Crystal Windham didn’t know what she wanted to do after high school until she took up pencil in her 10th grade art class at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills.
She had never been a great doodler. She had no idea she possessed the talent her teacher had assured her. She “just enjoyed being creative”.
“I was also intrigued – because I’m having fun – to have this confirmation that, ‘hey, you’ve got talent here.’ It’s something I haven’t necessarily heard before in another field,” Windham said.
This talent led her to the College for Creative Studies, automotive design and General Motors Co., where she has worked for over 25 years. Windham, 49, who led the design team for major products including the new electric Cadillac Lyriq, recently became global executive director of industrial design. She is the first black woman to hold the position, which involves leading the design of everything from logos to charging stations.
Windham had no intention of being the first. She has stayed true to her passion for design while helping GM create a more inclusive talent pool and environment. Today, she wants to extend her activities to younger students than when she discovered career opportunities in the field of art, such as car design.
“What I appreciated about the automotive or transportation design product was that it was a product that impacted many, many lives,” she said. “You could see him moving on the road, so he had that wow factor.”
Dive into the design
Back in high school, Windham thought about going into psychology or interior design, but then she took that fateful art class with an encouraging teacher who told Windham’s parents she had a gift that could give him a viable career.
Windham began attending summer programs at the College for Creative Studies.
“That’s where I extended my love of art to all areas,” she said.
CCS offered Windham a partial scholarship for automotive design courses. She fell in love with automotive design and completed internships at Ford Motor Co. and GM.
Her 1993 internship at GM gave her an introduction to automotive interior design. She again fell in love with a new kind of design that gives you “this whole environment with all these different products coming together. You solve problems. And it’s all about this total experience.”
Windham also fell in love with GM, where she had the opportunity to work directly on a vehicle program for the Malibu and worked with another black designer, Marietta Ellis, who mentored her then and in later years.
“It was amazing because they got me in,” Windham said.
And as a global automaker with multiple brands a designer can work on, there’s “never a dull moment,” she added.
Windham was hired at GM in 1993 and never looked back. In 2008, she became the first black female director in GM Design history. She led the teams on several award-winning interiors, including the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu and the 2014 Chevrolet Impala.
She has also taken on leadership roles in exterior design.
An interior designer who dabbles in exterior design doesn’t always translate well, but Michael Simcoe, GM’s vice president of global design, recalls Windham in 2007, ready to try out as a Buick exterior project manager.
“He’s the kind of person who takes things into his own hands,” he said. “She never let you down from that point of view. When she tries something, she gives it her all.”
As Cadillac’s interiors design director, Windham led the team to transform the luxury brand, which had lost much of its market share to European automakers over the years. The team was at the heart of this transformation and Windham made sure to give designers a voice in the process.
“It’s sort of classic in a subjective environment like design, design people can very quickly use up all the oxygen in a room and get very self-absorbed,” Simcoe said. “She’s not like that at all. She always brings vitality to the room. She’s just kind of the source of oxygen, which is kind of special.”
His leadership and design abilities can be seen on the revamped 2021 Cadillac Escalade and Cadillac’s first all-electric vehicle, the Lyriq crossover.
For the Escalade, the task was to incorporate a lot of great technology and have “the proportions and car feel for a full-size SUV,” she said. “It’s not an easy task, but I was up for the challenge, and so was the team – a very talented team.”
The centerpiece of the Escalade’s interior is the industry’s first curved OLED screen technology that has over 38 inches of diagonal display. “The dash will put corporate boardrooms to shame,” Detroit News automotive critic Henry Payne wrote in his review of the 2021 Escalade. “You could do IMAX movie premieres on this thing.”
The Escalade’s big presence allowed the design team to be both bold and confident in transforming the interior, Windham said.
“There was a time when a Cadillac was the standard of the world. And when we were ready for that task, where we wanted to revitalize the brand, we went back to basics,” she said.
The transition to electrification has given designers more flexibility as the powertrain system is flattened, freeing up more interior space. With the Cadillac Lyriq, which is built off of GM’s new Ultium EV platform, Windham and the team were given a blank sheet of paper to execute the design “and create that experience that really pushed the brand, made advancing thinking about design”.
Today in industrial design, Windham carries out various projects. Industrial design covers exterior color development and all materials, finishes and textures both inside and outside a vehicle. It also includes product design for charging infrastructure, logos and vehicle components such as screens, knobs and buttons.
She also leads the design team for the lunar rover project announced by GM last year. The automaker is partnering with Lockheed Martin, a security and aerospace company, to develop lunar vehicles that could potentially carry astronauts to the moon.
“I never thought I would get this opportunity,” she said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime career experience that excites me.”
Throughout her career, Windham has encouraged students to consider careers in art and design through GM Design’s You Make a Difference program, which provides high school and college students with exposure to professional designers, sculptors and others in GM’s creative field.
The program has become a pipeline that brings new designers to GM. In 2022, GM launched a virtual program for participants nationwide.
Windham wants to pursue more outreach to expose students to careers in design. She remembers how her art teacher “changed the trajectory of my life,” but when she arrived at the College for Creative Studies, she met students who had previously been exposed to automotive design.
“On the team, I have someone who hangs out with middle and high school kids and talks about art-based careers, not just exterior designer and interior design, but all the different areas of design. captured here at GM Design,” she said. .
Windham was behind getting proceeds from the first retail sale of the 2023 Cadillac Escalade-V at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Las Vegas to go to Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design – the only college and the state’s historically black university, which reopened in May after closing in 2013.
The auction raised $500,000 and an additional $25,000 was donated by a patron. Pensole offers programs in design, sustainability, business and STEM.
“She’s incredibly dedicated to helping students understand that this is a career path, but also to making sure it’s more inclusive and accessible,” said Kristie Spadine, head of the GM Design’s outreach and development team responsible for ensuring a pipeline for creative careers. “It’s actually really expensive to go to a creative college. And she helps us work with students from a very young age to help them understand when the talent is there to foster it.”
But it’s not just about the pipeline. GM Design is also focusing on training designers it already has with its own mentorship program.
Justin Salmon, interior designer for GM, knows firsthand the type of mentor that Windham is. He worked with her as a trainee on the Chevrolet Blazer in 2014, then again on the Escalade after she was hired. The salmon might be new, but Windham made sure he felt like his opinion still mattered.
“She did a really good job of making me feel like I had something to contribute,” he said. “The way she interacted with you, she really saw the best in you and inspired you to achieve it. And that went a long way in establishing the foundation of trust that I think every designer should have.”