A Legend Female Designer-Ms. Anne Asensio-


“If designers are the auto industry’s rock stars, Asensio is its Britney Spears. She made her reputation at Renault by creating one of the very first “lifestyle” vehicles. Called the Scenic, it combined the driving characteristics of a conventional sedan with the packaging of a smart-looking minivan. (Fortune Magazine featured Anne in an article entitled “25 Rising Stars”in 2001, which highlighted next-generation global leaders.) ”

 

During the week of Tokyo Motor Show, we had a chance to interview Ms. Anne Asensio.

For those who do not Anne, let me briefly explain who she is. She started her career as a car designer in Renault from 1987 to 2000. And then she was headhunted by GM to become an executive design directors until 2007. Since 2007 she has been working as a Design Experience Executive in Dassault Systems. There are not many woman car designer in the entire industry. This is a kind of rare occasion to interview lady designer, especially at this high hierarchy level. 

In this interview, she has talked about her career as a designer, evolution of her thinking, difference between French company and US company, advice for female desinger, gendar difference, and how diversity worked in GM. I can say this interview was a kind of cross-cultural social studies.

As a matter of fact, she was a good friend of Nori san, Car Design Academy’s Supervisor. This interview was arranged with coordination of people from Dassault Systems in Japan, Mr. Tanaka and his team member and Yu Nakasone of CDA Principal. Fortunately both Nori and Yu have joined this interview. Interview was held at Dassault’s office in Tokyo.

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“Anne developed Scenic Concept car at Renault.” 

She worked for Renault from 1987 to 2000. She was a design director for mid-size car. One of her representative work was Scenic Concept Car, which evolved to various production vehicles, went through a run of multiple design proposals done by different designers to maintain the consistent look of the Megane family (5 body-style). During the course of these development, her husband, Gerard Asensio was in charge of the design program.

 The Megane Scenic can be traced back to a concept car designed under the supervision of Anne Asensio, then designer at Renault. (Wikipedia) 

“Anne was headhunted by General Motors in 2000, 7 years later she joined Dassault Systems”

Anne assumed the responsibility of Brand Character Design, and then progressed to Interior Design Executive Director in GM. When she left GM in 2007, her responsibility was Advanced Design Executive Director. She was leading various projects such as Camaro Concept car, Hummer H3T, or Chevy Volt as few names of then.

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Presentation Camaro at NAIAS 2006 

In 2007 she was headhunted by Dassault Systems to become the Vice-President, design Experience.

To be honest with you, when I read Anne’s career history, I imagined Anne was very assertive and aggressive business oriented lady. But the fact is she is not like that. She is an elegant short blond hair Parisienne (but found out she was more “Nordic” later in the interview), nicely dressed in white shirt with wide collar and dark blue suits. She is very considerate with a lots of wits.

Attractive and Charming lady!!!!

“We Designer Can Change the World! We are seeking singularity and harmony. “ 

First you need to understand what my motivation to be a designer was. Because in realty being in Dassault is a continuity of one single train of thought. We designer can change the world. Because we see the world differently. We are seeking singularity and harmony. Designer sees the world as a whole and when it comes to cars, we design from a logistic and systemic perspective.

I end up to be a car designer not in the way of traditional ways. Most of the cases, boys love cars and motorbikes. That’s why they want to draw a car. Today they love video game, that’s why they want to be a 3D artist. That was not my train of thought. I wanted to do something in my life that will be enabling me to draw. Capacity to change and transform what we have the materials, light, energy. Doing something to change it. I don’t know why I wanted to change it. The engine for designer is we always try to get a better life. That was my train of thoughts.

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First I end up to meet car designers very early when I was a student. I thought the place are where the crossroad of technology and competency. The best designer and sketcher went to automotive. The best technology you given for you to work is given to automotive.

For me to deal the automotive is the most complex product ever made by human beings. Not the airplane. Airplane is not sold to individual, but to a company. When you design a car, you have to manage steel, plastic, leather, and you have to combine those to collaborative work to please one person. You have to engage so many competency to please one person. It requires a long period time. You have to do it on a multiple time period to build brand reputation and brand experience. Building a consistent and memorable imprint of the brand through the constituency of the product cues. Technically there is a more complex product, like spaceships. But nothing really compare to cars when it comes to make the convergence of so many aspects of affordance of a product. When you design around complexity and competency at the cross road of technics and social human behaviors, the automobile is one of the most complex product. That is why I decided to become a car designer.

