What Drives Her: Helen Emsley, Designing a Bespoke GMC Truck

Gmc Truck
Helen Emsley, executive director, Global GMC Design and User Experience

GMC’s top designer brings luxury and refinement to the utility of trucks and SUVs

In the old days, a truck was for hauling heavy things and for women, trucks were mostly a necessary evil or celebrated for the capability they gave us. We loved them even though they were gritty and unglamorous. Oh, how things have changed.

Helen Emsley, Executive Director of Global GMC Design and User Experience, has been leading much of that change, bringing not only what customers want to their trucks and SUVs, but also some of the human, intuitive things that as a mom and a woman, she can appreciate the need for. After all, a truck’s comfort and convenience on the inside is as important as its ability to master rough roads and haul cargo.

Accidental truck–and Corvette–designer

Gmc Trucks

Helen Emsley, point person for all GMC trucks, pointing out it’s the little details that count. Credit: Judy Antell for AGirlsGuidetoCars

Helen didn’t enter the car business by design. Unlike many car designers and engineers, Helen comes from a train family; she grew up in Yorkshire, England, known for mining, where her father worked for British Rail. As a student at London’s Royal College of Art, she won a place in the master’s program to study transport design, and soon after, she started a job as a color and trim specialist for Opel, a division of General Motors in Europe. When she earned a promotion that moved her to the US, she tackled one of the nagging issues she saw among Opel and other GM brands: a broad array of colors and materials used in cars that looked like a mish-mash, and not always a flattering one. So in a discussion with her boss, Ed Welburn, who heads up all of GM global design, she brought this up. It was decided that she would take on the role of streamlining design materials under the title of global director of color and trim.

Gmc Denali

The 2016 GMC Canyon on at pit stop at Stew Leonard’s. Credit: Scotty Reiss for AGirlsGuidetoCars

In taking on this role, Helen joined a new ranking of professionals at GM: women who are rising in the organization and not just leading the company’s new era, but mentoring and developing a whole new league of automotive leaders.

And while she has been part of this new era, she was also mentored by her boss, Ed, whom she references a lot in conversation. She gives the feeling that design at General Motors has the feel of a team approach rather than a dictatorial hierarchy: Helen and her GMC design team–made up of mostly men–operate based on challenge and possibility, and delight in what they are able to create.

A few years ago, Helen was asked to lead Chevrolet’s redesign of the Corvette Stingray. This was a daunting assignment: she hadn’t grown up a sports car fanatic, she wasn’t engrained in the legacy of Corvette and she had to win the confidence of the Corvette team to see her vision come to fruition.

Challenging tradition with a fresh approach

But she used this challenge to her advantage; she was able to toss out existing expectations and approach the Corvette’s design from a fresh perspective. She was also able to invoke the gut reaction of her design team to ensure that the interior would be exactly the experience the Corvette owner demands: seats that practically grasp driver and passenger so they are one with the car on the road; bespoke leather upholstery and trim details that reflect the car’s exterior design, storage details that ensure that things don’t fly around the cabin while on the road, and her favorite, making use of an empty space behind the touch screen by having it rise out of the dashboard to reveal a secret compartment.

The interior design won the praise of customers and critics, and contributed to the overall redesign of the Corvette Stingray that was so well received it won the North American Car of the Year award in 2014.

Just as the Corvette was being lauded, Helen was asked to move again: this time to an even  bigger job leading all design for GMC.

From team player to team leader

At Corvette, Helen had ‘only’ been tasked with redesigning the inside of the classic sports car; next, she was responsible for both the interior AND exterior of the entire GMC truck line. Luckily for those of us who ride shotgun in trucks, or drive them ourselves, the new generation of GMC trucks, including the Yukon SUV and mid-sized Canyon pickup, have an interior feel and drive experience that are more like a luxury car than a truck.

The team approach to design clearly is one that works for GMC. Helen credits her team for great ideas and a strong work ethic to ensure they meet the company’s and their customer’s needs.  “My job is to let them do what they do best, develop, experiment, and come up with a great product,” Helen said.

But she also is tasked with ensuring that GMC’s buyers love the trucks, too. She’s proud of all the storage and convenience features that have been added to the models, such as additional USB and charge ports–which brilliantly, if they are hidden away in an arm rest, are encircled in white trim so you can see them–push button folding seats and running boards that extend to help you get up into the truck or even with the kick of a button on the end, swing back toward the truck bed making it easier to access, too.


Gmc Truck

Helen Emsley, behind the wheel – and design – of a GMC truck. Credit: Judy Antell for AGirlsGuidetoCars

The Denali gauntlet: Bringing luxury–and silence–to GMC trucks

In making the move to GMC, Helen was also charged with evolving the Denali heritage, GMC’s ‘premium’ label. Already known for excellence in design and precision, the challenge on the Denali front was even greater.

And, her experience as a mom came in handy here: her 13 year old son is on the autism spectrum and is particularly sensitive to noise. And since luxury vehicles often distinguish themselves with super quiet interiors, this was a natural place to focus; Helen brought a sensitive ear and a personal perspective to the challenge, which was made even greater by the Canyon’s new diesel engine, which can be not only noisy but can add vibration, too. Changes to the truck’s design resulted in a truck and a ride that are comfortably quiet–so quiet you forget you are riding in a diesel truck.

Helen’s favorite feature? Attention to detail

Gmc Truck

The new face of GMC trucks; the new grille. Credit: Judy Antell for AGirlsGuidetoCars

Like any mom who can’t pick a favorite child, Helen was somewhat reluctant to name a single favorite feature in GMC’s trucks and SUVs. But when pushed (slightly) she said that though she loves the sparkly grilles and comfortable leather seats, her favorite feature is rather understated. It is something only a detail oriented person like her would notice: the real stitching on the leather trim. Sometimes stitching is imprinted or painted on (who knew?). But real stitching demonstrates GMC’s commitment to craftsmanship and Helen’s attention to every detail.

Additional reporting by Scotty Reiss.

Judy Antell, who is TravelingMom.com's Free in 50 States editor, lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband and... More about Judy Antell