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A Beautiful Design: FreemanThomas' Design Perception

Affable, imaginative, and, yes, even visionary, Freeman Thomas has taken a new job, as he's now at Ford. Here's what he's done, and what he'll be up to.

As a designer, his resume is nothing but sterling: Porsche ('83-'87); Audi ('91); VW ('97); and Chrysler ('99). He has notable cars to his credit including the production New Beetle (with J Mays) and Audi TT, and concepts including the Chrysler Super8 Hemi (2001 North American International Auto Show debut). Freeman Thomas, graduate of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena ('83) has pretty much been a SoCal denizen all of his life, having spent the past few years heading up Chrysler's Pacifica Advance Design Center in Carlsbad.

As of June 1, he has a new office in Irvine, California. And a new job at another vehicle manufacturer: as director of Strategic Design for the Ford Motor Company. Although he'll be reporting directly to Peter Horbury, executive director North American design, his ultimate boss will be J Mays, Ford's group vice president of Design and Chief Creative Officer.

One of the things that Thomas is going to be doing in his new position is assessing the overall directions and ideas that are being developed both in the studios and that are nearing production. "The way I look at strategy is: Does everything make sense?" He explains that part of this is looking at what's happening right now, as well as looking out 10 to 15 years, working "to put the right elements in place so that everything is focused on the right place in the future." He thinks that he has something of a knack for doing work of this type. One reason has to do with his personality: Thomas plans to undertake a global tour of design studios, and while there engage the designers he discovers in an exploration of design developments. "The great thing about my background," he says, "is that designers like to open up to me—they open up their drawers because they know I will champion their ideas." He says he is even able to engage the youngest designers, those who are just out of school, who, he thinks, have some tremendous ideas, but who don't always have the right kind of management that would permit those ideas to be capitalized upon. The other aspect of Thomas that will allow him, he thinks, to help envision and create a design strategy is something he describes metaphorically: "The best analogy I could make is that if you look at Russell Crowe in the movie A Beautiful Mind—how he sees those numbers come out at him. That's the way design works for me. I have an intuition about design and the future. Not just about styling, but the whole thing."

For Thomas, the objective is to come up with not just a single hit, but a series, one that resonates on a global basis, although he says his first task is to focus on North America.

TENSION. Thomas talks about tension. But not the sort of tension that one might take an analgesic for. Instead, he thinks that design should include tension, which "means that it's not absolutely comfortable to you, but there's something that inspires and intrigues you." The right kind of tension in a design engages the viewer.

Then there's aspiration, something that people really want to achieve. This is something, he says, that designers must create, especially when coming up with a design for a product that is brand new, although he points out that even when there are predecessors, even when there are existing equities and histories of the brand, that creation of aspiration—and value, regardless of the price point ("It doesn't matter if you design a car for $15,000 or $200,000")—is essential. He provides an example of this process as it relates to one of his most signature vehicles, the Audi TT. "Audi was in a situation in that it was difficult to define its brand," he says, explaining that there was a solid history, and core values to its vehicles, but these were not widely known. "I wanted to do something that never existed before, but at the same time make something so that you felt as though it was something that came out of the company's history but pointed toward the future." So there was a new name. A new design vocabulary. A fresh kind of vehicle. And one that created aspirations. (It also went on to influence subsequent Audi designs, even to this moment: note how Audis tend to have comparatively high belt lines and low greenhouses.)

THE BAROMETER. One of the criticisms leveled against some of the designs coming out of places including Dearborn is that they seem to be the product of focused groups more than focused designers, shapes that are comparatively non-offensive and consequently not particularly aspirational. What does Thomas think about focus groups and clinics? Actually, he says that they can be useful—depending on how they're conducted. What's important, he says, is that you get the right kind of people responding to what you're trying to do. For example: "If you go to a hot rod event and someone pulls up in a SoCal hot rod, you get a peer group around this car. Or you could be with a bunch of Harley guys. You get an authentic endorsement of what you're doing." He also thinks that showing vehicles at auto shows is valuable in that he says he blends into the crowd and listens to what the audience is saying. "I listen. But I also listen to myself and to my team. At the end of the day, it's the intuition, experience and talent that you have inside you," Thomas says, that serves as something of a "barometer" to determine whether what's there is right. "I think I've been very successful at using that barometer to drive companies to come out with the right products."

CIRCLE OF CREATORS. There is another peer group that Thomas is excited about: "The situation we have now at Ford is that I'm back with my circle of friends and colleagues. These are the people I truly respect in the auto industry for design leadership." There's Martin Smith, executive design director, Ford of Europe, who'd moved over from GM in July 2004, and who'd been at Audi from '77 to ‘97: "He and I go back to the earliest Audi days; we were at the same wavelength, the same level of execution." Peter Horbury's work at Volvo is something that Thomas says he admires. And the top of the design team at Ford, J Mays? "There are people in the past who have said I can either finish or start his sentences. That's not far from the truth. Yet we're different." He says he believes there will be a tremendous amount of interaction, give-and-take between the two: "The thing that's wonderful about J is that you can debate and argue with him and he won't suddenly pull out the boss card and say ‘Enough!' He's hungry to listen to the argument, and I think he likes to have people around him that he respects for that argument." It seems fairly clear that Thomas won't shy from giving him that level of spirited engagement.

And what's valuable for all of the young designers that Thomas will be encountering during his visits to the various studios is that they can know that Thomas can serve as a champion for their ideas at the highest levels of the organization. "I will have this powerful voice that will go from the trenches all the way to the top."

He continues with this military metaphor and says of the people he'll be working with as they transform Ford's design, "We're old colleagues. We've gone to wars together. We started off in the early days as young rebels wanting to change the auto industry. We haven't changed. Now, we're aligned together."