How two maverick designers broke GM's rules to re-invent Buick
DETROIT — Even Buick admits it: Most people under 30 have no opinion of Buick as a brand.
Most carmakers would find that extremely distressing — especially one with such a long lineage. For Buick, however, it's an opportunity. The blank slate means the successful luxury brand (it outsold Audi in 2015) has a chance to reinvent itself for a whole generation.
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Perhaps nothing better underscores this moment in Buick's history better than the Avista concept unveiled Sunday at the North American International Auto Show. Not only is it beautiful and powerful, it shows how Buick could use its essentially unknown status to create a new line of sporty and compelling luxury cars.
Intriguingly, the Avista tells another story. That's because it almost never saw the light of day. It took two young General Motors designers to find the sketch and create for it an interior so compelling that GM had to show it. At the same time, they staged a virtual mutiny, disrupted the age-old GM design process and created a vision of future Buicks worth remembering.
When up-and-coming General Motors interior designers John McDougall, 29, and Aaron Stich, 28, asked to submit a sketch or two for the Avista concept interior, the exterior design had been kicking around GM for a while and building momentum. Although they were asked to produce a design or two, there was no intention to let the two designers direct the entire process.
That's because GM is an old-school company and, generally, things are done the way they've always been done. After the U.S. design studio creates an idea, the global team either runs with that idea to completion or throws it away and starts new. Stich and McDougall were never meant to shape such a major portion of the car.
"You can sketch on it for a couple weeks, maybe contribute a theme for inspiration," McDougall recalls his higher-ups telling them. "But in two weeks, it's going to be sent to a different studio — that's just how it's going to be."
Being Millennials, they didn't listen. They holed up in a corner of the design studio and got to work. Immediately, the two agreed upon a conceptual vision of not only the interior of the Avista but also the future of Buick and how its cars would look.
Although they pulled inspiration from the 1960s Buick Riviera, which you can see in the tall stacks in the center of the car, the rest of their inspiration was borrowed from nature, specifically from a beach. That might sound hokey but, the closer you look, the more sense it makes.
"The way that the sand of a beach fades as the water washes over it," McDougall explains, "you'll see that in the 3D-printed texture on the shifter and you'll see it on the perforation pattern on the leather seats." Sand dunes inspired the door panels, too. Just like a dune, the door has one broad, smooth surface and the other a lot of intense, rippling detail.
Normally, the design of a GM car — even a concept — takes months, as each sketch, each line, is sent up the chain of command, requiring dozens of people to give their input, make their own changes and eventually sign off on it. Stich and McDougall ignored that process. And because of that, they were able to create the initial interior design in just two weeks and what you see inside the Avista in just a month.
Amazingly, in that short window of time, the two did more than just create a modern, high-tech luxury interior; they were coming up with names for the vehicle and logos and branding — even though no one asked them to. The men went so far as to create a rudimentary digital computer-aided design (CAD) of the car.
"We were even designing the human-machine interface (HMI) inside the vehicle," Stich bragged. They ignored the current GM infotainment interface and created one that was based on touch and voice commands, without any locked-in positions for graphics or menus. That means occupants of the Avista could push and pull navigation, music and video around on molded screens carefully laid into the dash that also reflect the fluidity of the rest of the design.
Soon their two weeks were up and Stich and McDougall were supposed to send their sketches off to the global design studio for finishing. Instead,
the two pulled the kind of stunt you might only image would happen in the movies
the two pulled the kind of stunt you might only image would happen in the movies. They produced sketch after sketch after sketch and lined the walls of the studio and had their animated CAD rendering spinning on a computer monitor.
When then-chief of Buick design Andrew Smith saw the design and the staggering amount of work the pair had created in two weeks and heard McDougall and Stich's pleas to keep the design in Detroit, he relented. "You two have pulled a mutiny," McDougall recalls Smith saying.
Smith gave the men two more weeks to finalize the interior for presentation to GM vice president of global design Ed Welburn. In the meantime, Smith called the global design studio to break the news.
When Welburn walked in to find the finished Avista designs, complete with Stich and McDougall's interior, "the first word he said was, 'Wow,'" McDougall recalled. "He was stunned," Stich added. When he had a chance to look it all over together with the exterior, Welburn admitted the Avista is his favorite Buick of his career. Of course, Welburn gave his blessing to show the car to the public.
The result: an interior that's stunning, cohesive, modern but also decidedly General Motors in its proportions and sensibilities — in the best possible way. They didn't crib a Jaguar or Audi interior. Instead, they borrowed from the best of the GM brands, especially Buick, and created something amazing.
Since they defied General Motors convention, you might imagine the two were punished or reprimanded. Instead, it has been quite the opposite. The company has given the team bigger design tasks and more trust. They wouldn't admit whether the Avista's interior will ever see the light of a showroom, but it almost doesn't matter.
Simply knowing that Buick has the minds to create such a thing and the bravado to let it happen means that no matter what comes next for Buick, it's sure to inspire generations to come.