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Five inspiring women designing transportation, tell their stories and reveal their secrets to success and the future of mobility. Auto Futures talks to Michelle Christensen, Lili Melikian, Kaiyun Kerrin Liang, Monica Hong and Christine Cheng.

They represent the talent behind Nissan, Honda, Acura, Hyundai, Genesis, BRP and GM/Cadillac/Buick.

Michelle Christensen, Senior Manager, Design, Nissan Design America, San Jose, California

Michelle Christensen is known as Acura’s first female designer. Her ArtCenter class project eventually turned into the 2010 Acura ZDX crossover. She is also the first woman to design a supercar, the 2017 Acura NSX. Christensen spent much of her career at Acura with stints at GM and Faraday Future. She is now Senior Manager, Design, Nissan Design America.

She learned about car design working on cars with her father in San Jose, California.

When Christensen was a student at ArtCenter College of Design, there were few women designers around. During her interview with Auto Futures, she revealed that she kept a photograph of Diane Allen, who managed the design of the Nissan 350Z/370Z sports coupes, Rogue, Nissan Titan full-size truck and Infiniti QX56 SUV, on her wall to inspire her.

When Christensen started working at Nissan, she met with her before Allen retired.

“Allen was an OG (expert) at Nissan. She had a great influence on the brand during one of Nissan’s big renaissances. I’m coming in as she’s leaving in another renaissance at Nissan with ten new vehicles coming in the next twenty months. It’s exciting to be here where there are a lot of new vehicles in the pipeline,” she says.

“I look at car design as a product for a person with a need that has to be addressed. If you look at art, it’s designed for something else.” 

Christensen is pleased to be at Nissan at the present time because there is a cultural shift to put the customers first. What do they do in their daily life? Do they need to carry packages? How much cargo space? The purpose of the vehicle decides the shape – the shape of an SUV is different from a hypercar or a minivan, says Christensen.

She likes working at Nissan because they have design studios all over the world that contribute and complete the designs

“Nissan has the coolest design team. All are inspired from outside of automotive. They are architects, artists and other kinds of designers.”

What inspires them could be anything. It could be a dress or a product. Most importantly, the designs target the customer’s lifestyle.

Christensen looks at design as something that needs to be beautiful and pleasing. It should also be useful, incorporating the best available technology to do it.

“We get details of the demographics. We see a day and in the life of the person. Do they have to bring along their dogs or their kids?” says Christensen. She drives her dream muscle car, a 1965 Malibu Chevelle.

Christensen recently managed the final exterior design execution and concept model fabrication of the INFINITI QX60 Monograph.

Michelle Christensen Nda Car 2 Sept2020 Sm

Lili Melikian, Exterior Designer, Acura, Born in Iran, Armenian American, Glendale, California

Lili Melikian grew up in Glendale, California, was born in Iran and calling herself Armenian American. Her father owns an automotive repair shop in Sun Valley. Her grandfather was the first Armenian to start a car repair shop in Iran after escaping the Armenian genocide in 1917.

“I’ve always been interested in design and have been artistic,” says Melikian.

She went to a technology magnet school (Clark Magnet High School in La Crescenta) and learned about “cool programs, the web and digital media.” One summer, she went to a camp at ArtCenter. When she saw the designs, “I fell in love…. I knew I had to design transportation.”

At that time, she knew she wanted to go to ArtCenter. She took classes at Pasadena City College to work on her design portfolio with Stan Kong who also taught at ArtCenter. Eventually, she was accepted at ArtCenter. She interned at Design California at the Santa Monica Airport. Then she interned at CALTY, Toyota design in Newport Beach, California.

“CALTY was an inspirational studio,” says Melikian. At many of the internships, the managers were also her mentors. Then her first job was at the GM Design Studio in North Hollywood, where she met Michelle Christensen. Christensen left to go work at Honda. When Melikian realized she wanted more of a challenge, she contacted Christensen and was eventually hired at Honda and Acura.

“I’m proud of the Acura products because Acura is in a revival right now. It’s focusing on its core tenants, a brand that is luxury and performance,” says Melikian.

Recently Melikian worked on the performance SUV the 2020 MDX A-Spec. She says “It’s louder, unapologetic in contrast to the other brands. It’s in your face.”

The MDX A-Spec has been referred to as having the soul of a sports car that out-does Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, and even Lexus with nuance that makes it outstanding,

“I like performance vehicles. Acura is not your typical luxury brand. It makes you feel more speed.”

“I didn’t realize how many people are involved in creating a car when I was in transportation school. Car design includes many people. You have to work with designers, engineers, and marketing people. I appreciate now that it makes for a better car because a democratizes cars,” she notes.

