Automotive designer J Mays has become well-known as the design director of Ford Motor Company. Born in rural Oklahoma, Mays started working at his family’s auto parts store at an early age with aspirations of becoming an architect, but eventually found his calling in car design while at the Art Center in Pasadena. An automotive design pioneer with more than 30 years under his belt, Mays has been involved in the design of a number of the car industry’s most well-recognized automobiles, including the VW “New Beetle”, Aston Martin DB9, Land Rover LR3/Discovery, Ford GT, 2011 Ford Fiesta, 2012 Focus (including the Focus EV), and the new green 2013 Ford Fusion—just to name a few! For the last 16 years he’s been leading the charge at Ford as the Vice President of Global Design and Chief Creative Officer and has played a critical role in bringing a new generation of stylish, green, high-performance electric and hybrid vehicles to a mainstream market. I recently got the chance to chat with Mays about his monumental career, and I’ve published our interview here. Click ahead to read the entire interview, where Mays touches on his global travels, his design ethos and influences, the current market for hybrid and electric vehicles, and what he sees for the future of zero-emissions vehicles, both at Ford and on a global scale.
INHABITAT: You’ve been a car designer for a long time. How did you get started with your career?
J Mays: Well, that’s a good question. I’ve been a car designer now for 32 years, so that is a long time. I started in the industry back in 1980 with Audi. Before that I started out studying journalism and I have no idea to this day why I studied journalism, but I did, and I wasn’t very good at it. I wouldn’t say I was flunking out of school, but I wasn’t doing that well, either.
By complete accident I found myself in car design because I thought I’d like to be a commercial artist. I was in the middle of Oklahoma and didn’t have a lot of information at hand. I found out that there was a school in California that would train you to become an automotive designer. Because I had a great love of cars I thought, “I can’t believe that they would actually pay a grown man money to design and draw cars every day.” So, that sounded like the job for me.
I went out to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and was there from ’76 until ’80 and in 1980 I left and went to Audi where, more or less over the next 14 years, I had my career with a short exception of a year-and-a-half at BMW. I was with Audi until late 1994 and I left in 1994 to go into brand consultancy because I thought that was a really interesting step in possibly furthering my career.
At the time Ford Motor Company hired me, they were one of my clients—I was living in Los Angeles—and they asked me to be the Vice President of Design. So, the place that I never thought I would end up—which was Detroit—here I am. I’ve been with Ford now for 16 years, which I can hardly actually believe.
Ford Fusion Energi
INHABITAT: So, you went to college to study automotive design. What would be your recommendation for young, aspiring car designers?
J Mays: It’s a great question, and I think I’ve got an answer for it. I don’t know if it’s a good answer, but it’s the answer I always use: The more you know about the world, the better designer you are; whether you’re a car designer or architect or anything else. The more you know about the world, the better your ideas will be because you just have a much broader cultural experience from which to load your gun.
The more you know about the world, the better designer you will be; whether you’re a car designer or architect or anything else.
So, if you’re trying to be a creative that really wants to understand various cultures around the world and understand how different kinds of customers have different kinds of requirements, nothing replaces—in my opinion—getting out of your own country and seeing as much of the world as possible. That’s pretty much how I’ve done it. And by the way, I wouldn’t say that was some sort of master plan I had out of college. This just happened to me.
Having spent more than 20 years in Europe has not only changed my life but it’s also changed my perspective on how to design and what good design really is. So, I always tell people this—if there’s one thing that I could recommend, it’s scare the hell out of yourself and get out of your own country and go find out what’s really going on in the world.
INHABITAT: That’s great advice. Now, do you think people can get into auto design by studying or majoring in something else first, then going back to school later? Or is it really the type of industry where you have to go straight to a design college?
J Mays: It helps if you’ve got an affinity for automobiles. But my route in was actually through journalism, and then I went to design school. I think it helps when you’re at a school that’s as intensive as Arts Center in Pasadena or Royal College of Art in London. There’s even a school here in Detroit called CCS—Center for Creative Studies. It helps if you’ve got a little bit of college under your belt; get that behind you before you go into an environment where you’re studying design because then you’re more mature, you’ve gotten those first couple of crazy college years behind you, and you’re probably better prepared to settle down and actually do something serious with your life.
