matisse.jpgCareer dreams don’t always work out the way we envision.

I had visions of someday becoming a foreign correspondent, but after I worked for an apparel magazine covering factories and the workers who toiled in them in the good old USA I discovered a different path.

You never know what you’ll end up doing when you leave high school, or graduate from college. You could be headed for a life as an artist, but end up using your talents for something you never thought of.

Take artist Michelle Killen.michelle-killen.JPG

She went to the College of Creative Studies in downtown Detroit and got a B.A. in interior design. She figured she would ultimately work in commercial design, maybe in the hospitality industry designing restaurants and hotels.

She realized pretty quickly that Detroit didn’t have a lot to offer in terms of this type of work but she didn’t want to relocate to New York or California where she probably find more gigs. “I had a good relationship with my family and I was engaged,” so relocating wasn’t a preferable option, she explains.

Everything changed for Killen when General Motors came to her college. Yes, the automaker.

The company was looking to recruit designers to work in their color and trim department.

Ever wonder who comes up with the idea for that faux wood on your dashboard, or the color combinations in your car’s interior? It’s people like Killen.

In June of 2006, she became a color and trim designer for General Motors, a position that can fetch up to $60,000 starting out.

“When I started I didn’t know anything about cars,” she admits.

It’s the type of job that gets a “huh” during cocktail parties. One you have to explain more than once. “Usually you get some laughs,” she says. “People say, ‘they have somebody who does that?’”

Yes, someone does come up with the colors, grains, gloss, etc. in your car. Everything from the seat to the flooring to the radio button to the faceplate.

To do her job, Killen starts by researching the particular vehicle brand she’s designing for, like Cadillac or Chevy, for example. The design team holds so-called clinics where they get feedback from customers. She also scours fashion magazines and attends furniture shows to get ideas from the latest and greatest trends in the clothing and furniture.

For high-end cars like Cadillac, Killen says, they look for ritzy materials like real wood and mother of pearl inlays.

09chevytraverse_016.jpgFor the Chevy Traverse SUV the design team used a combination of cool and warm colors like gray and cream. “You normally don’t see warm and cool mixed. It’s a little more fashion forward. We were looking more at the woman buyer and what she wants to buy,” she explains.

And remember being told not to wear black and brown together, forget it, she says. You’re seeing the combination more lately in men’s suits and handbags, and it works well in vehicle interiors.

She spends a lot of time researching colors, many of which are part of an existing global GM portfolio of colors so there is little room to really stray from the traditional hues. Hot pinks are probably a no go.

Once she comes up with a palate for a particular vehicle, it goes through review with the marketing department.

If you see yourself becoming a color and trim expert for one of the major automakers, a four-year design degree is a big plus. But GM also employs former tattoo artists.

The company is always looking for talent since they have 11 design centers around the globe, including China and India.

Some day Killen hopes to travel abroad for her job, maybe end up in Korea. It’s a long way from where she started.

At first Killen’s parents were scratching their heads over her career choice, but after she took them to the auto show and showed them the concept cars she helped design they got it.

Killen says she loves her job even though it can take four years before she actually sees her hard work come to fruition. “The biggest satisfaction of my job is actually seeing a design come out on the road that I worked on,” she says. “It’s very cool.”

(Quirky Jobs is part of an ongoing series on Check out the last installment on a woman who is a “Sex and the City” tour guide. If you have an idea for a Quirky Job please email me at

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