Michelle Christensen, the vice president, global design for southern California ultra-luxury carmaker Karma, became the auto industry’s first female lead exterior designer of a supercar when she directed the 2017 remodel of the iconic Acura NSX. Christensen’s current Karma assignment parallels her work on that second-generation NSX hybrid vehicle, where she pulled from the original NSX and used updated styling to enhance engineering, all of which led to earning the 2017 “Performance Car of the Year” from Road & Track.
“Our Karma vehicle is a stunning product. It’s truly timeless,” says Christensen. “But it’s also essentially a 20-year-old design. I’m working with an amazing Karma design team to extract Karma’s unique character, create some newness and elevate the brand to shine on its own. We are tapping into what makes our brand special, turning up the volume on those specifics and distinguishing our vehicles as America’s ultra-luxury brand.”
With a resume that includes 18 years of automotive design, product development and brand building, as well as honors such as being named to the Motor Trend “Power List,” the Advertising Age “Creativity 50” and receiving the Marie Claire “Women on Top” award, Christensen came to Karma late last year knowing a complex set of demands awaited.
“I love the design challenge at Karma,” she says. “It’s important for a vehicle to be expressive and display personality. It’s not just about my own self-expression; it’s creating a visceral experience for somebody else. You put yourself into their daily lives, find what motivates and provides their energy.
“Only after this research do I consider design – the visual language that inspires. If you don’t do homework, then you’re simply talking to yourself.”
Since new management, under the guidance of President Marques McCammon, assumed leadership of Irvine, Calif.-based Karma at the start of April, they’ve been developing new short-and long-term plans with Christensen prominently situated at the strategic core.
“When I was approached earlier this year about joining Karma, one of my first initiatives was to assure Michelle would remain part of the team,” says McCammon. “Michelle’s work at Acura was groundbreaking in how the design concept served as a physical manifestation of the brand thesis. This kind of thinking is imperative for the kind of brand we are building at Karma – we must be authentic and seamless at every touchpoint. What Michelle and her team are doing is much more than just design.”
Christensen grew up in Northern California, where she excelled in art, had a passion for design and was part of a “gearhead family.” While in community college “trying to figure out what to do with my life,” she says, “I read about ArtCenter College of Design (in Pasadena, Calif.), where I could combine art with design and cars. That was my career epiphany.”
On graduation night, Honda offered her a job with their design team. At that time, Honda’s Acura brand was struggling to distinguish itself from the parent company. Christensen worked on a vehicle that ultimately set the tone for the brand and dictated the look for the rest of the lineup.
“We pulled the best aspects from the original NSX, went back to Honda’s performance roots and produced a product that became the brand halo” she says. “I’m very proud of that work.”
With additional stops at General Motors Advanced Design Studio and Nissan Design America (senior manager, advanced design showcar for the Infiniti QX60 Monograph Concept), Christensen has repeatedly shattered the glass ceiling.
“The auto industry needs more women – especially their unique voice, perspectives and talents,” she says. “We need to support a culture that values creativity, unique perspectives, and diversity of thought. As we evolve the way we approach design and what a vehicle is, we must enable greatness internally to enable greatness externally.”