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The Design Imperative

How GM designers are improving the company’s product both inside and out.

Design matters. Although that has long been the case in the auto industry, today, with the ever-increasing number of vehicles—makes, brands, types, architectures, price points—the ability to stand out in, ideally, an appealing manner is largely predicated on a design difference. In the early part of the 20th century, the still-nascent General Motors used design as a key differentiator. At the time, the market was dominated by Ford Motor Co., which had more than half of the market. Henry Ford was all about efficiency. Repeatability. Consistency. He was highly resistant to change. Highly resistant to style. So he continued to produce the same products. Model Ts gave way to Model As. But not much else changed. Alfred Sloan, however, determined there was a market for things that were distinctively different. So not only did he create the divisional strategy (the proverbial products for “every purse and purpose”), but he, fundamentally, made it so that distinctive designs would be available throughout the product range. As this played out, GM’s fortunes rose, and as they did, the relative market share of Ford declined.

As we fast forward to the present, the situation is different, though analogous. That is, GM, which has been wracked by the competition, which has seen its market share decline, which has been working to improve its production efficiencies through its Global Manufacturing System, is realizing the importance of design. It matters. And so the corporation seems to have empowered Ed Welburn, vice president of Global Design, and his team to create products that stand out from the crowd, that have distinctiveness and attention to detail that is not necessarily characteristic of what has been the case for several years. There have been exceptions. Now it is the rule.

On December 5, 2006, Automotive Design & Production presented two awards at the Automotive Hall of Fame, one for Excellence in Exterior Design, one for Excellence in Interior Design. These were for vehicles introduced in calendar year 2006. One person received both trophies: Ed Welburn. The exterior design award went to the Saturn Sky roadster. The interior award was presented for the GMC Yukon SUV. Both are clear indicators of the direction that GM is taking. To find a sense of context for this, we talked with two men involved in the vehicle development, Clay Dean, GM design director for small and midsize cars, and Dennis Burke, who heads up the interior design program for the GMT 900 SUVs and trucks.

 

From HUMMER to roadster?

“I was in the HUMMER studio. The H2 and H3 were my responsibilities.” And then, Clay Dean continues, he had the opportunity to move to the Small and Midsize Studio, where he found the Sky, which was about in the middle of the program. The car actually began life in a GM advanced design studio in Birmingham, England, where Simon Cox created a concept vehicle, the Vauxhall Lightning. “It coincided right at the time when we were going through a renaissance of what the Saturn brand was going to be,” Dean says, then goes on to describe the Lightning as “the lighting rod for reestablishing what Saturn meant.”

And so Dean found himself from a place where he’d been immersed in creating angular and rectangular shapes and militarily aggro forms to one where there was a challenge, a big challenge. “We looked at what was happening in the marketplace—it had shifted, moved. European product was becoming a bigger, more compelling story, and even the Asian competitors we were dealing with were taking their cue from European competitors,” he recalls, adding, that for the Saturn division, “We had to reassess everything we were doing.” 

“The Sky allowed us to sledgehammer down what the brand stands for: Here’s where we’re going to go.”

HUMMER. . .sledgehammer. Perhaps not too vast a difference.

 

Geography Lessons

When Saturn was conceived in 1982 and then came to market in 1990, the objective was to produce small American cars that would be competitive with import brands. Back in those days, the concern was with Asian imports. While that is still a tremendous challenge, the attention has turned at Saturn toward Europe. Dean explains that the current approach at Saturn is to create vehicles that reference the precision and technical attributes that are often associated with European products. “We want the engineering capabilities of the car to be talked about,” he says, explaining that he wants these capabilities to be revealed through the surfacing and details of the car. So one of the things that occurred with the Sky is that extreme shapes and forms notwithstanding, the body is steel, not plastic: “Steel panels give us tighter gaps and finishes, and better surface quality.” Then there are the details, like the headlamps and tail lamps at the corners, and their technical jeweled-yet-purposeful appearance.

America is not left out of this. Dean talks about the interior, which he says has something of a minimalist aesthetic: “It is almost like Apple iPod simplicity inside the car, and that is kind of refreshing--but there are still enough intriguing details that it brings you in.” Shades of Silicon Valley.

 

Reaching With the Sky

“Visually, it is a very masculine-looking car. It looks very purposeful. The gestures of the car have a sense of movement. There’s almost a sense of anger or attitude—attitude is a better word—when you see the face of the car. Those visual cues are a loud signal cry on the Sky.” And Dean says that those signals will be incorporated on vehicles to come, even though they may not have the same level of stridency that can be seen on the Sky.

“When you establish a theme, it needs to herald a change, a vocal change.” And the Sky shouts, or, as he puts it, “It has 125% more of anything subsequent Saturns will have.”

As oxymoronic as this may seem, the Sky is the stake that Saturn has hammered into the ground. All else starts there.

