A female edge for the future of car design

Chelsia Lau says being an Asian woman gives her an edge as a designer with Ford, and will also help in making cars that appeal to women

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 July, 2013, 5:02am

She is not the first Hongkonger to become an internationally recognised car designer, but Chelsia Lau may be the only local woman in a senior position in the male-dominated global car industry.

Raised in a small village on Lantau, and a graduate of a local design institute, Lau, the chief designer of Ford's strategic concepts group, was seen as the odd one out when she joined Ford as a junior designer in the early 1990s.

"I could feel the eyes on me, the scepticism," she says. "Women were rare in this field back then, and Asian women even rarer. But when you work hard, act humble and show what you are capable of after some projects, then, little by little, people realise you are not someone who is fooling around.

"When I was small, I was taught to be reserved and not to stare people in the eyes during a conversation, but that didn't seem to work in the United States. Such behaviour only gave people the impression that you had no confidence or ideas."

A car designer needs to be able to defend his design before dozens of engineers, suppliers and budget controllers, and Lau learned to become a warrior who knew how to fight to keep the parts of a design that mattered and also when to make compromises when some ideas were simply too expensive or impractical to put into shape.

"Designers and engineers may have clashes, but if you win their support, they are your best friends," Lau says.

Lau has spent more than two decades working her way up the ladder at Ford, and China's emergence as the world's biggest car market gave her a push in the right direction. She has helped design and localise some of Ford's most popular models, such as the Fiesta and Explorer, for the mainland market.

Women were rare in this field back then, and Asian women even rarer. But when you ... show what you are capable of after some projects, then, little by little, people realise you are not someone who is fooling around

Ford, whose China strategy was considered by many to be too reserved in the past, is now keen to boost its market share on the mainland. It recently set up its first advanced studio in China to look for elements that will define a Ford car over the next two decades, and Lau was put behind the wheel.

"Buyers, especially those from China, are always after new style and new designs, but it is so difficult to predict the trend nowadays as things change too quickly," Lau says. "In the past, it may have taken five to 10 years to form a generation gap, now it is three years or even shorter. A group of teenagers who look similar in appearance may actually have very different habits; they use different apps and have different ideas about what's cool."

One aspect that has attracted Lau's attention is China's rapidly ageing population, with the Beijing government expecting the number of mainlanders over the age of 65 to reach 400 million by 2050.

"In terms of their vision and hearing, for example, is there anything we can do to the interface to help them more focus on driving?" Lau says. "Maybe an option for them to switch to auto piloting when needs arise?"

While coming up with a new type of car is no easy task, Lau says that being an Asian female had given her an edge in her job.

"More women are buying their own car and they also make decisions about which car their family buys, so it's good for a company to produce cars that can cater for women's needs," she says. "That is why it is important to have female designers."

An item she proposed for the Fiesta, Ford's small hatchback aimed at young families, for example, was a little compartment made specifically for women to store their high heels, so they can switch into more comfortable shoes while driving.

A Ford study found that women influenced 85 per cent of all car-buying decisions and purchased 45 per cent of all vehicles seven years ago. The percentage can only have risen since.

Lau stresses, however, that creating a car that suits women does not have to compromise the car's appeal to men.

"A female's car is not a pink car," she says. "Women also prefer a stylish and fashionable auto. However, they also pay attention to details such as the material and structure of the vehicle's interior. Is the seat comfortable enough for their delicate body? Is the seat material durable or easy to clean?"

While some women are making names for themselves in the car industry, including Ford's chief group lead designer, Susan Lampinen, Nissan's design manager for America, Diane Allen, and the first female design director at General Motors, Wulin Gaowa, they are still a minority in the design workplace.

"On and off there were women who joined this business, but in the end they didn't carry on due to family and other factors," Lau says. "Or some got to focus on a very niche sector."