How to: Hire a Hot Rod Designer

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, Tim Strange 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.

custom big-rig

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.

car design rendering

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. 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 words” (or, in the case of project vehicle sponsorship, that picture may be worth thousands of 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, miscommunications and errors in describing idea
* Get what you want for your custom car dream!

Certainly, this isn’t the “end-all, be-all list, and isn’t intended to be. It’s merely a primer to get you thinking in the right frame of mind when heading into that first project. When it comes time to shop for a designer, keep at least these five primary items in mind:

1. Pick a Designer Whose 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 more sedate look to the art… Setting this tone early on will bring HUGE returns later on.

Torino design

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? A cartoon-y image serves a great purpose in creating some energy, or for getting the juices flowing, but you’ll need something a little closer to reality to keep everyone on the same page… unless you’re building real-life cartoons… which, come to think of it, would be a blast!! I’d love to do that… Yet for now, I digress.

truck and wheel

Look around, and study the artist’s styles and prior work.

An important note: Do not call an artist that draws in a particular style, and ask them to mimic or ‘draw it like’ another artist. Seriously, this is flat-out stupid and classless. You are looking for a particular style, not some imitation of it. On that note, beware of the ‘artist’ who will mimic another artist’s style, ‘but like way cheaper’. This is a small community, and when word gets around, well, good luck finding anyone worthwhile to draw your project. You’ll be digging through the bargain bin, and very unhappy with the results. Approach the design part of the project with the respect it deserves, and grant that same respect to your designer. They have worked and gained experience and developed their approach over many, many years, and you’re paying for the privilege of not having to be a part of their learning curve. Select a designer with a style that appeals to you, and enjoy the ride.

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 looking bleak, the artwork will serve as an excitement generator. Those cool lines and the energy and style projected by the artist’s hand will translate into actual energy in the shop.

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.

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 misinterprets 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 have a responsibility here as well. Do not offend the designer or artist by down-playing their work. If you can do it yourself, then hang up the phone, and go do it. Chances are, you’re seeking the talent and experience of a designer, not merely someone who will be impressed by your knowledge of Pantone colors that you gleaned by reading a Facebook post that morning. Give the artist or designer the respect they deserve as a working professional, and you’ll see that same respect given back… And when you share mutual respect, great things start to happen.

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 and a solid work ethic… a willingness and eagerness to create something fresh and unique. 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 or drawing their last 40 customers got (but with different paint and wheels) because, you’ll get, well, the same car as those other 40 guys! If you’re this far along, chances are you’re not cloning another car, but going after your dream.

falcon design ideas

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 glove box door, or maxes out at peeling the backing off of double-sided tape to slap fake port holes on a fender, they can design to that level, and create something that you’ll not only be able to accomplish, but be proud that you did. If you’re a sheetmetal fabricator and machinist who can make anything, then tell your designer, and show a few examples of your work. In either case, be honest, and spare yourself the inevitable let-down of never being able to realize this dream that your designer penned. Sometimes, a simple twist on a classic idea can look fresh and exciting. Short version: Look at your budget and talent, and be honest about them. Set the bar for the plan where it truly belongs.

concept car colors

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?

Respect the terms, and don’t start asking for things well above and beyond, and then complain when you don’t receive them. If your original contract grants you five drawings with two revisions, then expect five drawings with two revisions, not unlimited drawings with unlimited revisions. This is hard work, and very mentally and physically draining. It’s not coloring in some pre-drawn lines, this is actual creation. Understand that, respect the terms, and receive amazing work. Having the terms and conditions clearly communicated up-front will make for clear communication down the road, and help the process flow smoothly.

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! If you call three times a day, looking for sketches, or worse, haven’t given any direction since the last batch, and are just looking for more ideas and art, you’re going to see the project start to move slower. Communicate. Be patient. Let the designer think and design.

It takes a lot more time than you’d expect to craft something unique. A little patience here can mean the difference between ‘take this and go away’ and the best effing thing you’ve ever seen. That’s worth a few days without looking at sketches you’ll shoot-down anyway, isn’t it?

4. Don’t Be The “I’ll know what I want when I see it” Guy

That guy is the enemy of designers, and it translates to “headache” to any pro. He is the same guy that ruins a project. 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. Occasionally, you’ll get into a great flow of ideas, and the project grows organically, and takes you into uncharted and amazing territory. Ask for ideas, and creativity flows. Confuse the heck out of the designer with ‘gee, I like this and this and this and this and this, and those cars, and ice cream, and blue and red and…’, or worse, ‘I can see it in my head bu can’t explain it’ (translation: ‘I have no clue what the f**k I’m hoping for, but it better be cool’) will breed absolute hatred for you in your designer. Seriously. We hate that a lot. Do some research. Get to know what you like. Know thyself. Then express those likes to your designer.

custom tail light design

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.

custom camaro 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.

Simply shopping from magazine features and completed cars on forums 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. Instead, you’ll assemble an abomination that would make Frankenstein appear slick and suave. The key is working to put everything you like together properly. A trained designer can do this… it’s what we’re paid to do. Much as you may enjoy looking at some supermodel on TV, would you marry her based on a few glances at a few physical attributes? 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. 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. Look around at EVERYTHING. Take stock of the things that appeal to you… whether it’s furniture design, a style of architecture, an old train… anything at all. “Build to THE CLIENT’S taste, not that of someone else” is my credo in the studio. I always ask my clients a series of questions to discover exactly what they like, what their tastes and interests are. As any professional designer should, I’ll help you organize those individual items, and create a cohesive package. Look for that personal interest in your designer. It should be a team effort… not a battle.

dashboard designs

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 be sure to question the hell out of it!

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!

custom nova concept

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About drawinghotrods

I draw cars. I also provide full-service hot rod design and illustration, custom car, graphic and web design tailored to the custom automotive aftermarket, including logos, branding, project planning and research, and even apparel design. Need an ad, some copy, or a jump on social media? I do that, too. My mission is straightforward: To consistently provide the ultimate in design creativity and customer service, with an experience and artistic vision that is second to none. While working to raise the standard of automotive illustration, I seek to educate the public with regard to the labor and sacrifice required to create a work of fine art.

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