Please tell us about yourself

For a car designer, there’s probably no scarier time than the auto show. And there’s probably no scarier auto show than the Detroit Auto Show. It’s like report-card day for car designers, but there doesn’t appear to be much that scares Christine Park, a senior creative designer with Cadillac.

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She’s very eager to show off the Cadillac XTS. Park led the design of the interior of the XTS — pretty impressive, since she’s only 28 and graduated from design school just six years ago.

Park is also one of a small number of female designers in the car designer industry. “It’s a very male-dominated field,” she says, “so it’s something that people don’t expect.”

Growing up in Cupertino, California, which is best known as the home of Apple, I was surrounded by an aura of optimism that comes from the infinite possibilities technology and the dot-com era brought. Being exposed to this tech culture allowed me to realize at an early age the impact of innovation and thinking outside the box.

Ever since I can remember, art was my passion. I would draw, and continue to draw, on anything I could find. My parents noticed my talent from a very young age and always encouraged me to follow my passion, never pressing me to follow the exact same path as everyone else. I remember one day my dad telling me that I would be a great woman of influence. He said it with so much conviction, I believed it.

Those encouraging remarks fuel me still to this day, especially in my job as a lead designer at Cadillac, where I, along with a talented team of designers and engineers, develop world-class cars. The highlight of my career so far was penning the interior design of the XTS and developing it with a team of people that share my same passion for cars.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

I’m often asked how I went from art school to car designer. The answer is simple. I wanted to make an impact through creativity. I believe artistic creativity is what progresses us. I was enthralled with the idea that my work could one day be used by millions of people, impacting their lives in a positive way. To think differently, to create new things and to be inventive—all are virtuous traits that are intrinsic in those who change society.

Park, who’s from the San Francisco Bay area, says she didn’t expect this life for herself. She thought of being a fashion designer for a while. “I remember taking summer classes, like high school fashion classes. I loved it until I got a sewing machine and couldn’t make a shirt,” she says.

Luckily, she met a professor at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. The professor showed Park some cars and described character lines, proportion, the wheel base and basic parts of car design.

During my first year at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., I learned a valuable lesson that helped shape the mindset I have today. As one of the few female students studying automotive design, I naively felt the need to blend in with my male classmates and find a way to minimize being seen as the only girl. I contemplated signing all of my design sketches as “Chris Park” instead of “Christine Park,” but in the back of my mind I knew it didn’t feel right. My professor offered some great guidance by telling me, “Be who you are.” I learned to embrace the fact that my uniqueness helped set me apart.

Today, working in an industry where there are few women, I can bring a different perspective to the table. But, I never want my gender to define me. Instead, my work will speak for itself, and I now know the key is being comfortable in my own skin.

Tell us about your work

“Up until that point, I had no idea that there was a designer behind a car, that there was an artist. That the car is an art,” Park says. She thought, “Wow, are you telling me that I can utilize my artistic talent to create this? This machinery? This moving art?”

She ended up going to Art Center College of Design, interning for General Motors while she was in school. Essentially, she never left GM.

Park says she considers herself an artist. An artist that can influence a part of customer’s life. She thinks about every little thing, from the placement of the cup holders to the distance between the steering wheel and the gear shifter. If she gets it right or the car designer gets it right, it’s something that will live with the customer for years — and maybe they’ll remember it, she says.

“That’s the power of design,” she says. “People are just emotionally drawn to it. You make a connection through the shapes. And you can’t pinpoint exactly what it is about the car, but you just fall in love with the car.”

This auto show is Park’s first chance to create that emotional connection with customers. The Cadillac XTS is her first car. When she saw the prototype, she says she got tears in her eyes.

“I really did, because it’s such an emotional experience.” The opportunity to design is a true blessing, she says — to tell somebody, “I did that, I designed that.”

Park says you should think of your car as a work of art. The person who designed it certainly does.

What have been your sources of inspiration?

Throughout my career I’ve had several mentors, officially and unofficially, and learned to simply be a sponge around them. Mentorship comes in many different styles—encouragement, candid feedback—and some even teach you what not to do. It’s important to appreciate all different types of guidance and soak in as much knowledge as possible.

Now that I’ve become a mentor to others, I’ve also learned that the roles can be interchangeable. There is always an opportunity to learn. Recently, a fellow designer came to me for help, and I ended up learning just as much from her as she learned from me. We all have something to teach each other.

What do you love about your job?

It’s probably counter-intuitive that a creative art student would end up in a large corporation. In fact, I never knew there were careers in automotive design until I was in college, but once I did, I fell in love with the fact that my drawings could take shape and turn into moving artwork. As a designer I am a storyteller. And I tell my story through cars.

After graduation, I started my career with General Motors, where I’ve been fortunate to work on a variety of vehicles. In addition, I was pleasantly surprised to learn there is such a thing as a “corporate creative culture.” At GM’s Design Center, everyone’s personal background feeds into this ongoing creative atmosphere that brings forward the most compelling designs.

Every project begins as a design competition and only the best wins. When my design proposal was chosen as the XTS interior you see today, it was a dream come true. The reality of it didn’t even really hit me until the day I saw a pre-prototype of the XTS being built. What was once in my imagination had been transformed into a running machine. It reminded me of the power of creativity and the joy that comes with it. Everything in this world has a designer behind it with a specific purpose in mind.

Most people may not know me in my lifetime, but they will know my work. My hope is that this will inspire others and continue to positively impact those who come after me.