The brand master

Ford has set up a design enclave away from the company’s traditional manufacturing sites into a new base – with a new name – in London’s West End.

The myriad advertising agencies, video post-production centres and publishing houses that populate London’s Soho have acquired a new neighbour. Housed in a new Richard Rogers building, with panoramic views to inspire the designers who work inside, it has an unfamiliar name: Ingeni. The company behind it, though, could hardly be more familiar.

Ingeni is a design office for Ford. Deliberately sited away from its manufacturing sites, half its workforce of 32 designers will come from the existing design teams of Ford and its subsidiary marques: Lincoln, Mazda and Mercury, and the Premier Automotive Group comprising Aston Martin, Jaguar, Volvo and Land Rover.

The rest will be drawn from across the entire field of design. Ingeni will spend only a third of its time designing cars, the rest being split equally between designing lifestyle-reflecting merchandise for the PAG, and working for outside clients.

It’s the brainchild of J Mays – he prefers to use just the J – Ford vice-president of design, whose job includes overseeing the design direction of each of Ford’s ‘brands’. born in 1954 in Oklahoma, Mays is a graduate of Art Centre College of Design in California. His career began at Audi where he worked on the Audi 80 and a range of mainstream projects as well as aerodynamic research vehicles for rally programmes and the Audi Avus concept.

In 1989 he returned to California to establish Volkswagen’s US design centre, and in 1993 with Freeman Thomas produced the Concept 1, which became the new Beetle. Immediately before joining Ford in 1997 he worked as vice-president of design at brand identity company SHR Perceptual Management.

At Ford his first act was to delay the design sign-off of the second-generation Mondeo, softening the New Edge style inherited from his predecessor, Jack Telnack. He has also designed the 2002 Ford Thunderbird, a reinterpretation of Ford’s classic 1950s convertible, which went on sale in the US last year.

One of his most important roles at Ford, he says, has been to appoint or promote a clutch of talented new design chiefs for each subsidiary: Chris Bird, also from Audi, at Ford Europe, Ian Callum at Jaguar, and Ed Golden at Ford North America, alongside Geoff Upex and Peter Horbury who were already in place at Land Rover and Volvo respectively when Ford acquired them.

But isn’t the whole idea of Ingeni moving a long way from Ford’s core business? ‘I guess I would argue the opposite. We’re not getting at all further away, we’re trying to get closer. Our core business is our customer – it’s not manufacturing cars – so connecting with our customer is, I think, the catalyst for whether we are going to be around for another 100 years. Ingeni is our first attempt at pulling designers away from locations that have more to do with car making.

‘The chances of a Jaguar designer understanding a Jaguar customer are tripled by not being in Coventry but in London where the majority of Jaguar customers actually drive their cars. I could make the same point for the rest of the brands.’

It’s only recently something like Ingeni has become possible, he adds: ‘We weren’t able to design cars electronically a decade ago to the extent that we can today: now we can sit in London with no clay model in sight, design a virtual vehicle on Alias and have it milled out in Detroit, Melbourne or up the road in Gaydon.’

Ingeni is only going to house a small fraction of the total team, so how much influence will it have? ‘Of Ingeni’s 32 staff 16 are from the brands. The rest is people in the product design or architecture or fashion end of the business. That gives us a diversity of viewpoints that again maybe we don’t find at the more traditional production studios. I think I can make a pretty good argument that as a design service we may be one of the world’s most powerful because of our ability to tap into the cumulative knowledge that we find in all our brands.’

As far as clients go, ‘We’re already working on everything from cellphones to football boots and it’s that microscopic detail that you get on working on smaller products than a car that you can take and put back into vehicle design.’

There’s much more to making an Aston Martin briefcase or chess set than just sticking a logo on: ‘We try to design products that are in line with the values of the brand. The Aston Martin brand is very elitist so we try to create products that are elitist — they’re certainly expensive, usually because they’re made out of rare materials or through some rare milling process. For Land Rover you would find products that are upscale and elegant but also have an inherent toughness to them: what you might describe as tough luxury.’

How does his role as design chief work: surely any attempt at imposing central control risks blurring the identities of the various marques? ‘I do control the design direction for each brand. But I’m not a dictator, it’s a team, and my operating committee is made up of the design directors for each brand.

‘I’m one of the few people in the company that goes across all brands, so it’s important that I fulfil this function of not letting them start to overlap, to make sure that a Volvo doesn’t start to look too much like a Ford. History tells me they would find similar solutions.’

There are inevitably compromises between the engineering and aesthetics of a vehicle. How should the two interact in an ideal world? ‘What designers do is create a style that hopefully is within the boundaries of the brand. Style alone will end up giving you styling, and engineers alone will create engineering. Styling and engineering together will create design. It is a collection, on the engineering side, of functional attributes, together with the emotional attributes which style brings to the table.’

What, in Mays’ view, is the key influence on the direction of car design at the moment? Recent years have brought a proliferation of coupés, SUVs, MPVs and ‘retro’ designs such as his own Beetle.

‘There’s no one right answer. If you look back over the last 50 years of car design you’ll see that what people were looking for in the 1950s, at least in the US, was a sort of optimism and a view to the future, no matter how naive; in the 1960s people were looking for a more rebellious type of vehicle – that’s how muscle cars came into being; in the 1980s a good proportion of customers were interested in status; in the 1990s a lot of them were interested in lifestyle vehicles. I think today everything I’ve mentioned is still true, so really what they’re interested in is choice. Some people want to have a misty look back over their shoulders and drive a Mini; some the innovation of, say, an Audi A6; some the sensuous lines of a Jaguar.’

What makes a design classic and does he think the new Beetle and Thunderbird will be seen as classics in the future, or just reinterpretations of older designs? ‘I think the new Beetle will be seen as slightly trendy, transient in nature, but maybe credited with jump-starting that brand back to success. I think the new Thunderbird, however, would be seen more as a vehicle with longevity – it might be more likely to be considered a classic in 10 years’ time. I don’t think that vehicle is as trendy as the Beetle, nor was it meant to be. Outside Ford, I think the new Mini will turn out to be more or less a classic vehicle, whereas the PT Cruiser has already seen its heyday.’Where does he expect to take Ford’s design direction from here, having ‘softened’ the New Edge style? ‘I think if you look at the work we’ve done in Europe in the last four years that more or less will take the lead for driving the look of new Ford products worldwide.

‘I think we’ve done a very good job of creating a brand whereas for years we had a company that had a lot of disparate name plates. Today we’ve got a very strong brand and a strong showroom. What’s lacking is possible a slight bit of emotion and if I were to criticise the work that Chris Bird and I have done it would be to make it slightly too Germanic. I think we’ll continue to evolve the look we’ve started towards a slightly more emotional design but I do want it to be one foot in front of the other. If you make huge jumps you start to lose the trust of your customer.’

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