High-Octane Teacher Fuels UC’s Status in Auto-Design Education
Having had ten years of success as a General Motors, Inc., car designer, UC’s Brigid O’Kane now pilots others’ careers – providing guidance both on campus and in the community to those seeking out automobile-design careers.
Date: 11/21/2005 8:00:00 AMBrigid O’Kane, associate professor of design, has driving ambitions … literally.
By: Mary Reilly
Phone: (513) 556-1824
Photos By: Dottie Stover
For herself, her students and community members, O’Kane – of the University of Cincinnati’s top-ranked College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning – is steering a competitive course for DAAP’s new transportation track and for a new gallery space in the city – both of which focus on accelerating the careers of talented students in the most competitive of all design fields, the automotive-design track.
Since coming to UC in the year 2000, O’Kane has helped begin a transportation track at the university. It’s one of only five such programs in the country that are the competitive players and the only one located at a public institution. She also helped create a new art space in town, Manifest Gallery, currently running an exhibit focusing on auto design.
A senior designer at General Motors, Inc., for many years, O’Kane is definite about her goals at UC: “In auto design, I want to go head to head with the private schools in this country, and we’re going to be very competitive globally too.”
With her love of teaching and extensive experience in industry, O’Kane is confident the new program will get off to a fast start, accelerating inroads the university has already made in training students for the astonishingly competitive field of auto design. The industry is so competitive and potential employers so highly selective and demanding, that O’Kane recalls, “Right after I graduated school in Detroit (from the College for Creative Studies), no one in the subsequent class of 1991 found work in the auto industry upon graduation. No one accepts second best in this field.”
Neither does O’Kane. In her career with GM, she was responsible for such high-profile ventures as the “Concept Cure” cars, custom-made projects designed in collaboration with fashion designers. They not only showed the level of GM’s design expertise but also raised funds for cancer research. She also worked on other custom concept cars as well as the GM Aztek.
She only came to teach at UC by a seeming fluke in timing: “I was looking for a change, something where I could completely design my own visions. So, I’d actually made a very brief detour to produce set designs for the film industry in California and was teaching part-time.”
“One day, as I was teaching and giving a student feedback in a critique, it hit me. I loved teaching. I was so energized. The very next day, I got a call from DAAP about teaching here as a visiting faculty member for seven weeks. If that call had come the day before, I would have said, ‘No thanks.’ But having just had such a powerful experience in the classroom, I instead said, ‘Yes.’ And here I am.”
And automakers in Detroit are definitely taking notice of O’Kane’s impact at DAAP.
According to Stuart Shuster, long-time designer with GM and now educational relations consultant for the auto maker, UC is well poised for success with its new transportation track. He states that only two other programs in the United States are as competitive as UC in terms of preparing students for transportation-design career – the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit and Art Center College in Pasadena.
Said Shuster, “UC has the advantage over those programs in that it’s housed at a public institution and thus, more affordable.” O’Kane added that because the newcomer program is in a public school, the entering students have an enviable mix of skills and abilities. She explained, “The private schools with transportation tracks accept students based only on a portfolio. We focus on rigorous academic requirements.”
That’s a good thing because the students in DAAP’s new transportation track will need both aesthetic and academic skills to make it through the program. They’ll be mixing design training with business and engineering in such projects as redesigning and rebuilding GM’s EV1 (electrical vehicle 1).
But O’Kane isn’t content to just mentor the students in her classroom. She recently decided to reach out to youth in the community who might also have dreams about entering the field of auto design, even though its considered the most challenging form of product design. That’s due to the breadth and depth of the requirements which a designer has to consider, from internal elements like seating and instruments to external elements like tires and headlights.
With cooperation from volunteers in the local arts community, O’Kane helped lead the renovation of an abandoned building in East Walnut Hills, which opened Jan. 7, 2005, as the non-profit organization, Manifest Creative Research Gallery and Drawing Center. Its current show – running through Dec. 9 – is titled “TRANS/Transportation Design” and includes artistic and design-oriented visions of the automobile. The show includes work by local and national artists, by GM employees, DAAP alumni now working in the auto industry and current DAAP students.
In conjunction with the exhibit, O’Kane – who is serving as curator – is delivering free pubic lectures on career opportunities in transportation design. The free lectures are geared to anyone interested in cars, design, art or drawing and are set for:
All will be held at Manifest Gallery, 2727 Woodburn Ave. For a map, go to www.manifestgallery.org/map or call the gallery at 513-861-3638. The gallery, which is free and open to the public, is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and noon-5 p.m. on Saturdays.
The exhibit is sponsored by UC, Tri-State Visual Products, Summerfair Foundation and the Fine Arts Fund.