Interview with J. Mays, Head of Ford Motor Company Design
by Dike Blair
For decades the automobile's sculpted metal, glass, chrome and plastic has mirrored of our collective desires and moods, our socioeconomics and technology. Today automobiles are reflecting the esoteric retail sciences of visual marketing and branding.1 Architecture and design forms have always been driven by function and by the desire to express the identity of both the user and the maker; but highly sophisticated market research has increasingly honed the specifics of the self expressive and emotional benefits of products and integrated them into the design program at the conceptual level. This approach doesn't debase design, quite the contrary, it clarifies it. In a market place of seemingly infinite options,2 consumers are given visual shortcuts to fulfilling their desires. A car that encapsulates an emotional design program is VW's, retro-futuristic, New Beetle. The car has grabbed consumers' attention, it evokes simplicity and optimism, and it taps the emotions of those who lived the 60's and those who only imagine them. The concept to revive the Beetle (something that VW management had been decidedly against3) belonged to J. Mays who was heading the Audi design studio at the time.
43 year old J. Mays has had a unique career. He was born in Oklahoma and was a typical car nut kid. He received a bachelor of science degree in transportation design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. Company. After school he worked for Audi for 14 years both in Germany and later in California where he designed the VW Concept One, the '94 concept car that eventually became '98's New Beetle. Mays had left Audi In 1994 to start an automotive design consulting firm under the umbrella of SHR Perceptual Management, a market research company. While consulting for Ford Motor Company he so impressed Ford's design head, Jack Telnack, that when Telnack retired in 1997, Mays was offered his job. Mays currently oversees the design of Ford's 7 brands (Ford, Mercury, Lincoln, Mazda, Jaguar, Aston Martin and Volvo car) and his imprint is just beginning to be seen. At this year's auto show, Ford previewed its Thunderbird concept car, begun before Mays's arrival but which echoes design strategies that were successful with the Beetle; the Lincoln Blackwood, a luxury 4-door pick-up;4 and (my) Mercury, which is a compact SUV which I dub, The Turtle.
So what does Mays bring to automotive design which has, in his own words, "done just about every shape in the universe in the last 70 years."? Emotion. Something that, "is going to tug on their heartstrings." 5 In talking with Mays by phone, I was struck not only by his intelligence and his ability to articulate his design philosophy, but by his ability to combine corporate loyalty with the integrity of his design philosophy. His work demonstrates that market research driven design can be daring and excellent.
Dike Blair: Do you go along with the notion that an equilibrium has been reached in terms of quality among all car brands and that styling is where value is added?
J. Mays: I don't think there's a total equilibrium in quality. I think among the domestic manufacturers we still lead by a reasonable margin. We're bench marking other manufacturers in Germany and Japan and we still have a lot of gains we want to be made in overall quality and craftsmanship. Those things can be very value-added in the mind of the customer.
Dike Blair: Is "fun" something that defines American design, say in contrast to German design?
J. Mays: There's some of that in there. If you look at German design, whether it's automobiles, or Braun razors, or coffee pots, it's elitist. And there's nothing wrong with that, I admire it, it's modern design as it was meant to be, it's Mies van der Rohe, it's all of the classic understanding of proportion and line. But that's not what Ford's about. We're not an elitist company and we don't produce elitist products -that's not what the founder was thinking about when he designed the Model T. Ford is a populist, democratic company that produces products that are accessible to as many people as possible. If you think about it that's very much in line with what our country's about. We've got a pretty good life for just about everyone in it and the idea of taking design not quite so seriously as our German counterparts is what I think gives us the ability to have a little bit more fun, produce products that are a little bit more overt, ostentatious, humorful...I could go on. But I think being playful is part of our culture.
Dike Blair: Are there things that you miss about working for Audi?
J. Mays: The overview of what I was doing (laughter), that was a little bit easier because I was working on 4 different automobiles as opposed to 72. At Audi, in 1990, we were selling about 470,000 automobiles a year, at Ford we sell over 400,000 Explorers alone. This year Ford produced about 7 million units. So the shear scale is a big difference.
Dike Blair: I suspect you draw and sculpt much less.
J. Mays: I do, but I find that I think strategically to a far greater extent than I did at Audi. Part of the reason is scale, and part of it is that at Audi you basically had small, medium and large but all the same design philosophy. At Ford each brand has its own philosophy, feeling and design vocabulary. If you dissect, or deconstruct, that design vocabulary into shape, color, material and texture, it becomes very important in that the designers and engineers have an inherent understanding of that vocabulary; so when it is reconstructed in a tangible form, an automotive product, people are able to not only verbalize what they're producing but are able to visualize it for the customer. I've been doing a lot of that over the last 14 months.
Dike Blair: Was it a shock to you and the industry when you were offered the Ford job?
