Vehicles are fascinating machines. The elegant exterior betrays the complexities under the hood.To think that it all started with a concept that turned into a sketch, sculpted into a 3D model and transformed into a vehicle with the right ratios, proportions and structural geometry is just mind boggling.

Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal  talks to our next pathbreaker Rohit Dhiman, Engineer turned Transportation designer tracing his career path from Punjab to Italy and finally at Nissan where he is an Automotive Designer.

Rohit’s thought process and approach will definitely be an inspiration to budding design students.

Rohit, tell us about your background? 

I grew up in a very simple middle class family with a lot of open mind. In the peaceful mountains of Shimla city, I spent my childhood where I believe I actually developed my creative sense. I was always interested in machines, not particularly in cars but machines in general. I used to get fascinated by the composition of machines and how the well connected components worked in a synchronized way. Bulldozers and excavators were my favourite machines. I used to watch every episode of Junkyard wars on discovery channel and then try to make similar things with paper boards and wood. My late grandfather was a carpenter and I used to go his shop and spend the whole day making robots and machines. Along with that I used to sketch them a lot as well. Not just cars and machines but superheroes too. I have always been interested in creation, be it natural or man-made. Those were the days with very limited access to the internet, so I had enough time to spend on my hobbies and skills. 

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

Being always interested in machines, I did my Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering from Punjabi University, Patiala. At that time I didn’t have much information about Car Design, its specifications and requirements. Only when I got exposed to companies like Mahindra Tractors and SML ISUZU for my Engineering Internships, i started exploring the origin of machines and cars and how they are actually designed and built. The moment I entered the design department of companies I instantly fell in love with the process. It was pure creation and I felt a sense of freedom. So I declined the job offer after engineering and decided to pursue Transportation Design. I started applying to design courses in India initially, but after spending a few months chasing car design in India I realized that to progress faster in this field, it was imperative that i have the relevant environment. All of us spend a lot of time sketching Ferraris, Porsches and other popular brands, but without actually looking at them and sensing them around you, it’s very difficult to elicit proper and complete sense of proportions and quality. So I took a hard decision to forego the Engineering job, took a loan for my education and headed to Italy to do my Master’s in Transportation Design from IAAD Turin. That turned out to be the best decision of my life. There I got the right environment, met some really experienced designers as teachers and learned about the history of cars. These 2 years opened up my mind about cars and improved my understanding of this industry. 

Tell us about your career path 

Well, as I mentioned, after my engineering internship at SML ISUZU it was a very tough decision to make considering the financial condition of my family and not accepting the job offer as Engineer at that time. But I could not spin my head off the thought that if not car designing then nothing else can keep me happy for the rest of my life. I believe there are very few moments in your life when you feel that you don’t have any other option even when other options are available and easier to approach. That feeling is LOVE and the best thing about that feeling is that you can easily express that. I expressed this feeling ito my parents and after a few sad days of convincing they agreed to apply for an education loan, i got immense support from my parents all along. I had a basic portfolio ready with whatever I had struggled for in India. I took a tour of all the design schools in India as well but the one thing that was always at the back of my head was not having a relevant environment. Having an engineering background it was a little difficult to forget the practical facts in the beginning and let the dreams prevail. But later in the actual job, my engineering background proved to be most valuable. I also invested in a pen tablet to improve my sketching and photoshop skills and used to watch online tutorials on YouTUBE to see the approach. Having proper tools is one of the most crucial points while walking on such a path. I started sending my portfolio to different design schools around the world and received a lot of replies but I chose the one that offered a scholarship which wasn’t much but would alleviate the financial burden to a certain level. At that point there was no stepping back. At last I made it to the college in Italy and impressed my professors with my improvements and skills and got significant recommendations from them that helped me get my dream job after graduation. I did my thesis internship with Pininfarina, Italy that changed my thought process completely and gave a good insight of the industry. I then joined Nissan Design after getting recommended by my Professor, Masato Inoue who is an experienced and renowned ex-Nissan designer (Designer of Nissan Leaf)

How did you get your first break? 

My thesis internship was sponsored by the college itself where we were given a brief from Pininfarina. The brief was to express “EMOTIONS WITHOUT EMISSIONS”. I was selected as the team leader after a competition between the whole batch. There were 5 teams selected from the whole batch. My role was to supervise and develop my concept as a team leader. As per the brief we had to represent Pininfarina’s legacy in the future in an environment friendly way. We spent six months on the project that included initial sketching and concept preparation to final 3D model and we also prepared a 3D animation for better explanation of the concept. The whole team performed really well and learned together. We designed both exterior as well as interior. We were reviewed by the Pininfarina designers regularly. These six months gave me a really good insight of the actual design process. Then I got recommended by my Professor for a job in Nissan Design, initially the job was for Japan and China but because of working visa issues I had to start from Nissan Design India only, but later I went to Japan for assignments and studio competitions. 

