Car designers are feted but are their reputations over-rated? Richard Feast argues that the designer’s most valuable asset is not creative ability with a pencil, but powers of persuasion in the board room.

This is the age of the designer. Whether it is fashion, furniture or fast cars, the people who earn their living with the bold lines and subtle curves of the new products we will all want to own are among the heroes of modern society.

Their products are endlessly photographed and analysed in order to discern future design trends. Or, in the case of Chris Bangle at BMW, possible dead ends.

In contrast to the mortals responsible for manufacturing and selling the products, the career moves of designers become headlines. They were recently when Martin Smith suddenly switched from Opel to Ford and BMW reshuffled its design department. When Wayne Cherry headed towards retirement as General Motors‘ head of worldwide design, the anointment of his successor was the automotive equivalent of the selection of a new Pope.

This fascination with the work of designers is one result of the increasing wealth of societies. To paraphrase Abraham Maslow, who wrote about the human “hierarchy of needs”, when we can all own a new shirt, a perfectly serviceable sofa and a reliable car, we then need fancier versions of the same things to increase our self-esteem. Old Abe could have been writing about the modern motor industry judging from the sales successes of Audis and BMWs at the expense of Fords and Vauxhalls.

Design is the great differentiator, then, when a product’s function can be taken for granted.

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So, as designers are feted and their creativity celebrated, egos can become seriously over-inflated. The hype is such that it may be dangerous for rival designers to be in one country at the same time, let alone at the same motor show.

Bangle’s controversial BMW 5 Series

The question is, though, do designers deserve their celebrity status?

Good designers are clearly critical to a company’s success. In the motor industry, however, the reality is that they are generally not as important as they or the world thinks they are. It’s very simple: final product decisions are not made by designers. They are made by management boards that comprise all the disciplines of a complex mega-money manufacturing sector like cars. Those decisions are based on recommendations from the company’s economists, product planners, engineers and its purchasing, manufacturing and sales specialists.

However important, design is only one element of that process.

How could it be otherwise? Getting a new model to market involves fantastic financial outlays in engineering resources and manufacturing equipment. The decisions will affect the livelihoods of thousands of people, from those who assemble the cars to those who own shares in the company. When the project’s suppliers and independent retailers are also taken into account, millions of people stand to win or lose by the board’s decisions. And that has an impact on society as a whole.

That is why a car company’s product deliberations are always based on a range of proposals from the design department – conservative, evolutionary and radical. They often involve other design solutions from outside contractors like Pininfarina, Bertone and ItalDesign as well. But the final go-ahead always comes from the board of management.

So, to ascribe BMW’s controversial “flame surfacing” look wholly to Bangle, the group’s American-born head of design, is misleading. Certainly Bangle’s design department came up with the proposals and he clearly did a sensational job in selling them to the board. But the decision to adopt the themes for all future models was taken by BMW management. The chairman was not in the men’s room when the vote was taken.

That is the other critical element of the design equation. In addition to employing an inspirational designer able to convince management about a certain design direction, management itself has to be open to new ideas. It would have been easier for a conservative group like BMW to continue along the proven evolutionary design route it held over the previous couple of decades. Instead, BMW embraced the radically different design themes its young designers believed were appropriate for the future.

Widely criticised by commentators, the new face of BMW does not appear to deter the people who really matter – customers. Sales of the two main models that are pioneering the look rose by 8.2 per cent (7-series) and 7.6 per cent (5-series) last year over 2002. Chairman Helmut Panke predicts another sales record for the group this year.

Renault Scenic II

Innovative design is central to the grand strategy mapped out for Renault by president Louis Schweitzer. Indeed, Patrick le Quement, the senior vice president in charge of corporate design, is a member of the group’s management committee and in charge of quality. That makes him one of the most influential designers in the whole motor industry.

Design is one of Schweitzer’s primary tools in the corporate make-over of Renault, considered as important as engineering and quality. Like them or loathe them, today’s Renaults could be mistaken for nothing else. The days of anonymous, unreliable boxes like the R9 and R21 are over. Renault has effectively moved design from the studios to the board room.

While le Quement is no longer a hands-on designer – he has a large department to do that – he is responsible for the distinctive profile of today’s Renaults. But, like Bangle at BMW, le Quement would not have been able to get his ideas into production without the endorsement of Schweitzer and other members of Renault’s management. One can almost hear the cerebral Schweitzer asking le Quement: “Which proposal do you recommend?” It is a question of mutual trust.

Renault’s decision concerning the second generation Megane/Scenic series, which moved the group’s fresh design direction from niche to mainstream, must have been particularly difficult. Here were 21st century’s automotive cubists challenging the established 19th century preconceptions of realist painters. If buyers did not like Megane II, the ripple effect on the group, and on society, would have been enormous.

It was a risky decision, but it appears to have paid off for Renault. Public perceptions about new Renaults (and BMWs) were initially fairly hostile, but they appear to be mellowing as more of them are seen on the roads.

Few other car companies have liberated their designers as much as Renault, whatever they might claim. However, there are signs that some rivals have noticed the difference design can make. Volvo’s former breeze block approach to design was successfully replaced by attractive curves. Cadillac’s creased look is arguably a greater leap from its heritage than anything BMW has done recently. Opel and its Vauxhall twin appear to have rejected the old Euro-bland approach if the latest Astra is a guide. The design strategy is unlikely to change, in spite of Martin Smith’s defection to Ford.

Jean-Martin Folz, president of Peugeot-Citroen, has a completely different approach to that of his predecessor, Jacques Calvet. While Calvet was a notorious fiddler in the design process – just look at the inelegant Citroen XM – Folz gave the two brands more design autonomy while simultaneously drawing them closer together mechanically and industrially. It is another sign that design is becoming as important as engineering.

At Nissan, one of Carlos Ghosn’s first actions when he became chief executive was to hire an outsider to create a new design language for the group’s models. It was needed, because Nissan design had been allowed to atrophy under the previous management.

That experience illustrates the key role that management has in product decisions. In an earlier period, Nissan produced some widely admired models like the old 300ZX, 200SX and 1992 Micra, together with the funky S-Cargo and Figaro. And yet when a series of deeply unmemorable models like the Almera, Primera, Serena and QX were launched in the 1990s, they were products of the same design team. The critical thing that changed was the top management that signed off on new models.

Today, a common and distinctive Nissan look has emerged under the man Ghosn recruited from Isuzu, Shiro Nakamura. It can be seen in the latest Micra and Primera, as well as the Qashqai concept car, which is the precursor to the 2005 Almera replacement.

What these developments point to is the emergence of product design as one of the motor industry’s key battle grounds over the coming decades. Design goes hand-in-hand with image and branding. The boldness of some companies, particularly BMW and Renault, is spreading. Even dreary Toyota promises exciting-looking models will be core to its future.

All of which poses a dilemma for a certain car company in Coventry. Jaguar has tempted the world with some interesting long range concept cars, but its production models for virtually the rest of this decade appear to be stuck in a 1960s time warp. Which way the big cat leaps is perhaps the design world’s most intriguing unanswered question.