There’s a certain car buyer Carl Wellborn (BEDV 1983) wants very badly to meet, and he’s searching the planet to find him.
Wellborn, who has worked for General Motors for the past 25 years, started out on his journey with a mere sketch of the person’s profile:
- A member of the Boomer generation, the person doesn’t ever want to see himself as elderly.
- That said, this driver welcomes automobile features that make car travel easier.
- Above all, the driver regards his car as an important component of his overall independence.
As you might have guessed by now, Wellborn isn’t looking for an individual with a name or even a particular gender. Rather, the industrial designer and project manager has been doing extensive research around the globe — spending significant time with drivers to learn what drives them — in order to develop a detailed profile of one of the automotive industry’s primary markets: aging Boomers.
Called the GM Independence Project, the purpose of Wellborn’s ongoing mission is to figure out how GM can provide products, services, and experiences that help people born between 1945 and 1964 to keep their independence safely well into their golden years. To that end, Wellborn leads a cross-functional team that travels the globe to walk in the shoes of subjects.
“We go very deep with a very small number of people,” says Wellborn. “Most of the needs our subjects look for in a car they can’t really ‘articulate’ to us. So we live in their environment and get into their heads. They become the cultural experts.”
To a large extent, GM’s Independence Project has been referring to the principles of Universal Design, a concept defined and fleshed out at the NC State University College of Design by Professor Ron Mace in the 1950s.
“The principles of Universal Design can be successfully used to nullify the negative stereotypes and images associated with products and services designed to assist older drivers,” says Wellborn. Some of the action-based design principles derived from the original set of Universal Design principles include:
- Elevate: Design for people, not disabilities.
- Anticipate: Be immediately useful and exciting but adaptable as needs change.
- Express: Enable customization and personal expression.
- Streamline: Create interactions that pay high dividends for low effort.
- Extend: Enhance the journey before, during and after time spent in the car.
If the design is done well, a number of the car design principles that resonate with older drivers will likewise be embraced by younger drivers. At least that’s the hope of a company that has been trying to crawl back from bankruptcy and a federal government bailout and that needs to find a wider, more accepting audience for its products.
The federal government invested nearly $50 billion into GM to rescue it from financial ruin and usher it through bankruptcy in 2009, ending up with a 61 percent ownership stake in the company. An initial public offering of stock in November, 2010, reduced the government’s stake to 33 percent. Shareholders of the “old GM” were left with virtually worthless stock; most will likely sell that stock for a capital loss tax-write-off .
“Make no mistake, we are grateful for a second chance,” says Wellborn. “The American people saved our company, and we need to deliver products that make good on that investment.”
From Tinkerer to Car Designer
Carl Wellborn’s first contact with General Motors came in the late 1970s as an undergraduate at Morgan State University in Baltimore, when he decided to send some drawings to the Detroit company.
To his pleasant surprise, a manager at GM wrote back. If he wanted to design for GM, the manager wrote, Wellborn would have to pursue a degree in industrial design. A professor pointed Wellborn to NC State’s School of Design (now the College of Design).
Interviewing at the design school showed Wellborn just how unprepared he was for an industrial design education — a discipline he didn’t even know existed until that letter from GM. Wellborn’s interviewers were Charles Joyner — then head of the Design Fundamentals program and today Professor of Art + Design — and Vince Foote, then head of the school’s product design department, and today the Distinguished Alumni Professor and Professor Emeritus of Industrial Design.
As Wellborn tells it, Joyner and Foote looked past his self-described lackluster design portfolio to his demonstrated penchant for understanding how things work.
“I was a certifiable car nut,” Wellborn recalls. “I like to think they picked up in our interview something that is perhaps difficult to convey on paper.”
Joyner remembers the meeting well.
“What I saw was this work ethic, this determination,” recalls Joyner. “Carl was on a mission.” The pair’s hunch turned out to be a good one. “He was really out to prove something. I saw him in the studio long hours every day. Soon he caught up and surpassed other students.”
