Groovy Career

Alexandra “Sandy” McGill

Sandy McGill in clay model.
Sandy McGill in clay model.
Lead Designer, Color, Materials and Finishes BMW Group DesignworksUSA

Sandy McGill’s groovy career is to shop at luxury showrooms and tradeshows around the world. She visits cashmere manufacturers, leather factories, Art Basel, and the Salone di Mobile, furniture show in Milan – all in her quest to find the latest materials to serve as inspiration for her work as the Lead Designer, Color, Materials and Finishes (CMF) at BMW Group DesignworksUSA.

DesignworksUSA is a global design consultancy with diverse clients including Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Starbucks, Boeing Business Jets, Embraer, Pilatus, John Deere, Advanced Medical Optics and BAVARIA Yachts. Further, DesignworksUSA is a wholly owned subsidiary of BMW Group and serves as its creative partner, shaping the BMW, MINI, and Rolls-Royce Motor Cars of the future.

Sandy, along with her CMF colleagues, create color, material and finish strategies for products in all the industries which DesignworksUSA serves including consumer products, aviation, marine and automotive for the BMW Group. Cars, planes, cell phones and carpets are all products she has created colors for in her eighteen year career with DesignworksUSA.

Sandy and her groovy career were the inspiration for groovycareers.com. When Sharon Dougherty, the founder of groovycareers.com, visited DesignworksUSA several years ago, she spoke with Sandy and several of her colleagues about their cool careers. Sharon wants college students and recent graduates to have the opportunity to know such interesting jobs and companies exist – and thus groovycareers was created.

When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I thought about being an architect. I knew about the profession from the “Brady Bunch” TV show where the father was an architect. My toys were prophetic. I built houses with Legos. I made colorful shapes with Colorforms. I baked my designs with Shrinky Dinks. I drew patterns with Spirograph. Ironically, I do similar things now as a CMF designer.

How did you keep your interest in art and design growing?
When I was in high school, I took art and design classes. Ironically, my first job in high school was mixing paints at a Sherwin-Williams paint store. I fell into the job through a friend in my high school drafting class. Again, I didn’t know I would be working with color in my career.

What was your major in college?

I studied design at UCLA. It was a multi-disciplinary BA degree program, requiring classes from ceramics to wood shop to computer animation. Since UCLA is an academic university, there were also stringent non-arts course requirements in the sciences and humanities. I was amazed at how these courses related to my studio classes in design. The biggest difference between attending an academic university, as opposed to an art school, was the emphasis on the thinking part of the creating. UCLA taught me how to think.

Somehow I always gravitated to working with color, including at UCLA. I had a part-time campus job as an operator of a prototype large format Fuji ink-jet printing system, a precursor to the modern plotter. I worked with renown artists to duplicate their work digitally as opposed to lithographically. I controlled the color output. This was also my first experience interacting with a high performance machine. I did endless aesthetic experiments on it, creating colors and patterns based on Cartesian coordinates similar to the filters now available in Photoshop.

I ran the printer 24/7. I ran it into the ground. It was great to maximize the potential of this machine. I do this still today. Now I work with manufacturing machines to make different kinds of materials and finishes such as carpet, textiles, and coatings.

How did you land your job at DesignworksUSA?
When I was a senior in college, my industrial design class went on a field trip to DesignworksUSA. I was inspired by the variety of clients and projects. I asked our tour guide, if I could apply for an internship. Frank Nuovo, the tour guide and former Chief of Nokia Design, hired me as an intern. That internship evolved into a fruitful career.

Tell me about your company.

DesignworksUSA provides design strategy, research, development, sustainability consulting, brand communications, 3D modeling, and color, materials, and finish to many of the world’s great brands. In addition to being the creative partner to BMW Group, which includes BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, additional DesignworksUSA clients include Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Starbucks, Boeing Business Jets, Embraer, Pilatus, John Deere, Advanced Medical Optics and BAVARIA Yachts.

The company was founded in 1972 by Charles W. Pelly in Malibu, California, and acquired by BMW Group in 1995. With clients across a spectrum of forward-thinking industries and three design studios in California, Munich, and Singapore, DesignworksUSA has an unparalleled understanding of consumers and the world of design that surrounds them, both today and many years into the future.

When I look at a BMW, what can I see that you have worked on?
An automotive color and trim designer works on the color, material and finish strategy, concept design and development of all the materials of a vehicle. The challenge is the shear quantity of disparate materials which make-up a car interior or exterior. It runs the gamut of modern materials and manufacturing processes, from soft to hard surfaces. Fashion may be an influence for upholstery treatments while aerospace may inspire an exterior coating. A color and trim designer must be aware of every type of material and process available from coatings to resins to textiles, leathers and woods. My work has been reflected in all the BMW Group brands, including the Formula One car.

What opportunities do you have for travel and work in Europe?
I have lived in Munich for a total of five years over the past 18 years working at different times for each of the BMW brands – BMW, Mini, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. Living and working in Germany has been the ultimate experience in my life and career. I have worked with fine craftsmen at material manufacturers from Scotland to Italy. I have made friendships with people from all over Europe who work at the BMW Group. I have shopped and sight-seed in all the great European cities. I also fit in eighteen races at all the European F1 tracks, taking the Bernie Ecclestone tour of Europe.

Tell me more about the materials library.

One of my responsibilities at DesignworksUSA is managing a vast materials library. We collect samples of materials from all industries – fashion, consumer product, residential interiors, automotive, sports, aerospace, etc. These materials may be specified or simply inspire a product design or a vehicle. There is a sample of what looks like “frozen smoke” called Aerogel, used in the aerospace industry. There are also samples of vintage automotive paint colors. There is always something new. Technology keeps moving and the visual aesthetics move with the new technology. We want to maximize new technology for its potential to create knew color and finish aesthetics and function.

A side note to my work with the materials library is that in my case the apple did not fall far from the tree – my mother was a librarian. I spent a lot of time in the library as a child. I also spent time in airplane hangars with my father. He developed aircraft in the Navy. The BMW prototype production line always felt like a familiar place to me.

What is the best part of your job?

I already spoke about the opportunity to live and work in foreign countries. In addition, there is the travel to trade shows throughout the world. Trade shows for watches, leather and art are great places for design inspiration. Exhibited at the Lineapelle leather show in Italy are the latest leather colors, patterns and finishes for shoes and bags. The ideas shown at this show will set fashion trends which will filter down into other aesthetic industries.

Another great part of my job is the ability to transfer knowledge from working on BMW Group products to clients outside the auto industry. These clients appreciate the ability to maximize their brand identity through design, something that working at the BMW Group necessitates. Lastly, as a designer the most gratifying part of the job is to see your work come off the production line, hit the stores, and sell out.

What advice do you have for young people seeking their groovy careers?

Go with what you do naturally. Look at your childhood activities. I played with colors. Now I work with colors. Don’t over think it.