Chelsia Lau undoubtedly brings something unique to the male-dominated world of car design. As the Chief Designer for Ford’s advanced design team, Lau brings her female perspective and identity to the design concepts and trends for future Ford cars, as well as forward-looking strategic support and innovative thinking for Ford products. Her position reflects the importance Ford attributes to China’s diverse emerging customer segments.
People are often curious about female car designer, and even today see them as somewhat of an enigma in the industry. Lau offers an explanation: “True to common perceptions of the automobile design field, it’s indeed rare to see female designers, and only a very few have managed to maintain a long career in the field as their work opportunities and lives have changed. I think there are many reasons why talented female designers leave the field, but these reasons haven’t stopped the women who do remain dedicated to automobile design.ˮ
China’s economy grew rapidly after successive reforms and an opening up of the country to the international community, and this led to enormous expansion in both the overall consumer base and the automobile market. In particular, the rise of female consumer is impossible to overlook, Lau notes. “The modern Chinese woman is not only well-educated with a good career, she also has firm control over her family’s finances. The industry has long recognized that female consumers are the key to gaining insight into market trends.”
In the current market, women are one of the most important customer segments for most automobile manufacturers. In most Chinese families, the needs and opinions of wives and daughters are what lies behind most car purchasing decisions, and of course, many women are buying cars for themselves. “The modern Chinese consumer has had plenty of experience choosing cars, so they’re clear about their needs on every level. As automobile designers, we must change with the times if we want to lead the market,ˮ Lau says.
Not only is Lau deeply aware of these market needs, but as a woman herself, she also has an innate understanding of female consumers. This understanding is reflected in her designs. “Of course women like exciting, dynamic designs,” she notes, “but in addition to how a car looks on the outside, they also care a lot about interior furnishings and space design, things like practicality, comfort, touch, color, how different materials work together, and the overall atmosphere of the vehicle.”
For example, women in the Greater China region tend to have smaller figures, so when it comes to considering ergonomics in car design, Lai pays particularly close attention to the comfort of the seats and whether or not they properly cushion the body. Features like this are submitted to a rigorous series of tests, and only after they pass are they integrated into the product. While a user may not notice these subtle elements of the design on their first inspection of a new car, once they hop into the driver’s seat, they will have a positive experience.
Lau firmly believes that due to her experiences, she has a better understanding of the daily habits and needs of women drivers than her male counterparts. She values attention to detail, and strives to bring that to her design practice. This allows her to balance the rational and emotional aspects of design that most appeal to not just female consumers, but also to the mass consumer market in China as a whole. “Of course, if we want our designs to lead the Chinese market, then we must have a deep understanding of Chinese culture,ˮ she explains. “Chinese culture goes back thousands of years, and this has created a philosophy of life that is both broad and deep.”
The Chinese way of thinking and lifestyle deeply influences every generation of Chinese people in terms of the way they live, their aesthetic experiences, their thinking, and their values. Lau, for example, was born in Hong Kong, a modern city in which many cultures meet and interact on a daily basis. She moved to the United States for work, staying there for many years, and then eventually settled in Shanghai where she lives and works today. She believes that “Eastern wisdom” never goes out of style. By re-immersing herself in the culture of her birth, she is continually learning new and often surprising lessons that help her grow both personally and in her career as a designer.
“These ineffable cultures and customs cannot be summed up by a single idea or a single symbol. When China first started opening up, Western cultural trends drove the mainstream consumer segment to worship Western products and designs. But nowadays people have more mature attitudes about the impact of Western culture, and they’re going back to their roots,” Lau explains. After decades of economic development in China, the need to display wealth and prestige through the purchase of luxury consumer goods such as cars and fashion is decreasing. People in today’s China are increasingly making material goods purchasing choices based on their individual needs.
“This was the opportunity that brought me to China and drove me to gain a deeper understanding of huaren (ethnic Chinese) culture, which allows me to look more deeply into the needs and future trends of China’s automobile consumer market,ˮ Lau continues. “Designs that are well-adapted for the Chinese market do not need to use deliberate Eastern symbols. Good culture, design, and thinking goes beyond borders. It’s a kind of grand beauty that doesn’t need to be interpreted through language.ˮ
About Chelsia Lau
Chelsia Lau is currently the Chief Designer for the advanced design team of Ford Motors (China). She is based in Ford’s Asia-Pacific headquarters in Shanghai. Lau has rich experiences and perspectives on international automobile design thanks to her 25 years in the industry; she has participated in or led important product design projects in the North American, European, and Asian markets. Lau’s achievements in the design field have won her widespread international acclaim and recognition, including being named one of the 25 most inspirational and influential women of Hong Kong by the South China Morning Post in 2012; one of the World’s Excellent Females by U+ magazine and The New York Times in 2011;and one of the World’s Outstanding Chinese Designers by the Hong Kong Design Centre in 2006.