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Q&A: David Townsend, GM global design director, user experience

Tue, 24 Jun 2014

GM's new design director of user experience, David Townsend, has only been in the job just over a month. But with a remit extending to the interface design of every vehicle in GM's global portfolio, his influence will soon be widespread.

After graduating from Art Center with a degree in transportation design, Townsend interned for Toyota but soon moved to Motorola, where he developed wearable Bluetooth technology and designed the familiar headsets worn by coaches in the NFL. He then moved to Blackberry where his team developed the Bold and Curve phones before moving to Samsung where he oversaw the creation of the Galaxy series of smartphones and tablets.

When we spoke, Townsend was in his fourth week at GM, and was just getting to grips with the differences between working with consumer electronics and automotive.

Car Design News Tell us a little about the team you work with at the GM Tech Center.

David Townsend It's a very diverse group of researchers, designers, sculptors and modelers. We can do the entire experience start to finish – whether it's designing the physical aspects or the actual user interface.

You almost feel more like a consulting firm for General Motors as a whole because we're the only design group within GM that looks at the entire global portfolio; that makes it really exciting – one day we're working on a car for the Chinese market, and the next we're doing a flagship for Cadillac.

CDN What is the biggest challenge you've identified so far?

DT The lead times. In telecoms a long lead time might be 2-3 years, and that's stretching it. In automotive you really have to look out 5 or 10 [years] and start predicting what the UX is going to look like and the interfaces that people will be used to interacting with every day on their devices.

CDN And how are you planning to tackle that challenge?

DT I'm very open the challenge; it's one that we're all going to deal with. I can work on trends and be 95 percent accurate within 2 or 3 years, maybe up to that fourth year, but beyond that it's wide open.

One of the first things I've been throwing out to them [the design team] as a challenge is what do we feel is going to be relevant in terms of the look and feel this far out? It's one of the very few industries that has to do this.

Ultimately, I'd like to be at a point where GM sets the trend for Apple, Samsung and Microsoft and those companies are looking at us for inspiration and ideas.

CDN You've been quoted as saying you want to revolutionize the way consumers interact within the vehicle. What does that mean?

DT It's something I've been working on a lot with the smartphones and the tablets and it's about bridging the gap between the physical and the digital worlds, bringing the design language of that car's interior back into the user experience.

CDN And how will you go about implementing that in a vehicle?

DT I'm still trying to figure that out right now, but I can relate it better to designing smartphones. In that space we'd have a very defined design language from a physical standpoint. At Samsung 'minimal organic' was what we were working around at the time but as soon as you started using the product it turned to randomness and chaos; apps were all different colors and different shapes, all the functions were in separate silos so there was nothing really minimal or organic about the experience. The trick is how to pull the design together.

CDN Who's doing a good job right now?

DT All designers should be thinking in terms of setting trends no matter what you do. A good example is the Nest thermostat. A couple of guys realized that no one has thought about or cared about a thermostat for years, it was a pure commodity product. All of a sudden they revolutionized how you interact with your house and turned an entire industry upside down.

When you have that kind of mindset and attitude coming into the office every day you should be able to do that and affect everything that you work on.

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By Tom Phillips