General Motors Corp. once handed out to all who saw its Futurama exhibit at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair a button which read "I Have Seen the Future."

Twenty-five years later, the future is being seen again at the nation's top automaker. This future is what GM plans to put on the road in the mid-1990s, not some Utopian fantasy about a perfect mass transportation system.GM is now struggling to regain its design preeminence after being toppled by recent successes at other carmakers, such as second-ranked Ford Motor Co.

It is also licking its wounds after being assailed by industry critics for stamping out pram-sized luxury cars that looked little different from its less expensive models.

That is all behind GM now, insists Charles M. Jordan, who joined the automaker's styling department in 1949 and became director of its entire design staff in 1977.

"We're never going to design a dumb, ordinary, vanilla piece of transportation," the 61-year-old Jordan vowed during an interview at GM's design center in Warren, Mich.

"We believe everything ought to have some spirit to it, appropriate to the function or purpose of that car."

Jordan, a tall, meticulously attired California native who openly admits his love of Ferraris, is adamant about the mission he has given his 36 design studios.

"The move is away from very boxy, Japanese cookie-cutter designs to a more expressive, fluid, graceful and appealing shape," said the silver-haired Jordan, who penned such shapes as the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado. "When people look at a new car, they've got to say `wow!"'

Getting that reaction becomes harder each day, given the intense competition in the car business. Knowing what will `wow' buyers three to five years from now is even harder.

"The public does not know what it wants five years from now," Jordan said bluntly. "They have not been allowed to develop and see what we think are the merging trends in design."

Consumers must be slowly evolved into accepting new designs, some which have already been blessed by top management and are set in stone, or those now taking shape on drawing boards, he said.

Designers also must live with the new shapes, now created on sophisticated computers able to present them from any angle, as well as color and shade them before the first dollop of clay is shaped for a mockup.

"New things take some getting used to," Jordan said. "We have to put them in front of us and live with them to know whether it wears well, or whether it's faddish."

Consumer clinics play a large part in determining what customers want. But often those clinics don't even show the public a new car.

"We want to know about the guy," said one of Jordan's top designers. "What he listens to, what he wears, how he furnishes his apartment. Don't ask him any questions about cars. He just can't figure three or four years ahead."

But sometimes, the consumer's voice is drowned out by that of top management, which directs designers to follow other priorities, such as fuel efficiency.

That's what happened in the early 1980s, when GM was planning its new luxury coupes, like the Cadillac Eldorado, which bowed in 1986.

Those cars were made significantly smaller, based on predictions of steadily rising gasoline prices.Their poor sales and visual similarity to cheaper models taught GM a valuable lesson.

"We did so many things right, but it finally caught up with us on those cars," Jordan said, with another GM designer adding that "the corporation held our feet to the fire" in terms of overall size restrictions.

"But that's no excuse for doing it that way," Jordan said. "Americans grew up on longer, lower and wider. That was the secret. When it became shorter, higher and narrower, it became a problem."

Yet that experience worked to the advantage of GM designers because they gained more influence in establishing future design parameters, such as longer wheelbases, the use of more glass, and more spacious interiors with better ergonomics.

"The look-alike problem worked for us," Jordan said. "It allowed us to give our new cars more specifics than we ever had before."

Some of the efforts by Jordan and his staff will take to the roads next year, with a new front-drive minivan line. A line of large, rear-drive sedans and wagons is due about a year later.

"I'm excited about some outstanding designs we have," Jordan said, before hosting a tour of the design studios and dramatically uncovering a row of future models parked in a hallway.

"We always look for that one theme or that one design direction that when you apply it, it obsoletes everything else," he said. "Nobody buys anything else except that car - that's the theory. That's the carrot that's hanging out there."