Acura designer Michelle Christensen — who penned the exterior on the new $150,000 NSX hybrid supercar — is a car gal through and through. She grew up steeped in California car culture and relished the challenge of creating a dramatic new supercar, one that both reflects the excitement and energy of modern car culture, yet also brings something new to the table. A 2005 graduate of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena — where she met her future husband Jason Wilbur, watch designer and head of Honda’s Advanced Design Studio — Christensen created the Acura ZDX crossover and contributed to other projects before being tapped to lead the exterior work on the sleek new 550 horsepower machine. We sat down with her to learn about design in general, and supercar stuff in particular.
Q. What are some of the hallmarks of a well-designed product in any category?
A. Is it easy to use and does it make you happy? Or, is it clever in a way that kind of baffles you and you’re in awe of it? Ultimately, it should provide an experience. On a larger scale, good design is something that envelopes you, to the point that you don’t even really know it’s there. For instance, at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, you feel that you are inside this waterfall, deep in this forest. The rocks come into the house, and it’s a really seamless transition between inside and outside. It connects you to your environment. The average consumer may not realize what’s happening, but that’s why we enjoy certain experiences so much more, regardless of whether they’re houses, cars, or other products.
My job was to take a cool concept car and make it even cooler.
Q. What drew you to automotive design?
A. It was a merging of two things I was really passionate about: cars and design. I love it because it’s a challenge. The car has to be a practical, usable thing, and meet all the requirements, but still be beautiful and emotional. It can be a puzzle, but even that can be kind of exciting — trying to solve that problem.
Q. What were your goals with the NSX effort?
A. I joined the project starting with 2012 NSX concept, and my job was to take a cool concept car and make it even cooler. We stayed with the same design theme, but wanted to simplify it, and make sure the design supported the car’s performance. That’s critical to a car like this. They changed the powerplant halfway through the development process, which allowed us to blow up the side intakes for a more exotic and aggressive look. We also brought the cabin down into the body, so you’re sitting more between the wheels than above them.
But performance was critical. Every surface was tuned for aerodynamic flow, engine cooling, and downforce. We could trace every molecule of air as it traveled over and into the car. Our design needed to help manage that airflow and be a part of the car’s performance.
Q. What did you want the experience to be for both the driver and the observer?
A. I wanted it to be striking. We wanted to make it more aggressive and exotic, so people say “Whoa, what is that!” It has the iconic jewel-eye headlights, set really low and wide, so it looks mean coming up behind you. The taillights are as thin as we could make them, and very horizontal. Overall, it’s a very low, wide effect.
Q. What’s the most distinctive feature on the car?
A. The side intake. Air passes through a floating C-pillar and into the turbo intake, but it also generated downforce and cooling at the same time. It’s a great design element, and one that customers will enjoy and get excited about.
Q. How do interior and exterior designs complement each other?
A. John Norman designed the interior, and our desks are right next to each other. So there was a lot of collaboration. The interior concept is a “human-fit cockpit” — so, very driver centered — and we wanted the design to be essentially invisible. When you’re driving, and you’re really getting into it, we want the car to just melt away. So we didn’t want there to be a big A-pillar in your face, for instance. That’s just one area where our design motivations complemented each other — we were able to work with the engineers to design a very thin A-pillar that improves the exterior look of the car and the driver’s experience. Also, it improves visibility, and the more visibility you have, the more in control you feel.
I wanted the car to be only what it needed to be.
Q. Is the car design process all digital these days?
A. We used a lot of digital aerodynamic simulation early on, but also a lot of clay modeling, which I never want to get rid of. Hands-on modeling allows you to experiment with the emotional areas — the lines and curves — and you combine that with the digital work. We use technology to our advantage, but keep the traditional methods alive because they serve important functions.
Q. What makes a car design really great?
A. The more I do this, the more I strive to have the function influence the form. That’s how you achieve a truly timeless design. Decorative elements are cool, but I gravitate to things that are simple and easy to interact with. In the case of the NSX, we realized there were little things all over the original concept that didn’t need to be there, and which didn’t support any function. For instance, some vents on the rear deck. They add extra weight and were just fake vents. I wanted the car to be only what it needed to be.
One tactic I use is to take a sketch of a car and keep covering it up until you can no longer tell what car it is. That’s where you draw the line. If an element — a line or curve, say — can be deleted without compromising the identity of the car, then delete it. We strove for a shape that was iconic and memorable, with a distinct character. So we got rid of a lot of that unnecessary elements and emphasized others, such as the prominent air intakes.
Q. Do any cars stick out to you as particularly timeless?
A. What makes a design truly timeless is simplicity and proportion. Take the Lamborghini Miura [1966-1973]. It’s one of the most timeless designs, and the proportions are amazing. The relationship of the body to the wheels. The body is sunk down between the wheels, and the only thing that’s there is what needs to be there. The same is true of the much more recent Toyota FJ Cruiser. It has a tight cabin and a big body, chunky tires and big gap in the fender well. It has a tough appearance that’s clearly more about off-roading, but it still looks really good on the road.
Q. What are some of the hallmarks of a weak design effort?
A. When you can tell they’re cutting corners. Having gone through this process, I know where you’re able to save a few bucks here and there, and think the customer won’t notice it. Things like platform-sharing and part-sharing within a car company are necessary, and not really visible to the customer as long as good design remains the focus. It can balance out those strategies.
Q. What’s in your own garage?
A. I have the new Honda Pilot as my daily driver — which I just love — and I just bought a 1965 Chevelle. I grew up going to car shows in northern California with my father, and that car has always stuck out to me. It’s both badass and beautiful — again with those timeless, simple proportions. It’s also restored my faith in car culture. I tend to think cars are becoming “phones on wheels” with all the focus on connectivity and all that, but this car is all about just being fun to drive. It’s not an appliance, and people love that. We have to keep cars that way.
Q. I have to ask: As the lead designer of supercar, do you get a free sample of your work?
A. Ha! I wish.