Fast Company

Made in China

General Motors' next LaCrosse sedan is being designed right now … in China. That says a lot about GM, a lot about China, and even more about the future of creativity.

Joe Qiu doesn't own a car. He doesn't even have a driver's license. His favorite vehicle, actually, is a go-kart with a top speed of 75 miles per hour. His distressed leather bomber jacket, which he rarely takes off, betrays his fascination with airplanes and all things military. His jeans, the hems unfashionably turned up, and a brushlike crewcut are pure 21st-century China. His TAG Heuer watch: a nod to the international uniform of designers.

At 31, Qiu still lives with his parents. But he spends much of his time drinking in the vibes at the expensive high-end clubs, over-the-top shopping malls, and elegant, luxurious hotels where Shanghai's burgeoning middle class gathers. "I'm just a piece of white paper," he says, collecting insights into China's skyrocketing consumer culture. He has an uncanny knack for divining Chinese tastes and whims, what it is they'll buy.

Qiu is, in fact, a car designer. He works for the largest automaker in the world, General Motors, at its outpost in Shanghai's Pudong suburb. Two years ago, he was part of a team that radically overhauled the Buick LaCrosse for the Chinese market. The original LaCrosse had a soft, rounded exterior and a plain-vanilla interior, meant to appeal to the brand's aging U.S. consumers. But Qiu and his boss James Shyr, an intense, fast-talking Chinese-American who learned his trade at Nissan and Toyota, knew Chinese consumers would sneer at such frumpy wheels. "Our buyers are 36 and 37, half the age of buyers in the U.S. and much more discerning," Shyr says.

So Qiu and a team of Chinese designers rethought and reshaped every piece of sheet metal, turning the LaCrosse into a glamorous, elegant sedan that turns heads even in fashion-conscious Shanghai. Their car features an oversized, chrome-laden front grill and large jewel-like, clear taillights to sate the bling-bling urges of China's status-conscious young buyers.

The Chinese redesign was pitch perfect, so well targeted that the LaCrosse is on track to sell nearly 110,000 units in its second year in production.

Qiu was in charge of the interior. He patterned the soft buttery-colored ambient lighting, which glows from the instrument panel and from lights hidden in the rear, after the subdued world of Shanghai's trendy clubs. "I looked at where people lived, where they hung out, and then I tried to create that same feeling inside the car," he says. The result feels like a beautifully designed living room, a sharp contrast to the hard, blocky plastic interiors so common in other Buicks. He paid close attention to the backseats, adding padding and features such as front and rear power-massaging seats.

The redesign was pitch perfect, so well targeted that the Chinese LaCrosse is on track to sell nearly 110,000 units in its second year in production. (In the United States, the LaCrosse isn't expected to approach the 100,000-unit mark, ever.) Now, with that success still fresh, Qiu and the China design team face a critical test. They will design the next Buick LaCrosse, due out at the end of the decade, for the entire world.

It's a mind-bending phenomenon. After an intense internal competition that pitted Shyr and his team against their U.S. counterparts, they will have complete authority over the interior design--driven by Qiu's insights. The exterior is being handled in the United States, but with a great deal of input from China. And China will control much of the overall logistics.

There's a carload of irony here. It used to be that GM would send American versions of cars around the globe--sometimes even selling left-hand drive cars in right-hand countries like Japan. What worked in America, it thought, would work globally. Now the automaker, with 50% of its sales coming from outside the United States and the Chinese market growing fastest of all, is betting that a Chinese sensibility will best inform a car for Americans, and everyone else.

"Our LaCrosse pushed the expectations," says Raymond Bierzynski, president of GM's Pan Asia Technical Automotive Center, or PATAC, co-owned by GM and its Chinese joint venture partner Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. Group. "Our Buick is what the brand wants to be everywhere in the world."

PATAC's rapid rise signals a revolution in process, both at GM and in China. Six years ago, its design team was a group of just 23 employees, none of them with design backgrounds, housed near the company's auto factory. "The design archive consisted of 20 brochures for the Volkswagen Santana, and I thought, Man, have we got a problem here," says Shyr, whom GM hired away from Nissan's Taiwan studio to create the new design center. In those days, "our team took the existing car architecture and adapted for China," Bierzynski says. "Localizing was like a machine here."

