A veteran designer talks about global design, national design and why he doesn’t follow trends.
With an automotive design career that includes standout work for Audi (AVUS concept, ’91) and Volkswagen (Concept One ’94), with positions in Ingolstadt (two stints, with the second including participation in the development of the TT), Munich (with BMW), Simi Valley (VW), and, since ’97, primarily, in Dearborn (for a while in the early part of this decade, Mays had an office at the Ford Ingeni studio in London, which was open from June ’02 to January ’04), J Mays, although still on the south side of 60, can be considered the dean of the Hogwarts School of Automotive Design, a man who is responsible for creating magic on wheels (and not simply on the physical highways and byways: he consulted on the cars in the original Cars film (’06)), and whose work has had truly global impact.
He’s seen a lot and done a lot.
Mays, who is group vice president-Design and chief creative officer at Ford Motor Company, is a man with a global perspective, and not only because the company has eight design studios around the world and nearly 1,200 people working on creating products for the Global Car Park. In fact, he says, “I don’t think of Ford as a U.S. automotive design company; we’re global. But within the U.S., the vehicles we design—such as the Mustang, F-150, and Explorer”—so that’s muscle car, pickup truck, and sport [now crossover] utility vehicle, quintessentially American sheet metal, “One Ford” notwithstanding—“we are pretty much the leader. We strongly understand our domestic product while knowing full well that we are moving toward a global product portfolio.”
And there is a method underlying this, a method that provides benefit beyond meeting the needs of people in parts of the world that aren’t contiguous with Dearborn. “I think that OEMs that are thinking or designing just for their domestic audience”—an interesting word choice, one that underlines that cars and trucks are more than means of transportation but actually have some artistic and entertainment value, as well—“that in the long run you’re not going to have the same level of design sophistication that you would have by designing for a global audience.”
This is an important point: Although a company may have a preponderance of its sales in one particular geography, unless the design is competitive on a world level, the designs will ultimately be eclipsed by those who take a more cosmopolitan point of view.
That said, Mays does believe that there is such a thing as a “national design,” something that is a differentiator. “One of the things I like most about designing cars is giving them a cultural backdrop.” An interesting aspect of Mays’ career is that between Audi and Ford he was vice president of Design Development for SHR Perceptual Management (shrbranding.com
), a firm that helps companies position their products in the market. Mays often talks about a “point of view,” evincing an understanding that a thing (e.g., a car) must have a place, and that place is likely in a culture.
To wit: “The muscle car could only happen in the U.S. because we’re the only ones crazy enough to stuff a V8 into the smallest possible car and scare the hell out of mothers everywhere.” Although it is likely that as the 2014 50th-anniversary Mustang takes shape it will probably be something that isn’t like the first—a car based on the Ford Falcon, a small car that got performance stuffing—but something that has an American context but global sophistication.
It is one thing to have designs. It is entirely another to have those designs become metal and glass and plastic and electronics. And another to have those creases and flairs and undercuts produced with the kind of precision visualized in the studio. In this regard, Mays is solid in his praise of Derrick Kuzak, Ford group vice president of Global Product Development. “He has done an outstanding job of taking a machete and clearing the way for the design organization to be successful,” Mays says, and adds that the relationship he has with Kuzak is the “best I’ve had with an engineer not only at Ford but at any company I’ve worked at.” He points out that it is essential to have a common goal, or of being of like mind” “If one of you is trying to produce emotional cars that will try to attract desire and the other is trying to get the most practical vehicle with the most headroom . . .” That won’t turn out well.
Mays also says that there is also close interaction with Paul Mascarenas, chief technical officer and vice president, Ford Research and Innovation, and his staff, particularly as regards understanding the ways and means to achieve more environmentally sound designs (e.g., these people are doing things like inventing new materials for, say, interiors; this is important for designers to know about).
One of the concept cars that Mays introduced to much dismay and horror among the automotive press during the media unveiling at the 2000 North American International Auto Show was the 24-7, a boxy coupe, pickup and station wagon, about which Mays suggested at the time that it wasn’t “about the box”—as in the vehicle exterior—as much as it was about what was” in the box”—as in extensive technology, such as an instrument panel that allowed the voice-activated selection of what gauges would be visible, including the speedometer, fuel, navigation, Internet, email, phone, and audio. It was a technological tour de force, and one that certainly prefigured Ford SYNC and MyFord Touch. Mays laughs when he recalls the reaction, although he admits that while that may have seemed awfully prescient in terms of tech deployment in vehicles, he is “surprised at how fast technology has made it into vehicles.”
When asked how he keeps abreast of what’s happening in the technology arena, he points out that with friends like John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar Animation and Walt Disney, and Jonathan Ive, senior vice president of Industrial Design at Apple, both of whom, he says, “love cars,” he’s fairly well plugged in.
Yet while things are moving fast, and while car companies are working hard to be as au courant as consumer electronics companies to maintain relevance to a changing market base of people, Mays seems somewhat more cautious. “I’m constantly paying attention to fashion,” he says, then adds, “But I don’t consider myself to be a trendy person. In some ways, I’m anti-trend. I’m interested in vehicles with longevity.”