 

A Premium Approach

Like Clay Dean with the design activities of the Sky, Dennis Burke joined the GMT 900 program “at half time,” he says, picking up from then-interior design director for full size trucks, Dave Lyon. At the point that Burke became involved, they were working toward final release, doing the productionizing of the interiors and then working it through to production. One interesting aspect of Burke’s involvement on the vehicle program—which also includes the Cadillac Escalade and the Chevrolet Tahoe—is that he’d been the chief designer on the previous-generation Escalade (Burke’s exterior work can also be seen on other GM models, including both versions of the Oldsmobile Aurora; of his time with GM—he joined in 1969—some 30 years were spent in exterior design).

He explains that the interiors of all three SUVs were designed at the same time, but each was done individually. Yet, he admits, “Right from the get-go it was decided that the Tahoe and the Yukon would share what we call a ‘premium’ interior approach and that the Escalade, because it is the flagship of the fleet, would get its own interior, which we referred to throughout the program as a ‘luxury’ interior.” Burke acknowledges that this represents a departure from the previous generation, the GMT 800 vehicles, when the Escalade interior was, as he puts it, “basically a mildly touched-up version of the Tahoe/Yukon.” That wasn’t the case this time.

Although there is commonality within the Tahoe and the Yukon—e.g., “It was defined from the get-go we wouldn’t have enough money to do specific IPs for the Yukon and the Tahoe”—Burke says that they paid attention to how they would differentiate the two. One key area was the finishes deployed, with the Chevy, for example, having more wood-like trim and the Yukon having more metallic-looking surfaces, thereby having more of the “professional grade” appearance that is used to define the brand in the market. Burke acknowledges that whereas the Escalade has real metal trim plates rather than the film that is deployed on the Yukon, he also avers that they paid such close attention developing the faux materials’ appearances that he defies people to tell from looking whether they’re real.

What’s more, whereas the Escalade has a cast-skin urethane IP and the Yukon/Tahoe have an injection-molded ABS part, Burke claims that “you’d never know the difference by looking at the two.”

 

Unplastic-like Plastic

Which brings up the issue of the plastics. He acknowledges, “Often our vehicles were criticized in the past for having cheap-looking plastics. A big part of that is grain and gloss. You could take a piece of plastic and make it look like plastic or, conversely, make it look very convincing, almost like fine leather.” So this time out they worked diligently on the grain and gloss levels for the plastics, all the way to micrograining (i.e., a secondary level of graining). “It’s not cheap to get to low gloss,” he points out. For example, it is necessary to dress the tools more often. But that’s a commitment they made. In order to do this most cost-effectively, they have the lowest gloss surfaces from the armrest up, where the customer can readily see and touch the materials, and a “slightly higher—not high” gloss below that.

Looking back to the interiors of GMT 800 and the GMT 900, Burke says that the biggest difference is in the attention that was paid to fit and finish. He says with some exaggeration, “If you look at the previous vehicle, there were some gaps so wide you could probably stick your hand in them.” Now, the gaps are 0.5 mm or less, with some areas having a near-net fit. He points out that previously, there would be big radii formed on the ends of parts so that if when the two radii were joined, the lack of precise match-up wasn’t as obvious as it might be. He points to the center stack. He says that in the previous generation everything was picture framed with a trim plate so as to disguise the gaps, such as where the radio is fitted into the assembly. On the GMT 900, by contrast, “You can hardly slip a 3 x 5 card in between the radio components and the trim plates that surround them.”

 

Acronymic

In order to achieve the level of quality in materials and execution, things have changed in the GM design studios. Speaking to an earlier period, Burke admits, “Before, all you needed to do was put up a hot sketch. Now there’s more being required of designers.” The designers have to be more involved with the entire process and in some ways, more methodical.

For example, he says that there is what is known as the “Statement of Requirements” (SOR). Previously, this was something that was largely put together by the engineering department—the engineers wrote the specs, which often were more about function than anything else. Aesthetics? Design had little involvement. But now, the SOR is a deliverable from design, as it provides specific details of what they expect from the suppliers: images of the grain, the direction it should take, the gloss levels, texture, etc. “Now we leave no room for interpretation: This is what it’s got to be,” Burke says.

Getting to the SOR requires that they develop a “Bill of Competitiveness.” Burke says that they scour the competition, determine the “best-of-the-best,” and then figure out how that was achieved. Once that is determined, they still go further, as there is now recognition that what the competition has now is not what the competition is going to have next time out. As he put it, “The mentality here now is: ‘It’s not good enough to be just good enough.’” They work at not merely replicating what the competition has or slightly improving it, but they ask themselves what it will take to leapfrog the competitors.

 

The Whole Brain

Which is why the designers at GM have a slightly different approach or way of work from the way it had been through a large portion of Burke’s experience at the company. “It’s a much more multi-faceted job than it used to be. You’ve got to be cognizant of more vehicles out there. It is more cerebral than it used to be. It’s still an emotional business. Design is still very subjective and emotional, but it is a little bit more right-brain than it used to be. Now a designer has to use both sides of the brain.”

Which is the right idea for competitive product.