The Importance and Evolution of Design at General Motors

Sharon Gauci, IDSA
INNOVATION Summer 2019

Vol. 38 No. 4, p. 41

At General Motors, industrial design has been both a key strategic advantage and an important partner, always challenging itself to remain forward thinking. This goes back to 1927, when the company opened its Art and Colour Section. Today, GM still believes it has a good idea of what the future will look like as it relates to personal mobility. It’s a bold vision of a future with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion. Industrial design is making that vision a reality by executing what the transportation of the future looks and feels like.

Across our business, designers and engineers are collaborating to solve problems, address the customer’s every concern and fulfill the customer’s every need. As far as bringing the future closer to the now, that’s always been a big part of design’s job: looking down the road a few years out, defining what customers will want and creating the right products. While industrial design doesn’t typically stand center stage, it will play an increasingly vital role in the changing landscape of automotive interiors and design as the industry moves forward. 

A Drive through the Design Eras

Harley Earl with a concept car he designed, the 1951 GM LeSabre XP-8. Source: General Motors

Harley Earl, a pioneer in automotive styling, started the car design field at General Motors back with the launch of the Art and Color Section, later called the Styling Section. Today, GM defines it simply as Global Design, due to the global nature of our studio footprint and the problem-solving required in the field.

GM also has a rich industrial design heritage. The GM Industrial Design department has been stimulating the desire to own since 1939, when it was officially created. In 1942–47, the department was named Camouflage, Blackout & Industrial Design to reflect the growing needs of the U.S. Department of Defense and the manufacturing demands of World War II. The studio’s activities shifted significantly during the war, with more emphasis placed on research than on true design.

After the war, the name changed again to Product and Exhibit Design, and the department entered into a productive, prolific era, with wide-ranging projects such as the Parade of Progress, the Motorama and the Kitchen of Tomorrow. An Architecture and Interiors Studio was added in the 1950s to focus on the design of office spaces and facility interiors at GM. Most notably, the GM Technical Center opened in 1956. This past November, the GM Design Center opened an exhibit designed by the ID team, Carl Benkert and GM Industrial Design in the 1950s to honor this era.

The design proposal by Gere Kavanaugh for the interior of an executive office at the Design Center, ca. 1954. From the Carl Benkert Collection, GM Design Archive & Special Collections. 

Carl Benkert was an untrained and relatively inexperienced designer who, during his 10-year tenure, ultimately became the head of the Architecture and Interiors department, overseeing one of the most significant eras of industrial design at General Motors. In 1959, graphic design was added to the studio, and the name changed for the final time back to General Motors Industrial Design, to reflect the breadth of the studio and its output.

The 1958 Firebird III concept vehicle on view at the 1959 Motorama event held at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. Source: General Motors

Throughout the years, the automotive landscape has changed, but General Motors Industrial Design has remained at the helm of solving new problems. In June 2019, GM announced the launch of ARIV, the company’s new e-bike brand, which was led by GM’s ID team and GM Senior Creative Product Designer Jess Bailie, IDSA.

“The ARIV design team combined its automotive and cycling expertise to create an innovative eBike design that addresses the unique needs of urban commuters,” said Bailie. “The compact design allows for easier transit and more convenient storage for customers.”

The ID studio has continued to grow and evolve through the decades; and by end of the last century, it had responsibility for more than a dozen brands globally and hundreds of individual nameplates. Today, GM Industrial Design is the largest creative team at GM Design. The team has different backgrounds and disciplines of emphasis, and its diverse responsibilities include product, graphic and component design; exhibit and experiential design; photography; video and animation; and color and trim design.

Growing Diversity

As it looks to the future, GM Design sees a need for a more diverse talent pool. Diversity in thought and in education is critical to getting the best ideas, the most innovation and the most creative solutions possible. 

The goal is to catch students at an early age, help them develop their talents, direct them toward art education and, most importantly, encourage them to pursue a creative career in design. This requires GM Design to demonstrate that there are great career opportunities available in automotive.

The Design Development Program interdisciplinary collaboration (from right to left: Loc Dao, Lu Wang, Darby Barber). Source: General Motors

This is where the GM Design Academy comes in. It supports recruiting, sponsored projects with universities, outreach initiatives and employee training in the technologies needed for modern design. 

We have to dispel the myth of the starving artist. Moreover, we must convince young people and, most importantly, the people who influence them—parents, guardians and teachers—to help them embrace the field, so that young artists who like cars aren’t pushed into engineering, or kids who can draw well aren’t told it’s a nice hobby but to go to medical school first. There are so many creative opportunities in our field, where even if you never sketch a car, you will make a significant contribution to global products and brands. 

GM is placing many of its bets on this team and the team of tomorrow to help deliver the future, because the work of industrial design will have a great impact on the automotive interiors of tomorrow.



—Sharon Gauci, IDSA,

Sharon Gauci, a native Australian, was appointed the executive director of industrial design at General Motors in January 2018. She leads GM Design’s largest creative team across the globe, including North America, Australia, Korea, Brazil and China. Gauci graduated with a Bachelor of Design in industrial design in 1993 from Swinburne University in Melbourne.

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