Sydney Hardy is a vehicle designer, born in France and currently working for Audi in Los Angeles. He has worked for some of the biggest names in the industry, including GM, Porsche, Peugeot and JLR.
We spoke to him to find out what it takes to become Sydney Hardy, how his workflow has evolved since he first started out as a designer, and what he thinks about the future of automotive design.
So, Sydney. You’ve already had a very successful career, working for some of the biggest names in the automotive industry. What made you want to be a designer?
I started pretty early — I was already drawing stuff in middle-school and I have always liked creating in general. My father had a bunch of cars, so I grew up with that and it came pretty naturally. I discovered car design and got really into it — I started drawing cars and was always looking at movies and books for inspiration.
The whole process of creating something that doesn’t already exist and bringing it to life is exciting. You have an idea in your head and you just want to put it on paper and show everyone. The satisfaction that you have in the end, when you see something you created and you’re like “that’s what I was picturing!”.
I’m pretty strong at creating a story around everything I do, to bring it to life. Your creation needs to be part of the environment and have real users; that’s what makes everything exciting.
You mentioned that you take inspiration from books, films and other things around you. Is that what triggers an idea in your head and what helps you come up with the story?
I feel like I have two phases — the first is everyday inspiration. It’s about reading books, watching things, gathering pictures and building libraries of images of things that you like. I’ll put these images as the background to my laptop — as a slideshow — so that every day I am inspired by these things I have seen.
These images can be mood images, like a mountain, or just colours that are interesting, or shapes or graphics. There’s really no limit — it’s just images that make me think “Oh, that’s cool”, so when I find something that triggers that, I’ll add it to my library.
Your creations are things that come out of what you feed yourself everyday — you can’t just have a project and say “Ok, now I need to be inspired by something”, you need to stay curious every day and constantly surround yourself with creative content. You can’t always see the same thing and do the same thing.
When I’m working on a project, I’ll dig through things I like and read, and build a special library for that project. Then I can start looking at hand-picked elements that are appropriate to what I’m working on.
It sounds like being curious is very important to being a successful designer, to keep your mind open and stay creative. What else do you think it takes to be a great designer?
A constant part of our work is having the right tools — you need to create without being limited by your toolkit, you have to master them enough so that they don’t take control of your process. I always try new software — whether it’s for rendering or modelling — because you are trying to get the best process that you can. You will never have a perfect workflow, especially as it always takes time to learn new tools, but you need things that let you focus on being creative and on the design.
It must be overwhelming when you start out as a design student because you have to master so many different tools. Do you think your process has changed since you were a design student?
The tools these days are much easier to learn than ten years ago — rendering and 3D modelling software wasn’t that advanced when I was a student and definitely not affordable to everyone.
Personally, I like Blender because you can do the full range of rendering, staying in one software the whole time…and it’s free! As a designer, you can’t afford to spend time jumping between lots of software. What we need are things that build interactivity between software, to make workflows easier, faster, and better.
I really believe that us designers should not only be able to deliver sketches, but also deliver some visuals quickly in 3D. Right now my process is sketching, doodling, and doing some rendering, but I mix all of this with 3D at the same time. Sometimes I do 3D right at the start of a project, so it’s no longer a case of sketch, render, then 3D.
The profile of a designer is shifting — it’s no longer enough to be someone who can sketch well. You’ll need to sketch in 3D and deliver content in 3D. It’s about building surfaces that may not be used in the final build, but that are there for visualisation purposes.
The status of designers and 3D modellers will start to overlap and the designer who doesn’t model in 3D will become outdated.
What about things like tape drawing? Do you still see a place for that, or will the iconic image of the automotive designer change?
Well…I’ve been tape drawing for a long time, but when it’s done, you’re like “great — now we can sketch”. It’s never that useful because it’s still flat on the wall, although you can get the feel of a full-size vehicle quickly. It’s not that I don’t like doing it, but I’m not sure it’s that relevant anymore when you look at all the tools you have. Take VR — you can visualise something in 3D, in full size, so tape drawing feels a bit outdated.