Now the job offers regular visits to Japan and other studios around the world based on assignments.

What were the challenges? how did u address them? 

First challenge was to make a competitive portfolio, that shows my skills, my style, new and innovative ideas and variety. Apart from having excellent sketching skills, photoshop skills and 3D skills like Alias are immensely important. Its very important to keep your mind open all the time and look beyond your ego if you want to learn from the surroundings. Accept the fact that you don’t know everything and there is always someone or something to teach you better. 

Second challenge was the working visa, which actually has no solution, you just have to be lucky sometimes for that. For internships it is still easier to get a working visa because its for short term, but it’s relatively difficult to get it for a job. But now Indian automobile industry is also growing rapidly. Many companies have started designing in India for the Indian market, considering that it’s the upcoming biggest automobile market. Opportunities will definitely come, you just have to be ready. 

Third challenge is to keep yourself fresh and unique in your style and ideas. Companies will only invest in you if you have something different and innovative to offer. Everything depends on your open mindedness and improvement. 

Where do you work now? 

I have been working with Nissan Motor Corp. for last 3 years now and I am responsible for Exterior designs involving both production models as well as futuristic concept studies. Most of the problems that we face are related to production designs where we have to communicate with engineers constantly and solve the practical problems together. This is where my engineering background comes real handy. But as a designer your skills need to very high quality. Your designs are the best way to communicate with the engineers and marketing so you have to make sure that whatever you are sketching on the paper is giving the right message to other people. Other departments will only be able to follow you if your skills and ideas are aesthetically pleasing, practical and cordially acceptable. As per the process, designers are briefed by the marketing and product planning teams about the upcoming product and what is the magnitude of the product. Then designers prepare their own moodboards that compliment the given brief and shows scope of the product. A moodboard is composed of different inspirations and images that expresses a designers mood and intention and his image of the product. Then based on the moodboards we start the sketching phase to express our ideas and come up with a few proposals that go through competitions between all the designers. The most appropriate and coolest design proposal wins the competition and leads the project. Then a scale model is prepared with clay, where the designers work with the clay modelers to see the idea in the physical form. We go back and forth with the sketching and clay modeling to get the best possible shape. After the physical model is prepared the designs are communicated with the engineers where engineers give their opinions on how can we execute the project. This is where a lot of iterations happen depending upon the feasibility of the design. After a lot of discussions and executions, a prototype is prepared. While designing futuristic concepts you have the freedom to get your dream into reality. This is how a typical day goes by and the balance between production and conceptual work is what makes me want this job even more. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

Automobiles have become an integral part of the society now. So it’s very important to make them safer and environment friendly. But its also very important that they should make us feel that we are going towards the future. This is where design is very important. Design makes living more civilized, comfortable and upgraded and can solve every practical or impractical problem. And not just automobiles, every product that we use in a daily life should be updated every interval of time so that we can live life more civilized and in unity with nature. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you! 

As a designer I have worked on almost every production segment, from flagship SUVs to Kei cars. And with every project my understanding about cars and proportions has increased. But out of all of them my most memorable project has been the one I did with my Professor during my graduation. It was a three wheel electric vehicle project funded by the European Union and our college was given the opportunity to lead that project. The project’s name is ‘Weevil’ and you can search it online as well. It’s a very practical but innovative project at the same time. Our Professor, Mr. Masato Inuoue was appointed as the chief designer of this project and he selected a few design students to work with him. I was one of them and my idea and proposal was selected as the key proposal for that. It was a team work of course. Every other designer gave really innovative and cool sketches and ideas, but having selected as the key proposal was a huge motivation for me to move forward. That product has reached its production prototyping stage now and will soon be able to see daylight in the European streets. 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Becoming a car designer is actually like running a marathon. Hundreds of people are running for one position, but only a few are actually able to finish the marathon, out of those only a few are able to get a position and only a handful out of those get to be the winners. And being a winner is the only way to find satisfaction in this field. Otherwise this can turn out to be the greatest frustration of your life as well. So if you are choosing it, you must really love it. Don’t be afraid of taking risks. Experiments will tell you what things are not going to work, but what is going to work will be an innovation and it happens only after a lot of iterations. And it’s very important to keep your spirits up all the time because there will be more downs than ups in this journey. Passion should prevail. 

Future Plans? 

My future plan is to keep growing as a designer and step into each stream of design and creation that is directly or indirectly related to automobile designing. I want be able to design and execute the whole design, from sketching to engineering so that I can a valuable team player and a good source of learning.