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So, You Want to Learn Yacht Design...?

Copyright 2004 - 2016 Michael Kasten

The following is an email note that I received regarding the possibility of a career in Yacht Design. I receive similar letters periodically from would-be yacht design students who want to know if it is a good career for them to pursue. The query letter below is followed by my usual answer to that note, which is presented here in way of being a 'generic' answer to similar curiosities...

The Usual Question...

Subject: Future Marine and Yacht Design Student

Hello Michael,

I am a graduate of high school looking to go into marine and yacht design. I am currently looking at an art school in Florida. I was wondering if you could give me any insight into that field, i.e. where you went to school, what you do during the course of a work day, and if it is a profitable job.

I really appreciate your time.

Thank you,
'Prospective Student'
 

The 'Generic' Answer...

Dear 'Prospective Student,'

Extra good...! Several thoughts here which may be of some use, as follows...
 

My Path

Briefly, my own education was as an academic. I have a degree in Philosophy. You can review my background in greater detail on the web page describing our Design Team.

My boat experience was first as a sailor, then as a boat builder and a boat owner, then as a boat designer working for boatbuilding yards and for other yacht designers, and then finally as an independent boat designer. I followed a good path, I think. In the process, I learned practical design elements with actual boat building tools in-hand, rather than only from a text book. I was over 40 before presuming to design anything on my own...
 

Your Path

If you are smart and highly motivated, I'm sure it can be done more quickly. If for example you were to begin now and study boat design, then gain experience by working with other designers, possibly you would be in a position to begin to design on your own by around the age of 30, assuming you begin your studies right after high school.
 

AN ACADEMIC PATH:  It is an extraordinary oversight that among naval architecture programs in US universities, virtually all of them are aimed strictly at marine engineering and the design of big ships, military craft, and commercial vessels such as tugs and offshore supply vessels. While a few of them may 'dabble' in random thoughts about yachts and other small craft, that is far from being their focus.

What about the finesse involved with refined styling...? What about the characteristics that make an owner tingle with delight...? Those machinery and engineering oriented university programs do not have a bloody clue, nor will they ever - they are merely training students to be engineers.

It was said by Salvatori, the great architect: "Perfect engineering does not automatically imply good design." In other words, a competent number cruncher is not automatically a skilled yacht architect.

As a result of this unfortunate cultural tragedy within the US, the only option for anyone who wishes to pursue a career in yacht design is to find a venue that specializes in such an 'odd' discipline. Among university programs, a curriculum of Industrial Design combined with a study of Ergonomics, Literature, Art History... in that direction I think there is hope.

As far as I am aware, the best school for yacht design (for small craft of say under 150 feet) in the US is The Landing School. To my knowledge The Landing School is the only educational venue within the United States where you can physically rub elbows with experienced yacht design professionals. It also has an excellent and extremely rigorous curriculum with highly capable instructors. The Landing does not offer an accredited academic 'degree' per se, however they do offer a diploma / certificate of completion, which in my view given their exceptional credentials, is far more a statement of competence in small craft design than any presently available academic degree.

That said, a few other options do exist... In the US, as far as I am aware, there is only one school that offers an actual degree: the Savannah College of Art and Design where one can obtain a degree in Industrial Design, with a minor in Marine Design, said to be an excellent school. In the UK there is the University of Plymouth and the Southampton Solent University (Southampton Institute), both well respected.

Two other yacht design learning options are the MacNaughton School and Westlawn, both of which are correspondence schools. Westlawn does offer accredited courses, however this approach requires extraordinary dedication. Only a small percentage who begin the Westlawn course actually complete the entire set of lessons. Other academic options are very well summarized in Professional Boatbuilder No. 101 in an article called Learn to Draw on page 106 .
 

COLLEGE COURSES: As for college courses… naturally math is important, but really yacht design does not get very far into Calculus, and wherever it does there are very standard methods of calculation making Calculus unnecessary – that is unless you want to get into theoretical pursuits, for which no doubt you would find it useful.

But Algebra, Geometry, Trig… they are very important.   Essentially high school level math…

Beyond those essential math skills, some basic engineering will be highly useful, especially structural engineering. It is not necessary to get into esoteric studies in engineering, but it is important to have a background in the basics. Also very helpful is an introduction to Industrial Design, Illustration, and basic Drafting.  I would also include a basic course in Business Admin. Dull yes, but also very helpful.

If you intend to go for your Practicing Engineer's license, it is worthwhile studying the PE or Naval Architecture licensure test information that you can find online for your state to see what is required. Many states allow for reciprocity of licenses, others not.  For the PE tests it is extremely beneficial to have a solid basis in basic engineering principles.  

