Ed Welburn is approaching a milestone: March marks his 10th year as General Motors' first global design chief. He was named to that newly created post in 2005, two years after becoming vice president of GM Design North America, the sixth design chief in GM's history.
Welburn, 64, is as busy as ever. His design studios in Warren, Mich., are humming -- he's looking to add to his 900-employee staff there (he directs 2,600 globally). He counts among his most significant achievements the integration of 10 global design centers, from Germany to Brazil to Australia. He tries to strike a harmonious balance between competition and collaboration among the far-flung studios.
The nattily dressed Welburn takes some of his inspiration from nonautomotive designs, including fashion. Last fall, he ducked out of the Paris auto show to browse the city's boutiques for the latest trends.
He spoke with Staff Reporter Mike Colias in December about the design direction for Chevrolet, Cadillac and other GM brands.
Q: What have you been spending your time on lately?
A: It has been unbelievably busy here. Frankly, we're going to have to bring on more people to get the job done. All of our studios around the world are just running flat out.
Where's the biggest need for more people?
North America, here at the design center. There's so much going on on the product side. The depth that we're involved in the development of the vehicles is much greater, too.
Just a few years ago, instrumentation of the car was just, "Do you have a black face or a white face? What font do you want on the gauges?" Now, you have to dedicate a significant number of people to that. A headlamp is far more complex than before. Developing vehicle accessories is a much more aggressive activity than ever before.
Chevy is launching the Trax crossover, which has that traditional dual-port grille. But recent entries such as the Impala have the wider grille and did away with the split look. What's the direction of Chevy's face?
Remember that the Trax has been in market for a while globally. Overall, we continue to evolve the face. I think it all really starts to come together as a clear identity, a clear, freshened face for Chevrolet, over the next year or two. There are just so many new Chevys coming.
What's the general direction for Chevy?
What really works for Chevrolet is that it always feels more expensive than it actually is. The face needs to be a significant part of that. As you see the face evolve, it feels more upscale, more premium. Not in a stuffy, formal sort of way, but it has a feeling of more content.
Some people criticized the design of the Chevy Silverado when it was unveiled about two years ago. But it has done well in the market. Has the design been vindicated?
I heard the criticism. It's a very strong truck. Great interiors. The exteriors are not revolutionary, at all. But they're very bold. And we'll continue to evolve them going forward. It's an interesting market. We stay very close to our customers in that market to find out what they really want in a truck. And I think we've done the right thing.
Does Cadillac moving its headquarters to New York mean anything for you and your Cadillac studios?
Yes it does, seriously. In a positive way. I think it helps everyone understand how important this brand is and how important it is for Cadillac to stand separately from others at General Motors.
We're going to continue to do all of the design work at our Cadillac studios here in Warren. But our designers will spend time in New York. It's important for Cadillac designers to spend time in areas around the world where they may be influenced by other luxury goods. And I don't mean other luxury cars.
I saw you at an auto show a few years ago when you spotted someone wearing a suit from a tailor in Milan, whom you had used before. Do you take inspiration from the fashion world or other nonautomotive art?
Absolutely. At the Paris auto show, I spent about a day and a half at the show, but more time walking the streets of Paris, going in and out of different shops. You really get a behind-the-scenes look at fashion.
I look at what's happening in product design, furniture design, even a second look at midcentury design. There are those who collect it, and there are those who are designing things inspired by it. Furniture has a significant influence.
Does new Cadillac president Johan de Nysschen like what he sees when he walks through Cadillac's design center?
I really like the time I've spent with Johan. He spends a lot of time with the studio team and our executive director for Cadillac, Andrew Smith. He really knows cars. It's cool to talk to him about what we're doing -- beyond the design language, but more on what vehicles will be in the portfolio.
Is there a brand right now that you're really paying attention to?
I'm always interested in Aston Martin from purely a style perspective, the proportions of the vehicle, the execution of the form. It's more traditional design. It's not edgy at all.
Volkswagen for their interiors. The quality of the interiors is very impressive. They're not adventuresome designs, but the quality is quite good. And I really respect how Porsche respects their brand. There's an awful lot I don't like in the marketplace, but we won't go into that.
Some people feel that BMW's i8 could influence future design, that sort of layered look. Any thoughts?
It's a trend that we will not follow. I'm not so sure that vehicle will necessarily be a trend. It's evident when you see the vehicle that it's got a significant technology play. It does that.
But I think in terms of real trends, for CO2 reasons, we've got to reduce the mass of our vehicles and improve the aerodynamics significantly. So reducing the frontal area by lowering the vehicle will help in a big way. Doing that without robbing interior space is important. That takes a lot of planning, to lower the vehicle and not cramp our customers. That will be a real trend.
Already we see a lot of sleek daylight openings and fastback styling. Doesn't that inherently cramp the interior?
Those who can do that without impacting the interior space are the ones that can be successful. I'd argue that you need to make the interior even more spacious. Because when a vehicle looks so low and sleek, it makes you question whether it's got great interior space. You really need to overachieve.
How is the chemistry with GM's new executive team?
We've all known each other for quite a while, for the most part. The roles have changed. But it works. I really like working for [CEO] Mary [Barra]. She's a strong, forceful leader, a fair leader. I enjoy the time that she spends here reviewing design.
You told me once that she has a good eye.
Yes. And yet she clearly is not a designer, and doesn't try to play the role of a designer at all. There are some people who do, and that can be difficult. She knows it well enough to know and respect what we do.
You'll be in this global job 10 years in March. What accomplishments are you proudest of?
Yes. The North America job was 2003. We didn't have a global design head before. My predecessors didn't lead it globally. I think developing this global organization is the main thing. The collaboration that occurs is something I'm most proud of.
There are a lot of vehicles that I love. But just in the last couple years, this global organization seems to have shifted into a higher gear. The collaboration and sharing between centers is just phenomenal. Designers historically don't like to share. It's cool. But it's not like it's softened our edge any. It's still very competitive.
What are you most looking forward to?
There is some really cool stuff in the Buick design studio right now. I don't forget the work going on with Wuling and Baojun brands in China. They really are working fast and developing as brands. They have their own separate studios in Baojun, but we have some personnel in those studios and give guidance on the work. That brand has been growing so fast, you don't want to do anything to slow them down.