The Long Road: Getting into Art Center Part 2

Art Center College of Design

Art Center College of Design. I never realized how difficult it would be to get in.

This is part 2 (go here for part 1)

I called Art Center to request a catalog, and when I received it, I remember ogling at all the cool things I saw. I knew this was for me.  I sat my parents down one evening to have the talk about changing majors to my new found love of ID (industrial design).  My parents weren’t thrilled that I was about to throw away 3+ years as a business major, just to start over again in design.  But I had always been responsible and was trusted to make the right decisions. They said if I was sure this is what I wanted, then they would support it.  I quickly threw together some car drawings, and sent it off to Art Center.  A few weeks later I got a reply.

For those wondering, when you receive the standard white envelope from Art Center, you know you didn’t get accepted.  This was devastating; I had my first rejection letter from Art Center.  I thought this was art school, how hard could it be to get in?  Being young and naïve, I didn’t realize the status Art Center held in the world of art schools.  This was the Stanford of art schools.  It was “Top Gun”!  Only the best of the best get to go there.  I was totally unprepared, and should have researched their portfolio admissions policies more thoroughly.

A few weeks had passed and summer arrived.  I went to LA to visit relatives.  While I was there, my cousin invited me to her work.  She worked at Warner Bros. Studios, and I was a bit star struck.  Back then I thought LA was all 90210 and Baywatch.  I loved the movies and thought to myself what an awesome job and lifestyle she must have had living in LA.  While I was visiting her office, we were invited to go watch the filming of a new sci-fi pilot on set at the studio.

I barely remember anything about who starred in the show or what the show was about.  What I do remember was all of the futuristic cars rolling around in the background.  I even got to meet some cool designers and special effects (FX) people.  During one of the breaks, my cousin’s boss asked me to show my “pimped out” ride to some of the FX guys.  Reluctant and a bit embarrassed, I showed them what my car could so.  I was a college kid from San Francisco, what did I have that could impress the professionals that worked in Hollywood?

Well, I had this car.  Actually a little bit more than a car.  I had a 1989 Honda Accord Coupe 2-door.  This was the beginning of import tuning.  I had what people would call a “tricked out” ride.  It was kind of sleeper from the outside (not so obvious), but on the inside it could do wonders. Remember how I mentioned I liked to modify my car?


“The car” modified from before. No door handles was just the start…

That was an understatement.

I had a 12 button remote control keypad that looked like a calculator and could operate 30+ options on my car.  My car had no door handles and no keyholes.  I did this modification when I was 18 because someone tried to break into my car, and since I had to fix it, I just removed them all together.  Every option I installed was remote activated, and from this remote control my car could: start the engine by remote, roll the windows up and down, turn on/off the headlights, pop the trunk, unlock the backseat, turn the stereo on/off, etc. (you get the picture and all this in the mid-late 80’s).  I installed all these crazy things myself in my teen years.  Think Knight Rider, the Batmobile, and Bond cars.  You name it and my car could do it, short of driving itself.


There’s the keypad inside the car. I also had one as a keychain believe or not…

I was already a designer and didn’t know it yet.

I may have ended up here if things had gone a little differently...

I may have ended up doing FX if things had gone a little differently…

The FX people saw these crazy things happening before their eyes and couldn’t believe what they were seeing.  They asked all kinds of questions about how things were done to the car, which I naturally assumed they would have already known.  I commented, “Don’t you do this kind of stuff all the time?”

They replied, “Are you kidding, our stuff is make believe… it doesn’t work for real!”

Then it dawned on me that maybe I do have a gift.  The FX people asked, “Are you trying to get into the business?  Do you study this in school?”

I responded, “No, I just do this for fun.  I study business administration.”

They asked, “Why?  You can do this stuff for real… you should be working in special FX!”

One person asked if I was interested in working in Hollywood to look him up, he worked doing props and FX for Star Trek: The Next Generation.  I was overwhelmed.  I had my ego stroked and was feeling pretty good!  Maybe I should reconsider this moving to LA thing again…

To be continued in Part 3

The Long Road: Getting into Art Center

When I was in high school, I had no idea what career path I wanted to pursue in college.  My parents were traditional business people, so they suggested that I pursue the safest route and pursue business as well.  Being the good obedient son, I listened to my parents and did as they suggested.  So this lasted for about 3+ years at San Francisco State University.  I found myself unhappy and unsatisfied with what I was learning in college.  After taking accounting for the third time, I said “someone else could count my beans!”  I was in business administration and could have completed my degree in 2 more semesters, had I continued with that major, but had to get out.  I just couldn’t take it anymore.

