DETROIT – Even though it never left, industrial design is enjoying a bit of renaissance thanks to aggressive work by automakers and suppliers to slash tailpipe emissions, improve safety and deliver a new user experience with autonomous vehicles.
But that radically different future of mobility is jeopardized by a relatively homogenous talent pool within industrial design, where items such as switchgear, materials and infotainment screens are reimagined for cars where steering wheels and brake pedals are a thing of the past.
“As the world of an interior designer becomes less and less traditional, we need diverse thinking in this area and that will only come from a more diverse talent pool,” says Sharon Gauci, executive director-Industrial Design at General Motors.
“Diversity in thought and education is critical to getting the best ideas and the most creative solutions possible,” Gauci tells the WardsAuto Interiors Conference during a keynote address here. It marked the first time in the nearly 13-year history of the event that a female delivered the headline address.
“Diversity means including women and minorities and those underrepresented in the design world,” she says. “Doing so will propel us to the future of interior design and reflect our customers and users.”
Gauci urges power brokers in the room to join GM in the effort. For example, the automaker gave $10 million last year to support science, technology, engineering and math education in K-8 grades with a focus on girls. It plans giving at a similar level this year to ensure a steady pipeline of engineers and scientists for the future.
But she suggests adding the arts to the program, turning STEM into STEAM.
“The goal is to make a real impact on young, aspiring artists,” says Gauci, who is responsible for supporting the visual expression of GM and its global brands. “We need to catch them at an early age to help them develop their talents and, importantly, encourage them to a career in art.
“That means showing them that there are, in fact, career opportunities available to them in this field, especially in automotive,” she adds. “We have to dispel the myth of the starving artist.”
Too often, Gauci says, young people with artistic skills are pushed into engineering or told drawing is simply a good hobby to complement a medical degree, for example.
Absence of steering wheel, brake pedal in AVs opens opportunities for industrial designers.
GM runs several programs to support recruiting, sponsored projects at universities, outreach initiatives and employee training in the technology necessary for modern design. Much of it falls under the umbrella of the GM Design Academy.
It includes the 12-year-old You Make a Difference program, which facilitates early exposure to creative careers, talent identification and skills development among Detroit-area middle and high school students. GM Design volunteers and mentors assist the program, which ranges from a 1-week sketching sessions to an intense, 15-week course that will prepare a high schooler for design school or a creative arts college education.
“They often apply for internships with us and may eventually be hired,” says Gauci, a graduate of Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, with stints at Ford and BMWbefore joining GM to work in assignments around the world.
GM runs a similar program through its partnership with the Girl Scouts, to especially target young women. The GM Women in Design group recently invited southeast Michigan Girl Scouts to the design center to meet with designers, sculptors and other professionals within GM.
They enjoyed hands-on activities and received badges designed by the GM industrial design studio.
“We look forward to repeating it again this year,” Gauci says.
Into the college years, GM partners nationwide to recruit talent ranging from traditional and digital sculptors to creative industrial, graphic, color and trim, user interface and visualization designers. After hiring, those designers, sculptors and engineers can participate in a 15-week course immersing them in the latest design tools and approaches.
“We look at this as the entire creative ecosystem, a pipeline that comes full circle when a young GM designer may have been mentored by us since middle school becomes a mentor to the next generation to ensure the cycle continues,” Gauci says. “As an industry, it is crucial we do more programs like this.”
Designs also will become softer and more humanized, an expertise of industrial design where work historically goes beyond the car into fields such as home appliances, architecture, exhibits and, more recently, electronic devices.
GM’s industrial design department dates to 1929 with the establishment of the Art and Color Group within GM Design. Today it comprises 160 full-time designers globally.
“Today, in its second Golden Age, this is the team that has the ability to usher us into the future,” Gauci says.