Martin Davis counts as a designer and mentor who once collected empty cardboard boxes that were used for transporting fruits and vegetables from the grocery store.
Most importantly, in the more than two years since the Black Press first profiled Davis, he remains one of the faces of diversity at General Motors where he’s led the exterior lighting and design studio for the automaker’s North American division since 2012.
Davis’s team handles all of the exterior lighting for every brand under the GM umbrella. If you’re driving down a highway, street or tunnel anywhere in North America and you see the shimmering new headlights on the latest Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC or Buick approaching you, there’s a good chance you’re seeing the work of Davis.
“It has always been my dream of designing cars for the Detroit auto industry,” said Davis, 39, who began his career at GM Design in the summer of 199 after graduating with a BFA from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.
“It’s a very interesting feeling [that the lights on the vehicles are the work of he and his team] in that it seems hard to believe that something that I created — or directed my team to create — can be seen almost everywhere that I look,” Davis said. “Sometimes, it seems surreal. It’s almost a validation of the strength and seductiveness of the design.
“Also, you have to remember that my team has already been working to bring those lamp designs to reality for a few years and, in many cases when the vehicle hits the road, we are already working on the next version, so, believe it or not, it’s very exciting, the lamps can look a bit familiar when we finally see them on the road,” he said.
Davis said he believes the auto industry to be his destiny, if for no other reason than the fact that he grew up in the Motor City where folks believe it’s part of their calling — or at least in their bloodline.
“My dad worked for Ford and would tell me how they were building the Mustang in Dearborn and, at one point, allowed one of his friends to keep his 1966 Mustang in our garage for a few weeks,” Davis said in explaining one of the reasons he decided on a career in the industry. “I thought that was the best thing in the world and I would go out and pretend that I was driving it — although my father told me not to touch that car.
“I already had a passion for drawing and adding the passion for cars that I received from my father made for a natural focus on developing my skill in drawing and designing cars,” Davis said.
At GM, Davis became one of the few African-Americans to hold an influential position. He and his team took on the exterior lighting responsibilities for three well-known vehicles: the GMC Acadia, Chevy Traverse and the Buick Enclave.
Management immediately recognized how valuable it was to have a dedicated focus on lighting. Davis also noted the importance placed on diversity at GM and how he’s been able to succeed, he said.
“Diversity is important in allowing for the expression of different points of view based on cultural background,” Davis said. “This can add to the design reach and scope of a company like GM and this also sends a message that GM is a diverse company that embraces diverse ideas. In fact, GM has design studios around the globe and the design studio in Michigan is very diverse as we hire people from around the globe to add to the GM design talent resource.”
Davis said he’s enjoyed the opportunity to see new talent at high schools, colleges and universities where he could help push to have those individuals consider joining GM when appropriate.
The company also responds to every qualified applicant regardless of background, Davis said.
With an unquenchable desire to be the first at designing something new, to make a statement, and to have that design statement influence what others do, all help to motivate Davis who said he continues to have significant goals for the future.
“My goal in leading GM lighting design is to create a new signature look, expressive and refined execution, and to introduce a new technology that allows my team to create a lighting design concept that no one has seen nor is expecting,” Davis said. “In the next year or so, I’m pushing for much more expressive, iconic lighting for some of our future products, which will be introduced over the next few years. When you close your eyes after seeing one of these vehicles, the first thing that you should recall will be the lighting.”
Known for his work mentoring young Detroit students, Davis said his message to aspiring industry employees — particularly young minorities — is that hard work pays off.
“If a career in the auto industry is what you want, I urge you to simply follow your dream,” Davis said. “Often, we can be our own worst enemy by imposing artificial limitations on ourselves. Instead, focus on your passion and follow your dream. If you do this, your talent will shine through and people will take notice of you and assist you to get you to where you want to be.”