Saab Design

Back when the ‘new’ 9-5 was first getting exposed via spyshots, I wrote a post here called My 0.02c About Design. It lamented what looked like the first killing off of the 3-port grille that had become such a distinctive feature of Saab’s design language over the years. Clearer photos and time have healed the wounds a little, but that Saab-induced knot in the stomach is getting a little excited now there’s a “concept” around the corner.

I’m not going to wax on about my design thoughts here. I don’t have the designer’s vocabulary to do it justice. So instead here’s some design thoughts from GM’s own – Ed Welburn, the chief of design for GM globally and perhaps a little more importantly, Bryan Nesbitt. He’s the guy responsible for the Aero-X concept that we’re all going to be seeing in the next week or so.

Welburn first. He’s done an interview piece with Ward’s Auto, where he discusses the design trends and some processes with regard to all of GM’s brands. He’s the talk of the town at the moment due to the new Camaro concept that got everyone soooo excited. Welburn on Saab:

Hints of Saab Automobile’s future design philosophy will be revealed in a new concept the brand will introduce at next month’s Geneva auto show.

“The design language for Saab is really becoming clear,” Welburn promises. It will get a strong jet aircraft identification that is part of the Swedish brand’s DNA.

GM retains a Saab brand design team in Sweden. “There is a distinct feel and look to something designed in Sweden,” he says. “Swedish design has always been fresh. It is not the latest fad and fashion.

“I don’t want any of our brands to be boring,” Welburn says. To produce that kind of passionate design, he plans to draw on the strength of each of the dozen design studios GM has worldwide.

But while GM vehicles will be engineered globally, many will be marketed regionally. “What the customer sees will be unique for that region, but the underpinnings may be the same,” Welburn says.

Now, I’m all for extending the aircraft heritage into the design philosophy. The ‘old’ Saab company did that quite naturally. It was just an extension of who they were. What worries me a little is the effort that might go into doing this. Will they be reaching to get this done? Is it an effort to infuse a design philosophy that will fit nicely with what they’re convinced is a good marketing strategy? Shouldn’t the cars come first and the ads second?

I remain optimistic about what’s coming and I’m quite sure that the cars DO come first and the ads second, but these are the questions that cross my mind.

Next up, we’ve got Bryan Nesbitt. He’s the man of the moment as far as Saab is concerned. He’s the Aero-X guy and this concept is said to be a pointer toward future Saab design. I guess the difference between this and the 9x (which was also a pointer towards future design) is that the Aero-X is being produced fully within the 100%-GM-ownership period. Hence, management know the constraints facing the company and can plan for future cars that will be spun off this without the surprises that befell their counterparts 4 or 5 years ago (when the 9-3x etc were cut due to development costs overruns with the 9-3SS).

Nesbitt’s CV has caused some nervousness among Saabisti as it includes the love-it-or-hate-it Chrysler PT Cruiser. But did you know it also includes work on the universally acclaimed Pontiac Solstice? people saw PT Cruiser and though “Are Saab going retro too?” I don’t think so and I’m not nearly as nervous as some others. Sure, the cruiser has a retro thing happening. But wouldn’t that have been the brief given to the designer – design a retro car with blah blah blah…..? If that’s the case then he’s done his job. Correct?

In this instance, Nesbitt’s been giving the task of finishing a concept that was reportedly Michael Mauer’s last set of sketches and thoughts before he took off for Porsche. What he’s done with them will remain to be seen. I’m looking forwards to seeing them.

Nesbitt’s done an interview with Car Design News, which I’ve reproduced after the jump. It’s more about design as a whole and it’s interesting to see how this guy ticks.

….Design is much more than bending metal and hot sketches; there has to be some rationale. We identify what has to be communicated, and the audience who will hear this. We consider how different interfaces carry the brand, and the relationship between interior and exterior, not just stylistically, but also commercially with regards to costs and consumer reception…..

Bryan Nesbitt.jpg

Designer Interview: Bryan Nesbitt, Executive Director, GM Europe Design
by Robert Forrest

At just 33, Bryan Nesbitt became the youngest design executive in the automotive industry, when appointed Executive Director of Body Frame Integral for General Motors in 2002. Four years later, David Rand has taken the reins of GMNA, while Nesbitt is now Executive Director of GM Europe Design (GME), a position commenced two years ago. The GME Design Center is close to Frankfurt, Germany, and in this capacity Nesbitt is responsible for all Opel, SAAB and Vauxhall design activities, and is also at the centre of Chevrolet’s expansion overseas.

Now seven years since the PT Cruiser-shaped milestone in his portfolio, Car Design News caught up with Nesbitt at the Detroit Auto Show last month to see how his prolific experience is supporting his advancement of GME, first asking how influential his time at DaimlerChrysler was.

“Tom Gale (Board of Management, Chrysler Group RT) ran a very successful design organisation and the behaviours promoted there were extremely strong. From this I now encourage a spirit of ingenuity and daringness – a good thing for any designer.”

Most renowned for the PT Cruiser, Nesbitt was also involved with the Pontiac Solstice, Buick Lucerne and Saturn Sky, not to mention the upcoming range of GM crossover vehicles. So with this thick resume, which achievement is Nesbitt most proud of?

“Getting a good reputation for design at GM is something I’m pleased with. This has come about from having a wide bandwidth, the Solstice standing out in particular. Show cars are powerful to designers internally, offering opportunities for expression where production programmes don’t.

“A show car can have different facets, being both PR and test tool. I have always appreciated working on concept cars: it is a morale booster, so I find it important to strike the right balance between this and production-orientated projects.”