After those basics, there are a number of yacht-specific studies, some of which can be addressed within a basic intro to Naval Architecture. But most N.A. curricula in the US are aimed at big ships, and are not at all applicable to yacht design except in terms of basic stuff like drafting, propulsion, resistance, stability, structure, etc..

While in college (and before that) I consider it to be VERY important to include several courses in the Arts…! In particular Art History, Literature, Philosophy, Aesthetics, Art Drawing, Foreign Languages and whatever else turns you on. Most engineering departments fail miserably in this, turning out excellent number crunchers without any aesthetic sense whatever…! After all, you have to be interesting to your clients…!
 

CAD PROGRAMS:  You can probably learn more OUT of the classroom than in the classroom… I would advocate purchasing student versions of AutoCAD and Rhino, and possibly getting a demo copy of Maxsurf, and just play around with them to get the hang of it.  Knowledge of basic Office software (Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, etc.) is assumed.

And then of course… experience…! Building boats is extremely helpful – and quickly teaches respect (and humility)…!
 

A NON-ACADEMIC PATH:  If an academic avenue is not your preference, then I recommend first working in boat repair and boat building, then learn drafting and the preliminaries of yacht design by incessant reading and study, then find a designer or series of designers for whom you can work as an apprentice. This is essentially the path that I have followed.

As a career, it will take quite some time to develop an eye for what's right, along with the judgment to know what isn't. It will take possibly half a decade or more to develop your own design database and therefore to accumulate the analysis tools to be able to work at yacht design reasonably efficiently. With perseverance, one day you'll discover that you have the requisite knowledge and possibly sufficient business sense to begin creating your own designs for your own clients.

After that, the business of Yacht Design is quite a lot of work. Even though it is highly rewarding work, it is extremely unlikely that it will become a very fat living.

Here's why...
 

The Elite

First, there are a few elite and long-established yacht design firms such as Sparkman & Stephens, or in older times the Herreshoffs and the Alden office. Long established firms such as these have an unquestioned pedigree, along with a steady supply of highly qualified clients. The talented yacht designer Eric Sponberg calls these guys the 'Rock Stars' of the yacht design world. He is correct...!

Design firms such as these can afford to say "run along now...." when approached by someone of unknown or questionable means. Thus they are able to limit their clientele to those who can actually afford what they have wished for. In this way such yacht design firms are able to focus on the highest quality, the finest aesthetics, and the highest performance in the finished yacht. The client will not question the cost of creating the design. His reward...? He will achieve the very best yacht possible and no-one will ask what it cost. With such well heeled clientele, this kind of design firm can be very profitable.

These days however, in order to assure a steady income even those elite yacht design firms have had to diversify into other activities such as Yacht Brokerage, Insurance, Charter Agencies, Legal Consultation, Expert Witness Services, Surveying, Military Contracts, and a host of other activities entirely peripheral to actually designing yachts...!
 

Quantity

At the other end of the boat design world are those who focus on peddling quantity rather than quality. The typical strategy is to create innumerable quickly executed 'stock' designs and advertise them en masse. Full page ads of this ilk can be found in nearly every boating periodical. These designs are squarely aimed at the amateur / back yard builder / first time boat owner who has not yet learned the aesthetic subtleties which separate good yacht design from trash.

Very often there will not have been much effort expended creating each design. Since the focus is placed on selling a high volume of stock designs at low cost, the chances of there being any follow-up in terms of owner / builder support will be poor to non-existent.  Oddly, the inexperienced boater will think of this as a real bargain...! It is not at all uncommon for the owner to discover in the end that this has been a very expensive mistake.

Due to the high volume of plans sold and minimal effort expended on any follow-up, it is also possible for this kind of approach to be profitable.  Many examples abound; I do not need to name names...

In between these two extremes there is quite a lot of variation...!
 

Quality

Our focus is on quality.  We like to work with qualified and practically minded clients, especially those who have considerable boating experience and therefore know what they want. On the other hand we are also quite willing and able to guide those who do not have experience but who are smart enough to ask for assistance in discovering what will satisfy their needs. This is the essence of custom design.

Our goal is to guide our clients through the design process. In so doing, our own prejudices must take a back seat to the expressed wishes of our clients. Once we've understood their preferences our task is to work with those requests in order to create designs that are unique; that perform well; that have aesthetic panache; that we can think of as embodying our 'modern classic' approach to design; and which are ultimately capable of any offshore expedition.

While yes, we do sell stock designs and we're always happy to do so, our primary attention is focused on new custom yacht design. Our efforts are therefore aimed toward Quality rather than quantity. We do not get involved in Brokerage, Insurance, Charters, Survey, Legal Consults, Expert Witness Services, Boat Building or other peripheral pursuits along the way. In other words we are focused 100% on yacht design.

