David Hilton has a new job. He contacted us a few weeks ago to say he’d been appointed to lead Changan Automobile into the next phase, having taken on a newly created Strategic Design Director role at the Chinese car manufacturer’s home base in Chongqing, a city in the southwestern region of China.
In his new position, which he officially started on December 1, Hilton says he’ll be responsible for leading global strategy at Changan’s three design studios and reporting to Global Design Director Chen Zheng and Changan’s VP of Engineering.
Hilton joins Changan at an interesting time. Though the company is the fourth largest state-owned automaker in China, its main design center (not satellite studio) is in Turin, Italy. Changan also has a studio in China dedicated to feasibility and engineering and another small advanced design studio in Japan focussed on R&D. It’s a curious set-up, but one that’s perfectly understandable given the resources at their disposal in Turin (not to mention the surrounding European design schools).
Though the company clearly has goals to expand their reach and sell vehicles globally, they’re not there yet. As of November 2017, the company sold 959,000 cars so far this year, which — if this December follows the same trajectory as last — will fall about 100k cars fewer than last year’s 1.15m passenger car total. While that figure eclipses state-owned Dongfeng’s (681k), SAIC’s (MG 80k, Roewe 241k), and FAW’s (186k) 2016 sales in the Chinese market, it falls well short of the Volkswagen Group’s 3m unit report. Here’s why: Volkswagen’s products are seen as aspirational. While price-points are important in China (as they are in the US), the figures above prove that brand image is much more important. Which leads to the inevitable task of trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Step in David Hilton, a designer that most recently held the title of Senior Design Director at electric car start-up NIO (where he designed a wearable along with the EP9 supercar) and has worked for worldwide automakers ranging from Volkswagen, Ford, Mazda and luxury marque Bentley, which hired him as their exterior design director for one year. He ran an independent design consultancy based in Germany, where he worked on projects with Ford and Infiniti (at Nissan Design Europe), developed mobility projects for the German government and was a design consultant for a Silicone Valley-based tech giant’s urban car sharing full-size autonomous car prototype. He even built his own supercar, the Spectre MC1.
The fact that Hilton knows a lot about the car design industry, performance cars and electric mobility solutions is as attractive to Changan Automobile as is his worldwide experience, even if he’s never held a strategic role before. He’ll now be responsible for shaping the future of the brand’s product lineup, building a cohesive brand identity and retiring some of the models that don’t fit into the company’s future vision.
“I did get heavily involved with it at NIO,” Hilton says of his design strategy experience. “At Changan, it’s a bit of both… strategy and actual implementation of that strategy on an actual design theme level. The strategy will work together [his emphasis] with the SUV and Sedan directors to come up with the new DNA and then implement it onto the products.”
According to Hilton, his role as Strategic Design Director consists of developing strategy for all of the company’s studios and global brands. This includes devising “strategy for design DNA, brand criteria, themes, etc., across all car lines and sub-brands”.
Changan’s current design team consists of 150 employees and 50 consultants at the Changan Automotive European Design Center in Rivoli (Turin) as well as the 108 designers in the company’s Chongqing headquarters and the 34 designers in Shin Yokohama, Japan, which was founded in 2008.
Hilton says the “plan is to grow all studios by about 50 percent more on average” to cope with an increasing workload. “Going global is a big step!”
This isn’t the first time Changan Automobile has sought a westerner’s help in developing a strategy. In the early 2010s Chris Bangle Associates worked closely with Chen Zheng to develop the company’s methodologies and philosophy, which likely influenced Changan’s ‘Vitality Motion’ design philosophy.
“The design philosophy is to create products that merge state-of-the-art quality with emotions. Cars that respond at the same time to the high technological expectations and to the dreams of our customers,” says Zheng.
With the Volkswagen Group pledging to begin offering more than 40 new energy vehicle (NEV) products in China before 2025 and Changan stating its decision to shift to the manufacture of battery electric vehicles (BEV) only from 2025, the race to alternative powertrains is on. The question is: how will it be packaged? And how will it be designed to convey a meaningful and recognizable brand identity?
Building a design strategy for a company is no easy feat. We certainly wish David Hilton all the best in his new venture at Changan Automobile.