As Ford Motor Co.'s J Mays ponders the way designers are perceived within the auto industry, his sarcasm is as subtle as the bumper bullets on a '56 Coupe de Ville.

Ward's: Are designers stereotyped?

Mays: C'mon, everyone knows that designers only wear black and sport German designer spectacles, and they all have terrifyingly geometric haircuts.

Ward's: Are you wearing socks right now?

Mays: (Pause) Absolutely not.

Then the man whose vision arguably shapes Ford's image in the marketplace more than any other lets his comic guard down.

Most auto industry executives believe designers live in a fantasy world and have “disappeared up their own fundamental cleverness,” says Mays, group vice president-design and chief creative officer.

“If we can get the whole designer stereotype-thing clear, most people need to understand that ‘designer’ is not an acronym for ‘needs adult supervision.’ Designers are pretty darn clever. The ones, at least that I've got the pleasure to work with, do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to decoding customer desires and ultimately winning them over with great design.

“We just think differently,” he adds.

Just different enough to be shunted aside when boards of directors deliberate over who will lead a car company or a division. For decades, designers have been kicked to the curb — appropriately, critics say — while engineers, finance gurus and plant rats paraded to glorious, or inglorious, reigns.

But today, designers have a champion. The historically insular community quietly is buzzing over General Motors Co.'s appointment of Bryan Nesbitt as Cadillac general manager, a position critical to the beleaguered auto maker's revival.

Nesbitt, 40, rose to prominence at the former DaimlerChrysler AG, where he designed the PT Cruiser. The breakthrough C-segment hatchback captured the public's imagination in 2000 by combining California street-rod flair with soccer-mom functionality.

In 2001, Nesbitt moved to GM, where he took charge of Chevrolet design and later was named head of the auto maker's European studios, with responsibility for Opel, Saab and Vauxhall.

Ed Welburn, GM's global design chief, is perplexed this break from tradition — naming a designer to shepherd a key brand — hasn't garnered more attention.

“I feel as though I really know the history of the auto industry quite well, and I am surprised people haven't noticed how significant this is,” Welburn confides to Ward's on the sidelines of the Frankfurt auto show. “It's very significant.”

Even though design constantly is touted as crucial to any auto maker's success, designers rarely have been given an opportunity to prove themselves outside their primary discipline. While no one, not even Welburn, is publicly hyping Nesbitt as CEO material, his rise inspires speculation.

Not since Edsel Ford led the blue-oval company six decades ago has an executive with a hands-on design background been given the authority to lead a major auto maker. Derisively pegged as “space cadets,” designers don't get enough credit for their contributions, says Franz von Holzhausen, chief designer at electric-car startup, Tesla Motors Inc.

Instead, they are mocked as artists who are out of touch with reality.

But artists and designers are completely different animals, says von Holzhausen, whose credits include the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky roadsters, penned during a stint with GM.

“A designer actually solves relevant problems,” he tells Ward's. “Artists almost create the issue. They do things very selfishly. If I'm Picasso, I have a vision and I'm just doing what I see, (regardless) of what else is going on around the world.

“As a good designer, you're aware of what it takes to bring a product to market,” says von Holzhausen, who also spent three years as design boss at Mazda North American Operations.

“It's part of the design process, in weeding out good designs from bad designs. Are they marketable? Are they able to be produced? Is there a consumer? What's the climate that you're putting this (product) into? By the time you've created a successful product, you've answered 99% of these questions.”

Count Henrik Fisker among those who believe designers are viewed with a jaundiced eye. Within the industry, it's seen as “necessary and normal that the top people in car companies are much more financially focused,” says the founder and CEO of fledgling Fisker Automotive Inc.

Even with his new credentials, deemed impressive enough to warrant a $528.7 million technology development loan from the Department of Energy, the former BMW and Aston Martin designer encounters skepticism.

“It's still there, sometimes, when I meet people,” he says. “There is an assumption you may not know the business side.”

But Fisker turns the tables, suggesting the dearth of designers in key management roles has contributed to the ill temper that has gripped the global industry.

“Everybody has been so worried about the amount of investment and money that is connected with the car industry — it's a very capital-intensive industry,” he says. “Unfortunately, what has been missed, and maybe one of the reasons we're having certain problems today, is that the most important part of a car company is really the product.

“There are too many committees and too many nervous people who need to double-check everything. There is no formula for how to make a successful car. If there were, all of the car companies would be successful.

“For sure, that formula does not lie in the finance department,” Fisker says. “It lies somewhere in the design and engineering departments.”

