How Harley Earl Taught Us That Visionary Design Changes Everything

Harley J. Earl posing with his famous 1950s concept cars, the Firebirds.

This is a story you may not know. And if you ever wonder just how impactful you can be as a designer — for your company, for your field, for society —you can learn something from Harley J. Earl. Because when this man turned off his office lights one last time in 1958, few designers in history had done more to shape our lives.

This is the man who designed the automotive industry.

Over a 40-year career, Harley Earl put his mark on over 50 million automobiles. By the time he retired, one estimate suggests three-fourths of all the registered cars on earth were born from his studio. Earl’s revolutionary design thinking, simply put, made General Motors the largest company in the world.

Earl was a man whose presence was felt in any room: his 6'4" frame and outsized personality made him larger than life, even as his work spoke for itself. His vision and his work ethic were inspirational, and he unlocked countless barriers for designers in pushing his work — even hiring the industry’s first women and openly-gay men. Few walls were too large to break down.

But between then and now, there’s one barrier all designers still face constantly, and it’s one we create for ourselves: not thinking deeply enough about the problem we’re solving. The real lesson we can learn from Earl is that his work tapped into the public psyche, truly understanding what people wanted from their cars in any given decade. Each innovation he made inched his industry closer to making people more mobile, more aspirational, more fulfilled. And when he went to solve those problems, he never stopped at the surface.

Earl’s story is profound, but it also begs us to answer: what would we do if we weren’t afraid? What norms are we letting go unchallenged? Where can we be pushing harder? If we’re searching for a place to start, let’s take a page from Earl’s early playbook — and rethink how to make our products in the first place.

Backstory: What “Cars” Were When Earl Started

The infamous Ford Model T. Unflinching in its design for nearly 20 years, but utterly ubiquitous. Right: a parking lot full of Model Ts at the 1916 World Series.

The first Model T rolled off its assembly line in 1908. Ford’s car was revolutionary in its simplicity: by making an efficient car that could be mass-produced, Henry Ford invented automotive affordability — and single-handedly created a new mobile middle class. Everyone wanted one. Everyone had one. By 1927 Ford was finishing its 15-millionth copy.

And to be sure, Model Ts were… well, copies. Ford didn’t change the car much for nearly 20 years. Design and technical progress was glacial at best: heck, wood-spoked wheels only advanced to metal ones in this car’s 18th year of production. Black was the T’s only paint color. (For a modern comparison: imagine still browsing the internet with Mosaic, on 14.4kbps modems.) It’s difficult to imagine, but the Model T’s innovation was in how to build cars at scale — and not how to advance cars themselves.

The custom 1919 car that Harley Earl designed for actor Fatty Arbuckle — The ah, Brad Pitt of his time.

Harley Earl knew all of this, because he was living it. As a teen he started his career on that opposite side of the industry, designing custom “coach-built” cars for wealthy clients in his hometown of Hollywood. Unlike the Model T, coachbuilding was costly. Earl was a prodigy in creating desirable cars, even as he started: a car he built in 1919 sold to infamous actor Fatty Arbuckle for the modern equivalent of $420,000. (That’s… like, 20 Honda Civics, y’all.)

As a designer though, Earl’s genius started foundationally: he was redesigning how cars could even be dreamed up in the first place.

Rethinking the Medium

But Harley Earl thought differently. Fundamentally so. Earl had spent his childhood shaping local streambed clay into swooping forms of roadsters, sedans, and whatever else he fancied. As a result, before “aerodynamics” were popularly applied to cars, Earl intuitively knew how to blend one form into another to create a cohesive car design.

This represented a shift in how car companies did business. Pre-Earl, car companies often just built the internal workings of their cars, then shipping their frames to separate “coach builder” companies to craft bodies around them. Wholesale integration between body and frame was an afterthought at best.

A 1933 clay model by GM’s Art and Styling division under Harley J. Earl. (Image credit CadillacLaSalleClub.org)

Earl’s wild new techniques (and their results!) caught the eye of a struggling Detroit car company CEO: Alfred Sloan of General Motors. Sloan, to his credit, didn’t just stumble upon Earl; by then he’d learned the auto industry had to advance beyond a car’s underpinnings. (Just the previous year, Sloan wrote that he realized “how much appearance has to do with sales; with all cars fairly good mechanically, it is a dominating proposition.”) So now he put General Motors on a mission to appeal better to this growing middle class. And to do so, he hired the 33-year-old Harley J. Earl.

Design Within Reach — For Real

The 1927 La Salle: Harley J. Earl’s first mass-market success.

