Darby Barber is a creative designer at General Motors, currently part of the Chevy trucks team. She joined GM at the beginning of 2016 after graduating from the College of Creative Studies. At 23, she is most likely one of the youngest female automotive designers currently in the industry. And quite possibly the most badass.
I have a confession to make: it was a real treat to interview Darby because I once aspired to be a car designer myself, until I discovered to my dismay that I could not draw for shit. We kicked it and I got to hear from her what it takes to get to where she is, why she thinks there aren’t as many women designers in the auto industry as there should be, and why she’s as Jalopnik as they come.
(Note: this conversation has been edited for grammar, brevity and flow purposes.)
Kristen: I think we could probably start at the beginning. I’m sure this is the question that everyone asks you, but what got you into cars?
Darby: I don’t think it was really one big moment. It was kind of always there with me. Nobody else in my family likes cars and nobody influenced me to get into cars. It’s just something that I’ve always loved. There was one time that I actually questioned about car design. I think it was me and my dad at one of those classic car shows, just walking... parked on grass and everything.
There was a ‘63 split window Corvette that I was walking by. That’s when I was, and I was really little, but at that point, I was like, “I want to create something like that. Who made that?” It just really spiraled... I’m insanely obsessed with cars and I just want to make new cars and work on my cars. It’s a good thing for me, I think.
K: Did you grow up in the Detroit area?
D: Yes, I’m from Rochester. Then I went to school in Detroit for four years.
K: That’s very interesting that you didn’t really have any familial influences because so many people I’ve talked to, they’re like, “Oh, my dad got me into cars,” or whatever. This just came from you organically walking around and looking at a car. I guess it was just the aesthetic that stuck with you most of all?
D: Yeah, but it’s definitely the car... I mean, I’ve always been artistic, too, and I’ve always loved cars. But the love of cars drove the art because if it wasn’t for cars I definitely wouldn’t go into art for a living. I would become a mechanic or something like that. The love for cars was there before art. But I used my artistic skill to get to help me get to be a car designer. I just wanted to be around cars all the time.
K: And you found a way.
D: I did. Yeah, but it’s really cool that everyone’s like form over function or function over form and all that. I really like both. Driving to me, if I can’t drive my car in the summer, if it’s broken down on 16 or something, I’m super sad. It’s the function and form working together is my favorite part.
K: When you’re designing a car, do you think about its function before its form? Or which comes first in your mind?
D: Because I’m an exterior designer I design how it looks. My biggest feat is trying to make it look good, because we technically get given a package and then we have to style over it, essentially.
K: What is that process like?
D: The design team works with engineering to come up with what we call a vision model, which is you know, a concept. The concept that you see at the auto show, like a show car. Then we show that to engineering and we’re like, “Hey, this is what we want to do.” Then engineering comes back and it’s like, “Well, we can get this close to it with this package.” Then we work with them to get it to where it needs to be.
K: Is there a preferred way that you sketch?
D: A lot of the designers will start with paper and pen. Or like myself, I start right on Cintiq, which is basically a digital piece of paper and a digital pen. Then we go from pencil and paper to digital rendering, the ones you see online that are super pretty and juicy and hot. Then we take that and go into clay sculpting. Then we work with clay modelers to make that sketch become a reality. If that model is really well received by the upper management, then we work with engineers and whatnot to make it full sized and become real.
K: Are you constrained by factors like keeping a design street-legal in the early stages?
D: In the initial stages we’re pretty free. We’ll tell them what we want to do or we are given the... They’ll tell us, for example, “Hey we want a front wheel drive, four-seater car.” Then we just go nuts on what we think it should be. But it’s pretty open in the beginning. There’s always stuff where we can submit stuff that we think is the direction that we should go. It’s pretty free in the beginning. Then it really tightens down as it progresses on.
K: I was looking at your website and there are a lot of different designs on there. Is your role at GM designing trucks or is it kind of a general thing?
D: I’m in Chevy trucks right now. We just sketch the next-gen truck and whatnot. But you can move around in the studio. Sometimes they’ll pull you from one studio to the next. You can technically go from drawing Chevy trucks to drawing Cadillacs or sports cars or anything like that. It’s cool in a sense that you can get a variety but still be able to get really good at all the different types of proportions and whatnot.
K: Do you have a preference, trucks or sports cars? Or you just like to do all of them?
D: I actually like both. I like really big trucks. I had three or four Silverados in my lifetime and Miatas. So I have really big trucks and then really tiny cars. But I’m not a huge fan of stuff in between. I’m not a huge fan of crossovers or SUVs. I like stuff that really makes an impression, at least on me. So trucks with big tires and offset wheels or six-inch lifts always made me feel a certain way. Then really cool cars always make me happy.
K: What is your dream car? Any car. Don’t worry about money and don’t worry about maintenance or keeping it anywhere or anything like that. In a perfect world.
D: Probably that ‘63 split window Corvette because it was such a huge influence on my life. It was like this metallic, sloppy dark gray. It was a rear three-quarter where you could see the split window. I was like “Aww, man. I want to do that.”
K: What would you design if you had no limits or rules?
D: I would totally design a Chevy small, lightweight, like 50/50 weight distribution, either rear wheel drive or optional all-wheel drive, manual six-cylinder turbo. It would be a two-seater, long hood, typical fastback proportion. That’s just me, those are my favorite kinds.
K: That sounds like a Corvette to me!
D: Yeah, pretty much. If I can design anything I would love to be on a Corvette team.
