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Although it seems that some designers come out of the cradle grasping a marker, it wasn't until her high school years when Crystal Windham knew she wanted to take pen to paper and draw. An observant teacher suggested she consider applying to study at Detroit's College for Creative Studies (CCS) to earn a degree in industrial design. Thinking that it was worth a shot, Windham put together a portfolio and was accepted. Her initial idea was to focus on home interior design, but once she discovered the breadth and depth of automotive design, she was hooked. "The automobile is a product that impacts so many people and that's what got me thinking I should study automotive design. What other product has as much of an impact?" Windham says. And now, as director of GM's North American passenger car design studio, she has an opportunity to make a bigger impact than her high school teacher probably ever imagined.
While studying at CCS, Windham received an offer for an internship at GM's Oldsmobile design studio, where she assisted in the design of midsize car interiors, a task that sealed the deal: "I knew this was where I wanted to be." Now with more than 15 years of design experience, Windham has worked on significant GM vehicle interiors, such as the '07 Saturn Aura and '08 Chevrolet Malibu, and with full-size truck exteriors. Along the way she spent a year at the Opel design studio in Germany, where, she recalls, she gained new insight into the use of grains and colors: "Germany opened my eyes and expanded my knowledge. The colors and textures they used on interiors were something that the U.S. had not tried at the time because the U.S. was a bit more conservative. They were a bit more daring."
The interior of the Chevrolet Malibu was designed by Crystal Windham.
Her European experience helped define her design. "I want the customer to feel at home, using sculptural forms and making sure that's coupled with tasteful color and trim and luxury accent appointments; I want to make a connection with fashion to show the world I am in tune with the latest trends," she says. This attention to detail isn't limited to high-priced cars and trucks. Windham believes GM and other automakers are going to have to find ways to make sure these attributes are spread across the price spectrum, including lower-priced vehicles: "Even if it is a low-end vehicle, it doesn't have to say 'low end.'" This credo will become even more important in the future, as consumer migrate to smaller, less-expensive vehicles. "It is a reality that the market is changing and it nothing we can ignore," she says.
Designers, she says, are among the few who see what the future holds and she predicts the future will be bright for GM: "We are fortunate to see things three to five years out, and that helps me keep a positive attitude." What's more, she knows that what she and her colleagues do can provide real advantage: "Design is a lever that our leaders pull on because it is an asset that helps separate you from your competition."