La Shirl Turner Says the Key to Designing a Timeless Car Lies In Color and Materials

For this year’s Core77 Design Awards, we’re conducting in-depth interviews with each of our jury captains to get in a glimpse into their creative minds and hear more about what they’ll be looking for in this year’s awards submissions.

La Shirl Turner’s work revolves around the details of automobiles that don’t always receive as much glory but are arguably some of the most important facets of them. As the Head of the Exterior and Interior Color and Materials at Fiat Chrysler, or FCA for short, Turner’s design work incorporates not only color and personality into a vehicle, but also a sense of comfortability through careful material selection. In our recent interview with Turner, who will serve as this year’s Core77 Design Awards Transportation Jury Captain, we discussed her favorite parts about the job and why she wants to help inspire young girls to pursue careers in automotive design.

How did you find yourself going into the profession of automobile design?

Wow. How do I make this story short? I am from Detroit, so basically I grew up around cars and this whole automotive industry world. So actually, growing up I was all about looking at cars in magazines, I was attracted to the colors of the cars on the covers. You know, where a lot of my female friends were all ripping pages from fashion magazines, and I was the total opposite.

I was always into textiles and weaving, so going to college for creative studies I actually focused on textile design. At one time I thought I was going to be a fashion designer—I was making dresses out of garbage bags for my sister for her birthday. So, I was in that design world until I landed where I really wanted to be. I later had the opportunity to go into the automotive world, learning about how to draw those interiors and exteriors of cars. So it was kind of like I got to merge two worlds together.

Can you tell me a little bit more about what you do on a daily basis?

Sure. My design team is called Advanced Color Materials for FCA. We’re responsible for all the vehicles for color and materials, so everything from exterior paint to wheels and finishes, to the bright work on the exterior. Then when you get to the interior, we’re responsible for everything from headliner down to carpet, leather, fabric. Anything you can see or touch in a vehicle, we’ve had our hands on it. 

“We’re more influenced by what’s going on in the environment; the turnover for “what’s happening now” is quick. If there’s a new red color that’s popular, that could change by the time we produce a vehicle.”

We initially found you because of your designs for the Jeep Renegade, and thought that the color combinations were really interesting. I had never seen anything quite like that before, so I was curious where you find your inspiration for colors and materials.

2015 Jeep Renegade

First, I’m really excited that the Renegade caught your attention. I can actually say that was one of the vehicles and products that we had a lot of fun working on. That was a palette where we actually got to be really expressive, and try different things as far as color and materials. Especially the finishes, as well as the exterior color combination.

My team and I, depending on the brand and the product, we try to draw our inspiration now from different cultures, different environments. We always do the traditional designer inspiration route where we’re looking at fashion, architecture, apparel, sneakers, lots of products. So, we try and mix a lot of that, but we’re more influenced by what’s going on in the world and in the environment. Because as you know, products and apparel are so trendy, and the turnover for “what’s happening now” is quick. If there’s a new red color that’s popular, that could change by the time we produce a vehicle. 

Interior of the 2015 Jeep Renegade

In what part of the production process do Colors and Materials come in?

We start our work when the project is kicked off, when the design and engineering teams start. We begin our homework as far as what kind of story are we going to tell, because we always say that we tell a story through our color and materials. We set the mood and the environment. So, we do a lot of homework. We research competitors. We are in it from the start to the finish.

Because in our world, we make the color and material proposals. We also work with a lot of suppliers to develop the leathers and fabrics. We have our hands in working with the engineering teams to make sure that the materials that we select are feasible. So there’s a lot of behind the scenes work that goes on, before materials are even selected to put in a vehicle.

What’s your favorite part of the entire process?

I like all of it. I like the research, the challenges that come with selecting a material that may not have testing. You know, how can we get this to work? How can we work through the challenges or the struggles? I like that part of it, because then let’s say something makes it into the vehicle, and you look at it. It’s at the auto show and you know what it took to get that there.

And I also like the final part of the process. I guess we never really stop, but just even sometimes hearing the feedback. You know, anything we do in the design world, there’s going to be that group who really love what you’re doing, and there’s always that group who has that, “Oh, why did they select that kind of …?”—you know, that sort of moment. And I actually enjoy both of those, because when you hear some of the feedback, people saying, “Why did they choose that paint color?” or, “Why is that leather material there?” It makes you want to work even harder on the next project.

Absolutely! So I’m curious since you’ve been working in the automotive world, what part of your work has seen the biggest shifts?