In 1927, Earl’s first mark on General Motors hit the market: a new model called the La Salle, a luxury car that was build affordably enough for a new generation of buyers to consider it. It’s hard, frankly, for us to realize what a game-changer the La Salle was: imagine suddenly being able to buy a Bugatti look-alike today, but for the price of a Chevy Impala. This was a car that looked like it was coach-built, with all the styling you might get from that type of hand-built work… but it was built on an assembly line, all in one go. You could buy it in any of 11 different body configurations. You could buy it in two-tone colors. Your personal preference mattered. And to the increasingly modern American buyer, that empowerment counted in spades.

The La Salle was such a hit that just 11 months later, Ford discontinued the Model T to re-gear and catch up. It was like Atlas crashing to the ground. Even if the La Salle wasn’t a direct competitor, GM’s new model marked a “changing of the guard” for how Americans, their buying power, and their desires were shifting with the times.

After the La Salle, everything changed. GM’s roster of car brands (Cadillac, Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, GMC, Vauxhall, Opel) fell under the purview of a new visionary. Using clay for his body-shaping meant increasingly Earl was able to push the auto industry toward “softer, rounder shapes,” and he used design tricks to make each car’s presence feel bigger, longer, lower — all hallmarks of opulence in the American buyer’s eyes.

And on top of all this, the La Salle’s success empowered Earl, himself: that year he created the auto industry’s first major in-house design department. The “Art and Color Section” of GM invited cohesive design into every part of a car’s engineering process. Their design-led approach became General Motors’ secret weapon for the next thirty years, and styling was their Trojan horse for a wholesale rethink about how cars got built.

Innovating Through Design Thinking

In that vein, Earl created swoopy styling hallmarks that the rest of the car industry copied for decades. For evidence, look no further than the 1948 Cadillac, whose “tail fins” and other innovations were such a hit that Cadillac sales nearly doubled. But though Earl’s Art and Color Section may have started with styling, they always pushed under the body panels too. For them, “design thinking” (a phrase we use today, but still applicable then) meant problem-solving on a deeper level.

An ad for the 1948 Cadillac. The world’s first automotive tail fins, for a post-war audience.

Styling and technical innovations increase costs. To counter this, in the early ‘30s Earl enacted a simplified approach to GM’s entire lineup of cars by moving their underpinnings to four basic structures. The resulting “A-B-C-D” set of car body lengths and shapes reduced production costs, and they gave increasing power to Art and Color’s role at GM.

Moves like this cleared a path for Earl’s team to create utility and desirability through technical innovation, not just pure visuals. These are hallmarks we still experience today: your car’s windshield isn’t just a thin, flat slab, right? All our sloped, curving car glass is thanks to Earl, who knew the public wanted visibility, aerodynamics, and a feeling of expansiveness to their car’s interior.

Windshields are just the tip of this iceberg, too. Art and Styling’s innovations list continues a mile long: Are your car’s headlights actually integrated into the body, instead of floating on the hood like glass pontoons? Thankfully, no! Under Earl’s watch cars would have a single unified body, integrating headlights, fenders, grills, trunks, and hidden spare tires. Earl’s team introduced pillarless tops, electric window switches, heated seats, even in-car A/C. The first experiments in fiberglass bodies were thanks to Earl’s obsession with fluidity and speed. Imagine not even having turn signals on your car, and you imagine a world without Harley Earl.

To Earl, design meant problem-solving. And he thought of every part of the equation.

Understanding Consumers Faster

To react faster to an ever-progressing market, then, Earl created two shortcuts: he invented the concept of concept cars, and he totally transformed the way those cars were brought to market. You haven’t seen disruption until you’ve met this guy.

Earl’s Hollywood upbringing was appropriate. For a town where showmanship was prized and living out loud de rigueur, the imposing designer had a presence and a personality to match. But in the late ’30s, Earl wanted to do more than pioneer a sense of showmanship to the automotive world: he wanted to solve the basic problem that waiting until a car was released was far too risky a proposition for bold design choices.

So in 1938, Earl introduced unveiled a solution: the world’s first concept car. This “dream car,” the Buick “Y-Job,” was totally revolutionary: it allowed GM to gauge public reactions to a design vision before it set, giving the design team time to pivot quickly. Call the concept car Earl’s automotive take on “agile design,” granting power to experiment where there hadn’t been before.

Earl in the world’s first concept car: his oddly-named 1938 Buick Y-Job

Now with the Y-Job, GM pushed the envelope in bold directions, “user-tested” its ideas (first power windows! First power-retractable top! First push-button door handles! First automatic transmission! And so on), and experimented. Earl himself loved the Y-Job to the point where he drove a working model daily for the next decade; its design was so visionary that 11 years later a reporter mistakenly characterized this 1938 car as the 1949 Buick. Its innovations in form and technology were seen in cars for decades to come. And remember: 10 year earlier, America drove the Model T!

