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Three of the key players in GM’s new LA Design Studio check out plans for the conversion of the 55,000-ft2 bakery in the background. Director Frank Saucedo is pleased with the building because of the “pure materials” it was built with, primarily brick and wood. Pictured (L-R): Dennis Hardwick, studio manager; Franz von Holthausen, design manager; and Saucedo.

GM’s Corporate Brand Character Center in Warren, MI, is just one of the many worldwide centers that will be contributing to the “think tank” approach to new vehicle design.

GM Rewrites the Script

GM heads back to California to establish a new design studio in North Hollywood. But this is more than just a sequel—this time they're working from a brand new script.

It’s not going to be the same as it was before,” Frank Saucedo tells me. Saucedo is the director of GM’s new California Concept Center in North Hollywood. When he says “before,” he’s referring to GM’s old California design center in Newbury Park, which closed in 1996. He was chief designer there before moving on to become chief designer at Volkswagen’s California studio in Simi Valley. I’m talking with him because he’s come back to the General with a very clear mission. As he explains it: “To do the unconventional.” But in the face of GM’s continually slipping market share, I’m very curious how Saucedo and Co. plan to face the inherently high expectations they’ll be met with when they open shop sometime in April. Frank seems undaunted by this. More than anything, he just seems energized with the responsibility of building his organization from the ground up. Then he adds, as if to defy all the pundits, “It’s a different GM.”

Quick Reflexes
“GM has always been big,” Saucedo explains, “but the big thing for us now is to be fast.” GM sees its vehicle programs of the future lasting 24 months and involving the collaboration of worldwide design centers in Australia, Brazil, China, England, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and yes, the U.S.: at its Tech Center in Warren, MI, as well as LA. The two-year cycle puts a lot of pressure on Frank’s 30-person team to work fast, both in developing its own concepts, as well as providing feedback on the ideas of the other studios. “One thing we’re going to concentrate on out here,” Saucedo says, “is having quick reactions to trends.

Entertainment Capital of the World
Like other car manufacturers’ LA-based studios, GM hopes that its new design center can reflect the “great microcosm of people” that is LA—arguably the most important city in the U.S. for defining popular culture. However, GM is putting more than a team of designers in LA. Saucedo’s staff will be working with GM’s APEX group (i.e. Advanced Portfolio EXploration; GM credits this outfit with being instrumental in the creation of its 2000 concept cars). APEX is a separate product planning group of analysts, designers, and engineers who are charged with monitoring the pulse of the street, so to speak, in order to track trends and forecast scenarios for future vehicles. They’ll be based in the design center. “That’s something we didn’t have before,” he says. “Last time we were out here, we weren’t really a part of the system. But GM is finally putting all its advanced thinking together. We’re all going to be tied into the Corporate Brand Character Center, and having the flexibility of our digital technologies, it’s going to allow us to share a lot of information.”

While this “think tank” approach may seem like a classic case of “too many witches spoil the brew,” Saucedo is quick to point out the necessity of working hand-in-hand with the business groups. “It’s not just design. It’s not just styling. It’s covering all the bases and bringing it all together,” he says. APEX challenges designers and engineers to understand more than just their craft. Saucedo describes how the more analytical environment will benefit his team members who might be working with APEX: “Maybe the designers won’t even be sketching. We want to have them be part of the research so that they understand the scenario and get a clearer picture of what type of vehicle they’re trying to develop.”

The other big influence on his team will most certainly be Hollywood, both in spirit and in practice. “One of the reasons we’re in North Hollywood,” Frank says, “is that we want to get people from the entertainment industry to come in and talk to us and see where the cultural trends are going.”

A New Way of Working
Not only does Saucedo see GM tapping the entertainment industry for idea people, but he also sees the film industry’s freelance organizational approach influencing how his designers work on projects. (Since the end of the great Hollywood studio era in the late 1960s, most film professionals operate as free agents, moving from project to project based on their skills and interests.) “We’re going to bring people on for short-term projects, to work with us two or three months at a time to brainstorm something. Then we’ll carry the project further by ourselves,” he says, “Some people that we’re going to contract in may not even work here. They’ll work at home and come in for presentations.” Frank is quick to point out that the reverberations of this management style will be felt elsewhere, as some designers and engineers that rotate through his studio (read: Detroiters) will not be used to this California way of working.

“We want to be the experimental end of how people function in the workplace at GM,” Frank tells me. And he’s certainly got some ideas about non-traditional work processes. For instance, Saucedo’s office won’t have any walls. It will be open to the rest of his staff so that he can be a part of what’s happening. Although there will be some stationary phones and walled offices, Saucedo sees most of the design team using cellular or cordless phones to give them a greater flexibility to move around and be where they need to be to do what they need to do. “We’re trying to stay away from offices. There’s no need for us to tie ourselves down to one particular area,” he says, “Day to day, our work situations will describe where we’re working.”

Technology and the Customer
The studio itself will actually be two studios, one “analog” and the other “digital.” While the analog studio will be building clays, Saucedo points out “It’s not truly analog, because there’s a lot of computer work done in there.” The LA studio will use both Unigraphics andAlias/Wavefront software packages, just as the other GM design centers do.

When asked about the merits of computer-aided design (CAD) vs. clay, Frank answers, “Everything we have in our repertoire is a tool. It’s all a matter of how we apply it.” And while this statement may not belie his appreciation of digital technology, this self-described computer hobbyist gets excited when he talks about the advantages of designing in CAD. “When you’re able to take a real quick sketch, build a quick model, and project it full size—that’s a great evaluation tool,” he says, “The other thing that’s important is that when you build a math model, you can be building an interior and exterior model simultaneously.”

But being too focused on the technology can cause one to lose sight of what’s really important. Unlike some designers who may discredit the importance of focus groups and customer research as a design aid, Saucedo believes in them. He explains that getting feedback on design work from consumers is crucial. “I think it’s important to get them in and have them look at your vehicles and have them look at your competitiors’ vehicles and see what they’re doing right and what you’re doing right, and what people just totally hate.”

Guts
Saucedo’s not advocating asking customers to predict the future or come up with the breakthrough designs. But he’s also not espousing the “If you don’t understand this car, then you’re not meant to” attitude that’s been rearing its ugly head at auto shows lately. He is saying that cars are bought on emotion and this should drive design. “I think that every designer knows, if they’re honest with themselves, if something is interesting, if it’s thought provoking, if it’s a really beautiful piece of work. Gut feel has a lot to do with what every designer does. At the end of the day, it’s important that you have an emotional attachment to an idea.”

When he tells me this, I accuse him of sounding like Tom Gale in the pre-DaimlerChrysler days. He retorts, “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Chrysler’s come a long way because of its gut feelings and its attitude toward doing emotional design. You can’t just go off half-cocked and style something, because that’s not going to work. You might get people to buy it, but they won’t actually like it or love it. To get them to love it, you’ve got to tell a story.”

To do this, Saucedo says he “nails” three questions to the car throughout the design process: (1) Why are we designing this vehicle? (2) What are we trying to achieve? (3) Who are we designing it for? Without clear answers to these three questions, “arbitrary” vehicles are destined to result. “We try to get in the mind of each customer we’re designing for,” he explains, “We used to design stuff and say, ‘Here it is! Isn’t this neat? You guys should buy it.’ I think we’re more intuitive now. If you’re not listening to the customer, I think you’re going to fail.”

And for Frank Saucedo—and General Motors—failure is not an option.