Reconciling design and PR in the big three…

Bob Lutz, vice-chairman of global product development at GM, announced his retirement at the end of this year (Losing Lutz).  His stated reasons give some insight into the mindset at the top of the big three American car companies about the role of design, and public relations, in developing and selling cars (and themselves) to the American public:

…a bigger tipping point for Lutz was the government’s increasingly hands-on role in how cars will be made. Lutz said he was looking ahead at engineering and designing new cars to meet tougher government-mandated fuel economy rules rather than strictly to spark passion among car buyers—and thought it would be a good time to start moving out. “What I have proven to be best at is the psychological and emotional end of the business, designing what people want,” Lutz said in an interview. “We’re seeing an increase in regulation. This is one reason I think it will be a good time to retire. I won’t have to worry about that stuff.”

To hear the head of global product development complain about new design constraints is a bit surprising. Or not. But it is a lesson in how the mighty have fallen.  Here are five reasons why this response reveals a lot about just how broken this industry is.

1. Design is art practiced under commercial constraints. Henry Ford’s offer of “any color, so long as it’s black” was an admission that black was, at the time, the only color for fast-drying lacquer, and thus a constraint in designing for mass-production. Good design embraces constraints because doing so creates new market opportunities.  Bad design avoids constraints and, by doing so, limits opportunities.

2. The automobile industry, like any old and established industry, has been dealing with government-mandated constraints since before today’s executives were born. Unleaded gas, seat belts, and air bags were all sure to bring the auto industry to its knees, and yet miraculously did not.  Imagine what would have happened if the big three, instead of lobbying against fuel efficiency for the past 30 years, embraced it.

3. One of the strongest arguments GM and others put forward in the past few years for why they would not design in more fuel-efficiency was that their customers did not want it and would not pay for it. Six months after the bottom of the SUV market fell out, it is hubris I hear when Bob Lutz says his strength is “designing what people want.” That works when people are buying what you’re building, but doesn’t when they’re not. 

4. While Lutz is complaining about being unable to design fuel-efficient cars, Ford’s PR guys are touting their “dusting off” of fuel-efficiency technologies shelved decades ago (Ford see the future). And US cars currently average 21mpg, far below European and Japanese cars averages of 36 mpg and 31 mpg respectively. Efficient design solutions are already widely known and widely used–just not here. 

5. Finally and most critically, when it comes to designing new cars, Lutz has lost the distinction between design and public relations. Faced with new design challenges, it seems Lutz would rather reach for a microphone than a drawing board. The head of GMs product development has blamed more than the government for the challenge of designing better cars–also competitors, environmentalists, democrats, and even the Union of Concerned Scientists (saying “I’m not sure if they are concerned,” he said. “But they are certainly not scientists.” BW 11/2007).

When Alfred Sloan tapped Harley Earl in 1927 to design the new Cadillac, and later found the Art & Colour Department, GM led the world in design.  Times have changed.