DESIGN TAKES THE LEAD AGAIN
We sit down with GM’s Ed Welburn
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Fri, Nov 29, 2013
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
By Sean Spear
“During bankruptcy, there was so much that was written that was negative about GM. Just mean and dark and vicious—all day, every day. It pissed off some of our designers. I think the team dug down deep during that very dark period and ended-up doing their absolute best work. They got fired up. Out of this we got the Impala, and the start of the new Corvette. We realized that the enemy wasn’t another division within GM, but other car companies period. It wasn’t some pep rally, but just us talking together that birthed a new intensity. Now, we just need to keep it.”
There was a time when such glimpses into the mindset of a car company were reserved for the three-martini lunches with the dealers or the hunting trips with the major parts suppliers. Today, designers and chief executives alike are more willing to explain the hard realities of the car business alongside what motivates their product and design decisions. Our sitdown with Ed Welburn was no exception.
Edward Welburn, Jr. is only General Motors’ sixth chief designer. Officially titled the Vice-President for Global Design, Ed is the successor to legends of the car industry like Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell. Like Harley at the end of the Great Depression and the post-WWII retooling, Ed has had to help navigate the company through one of its most challenging periods. Also similar to that time, design seems to be taking the driver’s seat at the company; which up until recently didn’t appear to be the case.
When discussing GM’s pre-recession design work at Oldsmobile, “We did some cars that were really great and sold in large numbers, and then some cars that were pretty bad. The brand really lost its way. There wasn’t a common vision for the car between Design, Engineering, and Marketing (Divisions); and the cars suffered. In the end, the execution was pretty bad.”
Fast-forwarding to today, Ed described a much more collaborative and “honest dialogue” in the development process. “Young designers understand the overall car business better than previous generations. Not only that, they are building relationships with engineers independently; helping each other early in the process.” This cross-pollination is not limited to inside GM Headquarters. “We had Tommy Hilfiger come into the studio the other day, and we talked about influences and our time horizon. While fashion is designing for next year, we are developing vehicles for 2017, and the design needs to remain fresh for another five years after that. He looked at me like I was crazy; asking how does one do that when so many things can change along the way. To me, it’s having a sense of the brand, listening to customers, understanding trends, and then moving forward.” Ed went on to say, “We are taking cues from fashion, furniture, aircraft…we try to find inspirations both large and small.”
E that I was like, ‘God, do I have to do the LA Auto Show? Can I just stay here?’” * If we trust the excitement of a 40 plus-year design veteran, then we might want to believe that GM has even more stunning work to come.
*Editor’s note: One might assume that “here” means Detroit. However, Welburn oversees a network of ten design centers in seven countries around the world. “Here” can easily mean Detroit or Los Angeles, or one of the design centers in Germany, Korea, China, Australia, Brazil or India.
About Ed Welburn Edward T. Welburn, Jr. was named vice president of General Motors Design North America in 2003, becoming the sixth design leader in GM history. In 2005, Welburn was named to the newly created position of GM vice president, Global Design. He was the first to lead all of GM's global design centers. As vice president of Global Design, Welburn created a network of ten design centers in seven countries around the world. Welburn’s team of 1,800 men and women are responsible for the design development of every GM concept and production car and truck worldwide. A native of Philadelphia, Welburn received his bachelor's degree in 1972 from the College of Fine Arts at Howard University, where he studied sculpture and product design. For more information about Ed Welburn, click here. Below: Some of Ed Welburn's designs [nggallery id=edwelburn]