When I was a kid, 5 or 6 years old, I was drawing all day long. When Mom took the pen, I was very angry. I was hiding in the corner of the house to draw sketch. I asked my mother what are the type of job I can draw all day. She told me that is architecture. First my internship was at Heuliez, a French coachbuilder on the west coast of France and I was fascinated to do car design. So, I said that’s it. I do not want to do architecture. I want to do car design. Architecture more women there, but not in the car design.

In 1990, Mr. Patrick Le Quément asked what will be the replacement of Renault Twingo. A traditional competition among the designers was held. Instead of replying and styling the existent package, I went to project planning people and the engineering people.

As a starting point of my designs, I encompassed all of the social styles and evolution in the society and develop a different relevant design pending the different scenarios of life, presented a studio long of drawings. Twingo for this type people, and so on. The others came up only with styling sketches of the same concept.

Nori has confirmed that “Anne you are always drawing. That was my impression.” At that time Nori was running IDC and working with Le Quement at Renault, and he watched Anne was concentrating drawing all the time.

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By the way Anne joined Renault in 1987 after graduating CCS. When she left Renault in 2000, she was a Design Director of Mid-Size car, like Clio, or Twingo. She describes that “I was not a traditional stylist. I was always trying to find the reason for doing why I was doing. That is why I end up director at the age of 35.”

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Megane II Design team

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Renault Twingo (2000 model)

“In General Motors, I revamp the overall interior design process. “

More I get involved in complexity, more information, more materials, more challenges, it became more fun. Brand experience, brand design, design character was what I wanted to explore at GM. At that time GM had problems with their interior design, creativity and quality wise. GM top management asked me to revamp the overall interior design process. The only thing I like to do was to really change the way design gets delivered, even I had never done it.  

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Presentation Cadillac Sixteen at “Eyes on Design” June 2004

I realize that being a woman, I was very “picky”, focus on details and quality to get the things done the right way, when most of the men designers was not interested in moving the interior preferring the bright lights of exterior design. For interior design process, I needed to visit the deep operational staff, looking across all processes, being focus and operating with pugnacity when disturbing people and their old practices. That was tough and aggressive. But I wanted to get the result. So I did it. By doing this type of hard and invisible work into the processing of what is beyond the design work and indispensable for its greatness. I realized the importance of process.

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Design review of the Hummer H3T

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Camaro interior design review (Christos Roustemis, Anne Asensio)

Behind the scene, we were doing a lot of research work at GM, to change the overall value proposition in a fierce competitive environment. During that time. I was working with the most talented people in US and we did great breakthroughs. But I realized that there were a limitation for what a designer can do. I got an intuition that if I was considering the future challenges coming at us, the transforming world we were entering in, being in a car company supposed to deliver to the best technology, best process, with the best people, still would have its limits to think broader and outside the box.

“Using virtual universe to set a strategy to Prototype the Future. That is what Dassault System can do.”

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Creativ’ experience DS award presentation at Festival de l’Automobile in Paris 2012 (Anne Asensio& Bernard Charlès, CEO Dassault Systèmes)

I met Bernard Charlès, the president of Dassault Systèmes, when I was still at GM. He showed me all of his labs, in Paris. For me, I felt a very similar emotion as when I was starting car design. All kind of great technologies awaiting to be aggregated together to deliver incredible new and creative possibilities. What DS is doing virtual universe, along which called 3D, this is just the tip of iceberg. I realized that if you are a designer, DS is the place to enable any of your more impossible thinking. If you go to all DS sites, understand how all those technologies, understand how such a supportive and collaborative platform works and can be really supporting a design mind set. Using your design and innovative thinking, the DS collaborative environment, 3D and virtual universes will enable you to set strategies to prototype the future. It is certainly the best place to be.

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LIVES review (DS VR room) “Oak racing project” Jacques & Sylvie Nicollet OAK RACING owner and president, F. Costa, artist, Anne Asensio)

Show cars, concept cars are vision deliver through Design. It’s the vision of the product. As the world becoming more dematerialized today, I believe designers deliver no more a product but a vision of the overall experience. This means we are not only providing product design experience, but the overall aspect of how you interact with it, the service, the interaction with the environment, with or and among the people, to the deep meaning of the purpose of such a creation. Such a realm of experience that, in a virtual universe you actually can design. The virtual universes are the perfect place to taste and imagine scenarios of the future.

