Design Power List

By Guy Bird for CAR Magazine, Jul 2010

Counting down the hottest car designers on the planet, based on their hit rate, influence and whether their cars actually look any good...

Key to square bracket letters:

A= Academic

G= Group big cheese

S= single brand chief

I= Influencer

M= Maverick

OI= Outside Influence 


1. Walter de’Silva (59, Italian) [G,I]


Group head of design, Volkswagen

Key cars: Alfa 156, Audi R8, A5, VW Polo mk5, Scirocco

While other big design chiefs have been shedding brands (Welburn at GM and Mays at Ford) de’Silva has been busy adding them to his cap – the latest considerable feather being Porsche. This brings his tally to eight and includes some of the most famous names in motoring – Lamborghini, Bugatti, Audi, Bentley, Seat, Skoda and VW – and some 6.3million sales in 2009.

De’Silva made his name with Alfa and the beautifully proportioned 156 saloon and Sportwagon of the late 90s with their simple curves and hidden rear door handles that gave the appearance of a coupe or shooting brake. Switching to the VW Group in 1999 he added ‘auto emocion’ to Seat with the Salsa and Tango concepts and production Leon and Altea before adding more curves, fuller volumes and gapey-grilled ‘emotional design’ to the Audi brand from 2002. The current TT mk2, A5, A6 (mk2) and R8 supercar were all his work and have been critical and commercial successes.

As head of VW Group design since 2007 de’Silva has turned his attention to overhauling the VW brand and replacing its rather clumsy chrome-faced big grilles with slimmer, subtler ones, epitomised by the new Scirocco and Polo (mk5). The only tiny blip in his track record was the weakly retro 2006 Lamborghini Miura tribute concept. That aside, the breadth of designs, brands, segments, consistent sales and internal and external influence has been astonishing. As auto analyst Max Warburton puts it, “investors are increasingly trying to determine which company is going to be most consistent at delivering hit products.” In de’Silva VW Group has found its hit machine.


2. J Mays (55, US) [G,I] 

Global Design VP, and Chief Creative Officer

Key cars: VW Concept 1, Audi Avus, Ford Shelby Cobra GT500

Ten years ago Mays was responsible for eight brands – Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Mazda, Volvo, Land Rover, Jaguar and Aston Martin. Pending Volvo’s sale to Geely this year all that will be left is Ford and Lincoln. Still, those two brands represent some 4.5million vehicles a year and globally Ford is in better overall design shape than it’s been for decades due in no small part to Mays’ direction and execution of the ‘One Ford’ global policy – take the acclaimed European Fiesta launching into the US as just one example. Add in his legacy of successful concepts – the 1991 Audi Avus led to the TT and the 1994 VW Concept 1 to the new VW Beetle – his ability to nurture (and poach) design talent to work with him (Smith, Thomas, Horbury, van den Acker), plus thoroughbred production car designs like the Land Rover Discovery 3 and Aston DB9 and you have a man who still wields heavyweight clout.


3. Shiro Nakamura (59, Japanese) [G,I] 

Nissan senior vice president and chief creative officer of design

Key cars: Nissan Cube, 350Z, Infiniti FX45, Essence

Nakamura is the man who put Japanese car design on the map after decades of copycat and me-too designs. Headhunted from under the radar Isuzu in 1999 he oversaw an onslaught of radical concepts and high-selling production cars as part of Carlos Ghosn’s ‘Nissan Revival Plan’ including the Chappo, Cube, Jikoo, Effis, 350Z, Murano, various Micras, the Qashqai, (and soon Juke) as well as the FX45 production car and Essence concept for Infiniti – described by CAR as ‘sexier than Kate Moss naked’. Key to his success is not only his ability and work ethic – he allegedly often does 12-hour days working from a chauffeur-driven GT-R – but also his skill and willingness to communicate his designs’ relevance internally and externally and his global experience (he studied at Art Center in the US and has worked in Europe and Japan). Bonus pub fact: played jazz double bass to semi-pro standard before starting in the car industry. 


4. Adrian van Hooydonk (46, Dutch) [G,I,M] 

BMW Group design and BMW director

Key cars: BMW Z9 concept, 6-series, Vision Efficient Dynamics

A BMW man through and through joining in 1992 and since thoroughly involved with Chris Bangle and his highly controversial but also very influential ‘flame surfacing’ design language of the last decade. Busier and more complex exterior surfacing cropped up across the car industry after their work and is still prevalent today. He followed in Bangle’s footsteps (but luckily not his fashion sense) to become BMW’s design director in 2004 and then in addition head of Group design including Mini and Rolls-Royce when his mentor stepped down in 2009. Beyond cars, van Hooydonk ‘gets’ the bigger design picture and was president of BMW’s product consultancy DesignworksUSA in LA for three years. Although BMW’s current mainstream car designs have calmed down under his watch, a brand and a designer still capable of producing stunning cars like the new production Z4 and the Vision Efficient Dynamics concept has a very positive future.