Her favourite classic car was her 1990 Mazda Miata MX-5 convertible.

“To me, it was a classic, a Japanese take on the Jaguar E-Type. It had a fluid speed form.” 

When she was at ArtCenter, she found a magazine article about Vicki von Holtzhausen, a GM designer. She kept the magazine for a long time.

“It is important to see someone, like you, who is doing what you want to do,” says Melikian.

Lili Mdx 2 (002)

Kaiyun Kerrin Liang, Senior Interior Designer at Genesis, Taipei, Taiwan

When Kaiyun Kerrin Liang was in her twenties learning English, she took graphic arts courses at ArtCenter at night. Liang always knew she wanted to do graphic design. She thought it was fun and easy. She wanted a challenge. Her teacher suggested that she try sketching automotive designs and to see if she liked doing it.

Then she found out that she really liked transportation design because it was highly competitive. She was more likely to get a scholarship if she applied to the transportation department at ArtCenter and she received a scholarship from Ford.

Her fellow’s classmates in transportation helped her learn because they had to sketch many sketches a week. Her teacher, John Krsteski, took her portfolio to his boss. She was hired to work at Hyundai eight weeks before graduation.

She’s been inspired by her mentors at internships. She started off working at Hyundai. Then after a few years, her boss said she would do well in luxury car design. Her favourite classic car is the 1969 Citroen DS 21.

“I was intrigued by the steering wheel design. The spoke is set off-centre. It is such a chic detail. You can see the dashboard clearly,” says Liang.

“When you’re doing a luxury vehicle, you need the very finest materials and the details. You don’t want the metal trim to be heavy because it will look cheesy and corny. It also has to be functional.”

Liang often works on future concepts. One of her latest concepts is a rotating seat making it easier to get in and out of the cars, especially for people with disabilities.

Genesis’ main design studio is in Korea. Liang works at the Genesis studio in Irvine, California.

“Southern California is the satellite design studio where we have more inspiration. We think outside the box, think freely with crazy ideas. Then they will be refined later. We target the interior design for North America,” she says.

Because North America is a large place, there are places to park and more space with many places to go to. That’s why there are more SUVs. “Soccer moms like luxury too,” commented Liang.

She encourages more women to get into car design.

“I don’t think you need to be a guy to make a beautiful shape. That’s what exterior and interior car design are about. You don’t need to think about the mechanical parts. You need to think about making a beautiful shape to make people’s lives easier,” says Liang “Women are very good at graphic design and fashion design. In many ways designing cars is like fashion and graphic design.”

“Since I’m pregnant, when I’m a mother, I’m sure I will start looking at the way cars are designed for children and baby seats and how to help families,” says Liang.


Monica Hong, Accessory Designer BRP, Born in Korea, Raised in Toronto, Canada

Monica Hong was born in Korea and considers herself Canadian because she spent most of her life in Toronto, Canada. She thought she was going to be an illustrator and applied to art schools for illustration. Then learned about car design and applied for admission to ArtCenter.

While at ArtCenter, she was inspired by Jose Wyszogrod and Tisha Johnson. She was also inspired by Peter Schreyer, formerly at Audi. Schreyer was responsible for the redesigns of the Kia Hyundai brand who visited ArtCenter. Then she did her first internship at Honda. She was contacted by BRP through LinkedIn and interviewed with many automakers before the pandemic.

Currently, she’s designing accessories for the adventure company BRP best know for the Ski-doo, Sea-doo, Can-Am off-and on-road vehicles and boats.

“It is very challenging because of the modularity of it. To make accessories accessible and user friendly,” says Hong, who likes designing for adventure vehicles.

“They’re raw vehicles with maximum enthusiasm and riding pleasure. We want to maximize the experience. In fact, when the pandemic hit. People were looking for things to do. They couldn’t travel as they usually did. Many BRP dealers sold out.”

Hong sees transportation design as a process with a purpose. When she designs, it has to be seamlessly integrated. She works with teams that come up with ideas for future concepts.

Her favourite classic cars are the Porsche 911 930 generation and the Land Rover Defender.

“If you think about it. We don’t have many women designers in automotive and transportation. We need to see more representation of women designers in the media and more mentors,” says Hong.

Hong has been helped by Lucia Lee, designer of the Audi Quattro through LinkedIn. She thinks that schools need to make classes accessible, offer them online and make them more affordable.

“The most important part of being a designer is to be able to sketch what your concept is. Sketching is like playing the piano. You have to practice for years,” says Hong.

