Niels, 41, is a chief designer at General Motors Europe (GME), located near Frankfurt in Germany. He is an Australian of German descent and has worked in Germany since 1991. He lives with his wife and two children in Wiesbaden in the Rhine Valley.
As a chief designer, Niels is currently responsible for the exterior design of all Opel/Vauxhall small cars, including the two-seater Tigra, the three- and five-door Corsa hatchbacks, the Meriva people carrier and the Combo commercial van.
Niels was a guest speaker at the launch of Career FAQs Industrial Design which was held at the University of Technology, Sydney in November 2007.
What do you like most about your job?
Creating cars is my passion – every boy’s dream is to design his own car and drive it. I also like having the opportunity to work at any of the six global research and development centres in the General Motors network. Travelling to motor shows and regularly meeting designers from other companies is something I enjoy.
We start with sketches, develop 1:3 scale clay models and then model a full-size clay armature. It is a very laborious process, especially when a car is developed in several regions. It takes between two and three years to finalise the design from the initial architecture studies to final surface releases.
In 1998 Opel had an alliance with Lotus and together we developed the Opel Speedster/Vauxhall VX220. I was the lead designer on that program. The car was basically a motorcycle on four wheels and was produced for four years at the plant in Norwich in the United Kingdom. My greatest moment was owning a car I designed myself.
Designing cars has been a lifelong passion of mine, although it wasn’t until I was 15 that I learnt that career opportunities existed. The first step was to study industrial design as a foundation, and I was accepted for the Bachelor of Arts in Industrial Design course. There was no car design curriculum, so I spent my spare time after class sketching cars. I also completed internships at Nielsen Design Associates and Ogilvy & Mather.
In my final year of studies I received the Honeywell Bull Fellowship award based on academic merit and used the bursary to travel to Europe and Japan for interviews at product design studios and automotive Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs).
I was employed as a junior designer at Kevin Whitley & Associates (KWA Design) before moving to Europe in search of employment at one of my favourite car companies. After interviews in Germany at BMW, Audi and Porsche, General Motors Europe (Opel) made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. This included a sponsorship for the postgraduate Vehicle Design course at the Royal College of Art in London and a five-year working contract thereafter. I have been at GME ever since.
Being of German descent, I have many friends and relatives here and have adapted perfectly into society. Although I am fluent in German, English is spoken throughout General Motors. At home, I speak English with my children and German to my wife.
I feel at home in the Rhein-Main region of central Germany as much as I do in Australia, but I do miss the beach! There are plenty of wine festivals and cultural events, as well as sporting and outdoor activities to pursue.
Living in the centre of Europe means that cities like Paris, Prague, Geneva and Berlin are all within a six-hour drive. Admittedly, no speed limits on the German Autobahns help. Frankfurt international airport is also only a stone’s throw away.
Even before thinking about a career designing cars, you have to love drawing and creating them and be a bit of a ‘petrol head’. Clearly, attitude, drive and dedication will help you on your road to success.
A professionally laid out portfolio (hard copy or digital) with innovative designs and an exciting personal resume is key to securing a job interview. It’s important to show a balance of initial ‘doodles’ and finished renderings. If CAD models are included, it is best to present these with an animation of moving parts.
The better you can sell your ideas and have a personality and skill set that fits into the company’s culture, the more chance you have at getting a foot in the door. At the end of the day, car design is all about teamwork and there is no place for design divas.