Comfort is key to enjoying a luxury vehicle, but it’s not the only aspect that concerns Crystal Windham. As director of Design, Cadillac Interiors, she incorporates every creative element possible to give customers an innovative and unforgettable experience.
Windham has realized several unique milestones herself since joining General Motors – home of Cadillac Buick, GMC and Chevrolet – in 1994. In fact, she became the first African American female director in GM Design’s history in 2008 and spearheaded many award-winning interiors, including the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu and 2014 Chevrolet Impala.
In 2016, Windham was appointed to head the division, and in the last four years, she’s led the team that designed all aspects inside of the brand’s CT5, CT4, XT6 and the 2021 Cadillac Escalade. This demanding, high-tech role requires that she look beyond comfort to address the wide-ranging needs of the customer.
When it comes to interior design, it’s important to understand the customer to the core, Windham explained. “Every part and piece is designed and put together in harmony where a person has to sit. Things have to be in the right spot; they have to be in reach –it’s a wonderful challenge.”
In addition to attractiveness, she said, “Some of the things that we deal with include technology integration with an iPhone or Samsung and what do these things look like and how they integrate with the overall instrument panel that’s in front of you.
“Safety is another huge aspect,” she noted. “How many air bags you have, how to contain them in the surface and not take up too much room. That’s a big factor,” she said. “Also, the layout and usability of everything – temperature controller, screens, touch-points, etc.”
Since the brand is sold around the world, Windham said, “We’re not only satisfying customers in North America, but in China and Korea, and we have to know how they use their vehicle and how we can accommodate them with the right amenities, including storage.”
Finding answers to those questions keeps Windham excited about her job and the ongoing possibilities it presents. The assignment also melds seamlessly with her lifelong love of art and provides the perfect outlet to express her creativity in her profession.
A native of Detroit, Michigan, Windham began drawing as a youngster, “doodling faces and hairstyles,” she recalled. During high school, she enrolled in art classes where a teacher noticed her potential and persuaded her to pursue her talent. He exposed Windham to still life and sculpture as well.
Following graduation, she attended Detroit’s College for Creative Studies (CCS) and had opportunities to intern at Ford and General Motors and take advantage of the guidance of two mentors at each firm, a husband and wife who worked at Ford and GM, respectively.
“That was so important to me – to have someone that I could connect with that was actually in the job. That gave me a lot more confidence that I could do it,” Windham said.
“Also, it was there that I could take my love of art and drawing and apply it to car design. Just getting deeper into my love of automotive design and being creative and the aspect of problem-solving and just shaping the future for cars that would impact millions of lives – that really intrigued me,” said Windham.
Clearly, GM was impressed by Windham. Shortly before she matriculated with an industrial design degree, the company made her a job offer, which she accepted. The relationship has been mutually beneficial and resulted in Windham being honored as Urban Wheel Designer of the Year, the Emerging Leader Award from the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Automotive News 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry and National Newspaper Publishers Association Leadership Award.
Not only has she excelled at GM over the last 26 years, but Windham also reaches back to encourage younger African Americans to consider careers in the automotive industry. She is actively involved in GM Design’s You Make a Difference program that connects with youth interested in art and design.
“It is always been important to me to spread the word about this field because I think we (Blacks) are some of the most creative individuals on this planet. Through the You Make A Difference program, we go out to middle and high school students, really tapping them early, so that they know this is a real option for a career, especially to those already in art classes and have math skills, too, because you need math to understand how things are measured,” said Windham, who also earned an MBA from the University of Detroit-Mercy.
Cadillac also lends support to other initiatives in the African American community. For the last 10 years, Cadillac has served as a major sponsor of the American Black Film Festival, which showcases talented actors and filmmakers of color.
Looking back over her career, Windham credits her success to her parents, who she credits with inspiring her and her brother to achieve at the highest level of whatever profession they were involved in. She also believes in having “a winning spirit.”
“I have this mindset of being positive, proactive and having a winning spirit. It has a lot to do with my upbringing,” she said.
“It’s really about pursuing your goals with determination and not looking back – staying focused – and doing it with humble confidence. You have to be able to humble yourself in all of it because it keeps you growing and it keeps your team fueled as well.”