I have always been fascinated with automotive design. The automobile is such a pervasive part of American culture, and your automobile is an object that you are in daily contact with. The design of this one object has such a direct impact on your daily life, and yet it is for so many something that very little thought is given to on a daily basis. I mean seriously, when was the last time you were sitting in your car and you thought “Wow look at the detail that went into the design of the top of the dash. Look at how the top of the console sweeps into the dash line in a perfect parabolic arc.” Yes I know there are some people out there that are this obsessive but most aren’t. One designer that has revolutionized the field of Automotive Design, is J. Mays. What Mays has done for the auto industry, and especially Ford has been pure design genius.
As vice-president of design for the Ford Motor Company, J. MAYS is one of the world’s most influential automotive designers. Before joining Ford in 1997, the US-born Mays worked for Audi, BMW and developed the Volkswagen Concept One, which became the new VW Beetle.
Mays studied automotive design at Art Center in Pasadena, California in the latter half of the 1970’s.A period that for the most part can be thought of as the dark ages of American Automotive design. MAys graduated in 1980, and started his career with Audi, making a name for himself in the automotive design community with his successful redesign of the Audi 80. After just three years with Audi Mays moved to BMW where he worked on designs for the legendary BMW 5 and 8 series. Yet after just one year at BMW he returned to Audi in 1984 to work on the Audi 100, Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Polo and the Audi AVUS concept car.
Q. Early in your career you left the US to work in Europe, how did this influence your development as an automotive designer?
A. Greatly. In Germany, I learned how to construct an automobile: versus how to style one.
In 1989 Mays returned to the United States as the Chief Designer of Volkswagen’s design studio in Simi Valley, California where he developed Volkswagen “Concept One”, which proved so popular as a concept car at international auto shows, and with Sr. Volkswagen staff that it was later developed into the New Beetle. Mays design of the Concept One was a breath-taking leap forward in automotive design. It showed that a concept car can be more that an exercise in visual styling, that the design can lead and find its way into production vehicles. Today, the New Beetle remains one of Volkswagen’s most popular cars world-wide. It’s iconic look and design styling helping to separate it from a sea of ordinary cars.
Q. Which of the cars you developed as a designer, rather than as a design director, are you most proud of? And why?
A. As a designer, I am most proud of my work on the Audi AVUS concept and the Volkswagen Beetle Concept One – probably because they resonated so greatly with so many people.
In 1997 Mays joined Ford Motor Company taking the position of Vice-President of Design. As the head of design at Ford, Mays was responsible for the design direction of the company’s marquee brands: Aston Martin, Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln, Mazda, Mercury and Volvo. (Ford no longer owns Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo, or Aston Martin). Mays influence over these marquee brands during the late 1990’s and early 200’s can be seen on almost every vehicle they produced. Jaguar’s looks were updated, and the fit and finish on these cars were greatly improved. Volvo moved from being known as a rolling box, to a sexier more sophisticated look with smooth contours while remaining true to Volvo’s original design heritage.
Q. Can you describe your contribution to the development of a particular Ford concept car or production model as an illustration?
A. Let’s take the Ford Mondeo, which is sold in Europe. My role was to lay the foundation for the design of the entire Ford brand, not just to help style a nameplate. Once I established that foundation – or established that DNA – in this case for the Blue Oval in Europe, my job became making sure that it really translated to the Mondeo itself.
Since joining Ford in 1997, he has overseen the development of the new Ford Thunderbird and Ford Explorer, as well as such concept cars as the Jaguar F-Type and Volvo Safety Car. Mays also broke with industry tradition by commissioning a designer with no previous automotive experience – Marc Newson – to create a concept car, the Ford 021C.
Q. Which of the Ford projects you have been involved in so far are you most excited by? And which future projects excite you most?
A. The Thunderbird and StreetKa both have been exciting products. As for a great one further out on the horizon.….let’s just say there’s a Baby Aston Martin on the way that will turn more than a few heads.
One of J. Mays chief criticisms of his fellow automotive designers is that they design to impress their peers rather than the public. In his role as vice-president of design at the Ford Motor Company, Mays is trying to change that by encouraging his global design team network to absorb and express the same influences as designers in other areas: from furniture and fashion to architecture.
Q. You have often been quoted as saying that automotive designers have designed to impress other automotive designers for far too long, why? Is this situation changing? And, if so, why?
A. Designers aren’t easily able to think as customers. And, because they tend to socialise together, dress the same way and have the same black furniture in their living rooms, they tend to have a very isolated – and inaccurate – view of the world. That’s slowly changing, at least at Ford. Because as we start to separate and amplify our brands, it’s becoming clear that each of the brands is a sub-set of the customers themselves. Ultimately, it’s our job to design for those customers, and part of that is better understanding them.