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Profiles: Reinvigorating GM Design

According to global design chief Ed Welburn, design and engineering must work together with a clear and common vision.

From his second-floor corner office, GM’s vice president, Global Design looks out over the Eero Saarinen-designed campus that—in some ways—hasn’t changed significantly since Bill Mitchell retired in 1976. The road system is unchanged, as is the ribbon of water that spans the length of the building between his office and the design dome—that dome is still aluminum covered, though it has morphed from space age chic to camp to retro cool in the intervening years—but don’t let the appearances fool you. Things are much different than they were in the “good old days” of the 1960s when GM ruled the world of automotive design.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the person of Ed Welburn, only the sixth person to hold the top spot at GM Design, and a quiet, confident man who has been given the task to expand the Design empire into emerging markets, coordinate his group’s activities with those of Engineering and Marketing through the GM Automotive Product Board, and manage this Hydra-like beast in an efficient manner. It’s a long way from his youth in the suburbs of Philadelphia, helping out at his dad’s repair shop or working at the local Chevy dealer through high school, not to mention worlds apart from his time at Howard University where he earned degrees in product design and sculpture. Then again, it’s about what you’d expect for a kid who, when he was 11, wrote to GM asking about careers in design and what schools and courses he should consider. Unlike most designers these days, Welburn has spent his entire career at GM.

 

Mapping Strategy

“It all starts on Monday morning with a global meeting with all of the heads of the studios where we go through the design issues for the week,” says Welburn. Wednesdays, on the other hand, are reserved for design reviews: “I do that all day—not just in the studio, but in virtual reality as well.” It’s one of his favorite meetings—despite its 6:00 a.m. start time—because all of the GM studios (there are 11) participate and present their work in virtual reality so each participant sees the image in the same way. “Everybody is sharing ideas and presenting the products they’re working on,” he says, “and that may include suggestions for a solution or a person suited to that task.” Then there’s a near-weekly review with GM chairman Rick Wagoner where Welburn walks him through two or three major designs. Despite this hectic schedule—Welburn mercifully decided not to recite his international travel—he takes time each week to walk through the shops and meet with the crafts people. “The UAW guys that build the mockups and show cars,” says the former sculpture student with a touch of awe, “are real craftsmen. They can make or break a design.”

Design also is involved in planning GM’s auto show displays, overseeing the company’s graphic design, working with advertising agencies on brochure images (“Many of the images in the brochures are digital,” he says, “so we provide the math data for that”), working with companies that create die cast models for sale to the public (the Firebird concepts—I, II, and III—and Jim Hall’s various Chaparrals fill the nooks and crannies), and laying out GM’s auto show vehicle strategy. Says Welburn: “That includes when concepts are revealed to the public, where they are revealed, what the reveal is like, and what production vehicles will debut at which show. Mapping out that strategy happens here.” 

 

Managing the Process

The recent reorganization of the Design infrastructure was, in Welburn’s eyes, “an opportunity to further refine the organization and an enabler to reach the next level in terms of interior and exterior execution.” Under this new structure, Welburn oversees the executive directors in each of four regions: North America, Europe, Asia Pacific, and Latin America, as well as Global Advanced Design, though he recently turned the reins of North America over to Bryan Nesbitt in order give it the focus it deserves. “In the original system,” he says, “I was responsible for Global as well as North America, and wearing two hats put me on a lot of different boards and a lot of different meetings outside of Design. Now each region has its own executive director that reports to me.” This change does give Welburn the opportunity to take a long range view of the design process and changing transportation needs and desires. However, most of his time is spent balancing work loads between studios, overseeing Global Advanced Design and its relationship within the Global Operations Team, and continuing the ever-present problem of brand development.

“If mismanaged, you’d really miss some incredible opportunities that arise from having a global design footprint like this,” says Welburn. “It’s important that each studio has a character and identity that is unique, but that it contributes to the whole organization.” Nevertheless, there are centers of expertise within the organization that place control over particular segments of the market in a particular studio’s hands. “The team in Korea really knows small cars, and if we want to do a small car for the States, Korea should have the lead. If you are doing a mid-size car, that center of expertise—design and engineering—is in Germany. But,” he says with little pause, “if you want to do a full-size truck, crossover, Corvette or Cadillac, that’s North America.” Welburn, however, is quick to explain that this doesn’t mean this is the only type of vehicle these studios will design. “The teams in North America will compete against the Korean team as part of a design competition for a new small car, or they may compete with the others on a new truck design,” he says

Steering this process is the GM Brand Center that determines what hallmarks are necessary for vehicles from each brand to be considered “authentic.” Says Welburn: “We went through a period where we almost put together a rulebook for each brand, but—if you’re going to be successful—you have to go back to ground zero and ask yourself questions like: ‘Why are 11-spoke wheels more appropriate for a Cadillac than five-spoke?’ or ‘Why does a Cadillac have an egg-crate grille and what is the right texture for it?’” Answering those questions and implementing them in a fresh way, he says, takes strong leadership and vision for the brand. This idea of going back to first principles and bringing balance to the process was last seen nine years ago when Welburn ran a totally digital studio within Design that was created as a proving ground for the technologies GM uses today. “Digitally was the only way we worked in our studio,” he says, “and there were no clay models for the first couple of years. Then I put together a system to find a balance between the digital and clay worlds, and that is what we use today.”

 

Resurrecting Studio X

Despite all of the changes that have taken place and the claims that Welburn was too private, too calm, too nice to head GM Design, he appears to be the right man for the job at this point in history. Though he was once a protégé of the legendary Bill Mitchell, Welburn is the opposite of the brash, self-promoting, ego-driven man who ran GM Design from 1958 to 1976. “Mitchell ran it just about right for that period and the competition we had in the marketplace,” Welburn says with a smile. “It was a totally different world.” But maybe he’s not that different. Recently, Welburn resurrected “Studio X,” a super-secret advanced design facility within the bowels of GM Design headquarters. In Mitchell’s days, Studio X operated like an advanced design studio in California that researched demographic and social trends and their effect on automotive design, though it also spawned its share of mid-engine Corvette concepts during its life. Asked who runs this studio, Welburn’s face is overtaken by surprise and a touch of indignation before he answers: “What kind of question is that? I run Studio X. It’s my playground.” Today, Studio X is the home of the Volt concept and—if history is any guide—a mid-engined Corvette proposal or two. As such, it is very private, and Welburn makes certain no one in the broader organization can ever find it again after being taken on a tour. “I’ll go so far as to change the pictures on the wall in the hallway leading to it so no one who doesn’t work in it can find it again,” he says with a wry smile. It’s just proof that he’s not that different from his predecessors in some respects.

 

 

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