Pay close attention to this car

Who knew this car would play such an important role in my life

During that time in my late teens / early twenties, I was trying to discover what my career path was to be.  I enjoyed the things many young people enjoyed in their teen years: music, movies, cars, comic books, games, etc.  I wanted to have fun doing something that I loved.  Studying business in college wasn’t doing this for me.

I asked my mom, “Who designed Star Wars? And how do I get that job?”  Let’s remember this was a time before the internet, so such things were not as easy to find.  After some research (the hard way) I discovered that the designer for Star Wars, Ralph MacQuarrie went to the Art Center College of Design; as did the designer for Tron, Syd Mead.  This life of a designer seemed like a dream job to me.

Now that I knew what the job of these designers was. How do I get there?  During that time of contemplating the idea of being a designer, I still pursued the things I enjoyed.  I used to mobile DJ, so I enjoyed hunting down and collecting records… yes vinyl. I played video games in the arcade like Street Fighter II, so my friends and I invested in several video arcade machines and put them on route into pizza parlors and liquor stores, so they could make money for us.  But my passion back then was really modifying cars.You know, all that stuff you see on MTV’s “Pimp My Ride!”I tell my students now, that I was “old school” before there was a name for it.  I used to frequently go with friends to San Francisco’s Japan Town to the Kinokuniya bookstore to drool over the Japanese cars magazines.  We would see all these JDM (Japanese Direct Market) cars and wished we could get our hands on the custom wheels, steering wheels, seats, exhausts, turbo chargers, etc. that were only available in Japan.  We were living in a fantasy dreaming about trying to acquire all those awesome JDM parts for our cars in the US.  Remember, it’s not like today, where you can just go online and search things out.  Even if we found pictures, articles, or advertisements, they were all in Japanese.  So it REALLY wasn’t easy to obtain all those parts you wanted.

Modding cars back in the day... before the Internet!

Modding cars back in the day… before the Internet!

On one of my trips to the Japantown bookstore, my life changed… It must have been a combination of being unhappy in college studying business, seeking parts for my car, and wanting to be a designer.  I picked up a Japanese magazine called Car Styling, and on the back cover there was an advertisement with the coolest car renderings I had ever seen.  Right away I thought this must be a car design school in Japan.  Turns out that this was a design school, but it was in Pasadena, California.  I thought to myself, Pasadena’s not that far; at least it’s in California.  I wanted to buy the magazine, so I brought it up to the sales counter, so the sales lady could do the currency conversion.  The magazine cost was almost $30 USD.  I thought WOW, that’s a lot of money, especially for a teenager (remember this was the late 80’s early 90’s).  I asked the sales lady if I could borrow her pen and write down Art Center’s contact information.  It was embarrassing, but it really did change my life.  When I discovered that advertisement, I knew that this school was my calling.  It could have been any art or design school on that back cover, but it was Art Center, and this was the only place I would consider.  Remember … Star Wars designer Ralph McQuarrie, and Tron designer Syd Mead graduated from there.  I knew Art Center was my destiny, but didn’t quite understand how hard it was going to be trying to get there.

Tony Yao

Continued in Part 2.

Free Tutorials – Coming Soon

Concept Cube will soon be posting free tutorials online from various artists and designers around the industry.  Stay tuned!

How to Survive in School

When I was in design school, I had an instructor that seemingly hated me for whatever reason.  This class was a drawing class.  Until this point in my training, I had never had conflict with any instructor.

On the first day of this class, the instructor called up each student individually to view their previous work, and to ask them about their background and prior experience.  I told the instructor that I had experience in the same field that he worked in, which was the toy industry.  Maybe my confidence antagonized him.  I am still not sure to this day if I offended him or maybe he considered me a threat because I had achieved a similar recognition that he had, but that I was technically still a student.