Today, PATAC's design team is more than 100 people--all of them Chinese save for one Canadian, Mike Stapleton, who joined 18 months ago. And it's a key player in a corporate design strategy that relies on recruiting and connecting talent from all around the world. Beginning six years ago, "we said, 'Wait a minute, the world is bigger than Detroit. It's bigger than North America,' and that there are some pretty cool things to learn from the rest of the world and the rest of GM," says Anne Asensio, GM's executive director of advanced design. "Going global wasn't about pushing our practices on others, but going beyond that to realize that, for example, someone can do something very cool in GM Europe and the people at Holden in Australia can learn from it and use it."

Americans have become comfortable with the notion that our competitive advantage--innovative energy and smarts--can't be outsourced. But what if it isn't true?

The reality, of course, is that this reconsideration of the world order isn't happening nearly fast enough. GM is still struggling to rescue its business in the United States, where its market share dropped to 24.3% last year from 25.9% in 2005. In Europe, it faces tough pricing pressures and increased competition from Japanese automakers. Meanwhile, it's having to restate its financial results for 2002 through 2006.

But as important as it could be for GM's future, PATAC's growing success says even more about the evolution of globalization and the role rising nations, especially China, will play. Americans have become comfortable with the notion that call centers will be staffed in India, software programs coded in Russia, and car parts manufactured in China. Ultimately, outsourcing is accepted because, while it sometimes takes work out of this country, it's generally in service of low-value commodity products. In the end, that means lower prices for companies and consumers.

We're okay with that, because we believe America's competitive advantage--unbridled innovative energy and smarts--can't be outsourced. Rising nations may have cost advantages, conventional wisdom has it, but they can't match America's creativity. Certainly, that's how Detroit saw the world not so long ago.

But the work going on inside two GM studios more than 6,000 miles apart reflects a different reality. Instead of taking orders from the United States, China is taking the lead on creative strategy. Grunt work, like writing millions of lines of code to make three-dimensional car models, is shipped to Detroit as readily as it is to Shanghai or Bangalore. "We aren't the little voice at the end of the phone anymore," Bierzynski says. "China commands 8 million units a year. We're GM's second-biggest market. We are the experts."

It's 6 a.m. in Shanghai, and Qiu, Shyr, and Stapleton are already having a not-so-great day. Their disembodied voices sound tired and a bit edgy. They've just presented their parts of the core design for the LaCrosse's interior. And their bosses, sitting halfway around the world in the dimly lit virtual-reality room in GM's design center north of Detroit, are arguing over the tiniest of details.

Ed Welburn, chief of design and 35-year veteran of GM's design team, sweeps his laser-light pointer across a computer rendering of the car's "B" pillar, the combination of steel, sheet metal, and plastic that connects the front of the car to the back. He picks out minute details on the color and questions the way the pieces of plastic fit together. Shifting to the interior's rear, he fusses over mismatched colors between the seat and door. There are questions about chrome and wood and leather and whether a fit line can be brought down from 2 millimeters to 1.

After an hour of defending their designs, the China hands sign off to begin a long day of changes. Qiu will be in the office until 9 p.m. as he pushes to meet deadlines. The Buick's final design must be "frozen"--that's car talk for "finished"--within the next few weeks.

In Detroit, it's 6 p.m. Welburn shifts in his chair, weary. There's still more work for his team to finish before going home. But he's energized by the spirit of his Chinese colleagues. They handled the nit-picking well. And the fact that there was this sort of exchange at all--well, that's telling, too. "Historically, we wouldn't have gone to this level of detail even three years back," he says of the hour-long meeting. "We would have turned it over to engineering and moved on. This level of detail, this sweating of the details, is different."

GM's Design Center is an iconic place. Imagined by the modernist Finnish architect Eero Saarinen in the 1940s, its lobby features an elegant, spare floating staircase hung over a reflecting pool. A water tower--GM says it's the world's tallest stainless steel structure--rises out of a placid lake. Bright white walls are lined with photos of famous car designs. (By contrast, the China studio is tucked away inside of PATAC's shabby, utilitarian offices where the landscaping consists of an iron fence and a dusty parking lot.)

In the 1950s and 1960s, GM's design chiefs (there have been only six) controlled the carmaker's destiny. They decided what the cars would look like and in doing so determined what America would drive. They brought us the Cadillac fin and the Buick porthole. But by the 1980s, design had taken a backseat to GM's increasingly powerful engineering and manufacturing divisions. The studios were doing little more than "wrapping a pretty skin around what the engineers had designed," says Bob Lutz, GM's vice chairman in charge of global product development.

