Opting for a non-traditional career (Design) over a traditional one (Engineering) prepares you for what lies ahead by throwing you out of your comfort zone, not once, but repeatedly !

Amar Kler, our next pathbreaker, Lead Designer, Exterior Automotive Design at Mahindra & Mahindra, conceptualizes vehicle design trends keeping in mind the needs of customers in the distant future.

Amar talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about his first brush with Automotive Design through the K.C. Mahindra Automotive Design Challenge, taking the unconventional leap of faith of switching to Automotive Design (Integrated Masters) from Product Design in the middle of his Bachelors, and his work on the different models of Mahindra & Mahindra, including the “Mahindra Thar”.

For students, cultivate a mindset of adaptability. Your career goals could and will change. Remain flexible and agile to shift gears when needed.

Amar, tell us about your background? 

I grew up in an Army background as my dad was serving in the Indian Army. My childhood has been mostly within the army cantonment area. Shifting different houses and places helped me cultivate an inquisitive mind. I would go and explore the areas around (as it was safe within army cantonment). My mother was very much interested in learning new things, she would do fashion design, paintings, vegetable carvings etc. Whenever I got time I would help her with those things. That created my own interest in sketching and drawing, I would sketch a lot of cartoons as a kid. I would also open up anything that was not working in the house like radio etc. and try to see what is inside it, lets just say I was very curious. Sometimes I also managed to fix them. But doing that removed my fear of trying out new things. I would always feel the pleasure and a sense of achievement when, in some cases, I managed to fix things, which I still do till date and hopefully continue to do so.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

It was my father who found out about the career path in design. Looking at my inclination in sketching, he would take me to artists and other creative people, and I would go there with all my sketches for some guidance. My father used to keep newspaper cuttings about colleges and coaching classes in the field of design. Although I had taken science and was preparing for my entrance exams in 12th, he also made me attend some sketching classes for entrance in design and architecture. So I gave all the engineering, architecture as well as design entrance exams. In those days we were posted in Nagpur. As not all exam centres were in that city, my dad would take me to all these different exam centres, be it Indore, Hyderabad , Bangalore or Pune so that I would not miss my chance in any field that I would prefer choosing. By god’s grace, when the results came, we had the option of choosing between engineering, architecture and design. While discussing my career path with parents I assured them that I had more confidence in achieving better results in the field of design than in engineering. And then I chose Product Design because of my inclination towards machines and gadgets as I used to open the broken ones at home trying to fix them. So I Joined Symbiosis Institute of Design, Pune in Product Design for my B.Des (Bachelors in Design). Studying there seemed like a dream come true.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career? 

I was very excited and sure about wanting to make a career in design itself. In my second year we were given a bicycle to sketch, that was the time when my interest in automobiles grew. I started to sketch a lot of cars and bikes. At that time, me and my batch-mate got to know about the K.C. Mahindra Automotive Design Challenge. We participated in it along with a senior and won it! 

The concept was a commercial micro delivery vehicle which would be used for daily delivery of small items like pizzas etc. We had put in a lot of effort after college hours, including sleepless nights to do the research as such a product/segment did not exist in the market. It was a slim manoeuvrable vehicle such that you could fit two of those in one parking spot, thus saving space in-front of shops and city areas. 

That gave me a lot of confidence in Car Design. One of my seniors saw it and helped me to get an internship in Abhikalp Design, Indore. Though I had the internship my stay was yet to be confirmed. I reached the design studio in Indore with all my bags and subsequently the stay was also arranged by them. That was the time when my interest in car design grew further and I became pretty sure that I wanted to pursue car design. In my second year at Symbiosis, some of the staff from Coventry School of Art and Design, UK had come to showcase their college and take student applications for Post Graduation. I was so influenced that I wanted to shift from product design to automotive design, as there was no course in automotive design in Symbiosis. I applied in Coventry University for a lateral transfer to join their course in automotive design from 2nd year and resume my studies there. I was fortunate enough to get selected in Coventry School of Art and Design for Automotive Design M.Des (Masters in Design). This was a 4 year integrated course of graduation and post graduation. It was a complete honour and responsibility studying in the world’s oldest and most famous car design college from which many established and well known car designers have been born. 

I did two part time jobs to earn my living expenses while studying at Coventry. 

How did you get your first break? Tell us about your career path. 

