College for Creative Studies: Transportation Design
Timeless, classic, personality—these are the qualities Michael Burton strives for as he oversees the exteriors of trucks and crossovers designed by General Motors. The international acclaim generated by almost a century of the company’s vehicles reinforce Burton’s conviction: cars that speak to the heart never go out of style.
“Your first reaction when you see a car is how it makes you feel, how it strikes you from an emotional perspective,” explained Burton. “Look around any cruise; you’ll find a large majority of GM products. People still reminisce about and want those legendary cars! And if you turn to pop culture, you’ll see how much of an impact vehicles like the Z28 (Camaro) and Escalade have on the younger generation.
“This is an emotional type of business. Basic principles of proportion, line and style will always be important, but it all comes down to design. People see cars as extensions of their personalities. They want something they’ll look good in.”
Burton, now the director of exterior design for GM’s front wheel drive trucks and luxury crossovers, has experience designing for each of the Big Three auto manufacturers. He was hired by Ford immediately after graduation and went on to Chrysler as the company underwent a period of rebirth that spanned from the late 80s through the following decade.
In his current position, Burton directs design teams as they take projects like the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook and Chevrolet Traverse among others from pencil to the pavement.
“Although I’m in a leadership role, first and foremost I’m a designer,” said Burton. “On a broader scope, I guide fidelity of design whether the project is being formed as an embryo, conceptualized on paper or screen, molded in clay, or manufactured and marketed in the production/post-production stage.”
Prior to his work on exteriors, Burton was lead designer of interiors for front wheel platforms. The success of his innovative influence on the Buick Enclave, Cadillac XLR, SRX and STS placed General Motors at the forefront of automotive interiors.
“I’m proud of the work we did in the studios and commend the teams I’ve worked with over the years,” said Burton. “Their attempts to change the perceptions of interiors brought General Motors international attention in terms of design. They not only set the bar, but proceeded to raise it.”
Burton considers his career a “microcosm of life experiences,” from the lessons he learned as a transportation design student at CCS to his Christian ministry and influence as a role model.
“Since CCS is so close to the heartbeat of the auto industry, I was fortunate to study under some of the key players in the field,” Burton said. “This gave instructors the chance to see our gifts firsthand as we developed as students and allowed them to offer us guidance that would help us mature as professionals… I remember how Homer Legasse (transportation design instructor) always stressed that design should be fun. I still carry this notion with me today and try to make the workplace as enjoyable as possible for my teams. It keeps the creative juices flowing.
“I see my ministry as a calling—my purpose. I let the life of Christ be reflective in my service to fellow man. This means providing guidance and inspiration wherever I can, and creating environments that empower people. There have been times in this industry when I’ve been the first or only African American to hold certain positions or accomplish certain goals. I cherish that I’m a role model, and honor the responsibility of motivating other young designers to achieve their dreams.”