Just your average, hardworking student turned auto designer.
“I was an average student that worked really hard,” said Ed Welburn, Vice President of Global Automotive Design for General Motors, at a presention to a classroom of students at the Urban School of Design & Construction in Manhattan. The theme was the story of Welburn’s life: Find your passion and follow it, work hard, and find a career in fine arts and design.
Welburn also wanted to introduce the students to the many opportunities in automotive design, drawing attention to opportunities that stretch beyond the predictable. Such automotive design opportunities could include digital animation, sculpting (both by hand and on the computer), textiles, color trim, and video.
The talk was produced by Exploring the Arts (ETA), a nonprofit organization that supports arts programs in New York. ETA was established in 1999 by renowned singer Tony Bennett and his wife Susan Benedetto to help strengthen the role of the arts in public education in New York.
At the heart of all this is a long-time friendship between Bennett and Welburn. Welburn told me that he would not feel comfortable talking music with Bennett; they are both sculptors and connect through their love of art and design.
Both Bennett and Benedetto were there—yes, in the basement of a school in mid-Manhattan—to hear their friend speak about automotive design.
I couldn’t wait to ask Bennett about his collaboration and tour with Lady Gaga; he beamed when I mentioned her name. And the students lined up to take selfies with both of the noted men.
“I’m sharing my life experiences so that you can get a glimpse into my life of designing cool cars,” Welburn enthused. He mentioned that he was the first African American that GM hired and showed us slides of him with executives in the earlier days. He was sporting an Afro, which he jokingly pointed out to some of the kids, saying, “I looked just like you all do today!”
Welburn’s history of automotive design
“When I was three years old, I started sketching cars,” he said. “I pulled books from my mother’s bookcase and drew with crayons on the first blank page. She was mad at me then, but now she’s so proud of those pictures.”
When he was eight years old, his parents took him to the Philadelphia Auto Show. Seeing the Cadillac Cyclone nailed it for him. He knew from that point on that he wanted to design cars.
“After that I did anything to do with cars… drawing them, building models, looking through magazines, even washing my mother’s car.I deeply wanted to design,” he reminisced.
At the age of 11, Welburn wrote GM asking them what he needed to do to become a designer. “Believe it or not, they actually sent me a reply and through the years my communication with GM continued,” noted the impeccably dressed designer, who told me he favors suits by Armani and a special tailor in Italy.
But even for a guy deeply passionate about cars, getting into design school was no piece of cake.
“It was a frightening process,” he quipped. “I was REJECTED by everyone except Howard University! The lesson is to keep pushing!”
During college, Welburn applied to GM for a 10-week internship – an opportunity where he learned as much as from his courses in college.
Welburn was hired by GM after graduating from Howard. “I am now living my life-long dream and surrounded by talent,” he noted.
Today GM has 10 design centers in seven countries around the world and 2,600 designers globally.
“Design is the great differentiation in the market place. We have studios dedicated to display, color, and trim that follow fashion trends and a visualization team that creates animation of our design,” he added.
“Animation? Can you imagine that? That’s what these kids do for a living!”
The students on hand proved to be more articulate and interested than a room of reporters. “Do you ever get out of your comfort zone?” asked one. The designer smiled and answered.
“I was asked to take President Obama on a tour of the cars at the D.C. Auto Show. Obama got in a 2013 Chevy Malibu with me, we closed the doors and… well, it was amazing!”
“I also worked with director Michael Bay on all of the Transformers sci-fi movies and had a small part in Transformers 4. I had to play an angry boss. It’s hard for me to get angry because I enjoy what I do!”
“Where do you get inspiration?” asked another student. “Inspiration can come from anywhere,” explained Welburn. “For instance, last week we were trying to figure out how to light a white car at an auto show. We looked outside our office and took photographs of white snow drifts in bright sunlight against a deep blue sky.”
And the last student asked, ‘How do you work with your automotive design studios globally?”
“We have a room in our studio in Detroit with three screens as large as a wall so we can talk with other studios,” said Welburn. “Sharing makes us much stronger and collaboration makes it better.”
He concluded his session by stating, “With over 100 years of GM and only six people who have led this division, I recognize how important and influential automotive design is. I never lose sight of the vision.”