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Profiles: Richard Gresens: From Trains, Planes and. . .Vacuum Cleaners

The designer of the Ford Flex finds influence in some unexpected places.

Richard Gresens has always been fascinated with speed and movement.

Richard Gresens has always been fascinated with speed and movement. He spent most of his formative years in his hometown of Milwaukee hanging out at the train station during the summer helping his grandfather, who worked for Union Pacific. "I just loved the streamlined look of the trains back in the 1960s, and I take a lot of inspiration from that. To me it's all about scale and motion-I have never liked static things," Gresens says. Even with his love for speed, Gresens admits automotive design didn't rank at the top of his career list when he was younger. While he found himself constantly drawing cars, planes and trains during his high school years, he never signed up for an art class. That all changed one day when a friend suggested he turn his talent into a job and look into studying design at Detroit's College for Creative Studies: "I did not sign up for the transportation program, but rather settled into product and graphic design," he says. In time, however, he did enter the transportation program and completed his studies at CCS.

Gresens's design career took root on the other side of the Atlantic, at Volkswagen, where he led the development of the gull-winged Futura concept car that debuted at the 1989 Frankfurt motor show, and the Sharan minivan, a joint venture program with Ford. "That's where I got to know a lot of the people at Ford," he says. A few years later he bolted to Swiss electric carmaker Horlacher (www.horlacher.com) to design the Consequento city car: "They wanted to have more of a design influence on their products and I led that effort," he says. Shortly after that, Gresens returned to the U.S. and settled in Boston. While he did some freelance design work, his day job for a year was as a car salesman. He sold Saabs. His experience on the sales floor resulted in unexpected enlightenment: "It gave me insight into what people were buying and willing to pay for. Sometimes we get caught up in design with adding little things that don't add value, and we should end up looking at what the customer really wants, and not just adding cost to the vehicle that's not going to bring some benefit to the customer." He put his showroom experience behind him and went to work for Solectria (www.azuredynamics.com) and participated in the design of the Sunrise electric car. Then it was off to work on agriculture vehicle design for AGCO (www.agcocorp.com), followed by stints designing concept cars for Esoro (www.esoro.ch) and Rinspeed (www.rinspeed.com). Joining Ford in 2000, he worked on both the Ford Five Hundred sedan and Mercury Mariner compact CUV before leading the Flex and Explorer design programs.

An admirer of Giorgetto Giugiaro's "clean and simple" design ethos, Gresens says his philosophy is "simpler is better," and encourages designers to pay close attention to customer wants in order to avoid "mucking up" a design just to add pizzazz to it. For Gresens, proportions are paramount. "As a designer you have to make a product emotional, but it also has to be something people want to buy and something you can make money on," he says. What's more, Gresens thinks that there needs to be attention to all aspects of a vehicle, not just the obvious ones. For example, he points out that there has been greater attention to interiors, but this attention has been primarily focused on the front seat: "You are starting to see a lot of the cockpits looking good, but we sometimes tend to forget about the second and third rows. We have to harmonize the entire interior." This notion is undoubtedly a key reason why Gresens is in charge of the design for the Flex, where the entire cabin is key.

Still, it all comes down to first impressions: "Everyone is going to have function and quality in their vehicles, that's a given, but what's going to separate you is styling, plain and simple." 

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