Earl’s drive for faster innovation didn’t end there, either. It drove sales, too, with his second solution: inventing the very concept of a “car model year.” This idea that a car’s styling and tech should “update every 12 months” had never been seen before; remember Ford’s stoic pace? Now with such a “planned obsolescence” strategy, GM had a continuous reason to drive buyers to show rooms, a constant finger on the pulse of the American buyer, and a revenue stream with which they could propel innovation. It became an unbeatable combination.

Creating Brand Appeal

Earl knew this intuitively, and he tapped into it so GM could build a broad brand lineup. He trumpeted the American “freedom of individual choice” as a basic right that came with citizenship, and his solution was to create design variations for everyone. You should choose what appeals to your ideals, he seemed to say.

An ad for GM’s “Motorama” traveling car show of the 1950s. Corvette played the part of a “halo car,” drawing people to the brand. (Image credit: HarleyJEarl.com)

Much of the time, these principles were backed by a strong sense of aesthetics and presence. Earl’s 1958 film American Look was prescient about what product designers care about even today: “Those who dream in design are always contributing to our ways of work,” he intoned. “The modern designer creates beauty through simplicity.” (There were, of course, exceptions to this rule; see below.)

But these principles also fed Earl’s marketing genius. In 1953, for example, one of Earl’s last big ideas hit the market: The first Corvette sports car. A wholloping success, the Corvette became Chevrolet’s “halo car:” put one in every show room, and suddenly people came in just to see the Corvette… yet walked away with the keys to a new Chevy Bel Air they could afford. Coupled with the success of the Corvette, Earl whipped up the traveling “GM Motorama” show to seed space-age concept cars in the press: it showcased the likes of the ‘51 LaSabre, ‘54 Lincoln Futura (which you know as TV’s first Batmobile), and the Firebird I, II, and III. The world was seeing their future in GM.

A 1950s Harley J. Earl posing next to Firebirds I, II, and III.

Bring us something to aspire to, the public seemed to tell GM, and we’ll buy into your whole story. And by the 1950s, Earl knew exactly what America wanted as we aspired for a new jet-powered age. Even when what we wanted… was a little goofy.

A Cautionary Tale: When Reflecting Your Users Goes Too Far

Earl’s credo of pushing car designs long and low began to mix with our new jet- and space-age bravado. American pride and our aspirations knew no bounds, and it all apexed to a brash and gaudy crescendo in 1959: the tip of the Cadillac Eldorado’s gigantic tail fins. Finally, Earl had gotten too close to our American id, stylistically reflecting our dreams of “manifest destiny.”

The 1959 Cadillac Eldorado. A fin too far.

No one in their right mind would look at the ‘59 Caddy’s fins (or its massive, low body) and say they solved any “problem” for people other than bolstering our collective egos. Those fins seemed to shout the ‘50s American cultural swagger: “I’m going to live my life big and loud, buddy, and you need to see me strut.” During that decade, we still aspired so eagerly to reach space (while the USSR was tossing a man and a dog in orbit) that we pronounced our braggadocious plans through our cars — even if the form had nothing to do with the function.

But if extreme style elements like tailfins and “dagmars” were mistakes, they were mistakes of hubris. By the ‘70s, GM had seen so much success that they bought their own hype, falling out of touch with where the market wanted to head. When the ‘73 gas crisis hit, GM’s lumbering vehicles were suddenly out of line with what the market needed: gas station lines ran round the block, but Cadillac sold gas-guzzling convertibles pulling 9 MPG.

GM’s fall from grace was dramatic, and it allowed foreign automakers like Toyota, Honda, and BMW to fly in with smaller, more efficient vehicles. Looking back today, it’s safe to conclude that following what buyers say they want is sometimes different from what they actually need.

Though Earl had retired years earlier, he led the way toward GM’s climb as well as its fall. Even great genius comes with fallibility. The test of a great designer, though, is how we pick ourselves back up. Will we learn from our mistakes? Can we learn from Earl’s, too?

Taking Full Ownership

But it wasn’t magic, and it wasn’t a flash in the pan. Earl saw success because he seemed to know that “design” is a very big concept: one that if properly used, encapsulates any and every discipline that touches its final result. Product design solves problems, and whether through prescient styling, engineering ingenuity or marketing masterwork, Earl didn’t ask for permission to solve them. He tackled them head-on.

I hope now that you know Earl’s story, you’ll feel empowered to do the same.

Thanks for reading! I hope this sparked something for you. I’m not normally one for hero-worship, but there do seem times when we can learn from the greats in our fields before us, right? Feel free to reach out with critique or ideas; when I’m not trying to merge my interests in transit, history, and cartography with design (and far too many m-dashes), I work at Facebook as a product design manager.

Product design manager and curious individual. I love AI, maps, problem-solving, transit, privacy & safety issues, and photography. SF native.

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