K: Is it rare for women to be exterior designers?
D: I wouldn’t say it’s rare. The cool thing about GM is that we have a really big diversity group. I am the only exterior female designer in Chevy trucks. There are definitely a lot fewer women in exterior [design.] It’s definitely not because car companies don’t want women in exterior design, they definitely do.
To get to where I am today, I’ve got a huge amount of student loan debt. I stayed up for three or four nights without any sleep doing homework to get to where I am. It’s because of my passion. There are obviously way more guys into cars than there are girls... It’s a lot harder to get to where you want to be.
D: It’s not really exposed as well as it should be. Sometimes people think, “Oh, well, women should be in color and trim or women should be in interior.” It’s like, no, there’s also exterior! There’s car design in general that a lot of people just aren’t really aware of.
GM’s really trying to do a good job of exposing that to people. We’re really trying to get younger people. So the competition we did with Car Design News was for high school students. We really just wanted to expose people to the career field of car design.
K: That’s definitely another thing. It sounds like you were already interested in cars and design from a very early age so it was easy for you to position high school and college curriculums to support that.
D: Yeah, exactly.
K: They want you to figure out what you’re gonna do with your life by the time you’re, like, 18, man. Only a few people have their stuff together to figure that out so soon, so that’s another thing that makes it hard.
Anyway! When you’re not designing you’re tinkering with your Miata, which I stalked a lot on your Instagram. Can you tell me a little bit about it? When did you get it?
D: It’s kind of a funny story. I was on that really silly TV show for car design and I got towards the end and I made like $6,000. In that time I was able to drive a Z/28 Camaro. I didn’t win the money and I didn’t win the car, but I had $6,000 and I was like, “Oh man, I’m gonna buy a Camaro cause I want one so bad.” I was gonna buy like a late ‘60s, early ‘70s Camaro because that’s all I could afford. I found this really rusty one on Craigslist, I was like, “Oh man,” I was showing my friend, I’m like “I’m gonna get this car.” And he’s like, “No dude, you should get something lightweight and small. Look into Miatas.” So I did and then I bought one and it burned more oil than fuel.
That was like two and a half years ago. Since then it’s had three engines, two transmissions, both front and rear subframes are new. The only thing original in that car is the shell and the passenger headlight. Everything else I replaced. The car really taught me a lot. It taught me everything I know. I didn’t even really know how to drive a manual when I bought it, so I was stalling it on the way home. Now I can heel toe and rev-match and all that fun stuff. So it’s definitely a really good learning experience.
K: That’s awesome! Do you take it autocrossing at all?
D: Yeah, I’ve taken it autocrossing and to track days. I haven’t been to a track day since I boosted it last winter. It’s at like 280 wheel it’s gonna be at 330 this summer. I just have to get a different clutch for it.
K: Jesus Christ, dude.
D: I know. It’s definitely fun. I was on slicks at an autocross and I was still sliding everywhere. But even in the tight corners, I was picking up a rear tire so it wasn’t spinning. So I was on three wheels all out. It’s so fun, though.
It’s pretty loud but it doesn’t have a muffler, it’s just three inch turbo back with a resonator. But it sounds cool. It’s not overbearingly loud.
K: And you do all the work yourself?
D: Yeah. Well, the first engine, my boyfriend at the time, his name was Christian, he was a rally driver, he showed me on the first build everything to do. He did it with me. Then the next one I did on my own. Then the third one I did in my mom’s garage. I had her helping me put the head on with the hoist. I was trying, I didn’t want to drop it and get it over the studs. Yeah, I definitely had help in the beginning and I have a lot of friends help teach me what is what. From there I just gained confidence in figuring it out myself. So now I can pretty much do everything by myself minus if I need muscle. Then I’ll call my friends over.
K: I love all the pictures of it. I love the yellow headlights. That is such a great detail.
D: Thanks. I had to take them off because I got a ticket.
K: What? Is that illegal?
D: Apparently it is and they were like, “Oh, your headlights have to emit white.” So I had to literally take it to court and take off my stickers and be like, “Look, I took it off.”
K: Oh my God.
D: Right? And he asked if it was my car. He’s like, “Oh, is this yours?” I’m like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “Did you do all this stuff to it?” I’m like, “No, it’s my brother’s. Like, yeah I did it.” And he was like, “Okay, well... ” and then he wrote me a ticket.
K: What a dick!
We exchanged a few more pleasantries and ended shortly after.
In an email to me later on, Darby expanded on the topic of becoming a car designer a bit more:
But there are really four key traits someone should have to become a successful car designer. Passion for what you do, interest in cars or car design, skill in drawing or visual communication and awareness that car design is an actual career!
For example—you have the passion, but you mentioned you were lacking in the drawing area. Other people can draw very well, but lack the passion or interest in cars. And in terms of awareness, car design is not something exposed well early on, like in high school—you can try out cooking, football, choir, band, sewing, etc. But no one ever tells you about car design, it’s a real missed opportunity for young people.
But finding those four traits in relation to car design (specifically exterior) seems to be harder to find in women, whether that be due to interest, awareness, or something else I’m not quite sure—but one of my life goals is getting more women involved and interested in the automotive field.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that you need to start young and have a portfolio ready by the time you’re done with high school to be considered by any of the art schools with transportation programs (and there aren’t many of them). Like she says, it’s hard work. You have to really want it.
[Welcome to What It Takes, a column devoted to highlighting all of the kickass women in the car industry. Know someone with an awesome story to tell? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!]