Thirteen years ago, Sharon Gauci became the first woman asked to join the judges' panel for her native country's Australian Design Awards. The annual laurels had been handed out since the 1950s, so Gauci may be forgiven if she viewed the invitation — a career highlight — as a smidge overdue.
"Things are better now," said Gauci, General Motors' executive director for industrial design. "But the numbers still aren't what we'd like them to be. Our industry needs and wants creative people from different backgrounds — women, minorities, everybody."
Today, as one of her company's top design professionals and a member of its leadership team, Gauci, 48, plays an important role in the "visual expression" of General Motors and its brands around the world. In 1993, however, when she graduated with honors from Swinburne University in Melbourne, she was one of just two women in her industrial design class.
Only a handful of colleges and universities offer bachelor's degrees in automotive design, typically called transportation design and often a subset of industrial design. Women still account for a small percentage of graduates, but their numbers are rising, the schools say.
"We see more women in industrial design generally, with transportation design a part of that," said Chris Livaudais, executive director of the Industrial Designers Society of America. He estimated that 25 to 35 percent of the society's working members are women.
Over the past seven years, the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., has noted a 25 percent increase in the number of women enrolled in the school's transportation design programs. Alumnae have gone on to key industry posts.
Michelle Christensen, who graduated in 2005, helped shape the NSX supercar as a lead exterior designer at Acura. Tisha Johnson, class of '99, is vice president for interior design at Volvo in Sweden. .
At Detroit's College for Creative Studies, "only about 10 percent of our transportation design seniors are women," said Paul Snyder, who heads the school's undergraduate program. But every one "will be in high demand when they graduate," he added.
Crystal Windham, a 1994 graduate of the college, who directs Cadillac's interior design team, knew little about cars as a teenager. Encouraged by a high school teacher to pursue her passion for art, however, she attended an invitational event at the College for Creative Studies and "fell in love," she said.
Windham, 45, saw automotive design as "a chance to create products that impact so many lives." After sophomore- and junior-year internships, she joined General Motors upon graduation.
Transportation design majors usually study automotive manufacturing processes; color, materials and finishes (CMF in industry parlance); and "vehicle packaging" — how engines, drivetrains, braking and suspension systems, as well as chassis length, window size and fuel tanks, influence design. Model building and 3-D printing skills are important parts of a typical curriculum.
Even so, the beating heart of automotive design will always be art, Snyder said. "Digital tools have lightened some of the burden," he said, "but first and foremost a transportation designer must learn to draw."
Many automotive designers spend most of their careers focusing on color, materials and finishes — virtually everything on or in an automobile that is touched or seen. At a large company like GM, they work in studios where concepts often precede production by years — what Gauci calls "the landscape of the future."
By contrast, Jo Lewis at McLaren works just minutes away from her employer's production line. "We're very hands-on," said Lewis, who leads the British automaker's nine-member CMF team. "I'm down there at least once a day."
Some believe the natural evolution of automobiles will spur greater demand for female designers. For much of the past century, vehicle design largely focused on an auto's exterior, said Raphael Zammit, who heads the graduate program at the College for Creative Studies.
"You didn't want to get stuck doing interiors and door handles," he said.
However, as automobiles became more mechanically refined — and as safety requirements imposed greater conformity on exterior designs — interiors grew in importance. With the advent of self-driving autos and an anticipated decline in privately owned cars, that can only continue, Zammit said. Vehicles, he said, "will become more like homes or offices."
A future in which autonomous vehicles roam beneath the sea intrigues Grace Lee, a second-year transportation design student at the ArtCenter in Pasadena. A former microbiology major "who was always good at drawing things," she said, she is fascinated by how images from nature influence automotive shapes and concepts — the correlation between the Corvette Stingray and its inspiration, the mako shark, for example.
"I always viewed the car world as male-dominated," Lee said, "so it's really nice to see design become a more welcoming environment for women."
Today, many automakers and schools support internships, student-parent visits and other outreach programs to encourage greater diversity among designers.