It’s part of the image of the designer, but it’s more of a marketing thing to be honest. We’ll do a tape drawing once a car is finished to show the press. Maybe some people still use it, but I haven’t felt the need to at Audi.
We’ve spoken about the vast range of new tools that are available to designers, but what about new tech impacting the industry as a whole? There’s a lot of hype around electric cars, autonomous vehicles and mobility as a service. How will these affect you as a designer?
The creative process is always the same — even when I work on other types of product design, my workflow stays the same. The fact that cars might become autonomous shouldn’t affect your process per se, because designing is designing.
With a normal car, we already know how it works and how it is used, so when you’re working on a car you keep this process in mind and you go ahead and build the steering wheel, blinkers, and so on. When you work on an interior for a new project for example, you want to find some cool ideas and there will be some innovations you can add, but you’re not going to revolutionise the interior.
However, with an autonomous vehicle there’s a phase before creation. You need to think about scenarios: who will use it and how it will be used…there are a lot of unknowns. A few big companies are working on these questions, but there are still lots of unanswered ones as no one has really bought an autonomous car and used it.
This is what impacts the design process — how will the user get in the car, how will they charge it if it is electric, what are the interactions inside the car? Even for autonomous cars though, it’s hard to create something that hasn’t been done before, because lots of companies have already built their vision for it.
There is always that balance between what you can officially do, with safety and regulations, what technology allows you to do, and what you want to do with the design.
Do you have a favourite project that you’ve worked on, perhaps where you felt that you had the freedom to be at your most creative?
To be honest, I love the projects I do for myself because I can do whatever I want. I’m not tied down by engineering constraints. I try and do this regularly — projects where my goal is just to experiment and try new things, because that’s what comes out best and when I’m working on a proper project, it’s what inspires me. I can look back at my personal projects and what I did and think “that’s how I went about doing that part”. It helps me to take new risks and experiment with new processes.
There’s a different kind of satisfaction to doing real-life projects. When you have built something and you see the physical thing sitting in the real world, you can show people what you have done and it’s not just on a computer. It’s different — you get to work alongside creative people, but you can’t experiment as much.
You have worked on so many different projects. How does someone become Sydney Hardy and have a successful career as a designer?
[Laughs] It’s about taking risks. I could have stayed in France and not come to L.A. after I finished studying. That was a tough choice at the time, whether to leave my family, as there’s an unknown in front of you and you’re like “Should I do it?”. Now that I look back, I’m glad I took that risk as a lot of things wouldn’t have happened otherwise, like I might not even be on the phone with you now if I hadn’t moved!
There are some tough moments, where you want to be comforted by things you know, but you need to force yourself to take risks, make the step, and say “Let’s just see what happens”. It’s a state of mind. If something is a bad idea and you fail, you can learn from that. It doesn’t mean it was a bad decision, as you’re going to grow and come out bigger. If you succeed, then that was a great decision and you know you made the right choice.
This also applies to learning new things — sometimes I’m scared to pick up a new tool because it’s not what I’m comfortable with, but like I said before, you need to stay curious and not be afraid to experiment. It’s so easy today to get inspired by lots of people’s work and see designs that are really great, but I like taking photos, looking at nature, and seeing if I can find inspiration from these things and not just other people’s work.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us today, Sydney. Before we wrap-up, do you have any final tips for designers looking to make it in the industry?
Like I said before, know your tools really well. Try and be efficient with your workflow so that you can focus on design and forget about the technical part. For me right now, work is a little less intense so I’m trying to experiment with new tools and improve my workflow even more. Then when I have a new project, I’ll be able to apply what I’ve learned and actually use it.
At the moment, I’m listening to a lot of podcasts, like The Collective with Ash Thorp. He talks to creative guys and it’s super inspiring, for example the Concept Artist Vitaly Bulgarov regularly takes 3 months off work to learn new software, experiment, and make his process even faster. Then when he comes back, he’s ahead of everyone else because he’s got his workflow tuned up perfectly. I think that’s a really good thing to do so I’m trying to stop and look at my own workflow and see where I can optimise it. It makes you faster, so you can do more projects, but you can also do bigger projects and really push yourself in terms of quality.