We Catch Up With GM's New Head of Design
Mike Simcoe’s rise as a designer with General Motors started 33 years ago at the automaker’s Holden subsidiary in Australia. Following stints with GM’s overseas operations and in North America, Simcoe became just the seventh person to assume the role of GM’s head of design in July. We caught up with him to discuss what the future holds for GM.
What was day one like, walking in as the new boss?
Having a view from below versus a view from above is very stark. I told the team I am not here to tear the place down [to rebuild it] in my own likeness. I recognize the competence in the players.
How do you see [predecessor] Ed Welburn’s legacy?
Finally making globalization something that Design did naturally and not quite as forced anymore. Ensuring art came back into the business. The growth of confidence in Design among the people. And allowing Design to become a power in the organization again. Ed also had a unique ability to make people feel comfortable at all levels. In many ways, he set me up for this job. He was the person who brought me to North America the first time, back in 2004.
How would you describe your personal design ethos?
Bold design, beautiful sculptural form, great proportion, incredible execution, and a deep-seated understanding of how a vehicle goes together and how to deliver a design. You can create a beautiful thing, but you have to make it real. There’s been lots of noise about me being an engineer in a designer’s clothes, but the reality is that I am a designer who can have an intelligent argument with an engineer about what I would like to deliver. Sometimes it’s a bluff.
How do both engineers and designers get what they want in the current international regulatory climate with emissions, crash safety, pedestrian protection, and such?
The design fails if one group—design, engineering, marketing—has the upper hand in the deal. It’s not compromise; it’s balance. Make it attractive. Make it function well. Make it safe. Make it an emotional vehicle that connects to customers. All those things are important and rely on different players.
Whose design do you admire, outside the car business?
I admire Apple as a brand because no matter what they deliver, they deliver it in a way that customers are desirous or are emotionally attached. When you buy an Apple product, you buy into the club. And in some ways, Tesla is playing that same game.
Any other consumer products?
I don’t think design in consumer products has moved on very much. Short of extra features, extra detail, they’re still delivering commodities in some way. Necessary, sure, but is there anything that stands out? No.
Describe each of the GM brands in five words or less, in the way you see it:
- Chevrolet: American, innovative, forward-thinking, ubiquitous.
- GMC: Strength, power, precision, functionally right.
- Cadillac: Precise, on-trend, desirable, and American. There’s a theme here.
- Buick: Modern and sculptural. That’s probably it. Don’t need the five words.
Should there be any family resemblance or cue among all GM vehicles?
No, other than the “American” piece of what I said above. That’s important. Our global players have an edge to them that we shouldn’t shrink from. There’s a spirit that you can see in the designs.
Say a GM product sells more volume in an overseas market than in America. At what point do design cues of the Chinese or German market …
Would we skew taste to a Chinese Buick versus a North American Buick based on market volume? No. The notion that we sell brands globally means that people in all markets can see everything all at once. When one market sees what another market is doing, it expects the same whether it’s a developing market or a developed market. Customer desires are, on the whole, the same. There are things we do in a market, such as adding a feature or taking a feature away, to make it work in that market, but the design doesn’t change.
Other people seem concerned that autonomy and electrification are going to change the way we design vehicles. And they certainly will but in the right way. Different materials, different propulsion systems, the same and have the same proportion? That’s going to start to change. Design will have a level of freedom it hasn’t had in a long time.