Building something as complex as a car is an expansive collaborative effort calling on people with diverse backgrounds. There are, of course, the engineers designing the actual mechanics, but there are also the aesthetic and tactile elements that affect how you experience the car, each carefully chosen by designers.
Ven Lai is one such person at Chevrolet, where she helped design the colour and trim for the Chevy Cruze. She has a background in fashion design and perhaps unexpectedly was recruited to work in the auto industry, where she puts her creative skills to use. With her unique position adding some colour to our usual fare, we spoke with Lai to learn a little about how she works.
Location: Design Center in Warren, MI
Current Gig: Lead Creative Designer, Global Chevrolet Colour and Trim for the Chevy Cruze
One word that best describes how you work: Attentively
Current mobile device: My life is my Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and for work I have an iPhone 6
Current computer: Apple Mac Pro and iMac
First of all, tell me a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I have a design background in Fashion Design and Applied Textiles and was recruited by GM Design while in school. I knew nothing about automotive design or colour and materials at the time but took the job anyway. My first day at work, I sat in a car with my boss and she explained every part of the car to me and then gave me Colour and Trim responsibility for all our global small cars. I learn everything at hyper speed.
One of the first vehicles I worked on was the Chevy Cruze; I remember vividly realising the scale and immense impact of such a global product.
What apps, software or tools can't you live without? Why?
At work, I use Adobe products extensively to visually communicate creative ideas, graphic layouts and strategies for product.
I'm obsessed with my phone and how Google knows my habits and anticipates my needs.
What's your workspace setup like?
My desk faces a glass wall that looks out to an open air patio, natural light is really nice to have when working with materials and colours.
I have my Mac Pro, two giant screens and a Wacom tablet. Then there are the samples: Piles of fabric swatches, paint samples, chrome bits, door parts, instrument panel sections, floor mats, leather hides, spools of thread, seat buns, laser etch samples... Endless materials that I hoard.
What's your best time-saving shortcut life hack?
I allocate time (as close to deadline as possible) to tasks that don't have devastating consequences so I don't meander and change my mind. I like to pack right before a trip — I will start packing 15-30 minutes before I have to leave for the airport... This gives everyone else anxiety. At work, I shift my schedule to come in extra early when the workload gets intense, so I have time alone without distractions. I will also block out hours on my calendar for creative work so it's not interrupted by meetings.
What's your favourite to-do list manager?
Pen and paper.
Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can't you live without and why?
I always have a sketchbook and pen for ideas; I love going back to sketches and notes. I prefer quality fine line black ink pens, and I buy them by the dozens because they are beautiful on paper, inexpensive and travel well.
What everyday thing are you better at than everyone else? What's your secret?
I keep a cool composure under pressure and stress. I thrive on challenges, conflict and setbacks, and it's just an opportunity to figure out solutions and do things better.
What do you listen to while you work? Got a favourite playlist? Maybe talk radio? Or do you prefer silence?
I have terrible taste in music so I click random stations and playlists on Spotify or one my husband has compiled.
What are you currently reading? What's something you'd recommend?
[I'm reading] Every travel recommendation or snippet on Mongolia in anticipation of my travels there this year. [And] Paul Beatty's The Sellout.
How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?
For a quick break I need fresh air and preferably crisp air, but just some time outdoors will do.
Playing fetch with our puppy is also pretty good — his excitement is immediately gratifying and I don't have to run around.
Spending time in the kitchen also works for me, I like taking on tedious and exhausting recipes.
What's your sleep routine like? Are you a night owl or early-riser?
I do not have the healthiest sleeping schedule. I'm usually in bed between midnight and 1AM and up by 5 or 6AM. This works for me.
Fill in the blank: I'd love to see _________ answer these same questions.
Massimo Bottura, Italian restaurateur and chef.
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Stay humble and hungry.
Is there anything else you'd like to add that might be interesting to readers and fans?
I find so much value in travelling to cultural cities; I prefer the sensory overload of a hectic and crowded city. The mundane humming background noises, the not quite familiar smells lingering, the materials on old buildings standing in contrast next to gleaming new architecture, the colours of local produce and artisan products at the market, the street fashion. Nothing beats witnessing a city in person. As a creative person, I'm always documenting these details; they can easily find their way into future design for Chevrolet.
We've asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.