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Innovation Agents: Soo Kang, Lincoln's Interior Design Chief, On Orchestrating A Turnaround

In 1987, Soo Kang was a newly minted graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art with a design diploma in one hand and a job offer from Ford Motor Company in the other. Cue the sound of a car screeching to a halt.

Kang, a classically trained harpist with a penchant for visual arts, is about as far from a gearhead as you can imagine. But she caught the carmaker’s attention when she won first place for her design in a student competition of a four-door luxury sedan. She’s been with the company ever since.

Now, as chief interior designer for the Lincoln brand, she’s hoping to snag first place again. This time, her work on the cushy curves and technological connectivity of the 2013 MKZ’s cabin could be the push needed to catapult Lincoln back to its former glory as America’s top-selling luxury brand.

Orchestrating a Turnaround

Lincoln’s long been a favorite of buyers closer to retirement age, but the company's been working to turn the image around. The 2012 MKZ sold well last year, but Kang insists that every time she gets a new project, she tasks herself to come up with two or three things to differentiate the vehicle from its predecessors—best-selling or not.

As such, her design influences are grounded in contemporary culture. Tapping the current focus on functionality without clutter, Kang says she wanted all parts of the MKZ’s interior to be spacious, serene, and quiet. "There is too much noise in design," Kang says, so she eliminated any excess bells and whistles and created a dashboard that is more compact, along with a concave glove box.

"Being smaller doesn’t mean it’s less functional," Kang explains. But it is more tactile. The middle console features an iPad-like display area with touch controls for everything from sound to climate (just slide your finger across to bring the temperature up or down) to gear shifting. For the latter, Kang eliminated the ubiquitous (but obtrusive) knob-topped shifter to offer an interrupted sweep of the dash. The gear-shifting "PRNDL" options are individual push buttons stacked on the driver’s side of the display screen. 

Fine-Tuning Team Harmony

That push-button gear shifter is Kang’s favorite feature in the MKZ, but one she admits she had to sell to Lincoln’s engineering program team. "It’s not just because it is cool," she says. "That’s not enough to motivate buyers. When I was doing the MKZ, I freed up the console area so you can have really good storage with a more flowing instrument panel. That was my sales pitch."

Kang believes her early training at Ford helped facilitate this process. "When I got out of college I knew how to draw. I did not know how to make a car," she says. Kang was put through mandatory rotations to different studios and projects. Switching positions every six months, she eventually learned how to build the total vehicle.

The most challenging part was not the rotation, although she does confess that designing the exterior of a vehicle is a lot more difficult. "I have to communicate with engineering, program, business, and marketing," says Kang. "It is like being a maestro. If someone is not on board, you cannot [complete the project]. If everyone is doing their own job and doesn’t miss a note, it makes a beautiful music."

On Being the "Maestro"

Kang currently oversees a team of over 30 people, from managers to clay-modeling support staff. A self-professed "passionate visionary," Kang also points out that she’s very driven. "Whoever works with me has to follow my lead, and I am always working," she says with a wry laugh. She’s not kidding. Kang says she often puts in 12-hour days, 7 days a week. "I only sleep four or five hours at night," she says, and even gets up at 4 a.m. when she’s on vacation. 

"I do like to have a balance," says Kang. "I don’t want to sacrifice my family." That’s why her other outlet is cooking. She makes meals every day and when business calls her away, Kang says she preps dishes in advance for her twin 7-year-old sons. "Cooking is just like music—when you start playing you get the tempos and rhythm," she says, the way blending ingredients produces a similar symphony in the pan. 

Her first love—music—continues to be her release valve and informs everything she does. Kang says she listens to music all day and particularly loves cellist Yo-Yo Ma. "His artistry is an inspiration to me, personally and professionally."

[Image: Flickr user Gloda]