If GM's 2009 bankruptcy distracted its VP of global design, Ed Welburn, from his mission to produce fine-looking cars, it hasn't been apparent in showrooms. The more collaborative—and sometimes competitive—design process implemented by the 40-year company veteran has helped steer GM away from rock bottom and back to the top of the automaker heap.
FC: So much of the discussion about cars focuses on fuel economy, alternative energy sources, the move to electric—not the typical sexy American rhetoric about automobiles. How has the shift toward responsible cars affected design?
Welburn: Those are significant challenges, and they represent the difference between styling a car and designing it. Creating an aerodynamic vehicle is the primary way to boost fuel economy. At the same time, every car has its own mood, whether it's a van for India or a Cadillac for China, and needs to connect with customers on an emotional level.
You created a network of 10 worldwide GM design centers. In what ways has that changed GM's process?
We've had global centers for decades—there's been one in Brazil since the 1930s—but they operated independently. So, in 2005, we made product development global. I don't think we'd be as successful in China if we didn't have people there who know the Chinese market, culture, and history of design. Similarly, no center understands truck or Cadillac-luxury design like the one in Detroit.
How do you foster communication among those 10 design studios?
We have a Collaboration Center here that has three 20-foot-by-8-foot screens. I use them to host live design reviews with the studios. We collaborate on some projects; for others, competition raises the bar. The latest iteration of the Camaro was the result of competition between two studios. Neither one could see what the other was doing, but they knew they were facing off. The work was spectacular. Choosing between those designs was one of the hardest decisions I've had to make.
The Chevy Sonic, a subcompact car, has earned giant market share. Is that proof of design driving sales?
Yes—our customers are demanding it. What's fascinating about the Sonic is that it's a compact vehicle, and those are the most difficult cars to design because they have to be so lean and efficient. Generally designers want low-roofed cars—sleek, with a wide stance and large wheels. Well, large wheels add weight, and low roofs make interior accommodations difficult, particularly in a car so small. The trade-offs are challenging.
At the other end of the spectrum is the 2014 Corvette, which is the product of a full redesign. Where do you begin on a car with such history?
I'm not going to talk much about the new C7, but I will say it's one of the toughest assignments for a designer. You don't want to be the person who ruined the Corvette. And yet it needs to evolve and stay fresh and relevant. We asked designers from every center to submit ideas, and it was fascinating to see what came in from, say, Australia and India. That was the culture and global organization at work. When I visit those studios, I still see Corvette sketches mounted proudly above desks.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.