GM’s Krysti Murphy: Lead Designer for Buick

Raise your hand if the last time you bought your car, color was a factor. Well, as much as we wish we could, we can’t see you, but our hands are definitely raised. Krysti Murphy is one of the faces behind the methodical creation of a car’s hue.

An employee at GM for six years, Krysti got her start in design by working in toys at Hasbro in a role that brings out our inner 7-year-old: designing the bright, vibrantly saturated colors of My Little Pony. After her time there, Krysti worked for a Cleveland-based consumer goods company designing everything from vacuum cleaners to furniture. That role, and a lot of networking, was a steppingstone that led her to GM where she is now the lead Buick designer, working alongside a design team of more than 40 others in Detroit.

“Going from toys to cars was a shift,” Krysti says. “The life cycle of the product is so different. With My Little Pony, I would create a hot pink and know that it had a shelf life of 6 months. But when I work on a car, I know that color is going to be around for 10 years. At the end of the day, I’m still working on a product. But with the Buick Avista, it’s a much bigger product, which is pretty remarkable for me to think about.”

When you wake up every morning, what do you most look forward to in your workday?

When I wake up, what I’m really excited about is developing colors. In my job I get to do a lot of trend research. I work with my global counterparts and try to develop the next latest and greatest colors. I do my trend research by looking at everything from fashion magazines and furniture design, to nature and nail polish. Nail polish actually is one of my favorites to look to for color. I’m always wondering, “What is that next cool color we can create?”

To break down that process a bit, what is your day-to-day like? How do you organize your day?

Every day is different, and no day is the same. It’s another great aspect of my job. In this role you’re not on a typical schedule, and I like that. Aside from trend research, our work begins digitally. I will take all of the research I’ve done, and then I will create a mood board that features the images and words that describe a specific floor space. I then take that mood board to our artisan paint shop team, and at that point, we really get to work on the color. We can take any shade out of any image. So, any photo can provide a bit of a formula for us to start with.

Then, we get to play around with the color. We look at things like adding more metallic or pearl, or asking ourselves if the color should be solid or maybe a tint coat. Then once we think a color is ready, we get to paint that shade on small panels, and then on larger forms. That’s a really cool part of the process.

When you go through that process – like you did recently for the jewel-tone reds and blues of the Buick Avista – about how many iterations of color do you create for one vehicle?

I wouldn’t say we created hundreds of iterations, but it was somewhere up there, specifically with the blue tone. We even had different colors prior to developing the blue. The blue space is such a wide bandwidth of colors – from the lightest lights to the darkest, inkiest navy. The inspiration from the blue shade came from water. When you look at water, you look to see how deep it really goes, and the beautiful highlight of the sun hitting the waves. And when I thought about the flow of the car, it made sense.

The deep, deep read – almost like a precious jewel – was really interesting to work with. I love how deep and rich a ruby can be, with such intense color. For the red shade, I tried to take that look and translate it into a paint.

GM's Krysti Murphy looks at a Buick Avista

While working on the exterior color of the car, how much of your mind was focused on the car’s interior?

Half of the work is with the interior colors, and that’s the space where I really get to work with my counterparts. It’s a huge team effort to make the whole look of a vehicle come together.

What is the typical amount of time spent creating the color of a car from start to finish?

It’s a little bit different depending on the type of car. For a concept car, it can take months – to even a year or longer. For production cars, I work on developing a color for three to five years.

Are there any unspoken rules when you go to determine a color for a car? For example, we don’t see a lot of Barbie doll pink cars out there!

It all depends on the scale of a car. This will lead you to knowing what we should be designing for, and also what will fit that car’s particular brand. For example, with the sculptural feel of Buick, the brand tends to include beautiful, rich jewel tones. And if you look at our business and scale a vehicle up to a bigger SUV, then you’ll need to work with a color that is a bit more mainstream.

How much of a role does the customer play when you’re designing a color?

We’re always interested in what the consumer has to say about color. We want to make sure we’re listening to consumers, and you know, they want these rich jewel tones. With that in mind, we’re trying to make sure each color is done right and works with the brand.

What are some insights you’ve discovered while working in color design?

Color is very emotional. When I’m looking at research there’s a certain “ah-ha” moment that will hopefully lead to the final color created. Going back to the Buick Avista blue, the “ah-ha” moment for me came when, after 14 coats of paint, all of a sudden the entire color worked with the whole vehicle. The sculptural feel and the interiors played off this shade and just came together. Those are the ultimate “ah-ha” moments; when you’ve worked for months on a color, you scale it up, and then all of a sudden the color is painted on the car. Watching the color scale to full-size creates a “wow” feeling.

How has technology changed your job over the past 5-to-10 years?

Technology is changing so much, all of the time. We use it every day. I use my iPhone to help me take pictures quickly. I’ll find myself walking out to my car, seeing a cool color of a rock, and then taking a photo of it. I love being able to do something in an instant. That has changed how I work. I love that on-demand feeling.

Quote Graphic

Do you subscribe to the concept of work/life balance, or do you find your job is more about work/life integration?

I think they work in tandem. During the weekend I’m not at work, but I do like to take a lot of photos of nature and design. Sometimes that can really inspire me to get in on Monday and say, “Hey, check out this color I found. We should really look at it.” I especially feel this way at this time of year when everything is blooming. The colors are so vibrant right now. I like to tell people to never close their eyes. Always keep them open. You never know what you’re going to see outside – or any place you’re at.

What is your favorite part of the work you do?

I love designing the color for these awesome vehicles at GM. I also get the option to go to Fashion Week and do some other traveling for trend research, which I also really enjoy. I love getting out of Michigan to find inspiration on the East or West Coasts.

What is a mistake you’ve made on the job, and what did you learn from it?

Everyone makes a mistake at some point in his or her career. One of my mistakes was made here at GM. There was a particular color that I was really emotional about. I became very personal saying, “We need to have this color,” but my superiors were saying, “No, we don’t need this color.” I kept pushing, but it was a big mistake, because aside from my attachment, I had nothing to back up my argument.

I learned through this situation to always have the research to back up a point of view. Don’t just simply say, “I like this color,” like I did. Now, if the color was pink for example, I would explain why a certain pink is so good and needs to be on a vehicle.

What advice do you have for a reader who’s really excited about getting a job just like yours?

Make sure you’re passionate about this role. Whether you’re excited about color or the auto industry, just make sure you have a passion for what you want to do. Other than that, college will help you get here, so focus on getting a well-rounded design background.

After Hours graphic

I’d love to grab coffee with: George Washington

You’ll find these three things in my office at all times: Pens, markers and Post-it notes

My go-to outfit is: A hot yellow skirt with a pink top

I like to express myself by: Wearing different nail polishes

I can’t live without: My water bottle 

My favorite way to unwind is: Working out

I feel my best when: I have a good night’s sleep!

If you like Krysti’s job, then don’t miss our interview with Helen Emsley, Executive Director of Global GMC Design and User Experience.