At age 11, Ed Welburn had more ambition than many adults do. Not content with drawing pictures of cars on the blank end pages of his mother’s best books — “… at first just oval shapes with wheels on them and a door like you’d have on a house,” he says — Welburn wrote a letter to General Motors and asked how best to shape his education so that he could get a job there one day.
Ten years later, when he went to Detroit for a job interview, GM’s personnel director at the time pulled that very letter out of a file marked “Welburn, Ed.”
The file is a lot thicker now; Welburn is GM’s senior vice president of global design, in charge of 1,500 designers and sculptors all over the world. Their work helped create the more than 9 million vehicles GM sold globally in 2006.
ForbesAutos.com spent time with Welburn at the Amelia Island, Fla., Concours d’Elegance, a vintage and classic car gathering, where Welburn was a member of the judging team. We chatted inside a new Saturn Aura, away from the crowd.
The Aura’s surprisingly luxurious-looking interior was an apt symbol of GM’s new interior-design initiative. “We were two years behind the competition on interior design,” Welburn says.
ForbesAutos: Why has the interior design of American automakers lagged that of competitors in years past?
Welburn: Historically, interior design has been an afterthought. If you got the vehicle done and you needed to save some money to meet a budget, you took it out of the interior, since it was too late to take it out of the sheet metal [meaning, the exterior styling].
Our best designers worked on exteriors. Car magazines never put an interior on the cover, so everybody wanted to work on exteriors.
ForbesAutos: The dark-brown interior color of this Aura looks out of the norm for GM. How have consumers reacted to it?
Welburn: Focus groups hated this brick leather in the Aura prototypes, because people are too used to liking what they know. They can’t think three years ahead. Today, more than 30 percent of all Auras are ordered with this color. We use market research, but you have to know what to take away from it.
ForbesAutos: So which is more important, the exterior or the interior design?
Welburn: The importance of the interior has really grown. The first impression is the exterior, of course. Then, as you move in on the car, it’s the feel of the door handle, opening the door onto a warm, inviting interior. And when you get in, does it feel right, feel comfortable, can you see out, read the gauges, reach the controls, find enough storage space?
I want our interiors to be a place people want to be. The first-generation Cadillac SRX, for example, was cold, harsh, not expensive-looking. You didn’t want to rest your arm on any part of it. We’ve changed that with the new SRX interior.
ForbesAutos: Why have styling and design become so crucial?
Welburn: Because there really aren’t any bad cars today. Everybody has quality, technology, competitive pricing; it’s just a question of degree. So design is the differentiator. In a marketplace as competitive as ours, a car has to be recognizable in a sea of vehicles. Styling is a way to get a car to stand out.
A car is an extension of a person’s personality. It says something about who they are, what their values are, whether they would rather not share their values, or whether they want a vehicle that makes a big, bold, powerful statement. They don’t just want a vehicle that does something, they want a vehicle that looks like it does it.
But you can take a vehicle too far or not far enough. If a design promises that you can scale a mountain, the vehicle better be able to do it. Or if someone is looking for a vehicle with great off-road capability and it looks fragile, that doesn’t work either.
ForbesAutos: It once was assumed that a designer who worked for a huge car company spent his life designing door handles. Is that true at GM?
Welburn: That’s not the case. Years ago, the rookies did tail lamps and things like that, but today we hire people who are ready to jump into the deep end, working alongside very experienced designers. It’s good for the experienced guy to have the young guy in there with him, and the young designer is learning from the old hand.
ForbesAutos: How do you keep senior execs from interfering in the design process?
Welburn: Strong leadership. Between [Senior VP] Bob Lutz and [CEO] Rick Wagoner, they’ve made design way more powerful. There are far fewer people who have any say at all in terms of design. When people ask, “Lutz, can we do this, can we do that?” he says, “Hey, that’s a design call.”
Design had that sort of power in the 1950s and '60s and earlier, and in the '70s, design started to lose out to engineering and marketing. Back then, there were a lot of people involved in design decisions. There are far fewer today.
ForbesAutos: What was going on with GM during those '50s and '60s heydays?
Welburn: When Bill Mitchell replaced Harley Earl as GM's design chief in 1958, design was king, and that tradition continued. The designers would throw the finished design over the wall to the engineers, who would do the best they could within the design’s limitations. Quality suffered, so then we tried to work it the other way, with the engineers dictating the design and telling us to put a body on it. That didn’t work either. As Mitchell used to say, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Ultimately, the enemy isn’t the designers or the engineers, it’s the other car companies.
ForbesAutos: So Ed, what do we call you, a stylist or a designer?
Welburn: Designer. Our designers don’t like to be called stylists. It was called GM Styling until 1971, now it’s GM Design. Styling is a very important part of what we do [that deals mostly with the surface and look of things], but design is much more thorough, much more complete.