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Profile: Speaking European at Ford

Here’s how J. Douglas Field, vp of Design and Engineering and Chief Technology Officer of Segway, sees the challenges and opportunities of product development. Know that he spent some time working in auto, so his ideas are not totally on the bleeding edge of development.

Martin Smith was slightly taken aback at the question: If Ford is all about “American innovation,” then what’s his role? After all, Smith is executive design director of Ford of Europe, a position that he’s had since July, 2004, and if Ford is all about the United States, then...?

Maybe he was just puzzled by the question. But he went on to patiently explain that for many people in Europe, Ford is, well, a European company. Henry Ford established Ford of Britain in 1911, a mere eight years after the U.S. company was formed. Consequently, the company’s presence on the east side of the Atlantic is one that arguably makes Ford of Europe a nearly indigenous company. So while it may be that there will be cars designed for the U.S. market that bring to mind certain rough and rugged aspects of the F-150 pickup, this is something that would certainly be out of place on the European terrain. Smith said that in Europe Ford products have a solid reputation for having capable driving dynamics. However, those capabilities aren’t necessarily reflected in the sheet metal, so what Smith and his team are doing is to create forms that truly underscore the dynamic capabilities. What they’ve come up with is a design language that they’re describing as “kinetic design.” As you may recall from your elementary physics, “kinetic” refers to motion. While cars are often seen moving, they’re undoubtedly just as often seen in a static mode. So what the Ford of Europe designers are working toward are designs that make vehicles appear to be dynamic even if they’re standing still. He is looking for products that are “visually intriguing,” that are “so compelling that people will cross the street to go look at the car.” Given that on the streets of Europe one is likely to see products from companies like Peugeot, Renault, Alfa, and all the rest that are familiar to the American road, this intrigue undoubtedly has to be of the highest visual appeal.

To execute, Smith said they have developed a design language, one that will allow them to clearly annunciate the fact that Ford is a European brand (so far as they’re concerned in Europe). This language is based on kinetic energy.

Smith enumerated many of the aspects of creating the visual statement. For one thing, there is the overall architecture, the proportions of a vehicle. That given, there is the form language, that which defines and describes what the vehicle is “saying.” So within the parlance of kinetic design, the “words” are such things as dynamic lines that move across the surface, whether it is from a fender up an A-pillar and onto the back of the vehicle, or sweeping across a beltline. Another aspect are the surfaces, which in the kinetic vocabulary are full and strong; “athleticism” is another energetic term that can be applied. If there is a basic form, then there are what might be considered the “secondary qualities” (from British philosopher John Locke, seeing as how we’re dealing here with a designer born in Sheffield, England, and who obtained a Masters of Design from the Royal College of Art), the graphic elements. These elements range from the DLO (Day Light Opening, a.k.a., windows) to the shape of the grille. Graphic elements are defined and then repeated, inside and out, so that there is a conscious and perhaps even unconscious recognition of familiarity.

Now what’s important to understand is that there must be a consistency between vehicles: if you’re going to have “kinetic” design, then you can’t have, say, “potential” design cues for a familial vehicle. Thus, the SAV Concept and the iosis concept that Ford of Europe unveiled in 2005 are vehicles that are not only based on the same architecture (“Global Shared Techno-logies” is Ford-speak for platforms), but have the other kinetic elements in place despite the fact that the former is a crossover utility and the latter an über-contemporary coupe.

Funny thing about what languages can do to perceptions. Smith said that in China, many people think Ford is a. . .German brand. 

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