An Interview with J Mays

Ford's new all-electric Focus and their Chief Creative Officer on thinking globally and making drivers happy

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Ford’s revival continues with today’s launch of the electric-only Focus at CES—heralding both the latest in Ford’s technical innovations and bucking traditional auto show debuts. We got a sneak peak last night of the new model (arriving in showrooms fall 2011) and learned about the advancements in charging that come with it. The new vehicle charges in just over three hours, about twice as fast as the Nissan Leaf, and a smart charging feature allows users to leverage fluctuations in electricity pricing by programming when they want to charge. With the new Focus, an updated version of MyFord Touch
includes electric-only features, and a companion mobile app will help monitor the car’s status and performance.

These progressive tech developments—reflections of the brand’s understanding that people and their technology evolve much more quickly than traditional auto design cycles do—are part of a series of continued enhancements by Ford allowing drivers to control the car and their mobile apps through MyFord Touch
and Ford Sync AppLink. (These features are currently available on the 2011 Focus and coming next on the 2012 Mustang, which will also offer voice-activated navigation.)

To learn more about the role of design within Ford’s corporate and product evolution we sat down with J Mays, Group Vice President of Global Design and Chief Creative Officer, during the Paris auto show. He shared his thoughts on how the brand is moving forward.


Tell us about designing for a global market.

For years, Americans just didn’t buy five-door cars, because they only liked four-doors. And Europeans only like five-doors.

As we started to launch the Fiesta (and we’re getting the same feedback on the Focus), it turns out that new four-door, designed primarily for Asia Pacific and the United States, is getting a lot of attention in Europe. Just the opposite is happening in the U.S. We designed a four-door for the American and age-specific market, and suddenly everybody is going, “Yeah, but actually the five-door is really cool and I’d like that.” That’s a real cultural shift that has to do with a different generation, one that’s getting their information off the Internet. Everybody just wants the best design.

We’ve gone from being seven brands with 360,000 people in the company to two brands essentially—really one brand with a small domestic brand, Lincoln—with about 170,000 people. We’re not developing three Focuses anymore, we’re developing one.

How does this impact your customers?

You can imagine the amount of money that we save there, It allows you to put more into the car that allows the customer to have surprise and delight.

How has this shift affected your job?

I used to describe my job as an inch deep and a mile wide because I’d just go around and sort of sprinkle fairy dust on stuff and never have time to really delve into it. Now that everybody is focusing on Ford globally, it allows me to be an inch wide and a mile deep.

What does this mean for Ford’s many regional design centers?

We’re not Ford of Europe design anymore. We’re not Ford U.S. design. We’re just Ford global design because—this sounds a bit stupid—but we’re a small enough company that we can get away with that now.

How has technology facilitated that global design process?

Read more of the interview after the jump.

It’s just one more tool. Most of us in leadership positions in design at Ford have come out of university at a time when there wasn’t any such thing as PowerWalls or even two dimensional or three dimensional design. We’ve easily made the transition, but probably what it does more than anything is allow us to speed up the development process.

What is the number one problem you look to solve designing for the global market?

Making people happy. What we’re constantly looking for is that thing that will make people say “I want a Ford because I hear they’re fun to drive.” There’s the mechanical side of it; they have to be better handling cars with great quality, fast engines, great fuel economy and super aerodynamics. But that’s just kind of what you have to do to be able to be a producer of automobiles. To sell something and make a brand that’s got long-term sustainability, you’ve got to have something that brings people back time and time again.

Has what and how you hear from consumers helped the design process?

Our understanding of the kind of questions we should be asking the consumer has changed, because a contingency within Ford five or six years ago said the customer is the most important thing. And I would go, “Yeah, the right customer is.” So we’re customer-informed, but we’re not customer-driven. We have to know who our customer is, but we’re brand driven. We know our cars are fun to drive, they’re going to look fun to drive, feel fun to drive, smell fun to drive, and the customer that we need and the customer we want to sell to wants to be looking for a car that fulfills that criteria as well.

(Let me) use the Fiesta as an example. We’ve now sold over a million of them, and if you look at it compared to the last generation Fiesta, that’s about a 50% improvement. We were going to sell it to this fictitious 23-year-old Italian woman named Antonella. We laid out the entire sort of cultural map of who Antonella was. We knew she lived with her parents, we knew she liked style, we knew all the things that were important to her. That’s the customer-informed side of it and you overlay that with the fun to drive part. Fun to drive doesn’t mean in the BMW, “ultimate driving machine” way; it means what are the elements that for Antonella makes this car fun to drive.


What role does design play within the company?

Right at the top. If you look at the programs that we released—from Fiesta to Focus to what will be the new Mondeo, in fact the current Mondeo—if you judge those against the competition, we’ve got design leadership in every one of them.

Has the role of design kind of shifted at all?

I think where we are—and I credit Jim Farley—we have great brand focus so we know who we are as a brand now. I’ve been with the company now 12 years and I’d say for six of those twelve years we weren’t quite sure. We were some things in the U.S., we were a slightly different thing in Europe.

Engineering is there not for us to make it less ugly. Engineering is there to help us design and deliver the brand message. We use design as a communication tool to convey a message to the customer, whatever that message may be. So engineering helps us as a means to an end to deliver that. But design we consistently say is going to always have a leadership position.

I haven’t driven a lot of Fords in the last several years, I was surprised how much I enjoyed driving them.

It’s shocking to most people, I think. I arrived at Ford in ’97 and said at the time, based on my Audi experience, I said this is going to definitely take us 10 to 12 years before we can turn this brand around. And it’s turned around for completely different reasons than I thought it would. Had we not had the financial crisis of 2008, the Toyota meltdown and all these other problems, it would not have had Americans in particular scratching their head and going “Gee, maybe I should have another look at Ford.” Everybody was really happy that we didn’t take a loan from the U.S. government, and it was any number of things that got us on their list to possibly look at. But once they got into the car they were like “Wow, these are really good cars!” So that was the big surprise. What we’ve done now at Ford, through a combination of product and sort of big cultural change, is that we’ve gotten on the shopping list. And now we’ve got to just start ratcheting it up, but we feel pretty confident about that.