The instructor viewed my work and severely criticized me.  He asked what I received in my last drawing class.  I replied, “ I got an A.”

He said, “Really?  I was going to suggest that you go back a grade!”

I was outraged!  I had never been so offended by a teacher.  From there things just got worse.  I felt like I was being picked on at every turn.  I had heard from previous students in his classes that he selected a student to torture every term.  Unfortunately, this time it was me.

During a timed drawing midterm, all the students were instructed to pick a slip of paper out of hat to determine what subject matter they drew.   Remember, this was a product related drawing class, and all subject matter were to be consumer product related such as toasters, alarm clocks, blenders, etc.  When it came my turn came to pick, I was told to put back the slip of paper that I drew, and he pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket and instructed me to draw that particular subject; to my dismay it was a sport utility vehicle.  I had not drawn cars for years, and I was sure I was pretty rusty at it.  I sweated profusely during that timed midterm.  We had to draw multiple views and render all of them.  While my classmates were enjoying their class break drinking sodas, I was dying just hoping to finish in time.  The midterm earned me a horrifying “D”.  I was extremely upset and angry.  I felt he intentionally singled me out, setting me up for failure.  I now only had 2 choices.  I could complain to the department chairman and cry injustice and drop the class or I could tough it out till the end.  If I dropped out now, I would have to face this same instructor again next term and start all over again.

This class and its instructor traumatized me.  I didn’t know what to do.  I had never been in this kind of situation before where I felt the teacher hated me.  So I sought advice from one of my mentors.  He told me, “Not everyone wants to be your friend.”

He advised me that the best thing I could do was to show up to class on time, finish your work, and don’t speak unless you are spoken to.  I took that advice and it got me through the rest of the term.  Ultimately I received a “B+” for the final grade.  He just wanted to show me who was boss and put me in my place.  When you are in a particular teacher’s class, do it their way.  Don’t make waves and ruffle feathers.  The lesson here was to “shut your mouth and know your role.”

Let us fast-forward 3 years. I had graduated and was a working professional.  When I had the opportunity to return to Art Center to become an instructor, I frequently saw the instructor that tortured me at the faculty meetings.  Being in the meetings and letting him know that we were now on equal ground gave me a sense of justification.  In spite of what he thought of my drawing ability, or me, it probably irritated him that I was able to become a fellow instructor and teach things my way.

The List of Design Stuff

We’re often asked by our students which sites we look at for research, inspiration, etc etc.  So I’m going to start keeping a master list of everything I can find on design “stuff”.  I also need to note that this is a WIP, so if you don’t see a site here and would like to recommend one, leave it in the comments below or leave one on our Facebook page.

Blogs, News, All Around

Gallery & Inspiration

  • Industrial Design Served – I thought our website name was long to spell.
  • Pinterest – Sign up and start pinning.
  • Site Inspire – Mainly for web design, but searches will lead to other sites for other fields.
  • Draw Crowd – Giant picture board for concept art.
  • Deviant Art – Huge. Will take time to sort through… beware of furries.
  • ConceptArt.Org – More of a community site, but has lots of art.
  • CGHub – A must for aspiring entertainment students.  Kind of like Facebook for concept artists. *UPDATE: Now defunct.


  • Font Squirrel – Commercial free fonts!
  • The Leagure of Moveable Type – Open Source fonts.  Just be sure to credit the creator if you decide to use it.
  • dafont – Huge repository of fonts, but be mindful of the ones you pick: not all fonts are created equal.
  • Type Connection – Take two fonts on a date and see if it works.



  • Kuler – A handy little tool useful for picking colors.  Plug in for Photoshop also available.
  • Color Scheme Picker – Like Kuler, but has more options including picking colorblind sets.
  • Tin Eye Labs – Search Flickr images by color.  Very handy.

Branding and Identity

3D Modeling

  • SolidSmack –  Not strictly 3D but it’s part of a network of CAD related sites.
  • CADJunkie – Part of said network.
  • GrabCAD – Tons of FREE 3D models for reference.
  • SketchUp – Free 3D modeling tool.  Takes less than an hour to learn and has a large repository of FREE downloadable models.


Recommended Reading (Some of these aren’t cheap; Art Center students should be able to find them in the library)