Peter Schreyer being named president of Kia Motors—the Chief Design Officer getting another title, a big title, on his business card without losing one—is certainly a significant development for the Korea-based company. And it underscores the global nature of the industry: Schreyer is from Bavaria.
He’s been with Kia Motors since 2006, and under his direction there has been a massive improvement in the designs of Kia vehicles, such as the Optima sedan and the Sportage crossover.
It’s not that previous generations of Kia vehicles had bad design. It’s just that the designs of those cars were wholly derivative of what was already out there so they didn’t move the needle forward, arguably those designs moved it in the wrong direction: Nowadays, if you’re not advancing, you’re not staying in place, you’re actually moving backwards.
What Kia products now have is much more than the notched grille that Schreyer introduced. They have a point of view, one that says that these vehicles are not mere cookie-cutter commodities, but are vehicles that are distinctive and desirable because it is evident that the designers involved in product development thought long and hard about what it is that they were creating. . .although one might argue that they thought fast and hard, because there has been a steady flow of fresh product out of the company’s studios in Seoul, Frankfurt, Shanghai, and Irvine: It is evident that this is a case of people having drive and commitment, a sense of urgency.
Consider: It would be exceedingly odd to go into a showroom and see something sleek and sexy like the Optima surrounded by a bunch of cars that look like they were straight out of a clip-art catalog. The entire showroom needed the same visual and tangible intensity.
(To use the always-favorite Apple analogy: You go into an Apple Store and you see, up front, a vast array of new tech that has the highly distinctive and appealing form and execution from Jony Ive and his team. It tugs at your wallet. In the back of the store, where there are the accessories from a variety of vendors, the designs, while often aping Apple’s approach, just aren’t as attractive. If those products were in the front of the store, or if bona fide Apple products resembled those products rather than those products trying to resemble Apple products, more of us would be carrying Zunes.)
Some companies say “Design is important to us. It is the differentiator.” They usually say this shortly after they’ve announced that “People are our biggest asset.”
Talk is cheap.
As mentioned, Schreyer is still going to be heading up Kia design while having responsibility for the business as president. Which means, figuratively speaking, that he is going to have to use both sides of his brain, the analytical and the creative, simultaneously. No small feat.
He is going to have to face decisions that are going to balance the risk of doing something different without the assurance of a reward for having done so.
To be sure, his position as Chief Design Officer undoubtedly involved him in administration more than art, in making choices rather than creating. He probably spent less time working on a board than talking to the board.
But still, his new job is going to be exceedingly difficult, especially from the perspective of keeping the momentum that Kia has achieved going.
However, without that momentum, we wouldn’t be even thinking about Kia as a competitor in the industry, and unquestionably, given the evidence of products it has launched and will be shortly launching, it is unquestionably that.