Art Center College of Design | Pasadena, California | Leading By Design

Willie Davidson

Product Design '58

William G. Davidson, better known as Willie G., has an impeccable motorcycle lineage—his grandfather was Harley-Davidson co-founder William A. Davidson. Senior vice president and chief styling officer of Harley-Davidson Motor Company, Davidson is also the head of Harley-Davidson's Willie G. Davidson Product Development Center in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

In 1963, Davidson joined Harley-Davidson as a designer after completing his Art Center education. His innovative ideas and designs helped take the company to new heights during the 1960s. One of his first designs was the FX Super Glide, Harley-Davidson's first attempt at a factory custom. This milestone machine led to numerous best-selling variations. Promoted to vice president of styling in 1969, Davidson was among a group of executives who helped save the company from bankruptcy in the 1980s, helping turn the company into one of the most successful, fast-growing corporations of the past two decades. Davidson continues to represent this legendary company at numerous rallies across the United States.

In addition to your responsibilities as vice president of styling for Harley-Davidson, you are also a writer and an artist. What kind of art do you make?
Watercolors. I have a nice watercolor in my studio that was completed during one of my elective courses at Art Center, when we used to go out on location and paint. That painting kind of kicked me into gear and gave me some sense of accomplishment as a painter. But you're never satisfied. Staring at that white sheet of paper always scares you. That challenge keeps you totally involved and swallows you, mentally and technically.

Does that kind of challenge translate into your work?
Definitely. Iterations are part of our process, and to get to the simple good solution takes a few shots. You continually search for that right combination that answers all of the marketing, sales, manufacturing and cost questions while also hitting the emotional buttons that excite our customers. That's a huge challenge, and it's there every day.

Above and beyond the viability of your company, what do you hope your work achieves in the world?
People around the world have told me that our product has changed their lives for the better. Whenever I hear that I get a big grin on my face, because we want to make lives better. We want people to have fun. We want them to enjoy their free time. We want to help out with something they get emotionally charged up over. But it's not only the product, it's the experience. It's riding with your friends and going on trips across the country or traveling to Europe and riding over there. It's being out with nature. I like to use the words “nature magnified,” which is kind of what I think about when riding a motorcycle. You're one-on-one with the wind, the rain, the smells, the exhilaration.

Are there aspects of your time at Art Center that have remained with you?
Passion and empowerment. I started out as a fine art major at the University of Wisconsin, but discovered that was not what I wanted to do because I had gasoline in my veins. I wanted to somehow marry my visual interests with an education that would get me into product design. And I discovered how to do that at Art Center. I found it to be an invigorating environment because I was surrounded with passionate designers and because Art Center drives people, which is important. You have to want to do these things. You have to desire to create. Empowerment is exemplified at Art Center because of the student interaction and the competitive aspect of good design being everywhere in that environment.

Davidson was interviewed for the 2006 issue of Boundless.

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