College for Creative Studies: Transportation Design


Thomas Kearns

Kia Design Center America

Chief Designer

Throughout Thomas Kearns’ successful career in the automotive industry, he has learned that regardless of the product, design matters most to people. His design influence at Kia and General Motors has transcended the products he has touched and altered perceptions of entire companies.

"Design is always key and critical for product success," said Kearns. "No matter if it is an inexpensive product or high-end good economy or bad car, truck, faucet, furniture, toothbrush, or Web page, design sells. Period.

"I have been fortunate to be involved in what I consider two design-led brand rebirths. One at Cadillac where the initial CTS changed the perception of Cadillac from a stodgy, old company to one that is more relevant to a younger, more international customer, and another at Kia where I believe the Soul, Forte, and Forte Koup will add 'color' and emotion to change the way people look at Kia."

As a chief designer at Kia Design Center America, Kearns oversees interior, exterior and color/trim for all projects at the America Studio including production, advanced and show car work. Since he started there in 2004, his team has worked on the concept and production Soul, as well as the Kue (concept) 2007, winner of the Eyes on Design Award for Design Excellence at the 2007 North American International Auto Show; Forte Koup (concept) 2008 and Soul'ster (concept) 2009.

"I am most proud of the concept and production Soul," Kearns said. "The vehicle went on sale earlier this year and has been exceeding expectations. I believe it has really helped to change the entire image and perception for the Kia brand. I am also very proud of another CCS graduate, Mike Torpey, who has played a significant part on my team and credited for 'penning' the Soul exterior.

"I was also responsible for the Forte and soon-to-be-released Forte Koup. What I had in mind for those cars was to interject some emotion and simple, yet modern character that would get people to look at Kia in a new light—hopefully increasing the overall desirability factor. We have made tremendous strides in quality the past few years, and if we can add to that and deliver a surprisingly high level of design for the money, we can increase the value factor which Kia is known for."

Before relocating to California, Kearns was a brand character chief designer at General Motors. He worked at the automaker for 17 years, including a one-year assignment at Opel in Germany.

Looking back, Kearns recalls how experiences he had as a student continue to affect him today—including his decision to pursue a career path in the industry he loves.

"I learned a lot about discipline and hard work from CCS."

"I was fortunate to be in Homer LaGassey's last class, and found him motivating, knowledgeable and entertaining. said Kearns.

"I also took away a significant experience from another great instructor, John Steiner. He actually tried to talk me out of the automotive area, but I wouldn't have any of it as I was, and am, a car nut. When he realized he couldn't change my mind, he took a lot of time and effort to personally help me succeed. John spent his lunch breaks critiquing my work and made me a stronger student. I will never forget that support and encouragement he gave to me."

As a "car nut" at heart, Kearns also enjoys his own collection of hot art on wheels.

"I have a 1959 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider Veloce," said Kearns. "Great alloy engine, dual Webbers, light steering and overall feel wrapped in classic Italian style. A charming sports car that was way ahead of its time in 1959. I also own a 1972 Dino 246 GT collectible Ferrari because of nothing other than its design."