Detroit Needs Design

A forum at this year's North American International Auto Show emphasized the need for design as strategy, not mere styling

The North American International Auto Show press days were followed again this year by the AutoWeek Design Forum. For this 14th edition of the Forum, the organizers picked 'Design for Success' as a theme for the conferences. And this theme was quite relevant given the gloomy forecasts made by some about the financial health of the Detroit-based car manufacturers.

The day started with an informal discussion about moonlighting between Camilo Pardo, manager, Advanced Design Studio, Ford Motor Company, and Michael Chetcuti, CEO of Quality Metalcraft. Chetcuti and Pardo are business partners in the design and manufacturing of the Merkury furniture line. In addition to his involvement at Ford and his furniture venture, Pardo also finds some time for painting, sculpting and fashion design.

This was followed by three lectures given by three head designers, each faced with a challenge that could mean life or death for their respective employers: Robert Boniface, director of General Motors Advanced Design Studios, supervised the team in charge of the Chevrolet Volt Concept. This electric vehicle had to showcase a plausible future for GM and, thanks to its innovative mechanical package, it had to be a car its owners would "love and feel good about".

Ralph V. Gilles, is currently vice president-Jeep/Truck and Component Design for the Chrysler Group but he also watched over the design of the next generation Dodge/Chrysler Minivans. His team had the tough task "to make an emotional vehicle" out of what a majority considers a boring commodity. They also tried to refocus the style so the vehicle would not be as repulsive for a masculine audience as other minivans.

After a five year stint at Mazda, Moray Callum is now responsible for the design of all Ford, Mercury and Lincoln cars in North America. In the years to come he will have the difficult task to clarify Ford vehicles brand language. To achieve this he prefers to refer to the emotional impact provoked by a brand (Callum uses the word "marque" instead of brand) and not just on graphic traits that he considers static.

This year, the AutoWeek Design Forum ended with a speech by Charles Hughes, former CEO of the Land Rover and Mazda North-American branches and now branding strategy consultant. With an audience of design executives in front of him, Hughes decided to take no prisoners. Aimed at the American car industry, his frank remarks were sometimes harsh: "Unfortunately, many of Detroit's brands live in commodity hell. A position earned over decades and an image that will not easily be shed. Now what are the odds that the three companies in the most trouble in the auto industry all reside in one city? Is there something in the water? A death wish? Or is it the refusal to see things as they are that keep them on the slow-and now not so slow-slide into oblivion?"

It may seem ironic and even trivial to talk about "Design for success" (who designs for failure?). But in the car industry, when the house is burning, cosmetic changes in design strategy are often put at the forefront as a smoke screen for shareholders. Designing for success goes deeper than that.

And in case anybody in Detroit had forgotten their own house was on fire, Charles Hughes was there to remind them by throwing a jerry can of gasoline into the blaze.