As far as the color and material world … For me, I can say that I’ve been a part of the whole growth and change. I see a lot of different materials come and go. A lot of enhancements to the basic materials like leathers and vinyl and things like that. I think for us, we try and evolve through our color and materials selections as the suppliers are changing and technologies are so enhanced. [Colors and materials] are part of that wave also. As new technologies come aboard we ask, how do we incorporate that into materials that do pass automotive testing? I think that’s the biggest part of this whole evolution for us.

What do you mean by automotive testing for materials? 

We go through a process. Let’s say if there was a new material type or technology that we’ve never used in a vehicle, we work through it with our Materials and Engineering team to do automotive testing, to make sure that the material is feasible. It’ll trim on a seat, it won’t shred, it’s sewable. It’ll live in that environment.

There are different testing processes for all the materials we select. We have different groups within the corporation in Materials and Engineering that work on seating. You know, different IP, flooring. So, we work with a large variety of teams.

Based on the work that you do, in what ways do you think our concept of transportation is going to change in the future?

Of course, I’m going to answer this from a color and materials perspective, right? I think even with the autonomous world going on, the materials are always going to remain important. Whether they’re simple, clean, I think they will always still have to have durability. They will have to last within that environment. 

I think materials might become even more important due to the fact that autonomous cars will be even more about comfort. The vehicles won’t be as much about driving as it will be a living space, or a space to get from one place to another.

Yeah. I think it kind of goes back to what I said about keeping things a little bit more simple. I think within the autonomous world, the customer is still going to want a simple, clean environment. Something that meets their needs, for whatever vehicle type that is going to be within an autonomous world. I think for us, the color and materials will always still be predominantly the same. I mean the same with regards to how we make our materials selections, but we’re just changing what we’re selecting for that vehicle.

You found yourself in one of these occupations that’s not just slightly, but overwhelmingly seen as dominated by men. I’m curious about your experience in the automotive industry as a woman, and also the kind of advice you would give to female designers or students who are aspiring to enter the transportation field.

Well, it’s funny because we are a team of 21 right now, and I can actually tell you that I feel that I have the most diverse team within the design office—we have female employees, people from around the world. You know, when I first got into this, it was predominantly a male environment, but I can also say that I’ve been a witness to how it’s changed. There are more females within automotive, not just in Color and Materials, but also designers. So, I think there’s a great opportunity for females in automotive.

Our studio does a lot of visits to high schools and middle schools teaching other kids about the automotive world. Because for me, I notice that a lot of girls don’t even know that there is a career in Color and Materials. Or they don’t even know that, hey, I can be a car designer. So, I think it’s about getting that message out to females or young women, that there is a career path in automotive that’s just not engineering, you know?

The Dodge Challenger SRT Demon, another design project Turner was involved in


Right. Yeah. It’s not profiled as much, all of these women designers who are behind the scenes, so it’s good to get more faces out there.

Yes. That’s why I really like reaching out to the high school students, and even the lower grade levels, to let them know that there is a career path out there. A lot of them don’t know. Even when I was in college, I didn’t know. I was in textiles. I didn’t know that I could merge drawing interiors or exteriors into a career. I thought, okay, if I’m not going into fashion or something else, what am I going to do? Am I going be a starving artist? I don’t know. But it’s all about the message. Getting that message out there that there is a career opportunity. Especially for women.

Final question: you’re judging the transportation category, so I’m curious what you’re hoping to see in terms of the submissions. What will you be looking for 

I think what my team and I will be looking for is someone who is presenting a project or portfolio that has personality. Something that’s not traditional and has a real wow factor. I mean, I know a lot of the categories, or a lot of the things that may be presented may be things that have been seen before. But what did they do with that? If there’s a new bicycle design, what did they do with the materials on the bicycle design? Is it just a traditional bicycle design? So, just looking for things that are outside the norm.

And then also, of course we will be a little color and materials biased, but how are they using those materials? Are they using new and unique materials in a different way? The materials, are they placed on a form, or whatever project that they’re presenting? I’m kind of excited. I think it’s going to be really cool.

I also think the most attention-getting products will be the ones that clearly tell a story—ones where you can get an understanding of what they’re trying to tell on the first glance. It’s all about the story for me.

The Core77 Design Awards Transportation Jury

2018 Transportation Jury Captain La Shirl Turner will be joined by these designers for the awards selection process:

Meredith Gannes, Design Manager, FCA US (left) and Shady Elias, Senior Designer, FCA US (right)
Jun Ryu, Design Manager, FCA US (left) and Kasia Lys, Lead Senior Designer, FCA US (right)

Thinking of submitting to the Transportation category in the 2018 Core77 Design Awards? Submit today—Regular Deadline ends March 8th!

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