It’s not every day that you leave a conversation with somebody feeling energized, empowered and excited for your own future.
Automotive Drift: How old were you when you discovered your passion for design?
Daniel Simon: Born in Germany, my parents worked in the shipyards. I remember being fascinated by the mechanics of their work, big machines in particular. But it was when they brought their work home that my imagination began to take root. They would leave their plans, pencils and paper on the kitchen table. So naturally I began doodling on the drawings. It wasn’t “art” in the traditional sense, but more about creation. I enjoy the mathematics and mechanics behind engineering, however there certainly is an artistic expression involved.
AD: So, when/how did this become more serious?
Daniel Simon: I remember reading an article when I was about 16 years old about design school, which come to think of it, happens to be the same school I ended up attending several years later. The pictures showed 20-somethings, sculpting cars in clay in front of massive walls plastered with future cars I’ve never seen. Seeing these pictures became an epiphany for me as I could visualize myself doing what they were doing. Remember, in these days there was no internet so stumbling across this print magazine in my remote hometown store was impactful.
The first time I took action was when I was about 17. I was interested in developing my independence, getting my dream job, and decided to take matters into my own hands. I packed a sleeping bag and essentials for a few days away from home and boarded a train to University of Applied Science in Pforzheim, Germany. I had no plan, but thankfully, some cool car design dudes allowed me to borrow their floor for a couple nights.
Talking to these other students about their success, seeing projects underway, I was able to experience the opportunity that was in my future. The world I saw there was so different from what I knew from home. I thought I was the only guy in the world that liked to draw cars, and I felt like I landed on a strange planet where everyone was like me. A fire was lit inside me, and I knew this was where I was meant to be. No student loans needed, as this was a world-class college that was public and offered a free education in my field.
AD: Tell us a bit about the passion you have for design. Where do you find your inspiration?
Daniel Simon: The best way to describe it is that I get frustrated about product or solutions that do not yet exist. I can’t stop wondering why, and then I agonize over it until I’m able to create it. I’ve had the pleasure of focusing on conceptualization so in many ways I’ve been doing my “dream job”. I enjoy the freedom to leverage my own aesthetic preferences and tastes in my work.
AD: So, are you always starting on a blank page?
Daniel Simon: While I have an imagination and creative perspective, nobody truly has a blank canvas to start from. We’re all influenced by what we’ve seen elsewhere, by our environments and what surrounds us. However, I enjoy the constant pursuit of originality as our personal style is a unique combination of existing influences.
AD: Let’s get back to how you got where you are today… What happened after that train ride to Phorzheim? How did that open the door to where you are now?
Daniel Simon: Internships were the real milestone for me. I cannot express enough praise for the internship process and the opportunity it creates. In many ways the internship mimics the “real world” for students. Unlike traditional college where you have books, tests, and perhaps a presentation or two, the format for the internship program I participated in was very similar to what it’s like working in the industry. You walk the same walk as if you were a hired designer. You’re required to present your ideas, you have time limits on your development. I was surprised at how quickly it seemed to go by. You’ve got a short window to earn your spot, and you’ve got to seize the moment.
AD: So, what happened after your internship? Did you get hired right away?
Daniel Simon: Yes, I was hired by Volkswagen Advanced Design Studio for all their brands and had the pleasure of working with them for 5 years. It was a fascinating job and I truly enjoyed it. When they closed it, I worked with the tiny Bugatti team from 2005-2007 reviving their brand.
AD: How did you get from steady, stable job to doing something so different today?
Daniel Simon: It was the work I did on my own time. The long nights and weekends I would spend working on my first book: “Cosmic Motors”. I would keep drawing, keep creating, even though I was tired. Fortunately I have always worked on conceptual and “futuristic” cars. For the first several years it was as good as it could be.
But there came that inevitable day when I had worked very hard for a very long time developing a concept show car, and because of factors beyond my control, nobody will ever see that work. It was a reality check, I asked myself, “Can I do this forever?” Meaning, am I satisfied creating and perfecting designs that may never have an audience, never influence the world around me, never be developed into a final product? Could I stay content knowing that my work may be stuffed in a drawer somewhere to collect dust, never again to be considered? The answer was “no.”
Imagine practicing for months, memorizing your lines, perfecting your voice, your appearance and you get on the stage, prepared to deliver the performance of a lifetime. And you hear “lights off.” No audience in the stands. Nobody to share your work with… All too often designers have to settle for their own team as their finite audience.
