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.
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.
As head of design at Ford, Mays is responsible for the design direction of the company’s seven marques: Aston Martin, Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln, Mazda, Mercury and Volvo. 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.
Born in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma in 1954, J. Mays studied automotive design at Art Center in Pasadena, California. After graduating in 1980, he joined Audi in Germany where he made his name with the Audi 80, before moving to BMW in 1983 to work on the 5 and 8 series.
In 1984, Mays returned to Audi where he worked on the the Audi 100, Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Polo and the Audi AVUS concept car. He returned to the US in 1989 as 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 that it went into production as the new VW Beetle.
Find out more about J. Mays’ work at ford.com
Q. What came first – your interest in design, or your interest in cars? And how did the two come together?
A. My interest in cars, definitely. Once I realised that people could actually get paid for drawing cars, my interest in design really took off; I headed for Art Center in California and the rest, as they say, is history.
Q. Who and what were the main influences on you as an automotive designer when you were a student and at the start of your career?
A. Giorgietti Giugiaro. Sergio Pininfarina. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Walt Disney. They definitely influenced me as a student.
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.
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.
Q. Describe your role as vice-president of design at Ford. You are responsible for the design direction of numerous marques developed in studios and manufactured in factories all over the world, how in practical terms can you control or coordinate design strategy on such a scale?
A. As head of design for Ford Motor Company, I’m ultimately responsible for the design direction of all of the products within our eight brands. To be successful, I’ve had to remember that you’re only as good as the people surrounded by. I’ve worked really hard during the past four years to built the best team in the industry, and we’re continuing to strengthen it all the time.
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.
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.
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.
Q. What are the main challenges facing automotive design today?
A. Making automobiles as relevant for the next century as they have been for the past century.
Q. Looking back, which cars from different decades do you most admire?
A. 1950s – Citroen DS. 1960s – Porsche 911. 1970s – Citroen SM. 1980s – Nissan Z. Today – the all-new 2003 Land Rover Range Rover
Q. And which automotive designers or design directors who have played similar roles in other organisations do you most admire?
A. The two groups are largely the same: Giorgietti Giugiaro. Sergio Pininfarina. Hartmut Warkus. Ian Callum. Freeman Thomas. Martin Smith.