Gran Tourismo is a very interesting example, there is not a car design brand that would not have a versioning of their product designs in a game environment as Gran Tourismo. They are prototyping futures of the future. Still today it is around racing and building reputation the good old way in an innovative way, gaming. Now, imaging the future. A future where all of the aspect of mobility would, could flourish. I believe that in the virtual universe you will be actually “thinking, building, and testing experiences”. My current title is “Design Experience”, meaning using design capacities to design better life scenarios, nothing to do anymore with designing product, but sustainment of all activities. Here at DS, I can keep tracking where to tackle most complex work with most talented people. And provide this new and unique capacity to our clients and our partners.

Design evolves ultra-rapidly. Nowadays the complexity of doing car design dramatically changed, however, the view of designer’s posture and realm of actions has not changed in leader minds as well as the one of some designers themselves.

The traditional way of design when you do a car, is like a sculpture like artist. Some designers still claim “MY Design,” but we all know that in reality is that 600 people are working on the project. My point is that designer used to be the artist. Due to the increase of the complexity, young designers would have to work in the team not allowing them to promote their own view nor control their designs. It would work better if the overall system change

Something is arriving fast in the way designers would place and propose their capacities with the big digital mutation ahead.

  “Difference between working in France and US?”

First of all, when you are tackling with complexity, Europe feel like home. But when it comes to Car design, Europe and France in particular never had the superiority syndrome. Being small, or not as powerful, you have to develop super-efficient strategies.

You get along with innovation and the uncertainty with less resistance. 

And the team work is becoming a critical aspect of work efficiency. At Renault, I found at that time a great deal of collaboration’s capacity existed. Today as well. This company is very good at opening, listening to other departments. When Nori-san was bringing his design, we were very open to new ideas. We did not think that the company was not trusting us.

GM is not like that. In the US, you follow the leader, and if you are aspirational, US people go with it with no question. In France, people are more critical, questioning always the different viewpoints on hands. For the French you need to create affordance, endorsement in the meaning of things, you need to put ideas on the table and there will be more discussion, quite rich and innovative. In US, you run with the idea, but next day a new idea comes along, we go with it without much concern. That is why the marketing is evolving so easily in US due to this constant appetite for newness not as much for authenticity of the proposal. But things are changing.

In France heritage and legacy is important. I believe in Japan, more than legacy, it has to be socially ethical and sustainable. If it is not ethical, community will not stick. In France it will stick, that is why so many strikes in France. More you go to West, it stick less. More you go to East, strategy become more important, because it will have to last longer.

When I work with Japanese team, I have to think really deep what does that mean. Commitment, partnership and Strategy is important because it will last.

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The overall design VOLT concept team 2006 

The relationship of collaboration in Leadership has become more and more important. If you are leader, you need to become the tough leader of the team, aspirational, so your team is willing to go with you in the direction collaboratively settled. To do that you have to be a role model, to be respected in your thinking and not exercising your coercive capacities. You have to inspire them. And for the designer, the innovative leader, it is more & more obvious that collaboration is at the heart of quality of the outcome.

At DS, taking and tackling with complexity, collaboration is our daily work. And we have outstanding collaborative tools. Every time we start design project with DS client we set a virtual community, a place where to bring all team together. Instead of sending e-mail, we share pictures, videos, sketches, aspirational element, we already create a common goal prepare the adoption of innovations. Since we are working with multiple industry, we cross fertilize all ideas. Everybody gets aware what is the right tool, process or solutions that can be used by everyone. 

For example, last year DS acquired Accelerys, which is a life science company. They have a solution enabling the design of NANO technology tubes. It is by example a great new terrain of experimentation for designer. Why designers of car cannot use the design for cell scale design, or designs for scale of space? To design life is a very interesting thing.

Even if it is just to get inspired as bio mimicry.

The experience what we have here is the most important thing. We designers design table, chair, car., everything, Experience is a quality. Why don’t we design everything?

If you are interested in, please watch Youtube of DS’s BIOVIA, how life science design can change the world.

 DS design team in collaboration

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“Any advice for ladies who wants to build career in the world of design, or car design?”

(Although I was hesitant to ask this question, because I guessed Anne must be fed up this kind of question, but at the same time I was very curious to hear what she would say. Since she was a rare lady designer, besides she was successful to come up to the hierarchy of the level of Design Director in GM. What she is saying may be an important advice to all female designers, or I should say all designers. )

There is no difficulties because of the nature of job. Design or innovation is not gender related. There probably is a girl who thinks like me. If you understand, you will make it. Now being with men and competing with men, being in a male environment, it is not difficult for woman. What is ridiculous is to think this way in the 21st century.

