Everyday Icon: The Automotive Designer

Jennifer Snyder sits down with Buick’s Director of Design Sharon Gauci to talk about design inspiration and simple living.

Earlier this month, we had a chance to hop a flight to Detroit and get a behind-the-scenes look at the design and development process for Buick. The first stop on our whirlwind tour of The Motor City brought us to the place where it all begins: the GM Design Center. We met with Buick’s Director of Design Sharon Gauci and her team, who are responsible for Buick’s innovative design concepts, color and trim details, and were completely impressed with how much thought goes into every element of every vehicle.

Upon returning, we knew we needed to reach out to Sharon to chat more. Read on as she shares the details of her design career, how the automotive industry has changed over the years, some design trends she and her team are noticing, her thoughts on the importance of quality and more!

Sharon, will you tell us a bit about your background? We’re curious to know how (and when) you knew automotive design was the right career for you.

As a student at university, a career in car design was far from my mind; my focus instead was on product and furniture design. A chance meeting with a design creative at an automotive show in Melbourne introduced me to the world of automotive design and color and trim, which immediately appealed to me because of its high degree of creativity.

I have always known, however, that I would have a creative career – it was more determining what and where. In my early years, I was always painting, drawing, cooking and decorating the family home. I had a keen interest in fashion photography and styling. My mother sewed and knitted, and together we would spend hours creating a new fashion piece, sourcing fabrics, materials and embellishments to make a garment. We would even make the patterns. I think this influenced me to pursue a creative career. I worked for many years in fashion retail while studying in college, and had the opportunity to provide seasonal input and merchandise the stores.

I have been a color and trim specialist for over 20 years and it is an ideal fit for me. This challenging and highly creative role offers me the opportunity to understand the personality of a brand and work with the nuances required to marry visual communication with the right blend of materials, color and color proportion, texture and details. Understanding form and material application is also critically important, and I oversee trends globally and in most cases set new ones. It is gratifying to see how important the role of color and trim has become in automotive and other industries.

During our visit to the GM Design Center, we had the opportunity to chat with your team a bit and the topic of working collaboratively with other departments came up. What are some of the challenges and rewards of working with such a large group of people who have incredibly diverse skill sets?

Working as part of the General Motors Design team is phenomenal. Our Technical Center campus in North America is a historic landmark of iconic Saarinen architecture. Just to arrive and be in our building is inspirational. The caliber of designers we have is exceptional and the team comes from so many varied backgrounds that it is a true melting pot of creativity. In the Color and Trim Studio, we work with many external partners from engineering, marketing, planning and manufacturing. It takes diverse disciplines to bring a new vehicle from concept to production.

There are challenges, but I think one of the biggest is maintaining the integrity of the design throughout the multi-year development process. As you would expect, there is a need to refine, but being true to the original intent and making sure it is fresh and relevant from its inception to market debut are key.

I am also challenged as a leader of creative, talented designers, providing guidance along their professional and creative journey. I want to make sure I enable them to be stimulated so they have the tools and skill set to grow in a culture and environment that supports the best creative outcomes. I need to stay abreast of trends, technology and the world around me to gather clues of the future and use this knowledge to provide vision and guidance.

Historically, the auto industry has been seen as a fairly male-dominated industry. When we were in Detroit, however, we met with some incredibly talented women on the Buick team. Over the years, have you seen an increase in the number of women pursuing these types of roles?

I started in the automotive industry in 1993 and at the time was the only female designer in a small studio of about 70 people. Since then there has been a significant shift in gender diversity.

When I reflect on the field of color and trim, the talent pool for this specialized role mainly came from textile design and fiber art with predominately-female student recruits. Today, we review candidates from multidisciplinary design backgrounds, including fashion, interior, industrial, product, jewelry, textile and architecture and the diverse talent it offers.

At GM Design and on my team specifically, not only do I have broad range of gender diversity, but also diversity in ethnicity, age, professional experience and background. Such diversity is exciting, and when we talk about designing global product, we are doing it with a global design team.

We were lucky enough to see how cars are created—from idea, research and strategic design thinking to engineering, prototyping and testing of the final product. What is your favorite part of seeing that process through?

I really enjoy the process of creating and understanding trend clusters, exploring possibilities and new boundaries. What I mean by this is building a picture from clues we gather scanning many things and interpreting the trend into something tangible and real for our cars, trucks and crossovers. The process of working with a talented team, the spirited discussions with other passionate creatives, and the process of ideation is exciting. The momentum and speed with which you can achieve something when everyone is on board is incredible.

Outside of the design process, I have had the opportunity to be on the test track with several of our talented new car test drivers. The feeling of the vehicle in their capable hands is thrilling.

You’ve been working in the design world for many years and we have to know: when you leave that beautifully designed office, do you have the ability to turn off that side of your brain? Or is the designer in you always thinking about the design elements of your surroundings?

My creative brain is always “on” and I never switch it off. I have a pen and paper with me at all times. Sometimes inspiration can come from the most unexpected experiences. I do my most creative thinking on planes. I find that being in the cabin with the background noise inspires incredible brainstorm sessions. Designers are problem solvers and I always come up with ideas and solutions in flight.

As a designer, my surroundings are particularly important – where I work, what my home looks like, the restaurants I choose to dine in. It is personal and for me it does need to look and feel right. My surroundings evoke the best of me.

We know you and your team pull inspiration from many different industries. What are some design trends really catching your eye right now?

My global designers and I have visited many shows this year and travel to different parts of the world gathering ideas and inspiration. It is an exciting time, and as we create vehicles for sale around the globe, understanding regional preferences is important.

We are working on many things in material and color. There is an appetite again for color. Color trends right now are complex and chromatic. For example, grey or silver isn’t clean anymore. It has influences of another undertone. Moreover, green undertones are influencing many colors – blue to become teal and yellow to become citrus — which is actually quite an 80s trend. Brown, on the other hand, is becoming very natural, and we are seeing this in leathers and fashion. Pink isn’t going away and orange has become coral. White isn’t white; it’s not so pure and clean.

We are challenged to understand what autonomous driving does to material and color. Ethics and the environment continue to be important as well as designing for aging demographics and young customers.

If you could give a bit of advice to those reading who might be interested in becoming a designer in the automotive industry, what would that advice be?

Design and creative thinking are the ‘new’ currency. I cannot recall a time where design’s value was so crucial to business and a differentiator between brand and products. It is an exciting time to be a designer.

Recognizing your creative passion and talent as early as possible can open the door to a lifetime of opportunity, fulfillment, financial reward and success. The last decade has given rise to so many new creative roles in industries like gaming, film and automotive around the globe.

Lastly, what are some simple, everyday things you couldn’t live without?

I am a big believer in the “quality” of things. In this context, what I can’t live without is fairly simple – the quality of time with my family, the quality of experiences, the quality of friendships, food and drink, exercise and time with my canine pal, Xena. I also volunteer on weekends with the Michigan Animal Rescue League. I really enjoy spending time with the dogs and support their rehabilitation process. It is my new yoga!

Many, many thanks to Sharon and the entire Buick team for sharing your incredible work with us!

p.s. Want to take a look at the cars we had a chance to learn more about? Buick’s award-winning concept car, the Avenir, is an absolute stunner and the 2016 Cascada, the first convertible to be offered by Buick in North America in 25 years, quickly became a new favorite.