J. Mays: It was a very big surprise because I had left the automotive industry mainstream in 94. I'd made a very conscious decision after the launch of the Beetle product to really reevaluate how you design cars and examine consumers reactions to them. That decision led me to leave Audi and form a consultancy group with SHR in order to rethink the whole idea of how we go about designing a vehicle. And it really changed my entire thought process in terms of how I approach automotive design. It's no longer just about what J. likes. It's also about what the customer's needs are and giving them a visual receipt. It's about being more for the customer than just seeing and driving a product, it's about a total sensory experience.
Dike Blair: Is that the "branding" approach you bring to design?
J. Mays: Well, everything that you touch, smell, or hear has to be in line with the brand, but it also has to be a quality experience.
Dike Blair: You must look at architects and product designers. -Who do you like?
J. Mays: I look very closely and even have contact with them. I know Thom Mayne at Morphosis a little bit and he spoke at one of our design forums. I had a little contact with Frank Israel before he died and I have a lot of respect for his work. I don't know Frank Gehry but I follow his work very intimately. Those are probably the 3 architects I've looked at over the last 5 years. I'll follow people like Helmut Jahn or Philippe Starcke out of pure interest to see where they're going.
Dike Blair: What are your feelings about the iMac, it reminds me of your Beetle?
J. Mays: I like the iMac a lot and I think it says a lot about creating a product that people purchase for its vision. The iMac does do things more simply than some other computers but the real reason you buy it is because its got a translucent plastic skin and it looks great. It's an emotional decision that you buy it.
Dike Blair: I noticed that (my) Mercury has an unusual tint to its windows. Any relationship to the iMac?
J. Mays: No, actually the inspiration for tinted windows came from some work I did as a private consultant for Oakly sunglasses. Like many sunglasses on the market, the Oakly's sunglasses have an amber tint to them. I thought that it would be very nice to have an amber tint, almost an aviation feeling to the windows on the (my).
Dike Blair: You mention emotional content and design, can you expand on that?
J. Mays: We're trying to create a products that people desire rather than rationalize. I'm truly of the opinion that you buy a product because you're prepared to spend part of your life with it and that's just like your relationship with your spouse or your boy or girlfriend. You buy for emotional reasons and then you rationalize your purchase to your friends.
Dike Blair: You prefer the label, "Heritage," to, "Retro," design?
J. Mays: Well I personally prefer it. I'm not saying that there isn't retro design, there is and there's lots of it. I try not to do it as just a blatant 1 for 1; here's the old car done in an old way. When I do a car I try to employ modern form vocabulary, which is far more geometric, far more graphic, far more architectural-it's not so sheet metal driven as are some of the competition's vehicles. There's a conscious effort on our part to try to take the next step forward while retaining the essence of the original idea.
Dike Blair: Any plans to redo the 1961 Lincoln Continental?
J. Mays: I will only tell you that I love that car. We've got a lot of projects on the burner right now, we must have around 50 or 60 clay models going.
Dike Blair: So the computer and hologram haven't replaced clay models?
J. Mays: We've got a lot of technology that allows us to design in the computer and we do for certain things. But we're not comfortable designing completely in the computer simply because you don't have the ability to walk around the car in real time. We simply don't have a big enough screen to accurately portray the size of something like an automobile. At the moment, the best way for us to design an automobile is the good old-fashioned clay model sitting on a measuring plate in the studio. We work it, we put dinonfolia over it to create the illusion of metal and so it has a color, and we roll it out into the sunlight and see how sun and light and shadow play off of those shapes. That's still the best way to ascertain if you're doing the right thing.
Dike Blair: I read that you like Empire of the Sun, are you a Speilberg or a Ballard fan.
J. Mays: I'm more of a Speilberg fan and it may have something to do with the unabashed way he goes after peoples' emotions. I'm fascinated that you can charge people $8 to walk into a dark room and have their emotions played with. People need an escape and an experience that is different from their day to day lives. I often use that analogy to our car designers; we're not creating great automobiles, we're trying to create great experiences. And that goes far beyond simply trying to create a beautiful product, it gets into all the psychological aspects of what a person does with their life, what they use the vehicle for and its hierarchical importance to their lives. You start looking at products that way and it creates an infinite number of possibilities.
Dike Blair: What's the sensation of seeing your work on the streets?
J. Mays: I'd be a liar if I told you I'm not thrilled. It's very exciting. What I always like to do is see who's driving it. I just look at them and wonder, "What made you go buy that?" I know what the vehicle looks like, I'm most interested in who buys it.
1 Branding is the promotion of a product as if it were a celebrity. The idea of visual marketing. is to "create a seamless visual message by distilling a product's essence into a handful of key dimensions then contouring everything about that product around these key words and phases."
2 Auto companies have been reducing the number of model platforms and using more common parts for models but they are also building a huge variety of flavors and options within each platform.
3 That is a saga in itself. see Bringing back the Beetle
4 The Blackwood is a Ford Navigator with a hard-cover pickup bed with interior running board lights. It seems suited for a rancher image and a suburban golfer.
5 Yung, Katherine, Job No. 1 for Mays: Redo cars, The Detroit News, Sunday, April 19, 1998.