Affable, imaginative, and, yes, even visionary, Freeman Thomas has taken a new job, as he's now at F...
The first name he mentions is not surprising. The second one is. I ask J Mays who has influenced his work. His work as a car designer. His work as group vice president, Design, and chief creative officer, Ford Motor Company. Giorgetto Giugiaro and Walt Disney are the two. The former is, of course, the legendary vehicle designer (named the “Car Designer of the Century” in 1999, a election process that named Henry Ford “Car Entrepreneur of the Century”). “Giugiaro taught me how to put shapes together,” Mays explains. But Disney? “Walt Disney taught me how to tell a story,” he says, going on to point out, of course, that while they tell stories at Disney on film, at Ford, “we tell it with machinery. “Any time I tell a story, like the Mustang, or the GT, or, in a past life, the Beetle, I tell a story essentially about bending sheet metal in such a way that it touches peoples’ heartstrings.” Or at least he hopes that it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. One that didn’t cause a whole lot of peoples’ hearts to go pitter-patter is the Ford Five Hundred. Mays admits that it isn’t all that it could have been, or should have been: “It’s just lacking in the emotional appeal that we should have put into it. We were being good team players, and we did our best to wrap what was a best-in-class package with sheetmetal, and we ended up with a car, I think, that compromised itself in terms of style. But we will never make that mistake again. In fact, we haven’t made a mistake like that since we did it.” He admits with the sort of candor that is not often found nowadays from people when they are talking to someone who is writing it down and recording it: “I think of all the cars I’ve designed in my career, I regret not pushing harder on that car.”
And as for not making that kind of a mistake again, he ticks off the Mustang, the F-150, and the Fusion as being among the vehicles from the Ford Motor Co. post-Five Hundred that have been big successes, and he’s hopeful that the Edge and the MKX will follow them.
Born in 1954 in Pauls Valley, OK, J Mays went to the University of Oklahoma where, as is often mentioned, he studied journalism. But what’s not often related is that those studies weren’t going quite as well as they might have been. In fact, in response to a question about his “big break,” he says, “Flunking out of journalism school.” He says that he had an “oh-shit moment”: “Now what am I going to do?” He discovered that “there was a place”—Detroit—“that would actually pay you money to draw cars.” (Yes, there seems to be a whiff of facetiousness about his retelling, but not entirely.) So it was off to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. But before getting to Detroit to design cars (Dearborn, more specifically), he went to Germany, where he worked on the New Beetle, and worked with a number of people who, after having had their own peregrinations, now work with him again (e.g., Freeman Thomas, who is now director of Strategic Design at Ford; see A Beautiful Design: Freeman Thomas' Design Perception). He left the Volkswagen Group and returned to the U.S., where he took an executive position with SHR Perceptual Management (Scottsdale, AZ; www.shr.com), a firm that does “visual branding,” and which undoubtedly had something to do with Mays’ emphasis on not only helping convey emotions through design, but on telling stories through metaphors about other things, like. . .
“The customer drives every single thing we do,” Mays states, uncontroversially, when talking about the motive force behind what gets designed at Ford and its brands. But then he goes on to talk about manifesting the concept in sheetmetal, which leads to. . .a movie analogy. “These days,” he explains, “if you’re Jerry Bruckheimer and are going to make a movie, you don’t make it because you want to do a piece of art. In fact, I’d say if you’re Sophia Coppola, you don’t make a movie because you want to make a piece of art. You kind of know what you want to do, but you have to know there is an audience for it. So when we set out to do a car, we have to know there is an audience there for it.” In other words, cars, like movies, require a business case. Yes, he acknowledges, there are boutique movies and blockbuster movies, boutique vehicle manufacturers and blockbuster builders (he notes that while they have the Aston-Martin brand, for now, that “sells 4,000 cars a year, but boy, they are a very important 4,000 cars,” Ford also sells enough F-150s in a year to equal the size of two brands put together).
“Once the business case looks like it might be plausible, we think about the type of vehicle that we want to do and which brand it will best fit under.” And here is where the aforementioned SHR thinking might be echoed, as he continues, “That’s where the meaning of brands and how people relate to a brand emotionally becomes so important. If the brand is strong in what it stands for, it becomes a promise to the customer in terms of what you’re going to deliver. If we know what the brand is, and who what the story is we want to tell, and who the customer is that we want to tell it to, then the design is dead-easy after that.”
And here’s where a shoe—or boot—falls: “The problem is that 60% of the cars on the road don’t have a good brand attached to them.” He says that there isn’t clarity in who the customer is, and consequently “don’t have a point of view on the design and a story attached to it.” They just,
Not all stories resonate with all people: he cites his brother as an example, “standing in the middle of Oklahoma on his ranch with a belt buckle the size of a pie plate. He could give a toss about a DB-9. The story he’s interested in is about the Marlboro Man and all roads going West, and his pickup. . . .”
Like every automotive designer that has ever lived, Mays says things like, “I’ve often said the relationship you have with a car is the same relationship you have with your lover. It is an emotional relationship.” At which point the eyes of those of a more technical bent might roll. But remarkably, Mays acknowledges something that evinces an understanding of the more quotidian aspects of the industry. He makes an observation that adds a soupcon of what could be considered rationality to the emotion: “If you only engine a car, you end up with a beautiful technical solution. If you only style a car, you have the possibility of ending up with a beautiful car. But if you marry those two, you end up with a really great design because it is the marriage of style and engineering that creates design.”
He admits, “The trick—or the reason for getting up every morning and doing this job—is to find a balance between design and engineering.”
Although there is a lot of attention placed on individuals like Mays because he is at the pinnacle of his organization, he fully admits that he takes an approach that worked well for a former chairman of the board, or, more precisely, The Chairman of the Board: “It’s the Sinatra approach. You surround yourself with good people. Essentially, the guy with the best design team is going to win the race.”
But what does he, personally, still want to do? “I’d still like to do what would be considered the quintessential American luxury car.” As he thinks of it, it would be a car that, on the lawn of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance 40 years later, would evoke people to think that it rivaled the likes of a Duisenberg or a Cord in their day.
On the more everyday plane, however, Mays says, “We want to excite people with designs.” He acknowledges, “Vanilla won’t get you a lot in the auto industry these days.” He cites a cross-town rival for having gone beyond vanilla, describing the Chrysler 300C “a ballsy move on their part.” “They did everything pretty right on that.” A contrast is made not only to the bete noire that he hopes is behind them—the Five Hundred—but to another competitor’s product, as he describes the Chevrolet Malibu as “their Ford Five Hundred. It’s so logical. There’s no emotion to it. The Malibu is actually the same size as the Fusion, it is a pretty easy decision which one you would have.”
So what would he be doing if he wasn’t heading up a design team that spans the globe, a team creating everything from Mazdas to Jaguars, Volvos to Lincolns? “I’d either be an architect or I’d be in the film business. Not necessarily in that order.” And so we think of Walt Disney.