CDR 4 Highlights: Helen Emsley, GMC & Buick

10 July 2017 | by CDN Team

I run my studios slightly differently to other people. I ran my GMC studio in a certain way and since I came to Buick [September 2016] we are changing again. I am definitely not a micro-manager and I don’t just want my designers to do something that’s expected. I do bring cupcakes in, though. Designers like food.

The structure is broadly the same as before but I brought a couple of people over from GMC including Chris Hilts, who’s now director of interiors, and Bob Boniface, director of exteriors. We’re getting in more younger designers too. We have to modernise. We’ve got to come up with designs for the future. What is the next Buick?

It’s a pivotal time in Buick’s history. The momentum in our design studios and in the marketplace that the 2016 Avista and 2015 Avenir concepts created is remarkable. Throughout 2017, this fantastic momentum that Buick has established will continue to guide the brand. In the next 18 months you’ll see the new Avenir trim appear as a significant part of the story for at least three product launches around the globe.

There will be a continued focus on beautiful sculpture with world-class craftsmanship and refined precision – wheels, lamps, exhaust pipes – and on the interior, whisper-quiet, well-crafted and designed vehicles. The further you dig, the more you will find: textural and mechanical details, beauty, proportion and a sense of well-being.

In the Buick exterior studio we have about 40 people. On the interior we have about 15 at the moment but I’m going to be putting more in there. We are ramping up, that’s why 2017 is going to be a very busy year. As programmes come and go, we move people around the design building. If one studio gets a little quiet I swap people backwards and forwards between GMC and Buick.

We now have a separate studio that does all the User Experience stuff (UE). Years ago it didn’t get the concentration it needed. I ran the UE side of things for the last two years so I know a little bit about this. We made big changes. Years ago we thought everything had to be different for every brand, so we would even do different fonts and colour screen lights. That’s crazy. People just want to be able to read their instruments. So we decided to go back to a common font on all of our instrumentation that’s clear, safe and that everyone really likes.

Now we spend the money on the ‘start-up moment’ when you see the badges with really nice animations and on different gauges. Put the money where people notice. Different HMI fonts are not going to get you any different buyers.

You’ve got to be aware of the various [shared] GM brand histories though. We do market research with the sketches wherever they are going to be sold. If it’s not going to be sold in China for example, we’ll just do it in Europe and America. But we’re finding that, over the years, people tend to like very similar things. Some of the colours are slightly different. I know that some of the vehicles we are working on at the moment are slightly different for the Chinese market but we are sharing more between Europe and America.

I think that’s because people are using the web more. They are checking and buying things from other countries and are more used to global trends. We are able to share more than we thought. We’ve got to work well with our designers in Germany and China so I need my team to be much more flexible. It’s not about me travelling, it’s about my team. I encourage my team to go.

Was I concerned about recruiting designers to Buick [given its traditionally older US customer profile]? You know what? I was. But when I got the Buick job one of my top designers at the GMC studio asked to go with me to Buick. He said: ‘Helen, I love drawing Buicks. I love the sweeping, flowing lines’. And if you met this guy, he’s in his late 20s, early 30s, plays drums in a rock band and drives pick-up trucks. He thinks he’s died and gone to heaven.

Car Design Review 4 contains the best concept and production cars of the year, as chosen by the world's leading designers, trends, student work, and much more. And it's available now.