To provide the highest quality design services at a price that our clientele can afford and on which we can survive...? This is our daily struggle...!
 

Our Work Day...?

In terms of the daily work of it all, our schedule is entirely determined by the whims / wishes / desires / schedules / budgets of our clients, as well as by their build schedules.

My own work hours ordinarily amount to something like 50 to 60 hours per week, sometimes more, occasionally less. A fair bit of my time each day is spent answering preliminary "what if" questions posed by the curious who "might" someday want to have a boat designed and built. These people cannot be ignored outright since among those myriad inquiries there are a precious few who are indeed sincere... i.e. who actually intend to create a new yacht design or to purchase a stock boat design, and who also have the means to do so.

This latter qualification is important...  Even among the sincere, we often discover a disparity between the kind of a yacht they would like vs. what they can actually afford. At times this disparity is rather large, in which case considerable time is often expended attempting to bring the two together.

As a result, on average if a quarter of any given day turns out to be billable time, it is either an unusually good day or it is very close to an impending deadline. Taken on an annual basis, the income is what I'd call 'slightly above adequate.'  However if taken on an hourly basis, I would do much better working at a union job and collecting overtime for all those extra hours...!

Based on personal knowledge of several other quality-oriented yacht design offices, this situation is really quite typical - at least until the yachts become fairly large. For yachts above say 100 feet or so in length, the work can become substantial enough per-project that unpaid hours expended on inquiries can be held to a minimum.

In other words, with larger yachts there will be a longer duration of actual design work to make up for whatever time may have been lost entertaining unqualified or insincere potential clients. With vessels under around 60 feet or so in length, it is very much the opposite.
 

Does It Pay...?

One of the most difficult hurdles with each new inquiry is to clarify without question to your potential clients that: "Until there is actually money on the table, there is no project..!"

If you assume otherwise, you will quickly discover that when it comes to boats, most people are dreamers. Much of what seems to be sincere on the surface is often mere idle fancy, on which you may expend considerable time and resources with nothing to show for it in terms of cash flow. In other words, in order to establish your client's commitment to actually engage your services, you absolutely must get a deposit in advance - and prior to providing any design or consultation services.

If you can establish an easy rapport with your potential clients, that's the goal - it is in fact essential to the successful relationship you hope to create.  Unfortunately, and in spite of how interesting each new project may be, I for one do not have the luxury / spare time / finances to provide design services to anyone on a speculative basis. To do so would amount to extending 'credit' to someone for designing their proposed yacht - an entirely absurd concept even for a banker...!

Possibly I'm somewhat cynical on this point, however it is a lesson I have repeatedly learned the hard way.  When you receive a deposit, well... at last you actually do have a project...!

Even with a deposit in hand, a design project can collapse unexpectedly at any moment. Or worse, a client may arbitrarily refuse to pay for what you have expended considerable effort to provide. Please see my Little Round Toad article for a possibly entertaining story about this kind of thing.

As with any owner-operated small business, there are no unemployment benefits, no disability packages, and no retirement packages waiting at the end of the road. A Yacht Design business, unless it is extremely large, is not an 'asset' such as a retail store that one can develop and then sell in order to retire on the profits. Yacht Design is instead a 'service' for which one is paid on a project-by-project basis at the time of the work being done.

There are several obvious consequences of these facts:

As for what our daily tasks involve, considerably more information can be found among the writings at our Articles web page, and in particular in the articles having to do with Custom Design, and our CAD Design Stream.
 

The Reward...?

To be sure, even if it is not all that profitable, yacht design can be a rewarding undertaking.

It is also highly demanding in terms of the accuracy of the work; widely varying client demands; highly variable project timing requirements; and in terms of the number of hours actually required to accomplish a completed yacht design.  Making one's livelihood as a Yacht Designer can therefore be quite frustrating at times in terms of having much time or energy left for other pursuits.

AND... although the vast majority of clients are successful and happy people and are thus somewhat predictable and well behaved, occasionally a bad apple does come along with an apparent will to create trouble. Given the amount of actual work involved, this can be extremely disheartening.

Even so, I do not know of another more interesting pursuit than yacht design...! There is great personal satisfaction in solving the 'puzzle' presented by each unique new set of design requirements, and of course in the creation of new and interesting vessels.
 

What Now...?

If you are curious enough to inquire about this kind of career in greater detail, I recommend visiting a few of the larger boat yards where you can talk with some of their design staff.  Those guys will not have the same situation with regard to individual clients and difficult hours, however they will certainly be able to show you their own work environment and they'll be able to offer you other opinions and possibly an alternate perspective...

Best of luck in your lifelong pursuits...!

Yours sincerely,
Michael Kasten
Kasten Marine Design, Inc.