Decoding Design

Can you design devotion in a car?

Posting in Design

Ford global design chief J Mays speaks: "If I see you in your home, I see who you are. If I see you in your car, I see who you want to be."

DETROIT -- Why is Ford Motor Co. looking to celebrities such as actor and environmentalist Adrian Grenier and Project Runway design phenom Christian Siriano to tell them consumers want?

Because Ford doesn't just sell cars, it sells lifestyle. Tracking eco-psychology (in the case of Grenier) and design (in the case of Siriano) informs Ford's product development as much as tracking urbanization, emerging markets and the overall economy do, the company says.

During a day-long media event here in Detroit, Grenier, the actor best-known for his role on HBO's Entourage who now runs the multimedia production company Shft.com, said many environmentally-sustainable products and services fail to get traction because they lacked sex appeal. "There's no romance," he said.

(Sound advice from the man who played Hollywood stud Vince Chase.)

Ford is hoping it can spark some of this romance in its newest offerings, including the 2013 Fusion -- offered in gas, hybrid or plug-in hybrid versions -- and the electric version of the Ford Focus. Though none of the models overtly scream "eco," they are markedly more fuel-efficient than older Ford models. The marketing campaign around them echo this: the vehicles are cast as fuel-efficient cars for everyday people. That's in contrast to cars with space-age looks, such as Toyota's original Prius or Honda's Insight, which have acted as rolling billboards for the tree-hugging set.

All this is summed up in the tagline, "Technology for All." Ford's goals are twofold: enter emerging global markets and dominate in North America. It won't succeed in doing so by selling to niche audiences. (Nor does it aim to sell something one might call generic. Ford says it's still working against the poor corporate image it earned in recent decades for low quality cars and tired aesthetics.)

In a session focused on design, J Mays, Ford's group vice president of global design and chief creative officer, said that consumers enjoy instant access to products and services and are flooded with celebrity culture each day. "Everyone wants a premium experience," he said, citing Target's partnerships with premium brands and products, such as with fashion designer Jason Wu. "Even if it's perceived status, they want some level of status."

The challenge is bridging the gap between perceived status -- aesthetic appeal, cool factor -- and reality. Mays said he's working to avoid that problem, citing Apple as an example of success in this area. Most consumers look at their iPhones and praise the work of designer Jonathan Ives, he said, but the reason the phone has attracted so much devotion is that its style is paired with its functionality.

"It's functional, experiential, and an emotional experience," Mays said. "So the trick is marry function with design."

So which emerging trends should designers mind as they head back to the drawing board? Gretchen Gscheidle, director of the insight and exploration group at furniture maker Herman Miller, said she sees health and wellness growing in importance. In the future, perhaps we will be sitting in an auditorium and, "sensing that the panel is running long, your chair would tell you that you should all stand up" and walk around, to maintain healthy circulation.

Mays said drivers' well-being and health play an acute role in Ford's design philosophy, particularly because the driving public is aging overall. It's not a phenomenon with which he's unfamiliar. "I'm a baby boomer," he admitted.

Disclosure: Ford sponsored our travel to attend the event.

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure