Listening to Ven Lai on the phone, you can practically see her smile as she talks about her job designing cars for Chevrolet. But it's when she describes the rigorous tests that were applied to the marshmallow-y, creamy beige interior of the Spark, which debuted earlier this month at the New York International Auto Show, that she gets really animated.
Developing a material. Sticking it under an artificial light box to observe how the color changes. Matching it to other materials in the same color. Checking how they, together, read in daylight, showroom light, and early-morning light. Making sure the sun streaming in through the windshield won't fade them and that they won't erode when you touch them with your sunscreen-coated fingers. This is all the effort and thinking that went into your car, and this is what Lai does as lead designer for global Chevrolet passenger cars and crossovers.
"One thing I really love about automotive design is how many elements we really touch upon," she says. "It's a car—it's a huge investment—and it's really rewarding knowing the product you designed is appreciated by the driver, the passenger, the family, their kids, the coworkers, and the pets. It's really part of their lifestyle and their daily activities."
As a fashion design and applied textiles major at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, Lai, 30, says she learned the same kind of functional, customer-first approach she takes today—in fact, she calls the transition from interning at the Gap and placing second in the CFDA/Target incubator competition to choosing automobile trims "effortless," minus the new vocabulary. (Look up metamerism in your free time.)
And even if the car industry is only about 25 percent women, Lai says switching to a male-dominated field was similarly easy, given the supportive environment she found at Chevrolet and her own willingness to seek out mentors.
"There are things I know, and there are things I don't know. And there are things I want to learn and grow in. That was the best advice I've gotten: to keep that up because the support you have around you is really what makes a product phenomenal. You can't do this job alone."
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