Wellborn finished his BEDP degree in 1983. While completing his degree, he donated his spring breaks to take part in the Spring Road Show, in which a small group of students visited over a dozen high schools across the state. They displayed and talked about examples of School of Design student work meant to inspire their high school audiences to pursue design studies in college.
Wellborn also landed summer jobs and co-op positions at IBM, primarily making test equipment more ergonomically successful for assembly-line workers. After graduation he worked for IBM on a contract basis, using the company’s proprietary computer-aided design system to help facilitate building design.
In 1980 he met Ed Welburn, a visiting GM Design professional invited by Joyner to work with product design students. Welburn returned several times to conduct workshops, and the pair’s friendship developed. (Today, Welburn is Vice President of Global Design at General Motors.) Welburn encouraged Wellborn and his cross-functional design perspective. In September, 1984, Wellborn applied for a contract position at GM in engine design, which he landed.
“It turned out to be a good fit for me,” recalls Wellborn. The job allowed him to combine his mechanical background with his design background, designing crank shafts, pistons, connecting rods, cylinder heads and induction systems with improved aesthetics and serviceability. “I was able to bring different thinking to how engine components were designed and packaged.”
(Though the pair never worked together in over a quarter century at the same company, they continue to maintain a good friendship.)
Once he was at GM, there was a steep learning curve and a need to understand the company’s culture. “GM is not a castle with ice cream chairs, as I used to think when I was little. It’s a lot of intense work that feeds into a business. It is not purely emotional. We have to make a profit.”
Over 25 years, Wellborn has worked in dozens of groups, rotating hats often, from designer to engineer to project manager.
In his first job as part of the engine design group, Wellborn worked to increase airflow to the engine of the 1986-1988 Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird, raising its horsepower to beat the Ford Mustang’s zero-to-60 time. “The Camaro was not too far away so I didn’t have to do much there. But because of the way the Firebird fascia was designed, it wasn’t as easy to get cool air smoothly to the engine.” Though his group was eventually successful in meeting its acceleration goal, the victory was short-lived: When Ford came out with its next engine, it trumped his team’s efforts.
“At least it showed us what a little creativity could do,” Wellborn recalls.
It has been the role of project manager that he has usually found himself playing. In order to get some deliverable to the consumer, there is an accountable project manager — who doesn’t get a lot of press — who brings everything together.
“Project management is the hidden expertise,” argues Wellborn. “Whether it’s cool designs, great engineering, or efficient manufacturing, it can fall to the ground if it isn’t managed properly. There has to be someone who coordinates all of that effort.”
Some of Wellborn’s projects have lasted years – other projects, just a few weeks or months.
The past six years has found Wellborn doing research into consumer lifestyles. As he sees it, his job is to “represent the consumer in some way internally.” His current endeavor for GM — The Independence Project — has him more focused than ever before on driver experiences.
“The world is aging – not just the United States. And it is happening pretty fast.”
During a presentation at the College of Design in the Fall, Wellborn showed a video of a small hatchback prototype designed with data obtained from the study. The car sported amazing flexibility. Its doors opened extra wide. Its interior seemed to fold at will.
When research subjects are asked about why they love a given product, their answer is often, “I don’t know why. I just do.” That’s actually not a bad answer for a company to aim for. “That’s how we know that we’ve solved something, not just for Joe, but for Josephine and all the others whose demographic they represent.”
Answers that come out of the Independence research “will be valuable in a multi-faceted way. It’s not ‘just for midsized sedans,’ for example. It follows the consumer. Some answers could be applied to our entire vehicle portfolio.”
When he reflects on a career at GM, Wellborn is intensely grateful for his opportunities to innovate.
“I was afraid they were going to stick me in a corner designing doorknobs. But I kept getting good stiff challenges along the way. Whenever things would plateau and I’d start to get bored, something else would happen to get me back on a steep learning curve.”