Once criticized for blurring the lines between its brands, General Motors Corp. has been busily trying to differentiate the vehicles it sells -- which range from distinctively American Hummers and Chevrolets to European-flavored Saabs -- by focusing on design.
• 1972 Joins General Motors design full-time
• 1989 Chief Designer, Oldsmobile Studio
• 1998 Director, GM Advanced Design Studio
• 2002 Executive Director of Design, Body-on-Frame Architectures
• 2005 Vice President, Global DesignSince 2003, Ed Welburn, the company's vice president for global design, has been charged with developing concept and production cars to do just that. Design-driven turnarounds at Cadillac and Saturn have boosted sales and earned GM coveted trophies like the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards.
The Wall Street Journal Online's Matt Vella recently spoke with Mr. Welburn in New York.
Wall Street Journal: You were involved with designing the Hummer and Cadillac Escalade SUVs, vehicles that struck psychological gold with American consumers in the 1990s. How do you tap into a mood or trend on a level like that — and how much is luck?
Edward Welburn, Jr.: You really do need to have an understanding of your customer, of the community, of the culture in general. Certainly there's some early market research as well as more inspirational research that helps our designers get an understanding of our customers -- not asking them what shape they want the grill or tail lamp, but getting an understanding of what they're looking for and a bit about their lifestyle.
I think having design centers that are close to the community is another real advantage. We have 11 of these studios around the world. To understand what customers want and what offends them is just as important.
WSJ: In what ways are American consumers' design tastes different from those of foreign markets, which you also oversee?
Mr. Welburn: American tastes are a bit different. Traditional American design has more appeal here but it also has some in other locations around the world. The world really does like the best of American design. There is a lot of American design that they don't like. But, the best of it really connects. Corvette is loved. I mean today, probably more than at any other time, that vehicle is loved around the world. The very best of American design -- that has a kind of purity, that is uninhibited, and moves to the next frontier -- is appreciated around the world. The car companies from Japan and Korea are essentially doing their execution of European design and aesthetic.
WSJ: Can you give me an example of Americanized European styling? Are we just talking about chrome?
Mr. Welburn: The whole chrome thing really began here, adding more bright work to the vehicle. But, it spread. The most recent Paris auto show, the most recent Frankfurt show, we saw a lot more chrome. It was handled a bit different. Look at the latest offerings from Audi and VW. There's a lot more chrome on the front of the car. That was a trend that really began in the States.
WSJ: Your colleague, Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, recently explained why GM most likely won't produce the Cadillac Sixteen and Buick Velite, two concepts that generated a lot of enthusiasm in the industry in 2003 and 2004, respectively, thanks to elegant looks. What's it like to see such potentially popular vehicles red-lighted?
Mr. Welburn: For the Velite, I said early on, this car may never go in production. But, it will have a very healthy influence on future Buicks. And, it has. Look at the Buick Enclave. Every bit of that design was influenced by the Velite. The front end, the grill shape, the headlamp shape, the body-side surfacing, even a hint of a boat tail. It all comes from the Velite. The whole mood was established with the Velite. And for other Buicks under development, the Velite is the vehicle we turn to. Sixteen is the same thing.
WSJ: When you took over in 2003, one of the key elements of your design philosophy was that each brand needed to be well defined and identifiable. Where do you think that has worked? And what still needs work?
Mr. Welburn: You know, the market is very impatient. You can't do one at a time. You have to do them all. Looking back, developing a family of vehicles for Saturn, we were on a real mission there. The work done on Cadillac has become the model for developing a very identified brand. Going forward, Chevrolet is something I get very excited about. We've been selling Chevys for years. In some markets they may have been Buicks with a Chevy bow tie on them. In other locations, they were Opels. And, in some cases the bow tie was a bit different. They took the Opel circle and put a bow tie on top. Now we've had a real initiative to develop a common face, a common look and feel for Chevrolet, globally. The benefit is that you can move these vehicles around the planet much easier. And, it's not bland, it's not just that we've dumbed it down to a common denominator. It's still very strong.
WSJ: You've had design teams compete with one another to develop certain high-profile projects like the Cadillac CTS and Chevrolet Camaro. What's the role of competition within GM design? And how does this affect the creative process?
Mr. Welburn: Competition just raises the bar of execution. I'll start with CTS. Although the home-base was in Warren, Michigan, I also gave it to the design team in California as well as the advanced design team we have in Europe. Out of that, five themes evolved. Each one was somewhat different, but they were all under the umbrella of what we believe a Cadillac should look like. With the Camaro, it was purely a concept, not production at first. We had an advance team working on it and it looked good, it looked quite good. But, it didn't have that spark I was looking for. It wasn't as fresh as I was looking for. So I told them I was establishing a second team. Same brief, same baseline. Instantly, the first team's design got better. I probably could have just told them there was a second team and that would have done the trick. The competition is really healthy. It works, it brings diverse ideas and opinions to the assignment. It works because the overall team is one that shares information, that can learn from each other. We all realize that the enemy is not other GM design teams. It's other car companies.
WSJ: Earlier this spring, you expressed interest in possibly opening a New York design studio. What would be the benefits of doing that? And what's the likelihood?
Mr. Welburn: There's so much that happens in New York that I think we could learn from. The fashion industry. Interior design. Product design. Culture. Art. Music. There's just a lot that we could learn from. If we establish something here, there probably won't be some big announcement, some ribbon cutting. You'll just look up and well have had that here for three or four years.
that's so when it a production version of the 2003 Buick Centieme concept.