In your current role, what are the greatest challenges that you now face?

“Designers are solvers, and both the market and the customer are very challenging. Our core brand, Opel, is a lot about visually communicating driving dynamics with innovation, whether it be the seating system or in- and egress, so we have to make these diverse elements concentric, thus throwing up a lot of problems that need solving. For a brand such as SAAB, there are some very specific imprints from both aeronautics and Scandinavian culture. This is very motivating – and fun – in ideation, as designers explore different directions saying ‘The brand is really about this and do we really want to go here, so how can I visually communicate that; what are the shapes, what are the surfaces, the materials, what are the colours, and what are the body styles.”

So given the strong identities of the brands you’ve inherited, is there a unique way you approach design?

“Design is much more than bending metal and hot sketches; there has to be some rationale. We identify what has to be communicated, and the audience who will hear this. We consider how different interfaces carry the brand, and the relationship between interior and exterior, not just stylistically, but also commercially with regards to costs and consumer reception. I don’t think this is unique, just important to overall design. We work hard to make sure the team has the right facilities to express themselves, and that’s the most important thing to me.”

Already other GM designers CDN has spoken with confirm your success in this respect, so has there been any change to this approach during your time in the industry?

“Well certainly Wayne Cherry was a huge proponent and it was important to realise that brand is your main asset. As you move forward, you really have to understand where the products stand socially, and how design can evolve that position. We want make sure customer needs are met and that we have the strategy for us do that; once positive imprints are made with the customer, such as with the Astra, then it makes sense to massage that – though in some cases we really do have to start from scratch.”

So thinking of starting from scratch, what do you see as the future for Chevrolet after its recent introduction to Europe?

“Chevrolet is fast becoming a global brand and something we feel very strongly about, so we will continue to pursue more of a global pace as we evolve it. There are some certain iconic elements that we will see, like the four round taillamps from the Corvette, or the bow-tie integrated with the dual-port grille that we see on the Tahoe – these are things that can transfer across a lot of body styles.”

Do you feel that your relative youth, for your position, has given you any advantage?

“I find it comes down to having a design-enthusiast’s mind-set more than it ever comes down to age. We still see Giugiaro producing some phenomenal work, and I designed alongside Bob Lutz at Chrysler – despite being old enough for retirement, he was still doing some fantastic stuff. I think for artists, age is largely irrelevant.”

You are originally from Arizona, and established your career in the States; is there anything you have learnt from living in Europe?

“A lot – though from an overall global context, designers are pretty savvy, irrespective of where they hail from. I come from Art Center, but whatever school it is, there’s always a huge bandwidth and differences in the type of product with which we identify. But to participate and live in Europe is a big change to the States as there’s such a great cultural mix. You’re quickly reminded of how strong the social hierarchy is and how that affects the product appeal. This means it’s very important how the brand is orientated, as it has such massive bearing on its product’s success.”

Senior executives in the automotive design industry carry enormous responsibility for the success of the brands they shape and thus the livelihoods of many employed by that brand. The rewards for them may be rich, but it’s rare that these people in such high positions aren’t criticised for their actions regardless of how they do their job. For people such as Brian Nesbitt who achieve so much so young this must be exacerbated, but whilst he seems to be more than aware of the responsibilities of his job, he appears to be totally in control.

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  1. I really like the design behind Nesbitt. It’s clean, aggressive, and flows nicely – much like an evolution of the current 9-3 with some 900 design cues.

  2. Id like it a lot better if it had a true Saab three-hole grill – looks like a Japanese car to me, IMHO.

    The thing that worries me is that the Aero-X is suposed to define what Saab cars will look like in the future and then they may go and ‘do a 9X on the 9-5’ that has resulted in the dogs breakfast we see as the ’06 9-5.

    I am a litte dubious as to what the Aero-X will represent as a concept is a concept and most of the time they stay that way – a designers fantasy.

  3. “I am a litte dubious as to what the Aero-X will represent as a concept is a concept and most of the time they stay that way – a designers fantasy.”

    Zippy, you are right. Concept cars ARE designers’ fantasy. The point of them is to showcase and demonstrate the abstract, what a car company is capable of (design/engineering-wise) and the possibilities it dreams of. No one should take concepts literally. However the prowess of a car company should not be overlooked as one studies in careful detail the obvious and subtle design elements and language that a concept bespeaks and embodies. Stay positive and open-minded for the Aero-X 🙂

  4. Ken,

    It hard to stay positive and open minded when you see the mish mash that is the “re skinned” 95 (i refuse to call it new).


  5. I’m not keen on the ’06 9-5 neither, and I did not imply I feel positive about Saab’s future design direction based on the 9-5. It’s the Aero-X and what it may signify that I’m positive on.

  6. SaabKen pls dont get me wrong I am ‘chomping at the bit’ in anticipation of the first sight of the Aero-X but I felt the same way anticipating the 9-5 only to be shown a beautiful car that looked like it had had its beautiful face slashed in a knife attack courtesy of Mr Mauer.

    I loved Saab to “out BMW BWM” like they did in the 1980s with the 900 T16S (SPG here in North America). I still remember the day that a chief chassis designer for Lotus in the mid 80s once said that Saab built one of the best handling cars in said model. I think we’d all love to see that happen again!

  7. Nothing extreme about the C900T, it was the quintessential SAAB. I hear undertones of mainstreaming here. But I like the message of more consistent brand image, sounds like the new design centre in Sweden (and GM’s commitment) is more focused on going back to SAAB’s roots than it’s ever been since GM ownership.

    Interesting tidbits from The Car Connection:

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