Phillip Johnson’s Glass House
INHABITAT: Who would you say are your design influences and your favorite designers? In that, I include architects.
J Mays: Unfortunately most of my favorite architects are dead. So, if I kind of go through a few, some of them I love for selfish reasons and some I choose because they’ve had a huge influence on how I think. Particularly in respect to how they’ve placed their work in the world.
I had the opportunity—I should say the honor—to meet Philip Johnson before he died. He called me and wanted to meet me because he was driving an Audi TT, which I designed when I was at Audi. So, he invited me to the Seagrams Building when he was still practicing, and I went up and had about an hour with him. That’s one of the most memorable things that’s ever happened to me. To this day I get goose bumps thinking about it. It was just such an honor.
Phillip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe
I love Philip Johnson’s Glass House, but I love Philip Johnson more for the influence he had on American architecture by bringing guys like Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer into the United States, and I think he was the first one to bring Le Corbusier in. This guy’s influence, just beyond the sheer building of architecture, was massive in this country. I really have a big soft spot for that whole era.
Then I suppose out on the west coast, I’m a pretty big sucker for Pierre Koenig and all of the houses he did, particularly the Stahl House. But if you look at the Glass House that Johnson did or the Stahl house that Pierre Koenig did, what I love about those is that they are pristine, pure and simple, but the reason they work is because they are placed into a position that allows the culture around them to actually be the thing that shines. That’s kind of the way that I try to approach automotive design because I think cars have to be just like architecture; they have to be appropriate for the culture that they’re being driven in. Long story short, those would be a few of my favorite architects.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water
INHABITAT: What would you say you’ve learned from architecture that you’ve applied to the design of automobiles?
J Mays: Well, just to elaborate on what I was talking about previously. I’m not a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, but I like his architecture. I think what Wright had in many of his designs was an uncanny ability to place the design into the appropriate cultural surroundings—Falling Water obviously being one of the best examples.
That’s one of the most important things I’ve learned from architecture—because there’s something somewhere between the influence of architects and what I started to understand as important to them—the placement of architecture within its surroundings, or its cultural environment as I call it. This is also what I see happening with film directors. Any good movie you go to see is built around a particular culture and cultural environment. This heightened consciousness gives the owner of the house, the viewer of the movie, or the owner of the car a guidepost as to what they should be expecting out of the experience from that piece of architecture, that movie or that car.
INHABITAT: So, when you worked on the new 2013 design for the Ford Fusion, how would you describe the cultural environment for that car? What were you trying to achieve with that design?
J Mays: That’s a good one. So, I’m sure you’ve read quite a lot about the Ford Fusion and the success we’re having with that car. But the entire premise that we went into with that automobile was to give our mainstream Ford customer a premium experience—the kind you would expect from a luxury car. As we started to lay down strategically where we wanted to go with that car, we spent a lot of time imagining what the fictitious customer, or customers, we were designing for looked like—where they were going to drive that car, what restaurant they might take it to, which valet at which premium hotel might be parking it out front for them, who we wanted to gravitate into the Ford brand from other brands. Obviously, we wanted to get premium customers from premium brands to have a look at Ford.
That started to set up the entire criteria for what we needed to design in order to deliver the strategy. The goal was to deliver a car that looked $10,000-to-$12,000 more expensive than it actually was, and I’m happy to say that’s been the reaction of the general public. So, what’s interesting is as we’ve started selling that car, it’s not just that we’ve sold a lot of Fusion Energi and hybrid vehicles, it’s who we’ve sold them to.
If you look out in California, they’re very much an early adopter of anything that is chic and new. We had a year-over-year sales increase in San Francisco—which is a very finicky, design-oriented culture—of about 325 percent, and it was almost 500 percent in Los Angeles. We’ve actually had people gravitating into Fords out of BMWs and other premium brands. It’s partly because of the interesting technology on the car—be it the hybrid or the Fusion Energi, plug-in hybrid— and it’s gotten their attention because the car is beautiful. It’s the beauty of the car that is starting to help us garner attention for the Ford brand like never before. That was the premise for how we set about to design the Fusion.
2013 C-Max Hybrid
INHABITAT: Are the sales for the Ford Fusion Energi meeting Ford’s targets?
J Mays: Sales have far exceeded what we were hoping to do with that plugin-electric vehicle. You have to look at the entire hybrid industry—it’s growing. It’s growing slowly but steadily.
