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How the inside of your car goes from clay to leather and stainless steel

Slide into the driver’s seat of any car and consider what you see.

There’s a dashboard, steering wheel, center stack, console. Maybe there’s something very stylish about it, or maybe it’s just plain and functional. As drivers and passengers, we mostly take interior designs for granted. We focus more on how a car looks from the outside, and we care far more about horsepower and torque than we care about where the touchscreen sits. That is, we don’t care unless there’s something drastically wrong with the interior, like something doesn’t fit, doesn’t work, or is hard to use. Then we care. If the interior designers did their work right, most everything they do slides right past our eyes. That’s why interior designers are the unsung heroes of the automaking world.

How an interior comes together

To find out more about how a new car’s interior is designed, Digital Trends sat down with Helen Emsley, Executive Director of Design for GMC and Buick, and John Zelenak, Interior Design Manager for Buick. We asked them to talk us through the whole process, from a clean sheet of paper to a finished interior in a new car.

“We’ll put a brief together on interiors,” Emsley relates, “and then we send it to all our studios around the world in America, Korea, Australia, Germany, and China. The brief says, ‘this is the customer, this is the size of the vehicle, this is the package.’ We’ll say, within two weeks we’d like to have a conference call in the VR room where we can look at your sketches.”

“It’s called a sketch blitz,” Zelenak adds. “It’s an assignment for the world of GM designers. They bring all the sketches together and we’ll have an executive review and filter through them all.”

A world of ideas

In the space of two weeks, artists at GM’s design studios around the world submit their ideas for the new vehicle’s interior. The ideas are sketched over the engineering diagrams of the car’s skeleton.

“They all have an art or design background, rather than an engineering background,” Emsley says. “One person’s opinion of a vehicle is very different from another.”

It might seem strange to ask a Chinese designer to pen an interior for a car to be sold in Europe, but at this phase, Emsley and Zelenak are looking for cross-pollination, hoping to find the good idea that no one expected.

“What happens is that certain countries that might not even sell that vehicle, and they might not design those vehicles, for them it’s really fascinating to work on something that they’ve never worked on,” Emsley explains. “It might not be the final design, but they can come up with an idea and we’ll take that part from a sketch and put it into a different sketch. Because they think outside the box and have different requirements in their country from what we do.”

“Those are the freshest sketches,” Zelenak says, “and they’ll make the top 10.”

Freedom in the groove

Automakers are extremely protective of their brand, for very good reasons. If a luxury brand brings out a car with an economy interior, they’re going to create more customer problems than the potential price savings can solve. But within the ironclad requirement to maintain the brand’s standards and keep the brand’s loyal customers in tight focus, executives like Emsley and Zelenak want to push the limits.

“We have different buckets from conservative to wild, and in between.”

“If it’s always in the Buick studio, certain designers are always sketching Buicks,” Emsley says. “You might love working on Buick, but every now and then it’s nice to work on something different. So when you send them around the globe to other countries, It’s a different way of looking at it.”

Interestingly, it’s possible for a designer to be considered successful even if nothing they draw is selected for production.

“You can get notoriety just by doing wild things,” Zelenak reveals, “and even if they’re not used, you see that guy’s name and you think maybe you’ll use him for the next Corvette.”

“We’ll get some sketches that may look more like Cadillac, and we send them over,” Emsley confirms.

Focus on variety

The next phase involves narrowing the field from dozens of sketches to just a few. Emsley and Zelenak have a process for making those cuts while preserving the variety of ideas.

“Some studios have the executive pick the five designs, but I don’t like to do it that way,” Emsley insists. “I’m very much into team. So what we do is use sticky dots, and every designer gets three dots. We’ll print out all the images and put them on a 20-foot board. The ones that get the most dots win. And the five images will be from this extreme to that extreme – you don’t want them all the same.”

Zelenak points out, “We have different buckets from conservative to wild, and in between.”

Asking the customers

Once the field of ideas has been narrowed to five, it’s time to get a different point of view from Buick customers and from owners of competing brands.

“We’ll ask them what they drive and what they like about it,” Emsley says, “and what they’d like to change about it. These people put their hard-earned money down for a car, so they think about it and they do research. We’ll ask people to show pictures of their homes, what they like, what they value, and what they use their cars for.”

“You don’t want to be too conservative,” Zelenak says. “You really want to gauge them on what really pushes the button.”

Emsley agrees, “That’s what we look for. Not that they like it now, but whether it would grow on them. Because we’ve got to guess up to four years ahead.”

From dream to reality

At some point the automakers have to take their drawings and put them into physical form. They make models to understand how the car will actually work and also to get some kind of idea of how the car will be built, or if it even can be built. Out of the dozens of designs originally submitted, just a few will get the additional investment of a clay model.

“We go from the sketches to the half-scale models,” Emsley explains. “Then we come back and we go from scale models to one or two full-size models. We’ve still got time in the design process, and we want to use that time before we make a final decision. Then we’ll bring the leadership of the company in and we’ll show them our recommendation.”

This phase involves both the look of a design, and the leather, cloth, and metal components that will create additional sensory impression.

“We’ll bring in materials and technologies such as instrumentation,” Zelenak says.

Avoiding the flops

With such an involved and collaborative process, you might wonder (as we did) about some of the auto industry’s most famous flops, such as the ill-fated Pontiac Aztek. How does that happen?

“I’d rather go forward with a design and push it to the limit, because that’s what I get paid to do. You’ve got to trust your judgment.”

“You’ve got to take a risk,” Emsley declares. “I’d rather go forward with a design and push it to the limit, because that’s what I get paid to do. You’ve got to trust your judgment and your common sense as well.”

In fact, it was prior flops that led to the current collaborative process.

Emsley says, “I think we wouldn’t make such a big flop today, because if you think about your customer, and your whole portfolio, you shouldn’t have that big a flop. It might be a bit out there, but if you get it right, it should sync into place.”

“I think we know how to read the clinics better now,” Zelenak insists. “During the Aztek days, you tried to make everybody happy and you had three front ends on a car. Or it didn’t even get clinics. Now we understand.”

Job satisfaction

One of the benefits of being a designer is that eventually, you will see your work out in the world, being used and enjoyed. That dashboard, or that seat you designed will be part of someone’s pride and joy, and might even become a classic that future generations of designers will emulate.

“There was a day I was driving home in Detroit,” Zelenak recalls, “and I looked out and there was a Camaro, and an old Aurora, and an Oldsmobile 98. I was part of all the interiors of these different brands, and they were all on the freeway. I was just so excited.”

“What I like is the fact that we’re already working on the future cars,” Emsley says. “We know what’s coming and we’re part of that. It’s exciting when we finally see it and we say yes, we did it right.”

Jeff Zurschmeide
Jeff Zurschmeide is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon. Jeff covers new cars, motor sports, and technical topics for a…
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