5. Ed Welburn (59, US) [G,I] 

VP Global design, GM

Key cars: GM Autonomy, Chevrolet Camaro

Only the sixth ever design leader for the General and the first to hold the newly created position of global design VP in 2005. Five years in he now oversees 10 design centres in eight countries from the US to China with a 1500-strong team. The brand portfolio may have shrunk in 2009 but he’s marshalled significant change in aesthetics and quality for the brands that are left with Buick (Enclave, La Crosse), Cadillac (CTS), and even GMC (Granite concept) plus Opel and Vauxhall in Europe. Before all this as director of advanced design he also led the excellent GM AUTOnomy and Hy-wire fuel cell projects. Big job, (relatively) low profile.


6. Nobuki Ebisawa (56, Japanese) [S,I] 

General manager, styling design development division Honda

Key cars: Civic mk3 (1983), Accord mk6 (1997)

Nobuki Ebisawa doesn’t play the flamboyant designer role – more white lab coat, shirt and tie (he’s also md of R&D) – but since 2009 he’s had overall responsibility for the look of nearly four million Hondas every year. Joining back in 1977 he’s worked through Honda’s early 80s ‘man maximum, machine minimum’ design phase and post-2000, when the firm added a more emotional dimension as witnessed in the superbly packaged Jazz (or Fit) city car, radical European Civic hatchback, aerodynamic FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle and wedgy CR-Z. In all, behind independent-thinking, functional and more dynamic design than is sometimes given credit for.


7. Martin Smith (60, British) [S,I] 

Executive design director, Ford Europe, Asia Pacific and Africa 

Key cars: Audi Avus, Opel Corsa, Ford Iosis, Fiesta

Smith’s career has been central to many key trends of the last 30-plus years. At Audi in the late 70s, 80s and 90s he helped develop the brand’s clean lines on the Audi 80, 100, Avus concept and TT (with J Mays). From 1997-2004 at GM’s European operation, he influenced the future of Opel/Vauxhall with the 2004 Insignia concept. He then moved to Ford of Europe where he has been instrumental in its dynamic ‘Kinetic design’ (think Mondeo and Fiesta) now key to its ‘One Ford’ global policy – and in 2006 added Asia Pacific and Africa to his job role too. Massively influential with sales hits to match.


8. Lorenzo Ramaciotti (62, Italian) [G] 

Group design director, Fiat Group (and Maserati) 

Key cars: Ferrari 456GT, Enzo, Peugeot 406 Coupe

Coaxed out of retirement to take on a newly created role of head of Fiat Group design in 2007 including responsibility for Fiat, Alfa, Lancia, Abarth and also Maserati. Has an amazing track record as a Pininfarina man from 1973 to 2005 where he was in charge of countless vehicle projects including stand-out Ferraris like the 456GT, Enzo, 550 Maranello, 360 Modena, 612 Scaglietti plus the Maserati Quattroporte and Gran Turismo as well as more accessible cars like the Alfa Romeo GTV and stunning Peugeot 406 Coupe. Pedigree-filled track record, but Fiat influence yet to be fully felt.


9. Takeshi Uchiyamada (63, Japanese) [G,E]

Executive VP Toyota

Key cars: Toyota Prius

Who? Uchiyamada is a relative ‘unknown’ within car design circles because he’s an engineer who also serves as the head of the Design Center. His big break was chief engineer of the first generation Prius (the really ugly one) and according to his CV is big on NVH reduction. Great engineering CV aside, can he really have the vision required to stimulate the creation of beautiful, relevant cars? Only listed due to his power to influence how some nine million vehicles per year look. Toyota used to have a de facto design boss Wahei Hirai but didn’t directly replace his position when he vacated it in 2009. A worry?


10. Laurens van den Acker (44, Dutch) [G,I,M]

VP Renault Corporate Design

Key cars: Mazda Nagare, Ryuga, Ford Escape

Filled big boots when he took over after Patrick le Quement’s 22-year reign in late 2009 on the back of global experience gained from a series of superb concepts for Mazda and Ford. Reporting directly to chief operating officer Patrick Pelata he’s now in charge of Renault and Dacia brands, some 460 staff spread across three continents and tasked by Pelata to make ‘great cars’. Improving on current dull Renaults shouldn’t be hard but being allowed to vent his full design creativity within a business needing sure-fire sales hits might be. Slight Achilles heel is the lack of more production work on his CV.


11. Gorden Wagener (41, German) [G,I]

VP design, Mercedes-Benz, Maybach and Smart

Key cars: SLS, F800, Ocean Drive, SLK

After short stints at VW, GM Opel and Mazda Wagener’s been a Merc career man since 1997 involved in almost all of the brand’s key cars. Since becoming head of design in 2008 he’s championed the SLS, plus the F800 and Shooting Break concepts as examples of his more fluid future direction that should banish the brutal angularity of some of the current range. Nay-sayers may say Merc hasn’t re-found its mojo since Bruno Sacco, but its design influence is still huge, as Sam Livingstone of Car Design Research puts it, “Wagener’s responsible for the most important luxury car brand in the world.” 


12. Giorgetto Giugiaro (71, Italian) [OI]

Co-founder, Italdesign

Key cars: VW Golf mk1, DeLorean, Brera

Living legend behind 200-plus vehicles equating to 60 million cars worldwide from the everyman Fiat Panda and more recently Grande Punto to supercars like the Lotus Esprit and Maserati Bora. Makes this list courtesy of VW’s recent purchase of his company that should secure its future and could yet turn him into the Mandelson of the VW Group – in good way.

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