General Motors Co. makes a number of appointments in its design unit with the retirement of two longtime staffers and the reassignment of rising-star Bryan Nesbitt to general manager of the Cadillac luxury brand.

The changes at GM Design come as the auto maker slashes its salaried payroll, tries to inject new energy into its executive ranks and shrinks from eight brands to four.

Prior to its 39-day trip through bankruptcy earlier this summer, Ed Welburn, GM Vice president of Global Design, told Ward’s his unit was surviving the staff cuts relatively well. Welburn credited Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, who placed a greater emphasis on design when he rejoined the company in 2001.

However, sources tell Ward’s the belt-tightening has begun inside GM’s studios, even as the auto maker seeks to differentiate the styling of its products from those of competitors more than ever before.

“We’re lean,” one insider says. “We always have been lean, but now (we’re) busier than ever as a result, which is nice given all that is going on. We’re getting younger, too.”

Notable moves include the promotion of Clay Dean, most recently director of styling at Cadillac, to executive director-GM Advanced Global Design, replacing Dave Rand, who is retiring after 31 years with the auto maker. Dean will retain his responsibilities with Cadillac and report to Welburn.

A graduate of Brigham Young University, Dean joined GM in 1988 and prior to his assignment at Cadillac worked as exterior design director for GM small and midsize cars. In that role, he oversaw work on the ’07 Saturn Aura and ’08 Chevrolet Malibu, both of which won North American Car of the Year.

The San Diego native also has seen extensive time within GM’s truck studios, including as chief designer of the Hummer H2 and H3 concept vehicles.

Rand joined GM in 1978 and held a variety of design positions in North America and within the auto maker’s international operations. Most recently, he helped bring the Cadillac Converj to the stage, a concept car using the Chevy Volt’s electric powertrain.

In other changes, with Nesbitt’s appointment to Cadillac, GM dissolves his former position as vice president of North American design.

Peter Davis, director-color and trim at GM, retires; Liz Wetzel will assume Davis’ duties, as well as retain her current responsibilities as director of the Global Brand Studio; and Tom Peters, currently director of exterior design for rear-wheel-drive vehicles, adds responsibility for trucks.

A 1980 graduate of the Art Center College of Design, Peters has spent his entire career with GM, except for a 2-year stint at Texas Instruments designing consumer electronics, such as children’s learning aids and first-generation laptop computers.

At GM, he served as chief designer on the Cadillac XLR roadster and Corvette C6. He also led design on the celebrated Cadillac Sixteen concept car and recently introduced Chevy Camaro.

Mike Simcoe remains in charge of North American exterior design, and Dave Lyon keeps his duties as director of interior design for the region. Both continue to report to Welburn.

Simcoe, 51, has held his current position since 2007 and brought to market vehicles such as the upcoming GMC Terrain, redesigned Buick LaCrosse and Chevy Camaro. Also appointed to his current post in 2007, Lyon, 40, has overseen recent vehicles such as the Buick Riviera and Invicta concepts, as well as the upcoming Chevy Cruze.

Imre Molnar, dean of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, says despite the turnover and attrition, GM design remains a strong unit with talented employees, leadership and support from the upper ranks of the organization.

Specifically, Molnar points to the elevation of Nesbitt to general manager of Cadillac and Lutz’s decision to unretire and head all creative elements at GM, including a continuing share of product development.

“They’ve always done great work, but now they are leaner. And with the leadership of Lutz and Nesbitt, design now has even more of a voice and is able to champion subjective issues against the more objective ones of engineering and marketing,” Molnar tells Ward’s.

“They are a leaner, more-empowered design force,” he adds. “Right now, I don’t see a dog in their lineup, and as everyone knows that hasn’t always been the case.”

But GM’s downsizing also is leaving scars. Though notoriously competitive, the automotive design community is a close-knit fraternity, and the bonds grow tighter within the studios of individual auto makers.

“I know one thing,” a GM insider tells Ward’s, “I’ll be forever haunted by the sound of packing tape.”

jamend@wardsauto.com