Fastlane

June 30, 2011

Susan Skarsgard: Designing a Rich and Interesting Career

Susan Skarsgard has taken a circuitous route to her current job as Manager of GM Design Archive and Special Collections, and she feels it’s resulted in a “rich and interesting career.”

Susan Skarsgard has taken a circuitous route to her current job as Manager of GM Design Archive  and Special Collections, and she feels it’s resulted in a “rich and interesting career.” She says, “I have a little bit different perspective than a lot of folks because I didn’t go to school to be an industrial designer.” She’s a product of the Detroit Public School system and went to the University of New Mexico to study music. Woodwinds were her specialty. She returned to Michigan, and her study of Renaissance and Baroque music involved learning to read historic music manuscripts from their original notation. This was her first exposure to calligraphy, which led her to a self-learning of this art form. Eventually, she got a job with a design firm specializing in lettering and type design. Ten years later, she was hired by GM Design to develop logos and typefaces to identify cars.

Less than a year ago, she took on a new assignment founding an archive for GM Design. The mission of this assignment is to acquire and preserve artifacts that define the rich and important history of automotive design, as well as to develop programs that use this collection to educate and inform. She talks about that assignment in the video below.

Having worked at the historic GM Technical Center in Warren, Mich., Susan has developed a love for the Eero Saarinen-designed facility. She notes, “Over the years, I have had the honor of creating art for the Design building that attempts to capture the modernist esthetic that exists throughout our historic campus. The most interesting work  (shown here) is digitally printed with pigment inks on aluminum. Because of the historic nature of the building, any renovations require sensitivity to the existing spaces, which in this case allowed no opportunity for additional lighting. In designing this piece, I took advantage of a large window opposite the artwork which captures and reflects the ambient light off the aluminum substrate and creates an almost holographic effect.”

One section of the half-mile line of daffodils designed by Susan and planted by the community

Last year, she was honored by the Detroit chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA) with the Celebrate Michigan Design presentation. It recognizes not just her work as an artist and designer, but also her teaching throughout North America, Europe and Australia, the books she has published, and her community involvement. Imagine Align is one of the most rewarding art projects she’s done. It’s a half-mile line of daffodils planted in 2004 at the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, Mich. that bloomed in 2005. More than 150 volunteers from the community, including Susan’s colleagues from GM Design, planted the bulbs that has since become a self-generating, ever-changing work of landscape art.

Most of her work at GM has focused on brand logos and nameplates that identify the cars. You can see several of them in the video and hear Susan talk in more depth about that part of her job. Susan is also sharing a recent exhibition of her work online.

In a company focused on improving lives through technology and populated with automotive experts, Susan says, “Most people here would agree … I don’t fit the mold very well.” Fitting the mold or not, she has contributed to the brand image of many vehicles for more than a decade. She has made the world a more beautiful place, and that’s a pretty important role to play.

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