Secrets of the Automotive Designers Elite: Jordan Beckley

Jordan Beckley works with the Ford training team to create design-specific courses and training in digital software. He is an expert in Autodesk Alias, VRED, Speedform, Gravity Sketch, and Adobe CC applications, specializing in 3D design, modeling, and virtual reality creation and visualization tools. He is also an adjunct professor of 3D visualization and rendering at the College for Creative Studies. In this Q&A, he talks about using virtual reality to improve the design process and how he expects design workflow to change in the future.

Q: How did you get into automotive design?

JB: I’ve been drawing cars all my life. I wanted to be a car designer from a young age. Eventually I got into designer blogs, Car Design News, and online portfolios, and found some great insight into the industry. I connected with faculty at the College for Creative Studies very early in high school. I attended a pre-college course there and was taken with the history of the building, the school, and Detroit as the center of the automotive world. Immersed in that culture and surrounded by designers, I pursued my degree in automotive design and received a BFA from CCS in 2016.

Q: What do you like most about the automotive design community?

JB: I love that we are very tight-knit, globally. I’m excited this industry is so young, because “automotive design” as we know it has only existed for 80 years or so. Everyone I meet in this industry is very passionate about the art and craft of their work. They are always striving to create something with meaning and importance. There are a lot of groups within and outside of design that have to work together to create a final product that not only looks good but moves and reacts.

Q: What challenges do you face in the design studio?

JB: Some of what makes this industry great are also some of its greatest challenges. Because our profession is relatively young, we have not experienced many major shifts in how we work. The introduction of CAD in the 1990s and the proliferation of virtual reality today have both changed the way we work. But they have also increased the complexity of the process, creating more steps and adding time to the design pipeline.

Q: What’s your “nightmare scenario” and what modern tools help you avoid it?

JB: Everything we create is digital. So every day we create more data and more files, but there isn’t a sophisticated way to manage all of these assets. This can lead to duplication of effort and information loss. Part of my role as a digital design trainer is finding a solution to this, one that will streamline design and optimize the storage and management of sketches, models, and renderings. We need the same data for the physical and virtual models used for milling, rendering, animation, and virtual reality, so it’s critical we make data sets usable and appropriate for each type of output.

As an industry, we’re much more open to new software tools than ever before. Many of these come from entertainment, architecture, and video games and are being adapted for automotive use. New tools often accelerate creation while complicating workflow. It’s an exciting trend, as designers discover the tools best suited to their job, with the freedom to work outside a traditional toolset.

Q: How has the shift to mobility changed your role as a designer?

JB: The automobile as we know it is changing, so we have to create in a different way. Mobility, autonomous, and shared vehicles all require a change in our perspective. The way we approach the automobile, our workflow, and our design process will have to change as well.

Mobility causes us to approach traditional ideas in a different way, with new expectations for interactivity, entertainment, and usability. The focus is less on driving and more on the user experience, which means the styling mindset needs to be more empathetic and human-centric. We have to think beyond a target customer, considering whole groups of customers, users, and riders. Finding new ways to interpret the data will be a major responsibility of designers.

Q: How will the design studio of the future evolve, and how will that impact designers?

JB: It will rely heavily on creative designers working alongside digital 3D sculptors and computer programmers, all working with artificial intelligence programs and parametric design to rapidly iterate ideas and prove them out in context, through simulations and immersive worlds. The need for technical expertise HMI, design thinking, and computer science will expand the field and bring new ideas into our design principles.

One huge change will be allowing designers to interact with their concepts in virtual and augmented reality, changing shape, form, and details in real-time. The design studio of the future does not have to resemble a traditional studio. Instead of separate studios, we would have a single virtual studio, which would create opportunities for designers to work offsite, around the world, sharing cultural experiences and applying unique approaches to a the same problem. All of this could create a more interesting and inspired place, one in which designers work whenever they are most productive, instead of forcing “creativity on demand” during working hours.

