Helen Emsley, who headed a team that designed the interior of the 2014 Corvette and was recently appointed executive director of GMC design and user experience, spent her childhood afternoons in the local railroad museum, sketching design legends like the Flying Scotsman.
Kimberly Wu, who worked for Honda, jokes that, with a father and grandfather working in design and engineering, “we have gasoline in our veins.”
At the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., John Krsteski, a car design instructor, said he was seeing more women interested in the field. “We’ve gone from one in 15 students being female to having two or three each year,” he said.
But women in the car-design world are still often relegated to automotive interiors, not the sexy exteriors that can represent a brand for decades. “There are some women in design, but the plum jobs — the exterior — are still designed almost entirely by men,” said Tara Weingarten, a longtime automotive journalist and founder of vroomgirls.com, a website for female drivers. “I can’t think of any who are the lead designers on exteriors. All the upper management in the industry is a men’s club. The glass ceiling is really there.”
The redesigned BMW Z4, introduced in 2008 and still in production, remains an automotive rarity, a car designed by two women. Its interior was designed by Nadya Arnaout and its sculptured exterior by Juliane Blasi. The Volvo YCC concept car was also designed by an all-female team, with customized seats and storage for the female driver.
“I think interior car designers require a completely separate, if not more challenging, skill set than those of exterior designers,” Ms. Wu said. In addition to styling a vehicle’s interior, “interior designers are responsible for considering the ergonomics and human factors involved with a driver’s experience.”
“Interior car design tends to seem less formulaic as well,” she added. “There is room for technological advances that may not be possible on the exterior.”
Ms. Weingarten, citing figures from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, said more women than men had driver’s licenses now. Her site, which she designed to be “a Motor Trend experience without the jargon,” reviews four to five new cars each week, from Ferrari to Toyota.
A car columnist for Newsweek for 15 years, Ms. Weingarten grew up steeped in the Los Angeles car culture. “Women very much influence car-buying decisions, especially for family vehicles.”
Female drivers want a car that meets their needs for fuel-efficiency, and in colors and styles they find appealing. “Women — not all, of course — like cute cars, like the last-generation VW Beetle especially, the current Fiat, and the BMW 1 Series,” Ms. Weingarten said. But creating a car designed only for women is a nonstarter, she added.
Dodge came out with a car called La Femme in 1955. “It’s hysterical,” she said. “Women didn’t go for it.”
Women want reliability from their vehicles, but they also really want a place to store their purse or laptop while driving, designers agree. Toyota, which won Ms. Weingarten’s praise for designing well for female customers, has added “a huge space” in its 2014 Highlander S.U.V. for this purpose, she said.
“If we could start over and really see what women want in the interior, it would be far simpler and less superfluous in terms of gadgetry and controls,” said Chris Chapman, chief designer for Hyundai Design North America.
Mr. Krsteski, also a design manager at Hyundai Design North America, in Irvine, Calif., sees in his classrooms the value of women’s ideas in the industry.
“Women bring another level of attention to detail and the complexity of colors,” he said. “A lot of the male designers focus on the big picture but not the finer detail development, while a lot of the female designers I’ve had enjoy working it out to the very last stitch.”
Ms. Wu, a former student of Mr. Krsteski, agreed, saying, “I do think women inherently have a different sensibility when it comes to aesthetics.”
“Our approach towards form, surfaces, details and colors are all factors that potentially set our work apart,” she said. “In a sense, I found it liberating to work in a male-dominated field. It was an opportunity to stand out and a challenge to identify myself outside of the work I was so conditioned to seeing. Within a working group dynamic, I’ve found it really crucial to have a female perspective analyzing a project brief among male designers.”
Kerrin Liang is one of four female designers at Hyundai’s California design office. “At Hyundai in Korea, there are many more,” Mr. Chapman said. “Still, they primarily occupy positions in color and material development, and not the design department in terms of shape and geometry.”
Ms. Wu worked for four years at Honda’s Advanced Design studios as a contract exterior designer, both in California and Tokyo. “The majority of my automotive designs were for the company’s internal projects,” she said. “The advanced studios I worked for at Honda primarily focus on future concepts that may or may not evolve into some of the cars on the road you see today.”
To work in car design requires a blend of passion and patience, since the final product typically takes three or more years from inspiration to finished automobile and is subject to the opinions and needs of many others, from engineers to marketing departments.
Female car designers agree that having encouragement — whether from their relatives, friends or nurturing professors — can make this lesser-known career choice more appealing.
“I’ve been very fortunate in that my parents have always fostered an unrestricted accessibility to the arts,” said Ms. Wu, who now runs a company designing handbags and other products with her sister and works as an illustrator and design instructor. “My sister and I were exposed to several creative outlets at a young age — ceramics and painting were among our favorites.”
She was also lucky to have had ZhaoPing Wei, a visual development artist at DreamWorks, as a mentor.
“I began taking drawing lessons from him at 8, then on and off through college,” she said. “He’s taught me volumes through the years on design. There are underlying shapes to everything we see around us, and I learned how to reduce a design down to a fundamental idea and form, then build from that.”
Do female drivers benefit when a vehicle is also designed by women?
“The female voice has become stronger in car development as their purchasing power has risen, along with their prominence in the historically male-dominated corporate world,” Mr. Chapman said. “There are more women these days getting college degrees than men. This certainly has a positive impact on overall product development in terms of balance.”
Ms. Wu said: “The area where I can see this most obviously manifested is in the car interior. Women have needs and a desire for more options in the interior that men often are less opinionated about.”
Ms. McGill is a lead designer at BMW Group DesignworksUSA, and Ms. Zych is its studio director, having designed the user interface in the interior of the BMW i Series cars. Designing a car interior means working with manufacturers of paint, wood, leather, carpet and textiles, often beginning with a large library of samples, Ms. McGill said. “Our inspiration may come from anywhere. A Loro Piana cashmere might inspire the interior of a Rolls-Royce where we might include wool or cashmere.”
When Ms. Emsley, whose work at GMC now includes pickup trucks, crossovers and full-size S.U.V.’s, reimagined the interior of the Corvette, “we knew we really had to change it. The interior was good but not that good. I formed a team, and I wanted new, young people to have a chance to work on a Corvette. Ten studios around the world contributed their ideas. In the end, we had three sketches we really liked, two local and one from China.”
“I really pushed for great materials. If it looks like it’s aluminum, it is aluminum. If it looks like carbon fiber, it’s the real thing. Can you imagine the headlines if we got it wrong? ‘British woman kills the Corvette!’ ”