So I turned my attention toward works that were my own. Creating a portfolio of sorts that could be appreciated and distributed. If you’d asked me what the value of the book would have been when I was creating it, I would have said that my motivation was transforming a chaotic personal project into an organized container of my creations. The fact that people could buy and read it were an added bonus. But I’ll tell you, that my effort and investment were well worth it, as that was the key that opened the door to the next chapter of my career.
AD: So you’re saying someone read your book and that’s how your career continued to grow?
Daniel Simon: It was like I worked on the book for 7 years to get one single email. Timing is everything. One day I get an email asking to join the Tron design team. It was still very early, and it was a “possibility for revival.” I wasn’t sure if anything would come of it, but this idea to create something that was unseen, undiscovered, and share it with the world via Hollywood. It seemed like a long shot. But it was worth the chance. I suppose I facilitated my luck successfully.
As time went on we hadn’t solidified any contracts, so I actually got keys for a new office in Berlin. I had been continuing to do freelance work and needed to commit to the next step. The same week I was moving in I received the official offer from Disney in September, 2008. I packed two suitcases and moved to Hollywood.
While making the move and getting this opportunity was a feat of its own, what brought me the greatest sense of accomplishment was when I flew into Japan about a year later, to randomly see the “Lightcycle” all lit up on a billboard in Tokyo. I had an audience, there was a true purpose for my work, and I was thrilled.
AD: What happened next? How did you get your next project?
Daniel Simon: When you’re freelancing there is certainly risk involved. In my case, I wasn’t guaranteed to even live in the United States after Tron was complete, as I required a work visa. However, I managed to stay busy. The film industry is extremely fast-paced. Oblivion, Captain America and some of my own projects managed to work out just right.
Besides the logistical challenges, the monetary challenges are significant also. Sometimes I accepted work that didn’t appeal to me, but it was income that I needed between major projects. I learned to save money and establish a sense of financial security. I learned to be confident in my work and trusted that I would find the next project.
AD: Wasn’t that scary? Moving to a new country, with a short-term job, doing something you’ve only done behind closed doors?
Daniel Simon: Fear is certainly real in any artistic profession. Nervousness about whether or not the client would appreciate your work. What the next job would be. Overcoming a subtle insecurity about your abilities and your product.
I learned to become a strong decision maker. It’s ok to admit that you’re a little unsure of yourself. Overcoming that feeling is what makes me feel alive. I learned to live my life, not to allow life to get the best of me. I learned to take the exhausting route of constantly pursuing excellence, over the easier route where mediocrity is the norm. I stretched my limits to creating more than cars; designing submarines, trains, bicycles, spaceships… I got out of my comfort zone and took chances.
AD: If you could offer advice to an aspiring designer, or those who are well into their career but are looking for more of a challenge, what would you say?
Daniel Simon: First, I would say that just as important as it is to say “yes” to the new opportunities, it is equally important to say “no” when it’s not a good fit. Do not settle. Do not take a job because you’re afraid of what would happen. If it’s not something you want to do, then don’t do it.
Second, keep investing in your future. Take the time now to learn the new software and tools, to network with new potential clients, to try something new.
Third, it’s easy to criticize something, it’s harder to come up with a better solution. Embrace the pain, if it was easy it wouldn’t be a job.
Fourth, be your best and go beyond the request. Following the design brief is simply a service. Daring to step beyond the breeze can not only surprise your customer, but also yourself. And that’s worth it.
Fifth, there is some value in “fake it ’til you make it” if you keep it on a personal level. If you dream of designing spaceships, don’t wait for a call. Nobody will ever call you to do that. The only way to be a spaceship designer is to start today by designing spaceships. Do what it is you want to do, on whatever level you can. Having someone else label you as that means nothing, when compared to how you define yourself. When you define yourself as who/what you want to be, others will recognize you as such once you’ve established yourself.
Last, be your best. Do not compare your work, your success or your career path to anyone else’s. That’s what is so wonderful about design. Your work and your perspective is uniquely yours. The more you follow your own path, the more successful you will become.
There are few people in the world with the tenacity and boldness of Daniel Simon. His work is incredible, but how he got to where he is, even more so. Read the articles, ride the train, take the chance… if you keep your options open, anything can happen.
For more information, visit: www.danielsimon.com