The recession has taken a financial toll on the automotive industry, but from a design perspective it serves as inspiration, OEM panelists say.

“It's been tough over the past few years at (General Motors Co.), but at the design center we managed to stay focused, and I witnessed some of the best work ever,” Crystal Windham, director-North American passenger car design, says during a panel on “Designing Interiors for the Post-Recession Consumer.”

Windham says GM's pre-recession approach to interior design was “cautious.” But when a new leadership team came on post-bankruptcy, it “embraced designers” and wanted to “elevate interiors.”

She points to the previous-generation Chevrolet Malibu vs. the current model, which was restyled for the '08 model year, as evidence of how the focus has shifted toward designing inviting interiors.

“We learned people wanted excitement and style,” she says.

Consumers want value, she says of another lesson driven home by the recession. But at the same time, buyers looking to downsize don't want to sacrifice amenities, especially the wealthy.

“Rich people who want to appear socially responsible and downsize secretly want the interior features they expect,” she says.

At Jaguar Cars, designers turned their attention to how best to “seduce customers” with the auto maker's heritage, while still moving its design philosophy forward, says Mark Phillips, interior design manager.

“For a while, we went through a period of losing focus and awareness of what we were all about,” he says. “Now we're at a state where we're fully comfortable with the brand and what its possibilities are.

“The recession doesn't affect what we do greatly, but what it does do is make us work harder.”

Like GM, Jaguar began to alter its way of thinking, which led to the redesigned '10 XJ flagship sedan.

The new model shares design cues with the XF sports sedan, but the design is more upscale than its predecessor and will help Jaguar reestablish itself as a brand “about beautiful, fast cars,” Phillips says.

Jaguar designers also reexamined their approach to interiors, traditionally largely dependent on rich woods and leather, and now strive to offer a variety of options.

Phillips hopes Jaguar customers someday will be able to personalize interiors in much the same way purchasers of ultra-luxury cars do.

Liz Curran, senior designer of color and trim at Hyundai North America, says the auto maker strives to create “balanced” interiors that help consumers manage their hectic lifestyles.

Hyundai achieves this through its official design philosophy, which Curran describes as “fluidic motion.”

As for the recession's impact on Hyundai? “We saw nothing but gains in sales since the recession,” she says. “We want to create value, but keep interiors luxurious.”