I think the hybrid industry was up a percentage point over last year, and if I’m not mistaken the hybrid industry only makes up about less than 4 percent of the entire industry sales. But then if you focus in on our Ford share, we used to be at about 3 percent of the hybrid market, and since releasing the Fusion and the C-Max hybrid we’re up to 18 percent of the market. We have made a massive gain in a very, very short period of time based not only on the technology but the fact that our cars are beautiful.
INHABITAT: What do you think is needed to make hybrids and EVs more mainstream? To me it seems like this is just the direction that we need to head in, in terms of energy resources and the environment. But what do you think is really needed to kind of bring electric vehicles to a wider percentage of the mainstream population?
J Mays: Well, there are things that we can control and there’s things that we need others to help us with. I mentioned the early adopters. They are really a major key, I think. As I said, our hybrids are flying off the shelves out in California. So, that’s great to see that happening. But on the other side, there has got to be the infrastructure in place to really make this a viable proposition over the long run. That’s something we can’t do on our own, so we need to partner, and other industries need to partner with us to help create a more viable infrastructure. If those two things are met together, then I think if you look out over the next seven-to-eight years, then you’ll see continued growth in that area.
2013 Ford Focus EV
INHABITAT: Do you think that by people having charging points in their garages might be enough if people are using the hybrid technology?
J Mays: It is enough. I just think range anxiety is the biggest hurdle for electric car owners to overcome. Here at Ford, we sell a vehicle called the Focus Electric which is a pure electric vehicle. It comes with its own charging station that is mounted directly into your garage. In fact, the Geek Squad, believe it or not, will come and mount it for you. So, you can plug in your car there, but people want to feel like they can go to a shopping mall or go to a parking lot and find the same technology. They would feel more secure if they had multiple charging stations at their disposal at different places to park their car. So, that’s the kind of infrastructure that I’m talking about.
Aston Martin DBS
INHABITAT: Okay, that certainly makes sense. Moving on, I want to know what is your favorite car of all time.
J Mays: Oh God. You know, I answer this differently every time someone asks me. I don’t do it for sport; it’s just I still love the Aston Martin DBS and I’m slightly partial to it because it was my design team when we still owned Aston Martin that designed it. But the whole connection to James Bond—it’s just one of the most beautiful cars I think that I can remember.
Mustang Boss 302 Laguna Seca
INHABITAT: What do you drive?
J Mays: Currently I’m driving a mid-life crisis, which is a 2012 Mustang Boss 302 Laguna Seca. It has stupid amounts of horsepower and far too many stripes on the body for a 58-year-old man to be seen in. I’ve been staying at a hotel here in Dearborn while my house is finished and while I wait for a container filled with all my personal belongings to arrive. I pull up every night at the hotel either to people just pointing, sometimes applauding. But then when I get out they think, “Oh my God, he’s 30 years too old to be having this car.” It really makes me laugh.
Ford Fusion Energi Dashboard
INHABITAT: Since you oversee all the design at Ford, does that mean that you oversee the different teams that work on the user interface of the dashboard as well as the interior styling and the exterior styling? Do those teams work back and forth together to integrate the different elements of a car?
J Mays: Yes, they do. And although I don’t oversee the entire human machine interface of our vehicles, I’m very close to the human machine interface group that does all of that work. The closest integration we have is what we call the HMI here, which is just a Ford acronym for human machine interface. What we have to do is integrate the HMI into the automobile in such a way that it’s ergonomically easy to use. In other words, when you’re sitting in the automobile you have to be able to see out of the automobile in terms of visibility, but you also have to have at arm’s length, in reach, an ergonomic situation where you’re able to properly utilize your radio, your air conditioning, or anything that you might want to use that is usually on the middle console of the car.
We work closely with both the HMI team and the ergonomics team to make sure that all of this is properly integrated into the car. As dashboards become more digital, we want to make sure that they’re also more safe. Until we get to a point where everything is voice-activated—which we eventually will—then it’s our job just to keep an overview on whether customers are able to use our products in a safe way or not.
INHABITAT: Now, I know that with the new Ford Fusion Energi the interior design team used recycled plastic water bottles, recycled blue jeans and soy beans to create some of the interior upholstery and finishes. Can you tell me a little bit about those choices and how that works with the exterior design of the car?
