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Mays On Design

Regionalism, emotions, packaging & bad ‘60s TV shows turned-movies. Ford’s top designer on these subjects, and more.

Sitting at the Ford stand at the 61st IAA in Frankfurt, Germany, J Mays, group vice president, Design, and Chief Creative Officer, Ford Motor Company, observes, “All design is regional.” What!?! Regional? We’re at the Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung, a.k.a, a GIANT international show. And Mays is saying that design is regional? Yep. He notes, for example, that there is a Ford of Europe design aesthetic and a Ford of America design aesthetic. This is more than, as he notes, the need for dealing with specific regulations vis-à-vis locales. There are two different aesthetics. “This is not to say the two don’t share similarities or the values aren’t similar.” That’s to be expected, in part, because Mays, for example, an American, born in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, is located in an office in London, and, what’s more, his brief is to be responsible for the overall design direction for Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Mazda, Volvo, Land Rover, Jaguar, and Aston Martin. So there must be some shared values. But here’s the gist of his point: “You simply cannot have a similar design DNA on an F 250, 350 or 450 as you can on a Ford Ka. It doesn’t translate very well over that long of a continuum.” Consider: the wheelbase of a Crew Cab F 350 is 172.4 in. The wheelbase of a Ka is 96.4 in. No double helix is going to deal with that difference.

But there are vehicles that are sold in various parts of the world that have the same design whether it is in England or the U.S. or Sweden or elsewhere. Which explains why there are Jags and Volvos and Land Rovers and Aston Martins that are the same (essentially) everywhere. These are, in effect, regional brands. And all design is regional.

One of the things that designers often talk about is having a common design theme for vehicles that are under the umbrella of a brand. Mays suggests that this is important so that customers who see the various vehicles can determine “where you’re going, what you stand for, and what you’re trying communicate with your brand.” But, once again, this is a regional thing: “Ford of Europe customers wouldn’t know a lot or care about what’s going on with Ford in America. And if you find a rancher somewhere in Colorado driving an F 250, he wouldn’t know that Ford sells a sweet little Street Ka in Europe and is launching an iosis concept that is pointing toward a more emotional design DNA for Europe because that is simply a different kind of world than that guy is interested in.” Horses for courses. And not iosis.

About the iosis. This vehicle is based on a new design language that is called “kinetic design.” “I know this is a cliché,” Mays admits, “but ‘The car looks like it is moving when it’s standing still.’” When introducing the iosis at the IAA, Ford of Europe chairman and CEO Louis Booth explains that, in effect, Ford products in Europe (e.g., Galaxy, Focus, Fusion—and not the ones that some people in the U.S. think about when they see those names), have been rational choices. Good packaging, handling, etc. But with the iosis, the objective is to provide more of an emotional aspect to the choice of Ford of Europe products which, ostensibly, will have their designs inspired by the concept vehicle.

As for the design cues that will be characteristic of Ford of America products? “The American Fusion”—not to be mistaken for the European version—“is trying to underline and explicate the direction we’re going in the United States, which is that there is a little ‘Built Ford Tough’ in every vehicle we sell, be it cars or trucks.”

Mays has been with Ford since 1997, when he joined the company as vice president, Design. During this time, he has been working to increase the importance of the design function within the organization. He thinks that it has occurred: “We’ve got a real mindset shift inside Ford world-wide right now on design leadership.” He says that there is a recognition that “design is what sells cars.” (He hastens to point out, of course, that they’re not going to be backing off on quality or safety or the like.) The tipping point, in effect, was the initial published reactions to the design of the Fusion. Recognize that the Ford Five Hundred had been launched and its design had inspired not a whole lot of public enthusiasm, and then the Fusion was revealed. Plaudits followed. “Suddenly, from the top of the building down,” Mays recalls, referencing the headquarters building in Dearborn, “you had everyone talking about emotional design.” Design that would get people excited—and into showrooms. He credits James Padilla, president and COO of Ford Motor Co., and Lewis Booth, president of Ford of Europe, with providing him the backing and wherewithal “to hire who I consider to be the best design leaders in the business,” and he ticks off the names of the members of the Ford design team including Freeman Thomas, Peter Horbury, Steve Mattin, Martin Smith, Ian Callum, Morry Callum, Merek Reichman, Gerry McGovern, and Geoff Upex.

Mays breaks down vehicle design as being one part package and one part, well, design. “Package” is function; “design” is emotion. He describes the Five Hundred, for example, as “package-first design.” By and large, he says, package will be coming to the fore. He admits, “As much as you want to make everything swoopy and look as sexy as possible, there are vehicles where the hierarchy is equal between design and package. Eighty-percent of the time we’re now in the mindset where design is the priority.”

While some might think that the designers might be reined in by manufacturing limitations (Jim Padilla has extensive knowledge of manufacturing and engineering), Mays counters that that hasn’t been the case. “It doesn’t cost any more to bend the sheet metal to be beautiful than it does to be ugly,” he remarks, then adds, “We really don’t get into problems of affordability on pressing sheet metal. We might get into some when it comes to detailing head lamps and tail lamps, or on roof technology or some extra amenity that we want to add to the interior of a vehicle. But at this point, we can pretty much shape it however we want.”

With cars like the Mustang and the Thunderbird occurring during his tenure at Ford, and given his penning of the New Beetle, it is clear that Mays is cognizant of the trend toward bringing back names and shapes from the past. He’s not entirely taken with the approach. It’s sort of like bad televi-sion shows that were turned into movies. Not every one of them deserves to be a movie. Dukes of Hazzard? Maybe. The Beverley Hillbillies? I don’t think so.

“It’s the same thing with automobiles. You don’t have to bring back old nameplates because there just aren’t that many to bring back. I would argue there’s a rush on right now based on the success of the Mustang so that people are saying we’ve just got to get a Camaro, Firebird, Charger, Barracuda. . .down the list. Not all of those cars were that popular to start with.”