Maybe the problem start is mind set of the woman. What has been frustrating is the fact that not just for men but some women, there is very narrow perception what woman can do. Not only for car design, but in the world of science or technology. People believe it is true. So we need to address the problem directly through education. Not only to car design.

Being a woman, being a western, being a designer, I had probably less difficulties.

Being a woman is not a problem but a difference because man’s world is a male value driven world. Every time you want to go with your idea as a woman, or being a woman you need to make a translation, a conversion to the rules in play. Since the rules are manmade, you are not yourself entirely. Never. This is what is the most disturbing for me. As a designer I want to be fully myself, not as women but a person and this person is a woman.

I was at a world women forum in Deauville, all top ladies of the world. There were mostly women. I went into the room I felt so easy. “You don’t watch yourself.” “You are being yourself. Gosh I felt good ! This is like a feeling men feel every day. Women are watching themselves in so many aspects. It is so tiring. Men doesn’t know this feeling. Because it is a man’s world. So I’m asking myself what would be a world of woman driven rules, where woman instead of man would be the reference and men the difference. Would it be a different world?

“Don’t restrain yourself,”  ”Be yourself”

This has little to do with my personal experience in car design. In fact Patrick Le Quément in Renault promoted me to the director of design, at the age of 34. He assigned me a Small-Midsize car, the core of Renault, He gave it to a kid, lucky girl. He trusted me, made me felt that I can do it. Woman can succeed because there is always a man. When Wayne Cherry, VP of design at GM, hired me as an executive director, he was putting all emphasize on me. In my generation, man has made me on my position. No woman was in a position to help me. Now I am in a position to help people. When sometimes woman come to me and ask. I say, “Don’t restrain yourself,” ”Be yourself” is my advice, and “Don’t try to over watch yourself.”

“Camaro project=Diversification worked=Professionalism”

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 Camaro design team review (from Right to left Tom peters, Anne Asensio, Sangyup Lee)

When I was in GM, the Camaro project was the perfect example of rich deep and awesome collaboration, it was done by a Korean designer Sangyup Lee, who did exterior, and a young French designer, Julien Montoussé who was doing the Interior, the overall project supervised by an American fellow, Tom Peters. This car came up very easily. That is the perfect example of how design works. Why you have to be American to do American car? I don’t think you should. I remember American designers doing outstanding Renault cars, and Nori-san, you were there doing French, cars right? (Big smile)

So I think it comes to Professionalism. There is a lot of information that you have to gather.

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Anne at work

“Why? Why? Why? Designing is just questioning, questioning, and questioning.”

 I believe design is hard because it comes from your guts. Secondly you have to master sketch and keep learning. That is what we have not talked about yet, it looks completely implicit, or hidden. It is very hard. Because you have to combine and compute a lot of information to a higher and diverse level. If you are scientist and to get your result, you will reduce everything, you exit all unpredictable. As a designer you do not do that. You don’t reduce proposition. You have to take all into an account, and then come up proposition. It’s a lot of sensible work. 

When people think that a car for a woman is a “Pink Car.” This is a typical non-designer answer. Designers know that a car for woman is not a Pink Car. It is a car that would embracing the all complexity of the experience that woman can have in that car. That is what we did with Camaro project. All experience from 1968, you have to emerge all experience. You have to be emerge yourself into a long lasting legacy of a car. And you have to imagine all experience and dream for that car, and capitalize that. You have to be yourself.

Being with multiple diverse team, that was very good way to have multiple view of what is really that car. What is really Camaro? Camaro, American muscle. So French girl was questioning. Why? Why? Why? Designing is just questioning, questioning, and questioning. 

“Interviewer’s comment” 

I am very thankful to Anne who spent more than one and half hour of this interview and a couple weeks of fine-tuning articles. After the interview, I look back all details of what she said, and I realized that she was very consistent what she was saying. Her message was “Be Yourself.” In there she did not differentiate gender, nationalities, or race. She is very proud of what she is now and what she has been doing. She loves sketches, designs, and create new path. Design experience.

At the end of interview Anne said “If designer says, I stay the company because of money, job, family, that is bad. Designer working for money is the worst designer in the universe.” “You have to become who you are.”

What she advised to woman designer “Be Yourself” is not only for woman but also for man. Isn’t that the way to enjoy your life?

If you are interested in to listen what she said at the DS’s Forum in Prague in 2012, please look at the below video.

On Friday the 19th of October, 2012 the morning conducted to the first lady of automotive design Anne Asensio, who talked about “Design Experience – original and innovative approach”. 


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