College for Creative Studies: Transportation Design
Sealed, stamped, sent. Skills aside, Bryan Thompson says it was a single letter that launched his career as a talented automotive designer to new heights. Today, he is a successful, sought-after design “master” whose experience now spans several industries.
He was also one of four designers from the CCS family to compete on the first season of “Motor City Masters” reality series on truTV (2014).
“After graduation, I landed a job with Nissan,” explained Thompson. “I had always been a huge fan of Airstream [an American recreational vehicle company known for their iconic Silver Bullet trailer], so I sent their president a letter proposing a project between the two companies. No response. About three years later, I received a call from Airstream’s new president asking what I had in mind.
“We talked about some of my ideas, and he mentioned that they were opening a new restaurant, Airstream Diner, on LA’s Santa Monica Boulevard. So, I created a model of my concept for what I envisioned to become the Nissan Airstream, put on some chrome-plated pants and elbowed my way through the crowd to meet the new president in person. Needless to say, I made an impression! One that changed my life by opening new doors to freelance work and giving me the confidence to pursue opportunities beyond automotive design.”
Since then, Thompson has worked on several freelance projects for Airstream, including the recently-released Eddie Bauer edition, which he describes as an “off-road” version, and a line of Airstream luggage in partnership with Samsonite.
The success of Thompson’s automotive and Airstream projects led to opportunities in other industries as well. He recently spent a year between Brazil and Florida working on the interior of the next generation Legacy, an executive jet for Embraer, and has been doing set design for Spike TV spots, Ford advertising and several Katy Perry videos.
“Variety is what I love most about my career,” said Thompson. “One minute, I’m designing jet interiors and the next I’m on set working with Katy Perry! That’s what is so awesome about going into automotive design. Once you can design cars, you can design anything because cars ARE everything—fashion, interior design, sculpture…”
Versatility is what makes Thompson so unique. After moving on from Nissan, he spent four working for a start-up American automotive company under the leadership of Tom Matano, best known for his contributions to the Mazda Miata. This experience was one of the “greatest highlights” of Thompson’s career due to what he learned from Matano as well as giving him the full spectrum of the design experience—research, exteriors, interiors, retail (dealerships, kiosks).
“I’ve sort of developed into a one-man band,” laughed Thompson. “And this has been extremely valuable to my freelance career. It’s taught me some innovative ways to combine research with concept design.
“For instance, I was hired by Volvo (as part of research for Mack trucks) to go on the road and live with truck drivers for a year so that I could observe their daily life, what it was like to live in their trucks, the problems they encountered and so forth. I used my video editing experience to create a documentary style video that not only told their story but inserted my illustrations/design solutions at different points to convey ways of improving their interaction with the truck.
“As an example, designers know that drivers often encounter mud. But during my experience, I found that drivers who were transporting livestock often stomped through blood-based mud, which is different from water-based. This led to a whole different approach for the types of materials that should be considered and the need for a mud room in their living space.”
Recently, Thompson is competed on the truTV reality series “Motor City Masters” (2014). Hosted by Brooke Burns, the show “pits 10 talented designers from different parts of the automotive industry against each other in the ambitious task of creating new, fully-functional concept cars based around a theme.” Each week, designers who “fall short” are eliminated until one Motor City “Master” remains. Industry expert judges include Jean Jennings and Harald Belker, who are joined by celebrity guest judges actress Melissa Joan Hart, actor Jesse Metcalfe, Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz, baseball great David Justice and former NASCAR driver Robby Gordon.
While CCS alumnus Camilo Pardo (’85 Transportation Design) was the last designer standing in Season 1, Thompson finished as first runner-up. The two CCS alumni had made a pact with each other to share the grand prize should either of them win. Thompson took his half and used the proceeds to seed the Bryan Thompson Design Scholarship, which will reward talented automotive design students by helping to pay for their education at the College for Creative Studies.
Thompson recalled the days he spent at CCS as one of the best times of his life. Instructors like Carl Olsen, Dave Lyons and Bob Boniface helped him break free from focusing just on technique and really explore the concept. Since they were also working professionals, they helped Thompson make important connections with key players in the industry.
“As part of one assignment, we each had to design a car based on one of the decades,” said Thompson. “I was given the ‘70s. It was not a popular choice. But I really got into the big overhangs and dramatic proportions. This forced perspective opened the door to a more whimsical approach to design—an approach that breathes life into my work today. CCS is truly one of the best schools in the world. I’m grateful for everything I learned there.
“I’m getting to the point in my career where I’d like to give back. I’m eager to share what I’ve learned with aspiring designers and reach out to those who may be doubting their potential. In particular, I’m considering starting a scholarship for gay/lesbian students who are often bullied and need that extra encouragement—someone to say ‘you’re not a reject; you’re actually very talented!’ As I learned with that single letter to Airstream, inspiration and confidence can lead to opportunities you never imagined were within your reach.”
To keep up with Thompson’s latest projects, visit www.bryanthompsondesign.com.