INTERVIEW: Inhabitat Chats with J Mays, VP of Global Design and Chief Creative Officer at Ford Motor Company

by , 10/02/13

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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.

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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 Electric, 2013 Ford, Focus Electric, 2013 Ford Focus, Electric vehicle, EV, Ford EV

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, Aston Martin, james bond car, red aston martin dbs

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.

Ford Mustang, 2012 Ford Mustang, Ford Mustang seca,  2012 Mustang Boss 302 Laguna Seca

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.

Inhabitat interview, ford motors, ford design, ford designer, ford motors, ford fusion energi, ford plug in, ford hybrid, ford electric, fusion energi electric car

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.

ford fusion sustainability, ford fusion, ford fusion recycled materials, ford fusion soybeans, ford fusion denim, ford fusion recycled bottles

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.

Inhabitat interview, ford motors, ford design, ford designer, ford motors, ford fusion energi, ford plug in, ford hybrid, ford electric, fusion energi electric car

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.

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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.

+ Ford Motor Company

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  1. NormaJean June 6, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    This was a great interview. He had some great points during the live webcast you streamed. I could really understand where he was coming from when he was talking about his son’s computer being like a hot rod and how car ownership is very different with younger generations

  2. jonberger June 6, 2013 at 4:39 pm

    What a trip to know that one of your design heroes is driving a car that you yourself designed!

  3. Taz Loomans May 31, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Wow great interview! As an architect, I completely relate to the lessons May has learned from Philip Johnson, Mies, Corbu, and Wright. And I really love his comment that the better you know the world, the better designer you’ll be. So much for the idea that you should be stuck in your studio 24/7!

  4. Morgana Matus May 31, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Ah, you had me at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water!

  5. Tafline Laylin May 30, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Thanks for this wonderful interview. It’s intriguing to have such a frank inside look at the design process behind one of the world’s most influential companies. I’m looking forward to seeing a future of smarter, more efficient vehicles and I’m glad Ford is on board to deliver them.

  6. Alyssa Alimurung May 29, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Interesting interview. I didn’t realize the Fusion Engeri was so green. Soybean interiors and Repreve upholstery — amazing!

  7. Diane Pham May 29, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    great interview! i couldn’t agree more with the comment about travel really shaping the way you see the world, process information and how you find inspiration.

  8. Yuka Yoneda May 29, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    Just fascinating – especially the part about Philip Johnson!

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