College for Creative Studies: Transportation Design
“Interior” design has always been a passion of Crystal Windham (’94). Originally determined to focus on the function and aesthetics of homes, workplaces and hotels, Windham is now one of the automotive industry’s most influential design leaders. She is the award-winning Director of North American Passenger Car Design at General Motors.
“I enjoyed drawing and design in high school,” said Windham. “Initially, I thought this passion was leading me toward interior design. Then, as a student at CCS, I was introduced to the world of automotive design. I fell in love with the challenge and opportunity to impact so many lives.”
In her position, Windham is responsible for making the design decisions regarding the features of General Motors passenger cars. She must ensure that each vehicle adheres to its brand’s interior styling guidelines while creating an experience for the driver that is as “pleasing and unforgettable as possible.”
“We impact everything you see and touch when you sit in your car,” she explained. “This includes the seating, flooring and doors as well as other interior features. One of my favorite aspects of this position is being able to bring several smaller products together to create a new product—an interior that’s fresh and innovative, yet timeless.”
Windham was hired at General Motors shortly after graduation. She has worked on vehicles across several brand studios, including an international assignment at GM Europe Design in Germany. In 2002, Windham was appointed to design manager of interiors and worked on several award-winning vehicles, including the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu and 2007 Saturn Aura. She has also served as design manager of advanced exteriors for full-size trucks and design manager of exteriors before being promoted to her current position in 2008. Currently, she is preparing for the release of her latest vehicle, the Chevy Impala, which will be unveiled at CCS in late March.
“The 2008 Malibu was one of my favorite vehicles to work on,” Windham said. “I had the opportunity to work on previous versions of the Malibu and was not able to implement some of the design features that I thought would best serve our customers. With the 2008 model, I was given more of a voice in strategizing with other team members to make the decisions that would prioritize aspects of the vehicle that drivers would find most valuable.
“One of the most rewarding experiences for me, both personally and professionally, was my assignment in Europe, especially since so much of my career involves working globally—making choices that impact other cultures and people living in other regions of the world. While it’s important to maintain consistency in a brand’s aesthetics, we can’t focus solely on the US market. General Motors is a global corporation. We have to be open minded and embrace the cultural environments where our vehicles are being driven.
“For example, cars are viewed differently in Germany where roads are smaller, parking is tighter and more people rely on public modes of transportation. Interiors and exteriors need to be much more efficient than in the US where roads are wide and parking isn’t as much of an issue in most places.”
Windham is passionate about her role in the General Motors/CCS You Make a Difference program. As an active member in the initiative, she mentors students in the Detroit Public Schools by teaching them how to draw cars and creating an awareness of different art/design fields.
“This program is so important to me because I recognize its potential for the students involved.”
“I first learned about CCS as a high school sophomore and feel fortunate to have been led there. The school helped me nurture my talents and tailor them in the way that would work best for my career as a designer. The CCS community was incredibly supportive and offered such amazing opportunities for students that you just don’t find any place else.”