For this reason, Fisker Automotive's organization chart has no box reserved for “product planners.”

“We believe that top management of the company will be the product planners. I can decide on a design extremely quickly and speak to it because I'm the designer.

“The other side is because I also understand the engineering parameters of a vehicle, meaning what is possible for a designer to do and not do.”

Is there a glass ceiling that keeps designers low on the corporate ladder?

“Everybody's got a job to do,” Mays says. “You wouldn't ask the CEO to design a car. You wouldn't ask the finance guy to design a car. You certainly wouldn't ask the designer to run finance. As a cumulative whole, they make a much stronger team.

“Is there a glass ceiling? Sometimes there is, especially in less creative companies who don't really understand their brand or don't understand a product's potential,” Mays says.

Ford's design guru is in good company. Tom Gale, whose bold ideas made Chrysler synonymous with cutting-edge design during some of its most prosperous periods, concedes designers face impediments not of their own making.

“Everybody says you (designers) don't have the same business acumen, perhaps, as a person from another discipline,” says Gale, noting the irony of his stint as head of Chrysler's international operations from 1993 to 1997.

During that time the unit's annual revenue went from $1.5 billion to $5 billion, he says. “So, it can be done.”

But company boards must first change their ways, Gale says. Dominated by executives with expertise in finance or engineering, they tend only to consider CEO candidates like themselves.

A Ward's survey of the Big Six auto makers in the U.S. reveals no board members with conventional design backgrounds.

“I've always felt that boards were horribly, horribly inbred,” Gale tells Ward's, disparaging them further as “sleepy” institutions that have “presided over some pretty lackluster results.”

Ironically, Gale served on the management board of DaimlerChrysler AG, which was formed in 1998 by Daimler-Benz AG's ill-fated takeover of Chrysler Corp. He was the only designer in the room.

“Everybody was very gracious,” he says. But the underlying tension was palpable. Two years later, Gale retired from the auto maker. But designers must also help themselves, Gale advises.

“There are a lot of designers who really don't prepare themselves for business,” he says. “It's one thing to complain; it's another thing to prepare yourself” with an education.

Gale returned to school and earned an MBA from Michigan State University — the same course of action he prescribed for Ralph Gilles, Chrysler's current design chief. And in 2002, Gilles earned an MBA.

“My inspiration was Tom Gale,” Gilles says, noting Gale's background opened doors within the organization.

“He was able to speak to engineers and designers,” Gilles says. “Designers need to become aware of (business). Then CEO, one day, is possible.”

Nesbitt declined interview requests. He is notoriously shy about discussing personal achievements and aspirations, GM insiders say. But one former industry executive predicts Nesbitt, whose academic background is limited to design studies, is in for a letdown if he does not heed the example of Gale and Gilles.

“I'll be surprised if this guy gets any further, unless he gets a (business) background,” says Gerald Meyers, former CEO of American Motors Corp. and now an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

“You can say, well, manufacturing isn't qualified,” Meyers says. “But if you dig into that guy's background, you'll find he's got a lot more than manufacturing. Same thing if you went through the legal department. They will have a background in business.

“Design people don't get exposed to the whole business, therefore they're not qualified to go all the way to the top — unless they get that exposure.”

To this end, Detroit's College for Creative Studies — one of the world's pre-eminent automotive design schools — this year is launching a program to inject some real-world context into its curriculum.

“That's exactly the focus of our new graduate design programs,” says CCS President Richard Rogers of the curriculum developed with Ross School of Business.

“Our graduate program designers are getting business fundamentals as well as advanced design skills because we think the future of leadership in design requires an understanding of business fundamentals.”

Meanwhile, Gilles and Welburn are skeptical about a glass ceiling for designers. Each cites the information flow built into their respective corporate structures.

“Sergio's done a wonderful job bringing all the elements together,” Gilles says of Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne's integrated-discipline approach to product development. “All the functional parts (of the organization) are at the table. We hang together, work together, eat together, plan together.”

Says Welburn: “There isn't a glass ceiling.” Design is a “high priority” within the management ranks at GM,” he adds. “I'm in high-level meetings every week.”

Even so, Von Holzhausen confesses he would be “hard-pressed to find a designer that actually wants to be a CEO, with all the baggage” it brings. The problem? It would cut into the creative work.

“A designer's heart is in the creation of products. When you're the CEO, you become the product architect.”

In the end, Mays suggests Nesbitt's appointment will serve notice that designers are not just trendy clotheshorses.

“The great companies probably recognize that designers hold the potential to transform the brands through important insights that are well beyond the walls of design,” he says.
— with Tom Murphy

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