It’s the impression – and deep emotional connection – created by color and materials that drew Teresa Spafford into her current position as the design manager for Colors, Materials and Finishes, and Advanced Design Planning at Mazda North American Operations.
“Every single car you owned, how do you describe it?” Spafford said. “It’s probably, like, ‘I had a red Miata, or a black Mercedes, or a silver Porsche, or a blue Toyota.’”
Her response echoed throughout the design studio at Mazda’s Research and Development Center in Irvine, California. A reddish clay model vehicle sits off to the side on a pedestal while a full working model of an interior sits in near the middle of the room. Black-and-white and color sketches of concepts and inspiration hang along the wall and design boards.
“What’s so great about Mazda, and design, is that Mazda is the kind of place that really inherits the energy of the people that work here,” Spafford said.
But it’s one end of the studio that dominates the view. There, tables, trays and bins are filled, some overflowing, with fabric and materials samples of various sizes, shapes, textures and color.
In Wake of an Earthquake, an Opportunity
The odds were not exactly in her favor. In college Spafford was studying architecture – specifically, industrial and product design – when her class took a tour of various product studios. The only woman in her class, she was told she probably didn’t need to go.
“It’s probably because they were going to put four guys in a room and they didn’t want to spread the cost out for another room,” she said.
But she went on the trip. Thanks to her professor’s connections, the tour included visits to a few automotive studios. After visiting Toyota, Nissan, and Mazda, Spafford felt a different vibe from each manufacturer. While her fellow students gushed over vehicle sketches and clay models during the tour, the portion of the studios dedicated to color and materials was dismissed. But not to Spafford.
After graduating from college, Spafford worked at General Motors before starting at Mazda in December of 2000. Originally planning to stay at Mazda for only a few years, Spafford said Mazda became the right fit.
“I thought I’d be one of those designers who’ll spend three to five years here or there to get all these different experiences. But at Mazda, the place just grew on me. The things I’ve been able to do over the course of those years have just been amazing. The flexibility, the openness to be innovative, to try new things…I’ve had lots of opportunities.”
The Energy that Drives Mazda
“What’s so great about Mazda, and design, is that Mazda is the kind of place that really inherits the energy of the people that work here,” Spafford said. “People who stay tend to have this kind of passion.”
Spafford gets much of her passion for her work from physical and outdoor activities such as mountain biking and whitewater rafting. This connection with nature gets her inspired and some of her best work emerges after coming back from one of her outdoor trips.
Spafford’s energy for her work encompasses more than, for example, how the browns of a truffle fit with KODO Design. In her role as lead of Advanced Design Planning, she’s in charge of the front-end, or the beginning stages, of vehicle development. This ranges from working out the concept vehicles to where they fit strategically in Mazda’s lineup. Such responsibilities also include convincing Mazda to consider her team’s vision.
When Spafford wanted Mazda to incorporate Nappa leather in the 2016 Mazda CX-9, she knew she could only convince her colleagues one way. She made each designer stick their heads into the concept vehicle to smell and touch the natural material. That simple act was far more effective in persuading them to back her recommendation than sending an email with images of the material attached.
Spafford advises any aspiring automotive designer to study transportation. She stresses the importance of learning how to sketch interior and exterior designs and understand how each component comes together as it’s built. And to Spafford, it’s not always about being the loudest in the room, sometimes it takes “the quiet person in the room to sell a vision.”