An Open Letter to GM CEO Fritz Henderson

Can an organization that has made so much truly ugly stuff suddenly start making great design?
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Good morning Mr. Henderson --

Big day for you, no question. My best wishes go out to you on Day One running the new General Motors. Clean slate, pretty much, except for those legacy issues that might hold you back. A culture of poor vision, poor design, poor assembly, poor service. That's a lot to change all at once, but you'll need to do it. At your press conference you said the new GM would be bringing to the market, among other things, great design. That really struck me. I wondered what your process would be for inspiring, creating and recognizing great design. And how could a passion for great design be inculcated into the culture on a permanent basis?

Your passenger vehicle sales are now one-fifth of what they were at their peak. You've lost sales to all those well-designed and well built Japanese, European and even American cars. I can't imagine that without great design you will be able to get people like me out of their Audis and Hondas.

And that's what worries me. I really wonder if General Motors can suddenly start to make stuff that's well-designed, from both the engineering side, as well as the interior and exterior. Can an organization that has made so much truly ugly stuff suddenly start making great design?

I went to your new website,, and perused the portraits of the top team, just to get some clues about the design sense there. I see mostly corporate-type guys, in ties and suits, and the one thing that doesn't leap out is, "Wow -- great design sense." What leaps out is, "Older white guys wearing suits to the office in Detroit, except for one woman and one black guy." And while we're all looking at this new website together for clues about the new GM, does it worry any of you that the portfolio of the woman, Susan E. Doherty, is described as: "North America VP, Buick-Pontiac-GMC"? Didn't anyone tell the web designer that Pontiac was buried several weeks ago?

The first clue that I will be looking for that will indicate whether you might be getting it will be how you go about changing the old GM logo and branding. Will you step up to the world-class level of your competition, or will we have more lipstick-on-a-pig level efforts? The truth is, if your new logo and design efforts are synthesized for you by an outside agency working with your marketing people, chances are the new look of GM will be as disconnected from your aspirations as the current worn-out GM blue and white letters over a thick bar.

What should your process be to discover your new image? A significant number of top team people from a broad spectrum of leadership is going to need to get together and decide what the new GM really stands for. If you don't get this critical first step done right, the chances that anything else you do will be able to accurately express your aspirations for the new GM will be zero. If you don't know who you are and can't articulate it, a whole bunch of people throughout the organization are going to be making up their version of what the new GM is, and it's going to be way, way too much like the old GM.

Once you have those retreats to figure out who you are, then you'll be able to talk to designers about that new logo. You will be able to tell them what you want to convey, instead of the other way around. And when they get it right, you'll be the ones who know.

In the meantime, the whole world is watching. And we'll know, too, when we see that new "GM" for the first time, what your future is.

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