While I was studying at Coventry, my first internship was with TATA Johnson Controls in Pune. Although I didn’t have the contact details to apply for internship in Mahindra, I had the letter which I had got at the time of winning the K.C. Mahindra Design Award. That letter had a phone number and address in Nashik. The phone number didn’t seem to work, so I just took a train to Nashik and reached the address of Mahindra and asked security at the gate about the person whose name was on my old letter. To my surprise that person had left the company and I had no one to contact. Although the security guard did not let me in, he told me about the main office in Mumbai. So, at that very moment, I went to the bus stand and took a bus to Mumbai. I got the email addresses of the Chief Designer in Mahindra and applied. But I didn’t get through as there were no openings for internships. So I went to Pune, met my seniors and batch-mates from Symbiosis. It was from a senior at Symbiosis that I got the contact details for a job application to TATA Johnson Controls. In my internship I worked on interior and seating design for vehicles. I was very excited to work in this professional environment and also get to learn a lot from there. After my internship I came back to Coventry University to finish my final year of my Masters. In my final year I worked on a project in collaboration with the Coventry City Council for the development of mobility for the Aged. It was an eye opener in understanding different requirements and needs that people have and designing according to the customer. Later my design was showcased in Lanchester Gallery, Coventry. After completing my Masters I started working on my portfolio which is a collection of all the major projects that I had done, as well as showcasing my skills in sketching and 3D modelling that I had learnt in college. I came back to India and applied for jobs in TATA motors, TVS and obviously, Mahindra, because this time I had the contact details. I got an interview call from TVS and TATA motors on the same date. I planned to go for the interview at TATA motors as it was in Pune which was a well known city for me. But after my interview I didn’t get a call from them. As I had left the TVS interview and had not got any reply from Mahindra I was again stuck without a job. So while I was waiting for a reply regarding my Interview with TATA motors I went to meet my old friends and tutors from Symbiosis. It was then that my tutor suggested that I start teaching there as a guest lecturer till I got a reply from either TATA motors or Mahindra. After teaching there for more than a month with no reply, I contacted my mentor in TATA Johnson Controls where I had done my internship. They were happy to call me for an interview and offer me a job considering my performance at my internship there. So my first job was as Assistant Manager seating design in TATA Johnson Controls, Pune. I worked on TATA marcopolo bus seating. Working there, I was very happy as I had been in the studio before during my internship and knew the people there. In my first week of working there I kept seeing several missed calls on my old phone number, so I tried calling back. To my surprise it was from Mahindra. They wanted me to come for an interview in Mumbai. I got very excited, and gave my interview. But again, there was no response after my Interview.

So I kept working in TATA Johnson Controls. Around 6 months into my job when I had completed my probation, the old phone number rang. I picked up the phone and it was from Mahindra. They had a job offer for me. It was my dream to work for Mahindra as my interest in car design grew because of the K.C. Mahindra Design Challenge. So I joined Mahindra & Mahindra Design Studio as Deputy Manager, Exterior Design. After joining Mahindra Design studio in Mumbai I worked on detail design of the headlight and grill on the Imperio pickup, as well as Alloy, wheel caps and spare wheel cover of the TUV 300. Then I had the opportunity to work on the facelift of Quanto called NuvoSport. Finally The all new THAR 2020 being the latest. 

What were the challenges you faced and how did you address them? 

Definitely the most important challenge was to make a competitive portfolio that helped me secure jobs and internships. It’s also important that your portfolio has something unique and personal which makes you stand out from the rest of your peers who are applying for the same job. That’s why having an open mind and understanding your uniqueness is very important. 

Another challenge is to adapt with changing times and changing job profiles. Shifting from interior design to exterior design of vehicles, using different 3D software etc are some of the many things I had to learn and be flexible in. Never shy away from trying and learning new things, it keeps your creative mind alive and also helps in coming up with unique designs. 

Tell us about your current role as Lead Designer at Mahindra & Mahindra

Currently I am working in Mahindra & Mahindra as Lead Designer in Advanced Exterior Design. It has been 8 years since I have joined. Advanced Design is more research based, requires understanding current and future trends not just in automotive design but also in other fields like architecture, fashion etc. It is about giving a direction to the brand and where it’s headed, understanding current customers and extrapolating that to future customers and their needs while a vehicle is designed, much in advance, almost 3 to 4 years before and which has to be relevant in the market for let’s say 5 years. So effectively we are dealing with a timeline of about 9 years into the future. The future is always going to be uncertain and depends on a lot of factors. So we create different hypothetical future scenarios and future customers in those scenarios to help understand better what could be the need or requirement of a future customer. For this, good sketching skills are critical to showcase and communicate the idea that you have in that particular scenario. Also, understanding of proportions, balance and volume to help you realise your idea from a 2D sketch to a physical 3D object is critical. Good sketching skills can be achieved by a lot of practice, by sketching over other sketches, sketching images of vehicles or with the help of tutors. As far as 3D skills are concerned, it can be learned by looking at the vehicles, studying them and trying to use those learnings to develop a 3D computer model on 3D software like Alias, Maya etc. A typical day in the design studio would actually be very different depending on which stage the project is in. Some days it could be more of research and future predictions with a lot of discussions, or sketching the entire day and rendering it, 3D modelling your rendered sketch or looking at the physical model that has been milled from the 3D data that you shared. There is no typical day that keeps on repeating , there is always something new to do and learn. Learning new things in car design and exploring the uncertainty is something that keeps me engaged and happy in this job. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Cars and their design as a whole is an expression and an extension of one’s own personality. It makes you feel the love and connect with your vehicle in a much deeper fashion. It fulfils one’s desire, comforts and makes things easier and joyful to do. Design makes the life of every individual easier and with that, it benefits the society as a whole. 

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

That would have to be my degree project at Coventry University. It was for the elderly, using mobility to help increase quality of life in old age. It was a project that was aimed at designing a vehicle which older people could aspire for and could establish a healthy relationship with them. We used design, reassuring textures and colours to encourage the body to work in a healthy way. It was done in research collaboration with Coventry Warwickshire Accessible Transport Committee. 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

My advice would be to focus a lot on skills. No matter how good the ideas you have, if you are not able to depict and communicate them quickly and effectively, the attention will quickly go away. First comes the skills to grab attention and then the content. Do and practice a lot of sketching and 2D renderings on photoshop etc. to master your skills. Doing that you will automatically start creating ideas and some by accident. 

Your future plans? 

My future plans have always been focused on my development, acquiring new skills and knowledge.