Building brands by design
GM's new setup divides stylists based on marques
GM design chief Ed Welburn aims to get more inspired designs by putting most of his 2,000 designers, sculptors and other personnel under specific brands.
DETROIT -- General Motors' design studio in Korea is GM's go-to center for small cars, responsible for the look and feel of diminutive rides such as the Chevrolet Spark and Sonic.
But that doesn't give the studio's head designer, Mike Simcoe, carte blanche in that size category. Under a new brand-focused structure for GM's design division, Simcoe confers closely on any Chevrolet design with Ken Parkinson, who is head of Chevy design globally at GM's design center in Warren, Mich.
That seems to make sense. But it hasn't always worked that way.
For the last decade or so, GM has divided its 10 global design studios roughly by platform. So designers at GM's design center who were assigned to the company's mid-sized sedan platform might work on a redesign of the Chevy Malibu for several months before switching to, say, the Buick LaCrosse.
That system worked OK, said Ed Welburn, GM's design chief since 2003. But Welburn, 61, believes that he will get more inspired designs by putting most of his 2,000 designers, sculptors and other personnel under specific brands.
Before, a designer might get a Buick assignment and immerse himself in the intricacies of porthole vents and waterfall grilles and other trademark styling cues. Then he might move on to a GMC assignment and reboot.
"But if all they did were Buicks, they wouldn't just take that Buick rule book and develop a vehicle based on it," Welburn told Automotive News. "They would advance the design language even further, deliver designs with more reach."
Maintaining consistent designs globally, especially for Chevrolet and Cadillac, has become increasingly important as GM seeks to expand those brands further into Europe, China and other overseas markets.
The new structure should help deliver that consistency, Welburn said. It also should drive distinction between brands in the same markets that share platforms, such as Chevrolet and GMC in trucks. Welburn believes GM "can make the GMCs more distinct than we already have."
That job falls to Parkinson, 49, who as of Aug. 1 became executive director of global Chevrolet and GMC design. His new job shows how GM's brands have taken on greater importance under the new structure.
Before, Parkinson oversaw exterior design in North America across all brands and platforms. While he also was charged with preserving Chevrolet's design traits through his dual job of Chevy "brand champion," reporting to him were sculptors and designers who might be working on Cadillacs and Buicks.
Under the restructuring, Mark Adams, who led Opel design since 2007, has relocated to Warren and will lead global Cadillac and Buick design.
There are cost savings to be had under the new structure, too, Welburn said. For example, he said his head of GMC interiors, Pete Lawlis, quickly can pinpoint variations in the cost of common components as he moves between projects.
Welburn pointed to one other bonus of the new setup: He said it has energized his design staffers, who can take a pride of ownership in their brands.
"They go home at night and tell their families, 'I'm working on GMCs'" Welburn said. "It's not, 'I'm working on crossovers, or some mid-sized yada yada platform.' "
You can reach Mike Colias at firstname.lastname@example.org.