Lutz, Detroit's best-known iconoclast, was hired in 2001 to help resuscitate GM design. He tapped Welburn to head design in 2003. They along with design director Asensio believed that great car design would be critical to any comeback. "I have seen a rebirth of a company through design," says Asensio, who came to GM from Renault. "Design is the key enabler. That's why I came here. I knew that there was something that could come up from design that could turn around GM."

But the executives also understood that they could no longer depend solely on Detroit talent. To compete with the best products, and to serve a global market, they would have to tap creativity in new places and in new ways. Welburn and Lutz decided that competition--the bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred sort--would expose the best ideas, wherever they came from.

Their plan, unprecedented within GM, was to pit teams of designers from around the world against each other. The new ruling assumption: Just because a car was going to be sold in the United States didn't mean it had to be designed stateside. As important, the winner in each case would run the project worldwide, working with GM's global purchasing, engineering, and manufacturing units to get a new car on the road.

From Los Angeles to Russelsheim, Germany, designers at GM's 11 design centers began revving up their CAD software to compete for various new models. But in 2001, the Shanghai studio was barely ready to sketch a car, let alone design one. Shyr was still building his team, scouring China's cities for whatever designers he could find. At the time, there were no car- or art-design schools like the Art Center of Pasadena or the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

So when Welburn decided to pit the China team against the North American team to design the new LaCrosse, it was as if he'd asked a Chinese high-school basketball team to take on the Detroit Pistons. Leading a car's design isn't just about thinking up great lines to be stamped into raw steel. It requires creating hundreds, perhaps thousands, of three-dimensional computer models, building perfect clay replicas and knowing enough to specify which materials will be used. It means working with suppliers around the world and spending years looking after the smallest of details.

But Welburn had seen something in Qiu's design of the Chinese LaCrosse, as well as in the team's work on a Buick minivan and a stretched version of the Cadillac STS. He thought PATAC was ready to at least give a good showing. "Chinese consumers are so demanding--and that team had met their needs so well that even though the studio was small at the time, I knew that China was changing faster and growing up faster than most people realized," Welburn says.

The China team didn't disappoint, jumping into the competition with a vengeance. "There's no doubt, we wanted to beat the North American guys," says Shyr, who admits pressing his young team to outdo their more experienced colleagues. For months, over several rounds, design files flew back and forth between Shanghai and Detroit. The two teams occasionally saw each other's work--both feeding the sense of urgency and giving each other ideas.

One team would send a sketch that had closed the gaps on sheet metal by a few millimeters. A new sharper edge or angle would show up from America--and be incorporated in the next Chinese design. "It was a competition, but there also was this bond," says Stapleton. The process pushed the design "to the highest common denominator instead of the lowest. We had our ideas about what this car should be, and they had theirs. But we also had this web of ideas running between us."

Finally, Welburn chose a winner. Or rather, he didn't. He told the two teams, which had been competing so fiercely, that they would have to work together. China would create the LaCrosse's interior and take responsibility for the overall flow. North America would design the exterior--with input from Shanghai, since by the time the new LaCrosse appears, China is expected to be Buick's biggest single market.

PATAC may be part of a global team, but it knows just how good it is. Its people are as skilled as any out there; its designs are world-class.

"The design is going to be much stronger than if one team worked on it," Welburn explains now. "We're all going to benefit from this collaboration." Shyr describes it differently. "It was more like a war where two platoons are working against each other, and then the reality is that we are all fighting the same war. We had to realize that we had more tricks in our bag working together than just the ones we had here."

But they don't necessarily have to like it all the time. As Bierzynski says, "I'd contend that we could have done the whole car." PATAC may be part of a global team, but it knows just how good it is. Its people are as skilled as any out there. Its designs really are world-class.

For sure, young Qiu isn't kowtowing to any American bosses. Known across GM Design as "Shanghai Joe" now, he's often the most demanding over materials and finishes, questioning every detail. In those long videoconferences, he prefaces most answers with "yes, sir" or "yes, Mr. Welburn"--but it's clear that he is as intensely concerned as anyone with how plastics fit together and how the wood grains line up.

The new LaCrosse will go into production in 2008 or 2009. GM isn't saying much publicly about what it will look like--but it most certainly will reflect the ideas and the sensibilities of Qiu and his Chinese colleagues. A global car, designed in China. And after the LaCrosse? What of China then? Qiu, who six years ago spoke hardly any English, who doesn't even own a car, has a thought on the matter. "Hopefully one day," he says, "I'll be the next Ed Welburn."

Fara Warner (farataye@yahoo.com) is a Fast Company contributing writer who has covered both China and the auto industry for years.

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