Q: What is in your design toolbox?

JB: I have used the same toolset since school: Autodesk Alias, Speedform, Maya, VRED, and the Adobe Creative Suite. The biggest change is how I interact with these tools. With human-centric design and design thinking growing in influence, the traditional automotive rendering is less important. I focus most of my design work on virtual reality—so much so that I sold my Cintiq to buy an Oculus HMD.

I have always favored digital workflow, and VR lets me take full advantage of that with rapid, iterative designs and collaborative project reviews. With tools like Gravity Sketch and VR in VRED, I can review designs from the user’s point of view more easily, which makes the process faster. VR allows me to work scale-free, in a virtual workspace where I can design more freely and critique my work in context. For example, whether I am sitting in a sports car in the middle of a racetrack or on a rocky mountainside in an off-road 4×4, I can give life and context to a design that has been traditionally unavailable until well after the design is finalized and expensive models are created.

Q: What features and functionality do you find most compelling?

JB: I love the functionality of Autodesk tools. Alias, VRED, and Maya give designers a toolset to sketch, model, refine, and render a theme. With the latest updates, Alias has added much more cross-functionality, allowing more intuitive implementation of VRED, VR, and polygonal tools.

Q: How could Sub-D modeling and superior project management tools affect your success?

JB: I can see my personal workflow adapting to a polygonal model in Alias, making changes rapidly and reviewing them in full-scale with VR. I can refine that polygonal model until a theme is established, then develop a theme model with NURBS and Sub-D until a final model is created and ready for a hyper-realistic level using VRED and VR.

Q: What is the project you’re most proud of and why?

JB: It’s not a vehicle project, but rather my current role as a Global Digital Design Instructor. I’m helping others understand digital design tools and find new ways to visualize concepts. It’s very rewarding when a student finds something they know will change their workflow. I feel privileged to help take automotive design into the future. This drives what I do and my passion for this industry.

Q: What collaboration or project/task management challenges does Ford face?

JB: With our global influence and multiple design studios, it’s a challenge keeping the design teams connected. Innovations in communication and interactivity help bring our teams together. VRED collaboration allows us to hold multiple reviews in one day, working truly around the clock. For example, we’ll have an early review of design themes in the morning with our Dunton, UK studio and end the day reviewing finished products with the team in Melbourne, Australia. Having a globally trained team of experts helps alleviate any problems and allows each group to develop experiences that are unique to their region while maintaining the high level of fidelity and quality required to make informed design decisions.

Q: How has Autodesk helped connect teams and maximize collaboration?

JB: Lack of communication can be a problem, whether in our own team or across departments. Some of these problems can be solved when everyone shares the same goals and works with the same software. When we find other teams using the same software in our training group, it’s an opportunity to build relationships and understand how other groups use familiar tools.

For example, we use VRED to visualize data at all stages of design. Early on, we use VRED to bring life and realism to ideas. Later, surface evaluation teams use the same software to verify data. Finally, we use VRED for marketing events, press releases, and more.

When we how others use the same tools, we can work together to share data, materials, processes, and ideas, which helps achieve our goal of creating the next generation of vehicles.

Q: What is a secret you can share about your personal process?

JB: Everything you work on has its own unique challenges, so repeating the same workflow twice will not necessarily deliver the same results. When you’re working on something as complex as a vehicle, agility and adaptability are key to overcoming challenges as they evolve. The most important thing is not giving up. When you are up against a deadline or a massive, show-stopping problem, the more hours you devote to it will help uncover a solution. If multiple people are working on the same problem, you get the most diverse ideas—and you can test those ideas faster. That’s why managing everyone’s responsibilities is the biggest challenge. Time management and data control in particular require a lot of attention. There are a lot of new tools that can help manage these issues. The key, however, is finding those that are adaptable enough to help with every new project, guide your unique process, and empower every member of your team to take on their tasks and responsibilities.

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