step 2). Know what you’d like to do with the car. Will it be restored? Modified? A combination of the two? Something wilder? A professional designer will offer examples, and throw ideas around with you, hitting on your likes and dislikes before pencil hits paper. Many great cars develop during these “bench racing” sessions, and you’ll save a ton on revisions. A few bucks and some time consulting will pay off, literally, hundreds of times over.
Communication is your best friend here. Simply jumping from style to style will burn you and your designer out, and close doors on really creative ideas.
Research the hell out of your project and ideas. Go to shows, cruise nights, rod runs… Pick up magazines, books, videos… Look around at what’s been done, and find a style that you like. Ask your designer what he or she is into. Who knows? Perhaps they dig a certain style that isn’t well-known to you… or maybe they have a whole new spin on an old idea? (Scott Sullivan is the master of this approach, and I use that inspiration daily. Trick is to keep a VERY open mind, and use your imagination like a blender, and mix and match until your head spins)
Make a list of things that you enjoy about cars and save pictures that remind you of those features. Perhaps you enjoy good handling, or maybe straight-line performance is more your thing. Maybe it’s all about the look of the car, and you’re after a show car that will make people stop and drool. It’s during this hugely important stage that you and your designer will determine a “direction” for the project. You should have a list of your dreams for the car, as well as a list that is more realistic, taking into consideration the reality of the car you’ve chosen. Approaching a professional designer with these ideas in place will save time, frustration, and above all, help to nail your “perfect” concept.
5. Don’t Fall Victim To Trends
If you’ve seen a teal green and gray car with a tweed interior and 15-inch billet wheels lately and thought “wow… the 1990’s called, and they want their car back”, imagine what response a car built in a trendy style today will elicit in ten or fifteen years. However, if your goal is instantaneous “wow” factor, and the car will be sold to someone immediately, a “dated” car can have merit as a rolling showcase for new parts and accessories. Just make sure the plan affords room for future updates. This will increase value in a number of ways!
While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery (and conversely the sincerest way to show a lack of creativity), you need to have some original ideas in your project. The name of this game is “dig me!”, not “look at how I imitate a copy machine!” Simply shopping through magazine articles will, inevitably, breed you a cookie-cutter car. Simply saying “oh man, that car that won Street Machine of the Year had a cool hood, so I want THAT hood, and the same wheels, and the same paint, and then that car that won the year before had those seats… I want THAT interior…” and so-on, will not design or build YOUR dream car. By all means, derive some inspiration from these cars… that’s natural! A great car will have that effect on people. (look at any Scott Sullivan car, for crying out loud… TRENDSETTING… but oh,so much more…) BUT (yes, a big BUT) don’t just cobble together some list of disparate parts and pieces. You won’t magically assemble a “best of the best”… Instead, you’ll assemble an abomination that would make Frankenstein appear slick and suave. A wise man once explained it to me like this: Much as you may enjoy looking at some supermodel on TV, would you marry her based on a few physical traits? (Would it make sense to buy the book based on the cover?) Chances are, you’d be much happier if you sought out someone who fit your life, who matched that often undefinable set of criteria that just “did” something for you… little things that you’ve grown to appreciate on a deeper level over the years. This project car should be no different. It should be a unique reflection of YOUR style, and a talented designer will help you to make that happen. Don’t let the “fashionistas” or trendies dictate to you what’s “hot” at the moment. “Build to THE CLIENT’S taste, not someone else’s” is my credo in the studio. Approach the project as the investment and expression that it is, and make it “yours”. Your designer will appreciate this, and should work to make that happen for you.
Seek out a designer who understands the style you’re planning to build your car in, and can offer unique approaches to design problems that not only make your eyes pop out, but will prevent your hard earned dollars from doing likewise from your wallet. Approach modifications tastefully, respectfully, and with the thinking “how does this change affect the rest of the car? What purpose does it serve?” If it makes sense, do it. If it’s questionable, then question the hell out of it! A good designer is one part artist, one part engineer, another part visual designer, and one part detective. He or she will put the pieces together and formulate the plan with you.
That said, head on out and explore… look at work, compare styles, and talk with designers. Your decision should go beyond price, and be the RIGHT FIT for your project. Seek out a designer that can listen, offer ideas, and above all, nail your design. After all, simply setting sail on the ocean might take you SOMEPLACE, but is it where you WANTED to go? Hiring a designer will help chart that course AND reach the end of the journey. When plotted correctly, your designer will have you itching to hoist the sails again, and that’s what this whole car thing is all about anyway… feeding that passion.