A Legendary 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 know 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 director until 2007. From 2007 on, she has been working as a Design Experience Executive in Dassault Systems. There are not many women car designers in the industry, therefore, this is a rare, special occasion to interview an woman designer, especially who is an executive. 

In this interview, she has talked about her career as a designer, evolution of her thinking, differences between a French company and a US company, advice for female designers, gender differences, and how diversity worked in GM. I can say that this interview was like learning something in inter-cultural social studies.

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

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“Anne developed a Scenic Concept car at Renault.” 

Anne worked for Renault from 1987 to 2000. She was a design director for mid-sized cars. One of her representative work was the Scenic Concept Car, which evolved into various vehicles that were produced. The concept 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 developments, 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 the 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 promoted to become the Interior Design Executive Director in GM. When she left GM in 2007, her post was the Advanced Design Executive Director. She was leading various projects such as the Camaro Concept car, Hummer H3T, and Chevy Volt just to name a few.

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Presentation Camaro at NAIAS 2006 

In 2007 she was headhunted by Dassault Systems to become the Vice-President, from her designing experience.

To be honest, when I read Anne’s career history, I imagined Anne being a very assertive and aggressive business-oriented lady. But, I was very wrong. She was a elegant short-haired blonde Parisienne (but found out she was more “Nordic” later in the interview), nicely dressed in a white shirt with a wide collar dark blue suit. She was very considerate with a lot of wits.

Attractive and Charming lady!!!!

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

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

I ended up becoming a car designer not in a traditional way. In most cases, only boys love cars and motorbikes. That’s why they want to draw cars. Today, boys love to play video games, that’s why they want to become 3D artists. That was not my train of thought. I wanted to do something in my life that will enable me to draw. The capacity to change and transform things from the things we have such as materials, light, and energy. Doing something to change it. I don’t know why I wanted to change it, but I did. The motive  for all designers are to always get and aim for a better life. That was my train of thoughts.

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I ended up meeting car designers at an early age when I was a student. I thought that the place was the crossroad of technology and competency. Only the best designers and sketchers advanced into the automotive industry. The best technology was given for those that went into the automotive industry.

For me, auto-motives were the most complex product ever made by human beings. Not the airplane. Airplanes are not sold to individuals, but to a company. When you design a car, you have to manage steel, plastic, leather, and have to combine them to form a collaborative work to please one person. You have to engage so many competencies to please one person. It requires a long period of time. You have to repeat the process over and over to build brand reputation and brand experience. You have to build a consistent and memorable imprint of the brand through constituency of the product cues. Technically, there are  products that are more complex, like spaceships. However, nothing really compares to cars when it comes to making the convergence of so many aspects of affordance of a product. When you design around complexity and competency at the cross road of technique and social human behavior, the automobile is one of the most complex products. That is why I decided to become a car designer.

When I was a kid, around 5 or 6 years old, I was drawing all day long. When my Mom took my pen away, I was very angry. I was hiding in the corner of the house to sketch. One day, I asked my mother what are the types of jobs where I can draw all day. She told me that is architecture. My first 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. More women are in the architecture field, but not in  car design.

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

As a starting point of my designs, I encompassed all of the social styles and evolution in society and developed a different relevant design pending the different scenarios of life and presented a studio long of drawings. “Twingo is for these type of people…” and such. The others came up with only styling sketches of the same concept.

Nori states “She is always drawing. That was my impression.” During the time Nori was running IDC and working with Le Quement at Renault, and he saw Anne concentrating on 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-Sized cars, like Clio and Twingo. “I was not a traditional stylist. I was always trying to find the reason for doing what I was doing. That is why I ended up becoming a director at the age of 35.” 

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Megane II Design team

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Renault Twingo (2000 model)

“At General Motors, I revamped the overall interior design process.”

The more I got involved, the complexity, the amount of information, the materials, and it’s challenges, became more fun for me. The brand experience, brand design, design character was what I wanted to explore at GM. During the time, GM had problems with their interior design, creativity and quality. The top management at GM asked me to revamp the overall interior design process. The only thing I wanted to do was to change the way the design of the car got delivered, even though I had never done it before.  

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Presentation Cadillac Sixteen at “Eyes on Design” June 2004

I realized that being a woman, I was very “picky.” I focused more on the details and quality to get things done the right way, whereas most men designers were not interested in moving to the interior department preferring the more prominent exterior design department. For the interior design process, I needed to visit the deep operational staff, look across all processes, focus and operate with pugnacity, especially when disturbing people with their old practices. That was a tough and aggressive task. However, I wanted to get results. Therefore, I had to do it. Applying these types of hard and invisible tasks into the working process, that are beyond the design work, creates greatness. I’ve realized the importance of process during this time.

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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 the time. I was working with the most talented people in the US and we did great breakthroughs. However, I realized that there were limitations 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 is something called virtual universe, along which is called 3D, and this is just the tip of the 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 visions delivered through Design. It’s the vision of the product. As the world is 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. It is still around today as 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 belief 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 products, but sustainment of all activities. Here at DS, I can keep track of where to tackle the 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 has 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 designing a car is like an sculpture, like an artist. Some designers still claim “MY Design,” but we all know that in reality 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 feels 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.  During my time at Renault, I found 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 the 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 sticks less. More you go to East, strategy become more important, because it will have to last longer.

When I work with the 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 a 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-mails, 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 for women, there is a 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 westerner, being a designer, I had probably less difficulties.

Being a woman is not a problem, but a difference because a 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 a woman 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 feel 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 emphasis on me. In my generation, men 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 the 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 sketching 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. 

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 women is not a Pink Car. It is a car that would embrace all the complexity of the experience that women go through in that car. That is what we did with the Camaro project. All experiences from 1968, you have to emerge all experiences. 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 a very good way to have multiple view of what is really that car. What really is a Camaro? Camaro, American muscle. So the French girl was questioning. Why? Why? Why? Designing is just questioning, questioning, and questioning. 

“Interviewer’s comment” 

I am very thankful for Anne who spent more than one and a half hours for this interview and a couple weeks of fine-tuning articles. After the interview, I looked back at all the details of what she said, and I realized that she was very consistent in what she was saying. Her message was “Be Yourself.” 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 sketching, designing, and creating new paths. The “Design experience.”

At the end of interview Anne mentioned that “If a 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 listening to 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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