J Mays: That’s right. We use recycled water bottles and we also use soybeans in the interior of our car. That upholstery material made from recycled water bottles is called Repreve. There are about 40 bottles used in each seat—it’s not insignificant. It’s been a really big success for us because it literally allows us to use what would otherwise be waste in a more ecological way.
Customers want to feel like they are doing the right thing when they make a purchase. But being eco-friendly doesn’t mean you have to compromise on good looks —and the new Ford Fusion is a clear testament to that.
INHABITAT: So, in addition to the green credentials of that material, I’m assuming it’s something that you are satisfied with from an aesthetic point of view in terms of providing the premium experience that you’ve been trying to achieve with the Ford Fusion design.
J Mays: Yes. Interestingly enough, depending on the customer that we happen to be designing for—and in this case the age of the customer—you get a very different point of view as to what a premium material is. If you’re talking to someone that’s 45 or older, there is a tendency to go straight for leather and wood and those kind of traditional materials on the inside of an automobile. If you’re talking to someone that’s younger than 40, you’ll get a completely different point of view on what an acceptable material is. It might be carbon fiber or it might be some sort of woven plastic. But it’s just because a younger audience will often have a more contemporary take on what appropriate materials might look like.
INHABITAT: What is the target audience for the Ford Fusion Energi, specifically?
J Mays: In this particular case, it’s everybody. Because of the interesting technology of the car, we haven’t been able to really put a finger on exactly who’s buying it just yet. Clearly it’s not a cheap car, so we’re not getting that many twenty-somethings. But, I think you’re seeing it cover a pretty wide spectrum simply because of the combination of the environmental story along with its looks.
Ford Fusion Energi
INHABITAT: What are you excited about in terms of the future of auto design? Where do you think auto design is headed, and what gets you really excited to wake up in the morning?
J Mays: I can’t speak for the entire industry, but I can tell you what I’m excited about at Ford and by extension at Lincoln. When I came to Ford I made the quite general statement that it was going to take us at least a decade to change the perception of the brand because when I started with the company in 1997, Ford was seen as just one of the big three. So, there was Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. But, very often Ford was lumped into this thing called Detroit, and Detroit was spoken of as though it was just one big company and there was no way to sort of get Ford pushed away from the local competition.
We worked very hard, particularly over the last five or six years, to improve our design to an extent that I would now call it world class and on a par with any other company in the world. And this is the lucky piece. Luck and un-luck I should call it. In 2008 when the global financial crisis happened and Ford didn’t take a loan from the federal government, two things happened. One: the American public turned around and went, “Well, we really respect Ford for that.” Then, almost as an afterthought it was like, “Good grief, they’re actually making some really wonderful cars over there and we just haven’t been paying attention to them.”
It took almost a global financial meltdown to have the American public look at Ford again, and thankfully we were ready with some extraordinary product. That has really changed the entire view of this brand. That’s something I’m very proud of.
To answer your question: Where do we want to be 10 years down the road? Ten years down the road, I’m going to be working on my beach house. But five years down the road, I hope that we’re going to see Ford continue to grow as a brand in terms of the perception of the public and finally put to bed this idea that just because something is from Detroit that it can’t be world class. We’ve got a hell of a lot of talented people here with international experience that are working hard to change that.
2014 Ford Fiesta
INHABITAT: This is my last question for you—do you think that electric vehicles are the answer? Or do you think that there’s something else further down the horizon?
J Mays: It’s a number of things. I think you’re going to see smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles continue to rise in popularity in this country. Now, smaller and more fuel-efficient is relative to everything else that’s out on the cultural landscape of the highways here, and when you have such large pickups and trucks, small is not the same kind of small that you would get, say, in a crowded urban environment in Europe, but still smaller than we’re seeing currently on the road.
With that small comes increased fuel efficiency, and maybe the best example of that that we currently have on the road is the Ford Fiesta, which is about the smallest car we sell in this country. It’s really a great looking vehicle that’s filled with the same amenities of a car that is considerably more expensive. It’s got a very comprehensive suite of in-car connectivity technology, which we’ve already touched on, and it’s got incredible fuel efficiency.
So, I think when you go down the list of things that are important to customers—fuel efficiency, size, connectivity —those will continue to drive the industry. Then, we will just see massive gains on each of those fronts as we move forward.