Hong advises that young people start sketching as early as possible. She has seen lead designers instantly, within an hour, create a sketch. Designers have to be able to show their concepts, talk and write about them.


Christine Cheng, Exterior Design Manager, General Motors, born in Korea, Raised in Cupertino, California

Christine Cheng was born in Korea. Her parents immigrated to Cupertino, California, when she was 10 years old. She was not influenced by the California car culture but she always knew that she wanted to design and be an artist.

“I wanted to do something with art. I thought about fashion and illustration. In high school, I learned about car design. I saw that it is an opportunity to turn art into something beautiful that comes to life, with a positive impact and brings joy to people’s lives.” says Cheng. Then she started to sketch cars and her high school. Her art teacher suggested she meet with Danny Yoon at ArtCenter. He took Cheng into the parking lot showing her the shapes of car design.

Cheng started an internship at GM at the North Hollywood, California Design studio and worked while she was attending ArtCenter. She wound up going to Michigan because she designed the Cadillac XTS in 2008. Cheng worked on the designs of the 2010 Cadillac XTS platinum concept; 2011 Cadillac Ciel concept; 2013 Cadillac XTS; 2019 Chevrolet Blazer; 2020 GMC Acadia and early foundation work on the 2021 GMC Yukon.

Buick recently revealed the stunning exterior design from Cheng of the 2021 Buick Envision.

Patrick Min, Senior Director, Global Automotive Consulting at J.D. Power, called the 2021 Envision the ‘Best redesign of the year’. The design has all been called striking, stylish, refined, attractive, modern, edgy, contemporary and ‘dressed to kill’.

Cheng previously called her design liquid metal on wheels, and explained to Auto Futures, “In the new Buick Envision we captured the epitome of sculptural beauty. It is elegant, dramatic, athletic, sporty and expressive.”


Cheng is often asked how being one of the few women in car design influences her designs to which she quipped, “No one ever asks a man how being male influences his designs. I am a Korean American with my own specific life experience. My life experiences come from a perspective of diversity. Design to me is individual to who I am. I design because of who I am.”

It’s not just about the design of a shape but it is based on a customer- the target demographic, a design for a certain person. It’s part of a common humanity. Like the customers, the cars themselves have a character and a personality, says Cheng.

“How you design the vehicle – the front face of the vehicle – the grill and the lower area show the personality. As well as the proportion of the body size of the vehicle.”

She advises future car designers, “It’s going to take a lot of work design. It takes a lot of passion and late nights. It’s hard work and it takes teamwork. It’s not like a sketch of a hotshot,” says Cheng, “We all have to work as a team sculpting. You have to get used to thinking beyond yourself and working as a team.”

Cheng will be speaking at the ArtCenter Virtual Classic on Saturday, March 27. Like most designers, she admires some of the American classics – her favourite is the ’63 Corvette with the split windows.

The 2021 Envision Has A Lower, Wider Stance With More Athletic P

The Future of Transportation Design Education

The ArtCenter College of Design is working on getting more women interested in transportation design.

“We have seen female graduates of our Transportation Design program achieve great success in the industry. We continue to focus on efforts to recruit more women into the program, knowing that there is a strong demand in the automotive studios,” says Jay Sanders, Executive Director, Undergraduate Transportation Design, ArtCenter College of Design.

“We have recently added more women to our faculty and with the greater reach of our new online programs. We hope to identify and encourage more young female designers to consider studying with us. While we have seen periodic increases in the number of female applicants over the years, we would like to be able to sustain the increases year over year,” says Sanders.

For the first-time ArtCenter is offering online extension classes in transportation that are open to anyone interested.

Gv80 Fuel Cell Concept

The car will be more like a social mobility space to hang out.

Vehicle design is an ever-changing art. The women Auto Futures spoke to offer glimpses into the future of mobility design.

Christensen has seen the whole push to autonomous vehicles, connectivity and the mobility space. “I like the new technology coming up. There are a lot of techniques out there and many more expressions to create new options. There is still room for the enthusiast.”

Melikian says: “There is a trend towards electrification. It gives you a new set of design challenges. It is an ecosystem. When the vehicle is charging – how do the people get to where they want to go? It creates new product lines. Many new products will come from electrification.”

“I think in the future cars will be electric and self-driving. It will free up space and enable shared vehicles. The car will be more like a living room with furniture where people can face each other. Maybe there might be a desk for work. The car will be more like a social mobility space to hang out,” says Liang.

At 25 years old, Hong envisions the future of automotive for the next generations.

“Younger generations don’t really care about car ownership and look at it as a mode of transportation. We value experiences. Even when there will autonomous vehicles, people will want to experience adventures.”

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