Future technology leaves Ford designers with ‘blank sheet’ thinking

Advanced technology will alter not just the way our vehicles function but also radically change how they are going to look in future.

That’s the opinion of Chris Bird, Ford’s global director of design, colour and trim talking to TU-Automotive at the 2018 Geneva Motor Show. He already sees the way auto designers work moving further away from how he used to design vehicles just a few years ago. Bird explained: “It’s a dual path we are on in terms of automotive design and development because we’re almost reaching the point where we don’t have restrictions to design.

“People, such as myself, have become pretty good at designing cars with very clear restrictions, creatively finding solutions, despite the fact that you have to have a steering wheel, you have to balance the weight of the vehicle against the size of the engine, play with the proportions and the size of the outside compared to the interior. That’s really the art of car design that I’ve been involved with in the last 20-odd years.”

Yet, having to work with fewer restrictions can throw up a multitude of new challenges previously unimagined by car designers. “Now I’m beginning to realise it’s becoming worryingly like white space in that where do you start? You have to start the work at a very high strategic level in that what you want the brand to stand for, which has a big influence on what the portfolio will look like and where you want to position it in the market.”

Bird added that what does not change is the focus on the consumer’s needs in a digitally connected world. He said: “The problem is trying to find a way that the customers’ tastes concur with the brand being seen as a leader in technology rather than giving them something they are just not ready for yet. This is a problem because we have to do two things: we have to work on the transition phase, most obviously seen in terms of the interior layout in terms of moving towards autonomy; on top of that it’s all very well managing transition but what is the final result and what is it that people will want to drive in 10 years time? Even I don’t know what that is.”

He also sees the changing use of cars, with an expected move away from the traditional ownership model towards shared-use and ride-hailing, having an effect on the consumer’s view of automakers’ products. Bird explained: “Branding has to be involved in doing a lot more than we are doing now in terms of shared vehicle use. The whole idea of coming up with a complete transport service is something that is going to play a big role as will partnering with new mobility partnerships that are coming along. The designer has to take a backward step in terms of just designing things that are just aesthetically pleasing, they have to learn new skills which we are trying to do with much more focus on what we call human-centric design to understand what are people’s everyday lifestyle needs.

“So, designers now tend to work much more upfront with marketing, dovetailing into marketing’s more scientific techniques used on ‘futuring’ what customers’ lives are going to be like. We are involved in a lot of this sort of work even before we get into putting pen-to-paper. This may be a bit strange for some designers, such as myself, who have been around the industry for a lot longer than others.”

Yet, despite this, Bird is confident the new crop of auto designers will rise to the challenges they face. He said: “I’m surprised how some of the younger designers get into it very quickly – that may be that the car isn’t the number one thing in their lives but they still want to express their creativity and have things to help their lifestyles to be easier. I guess we are going to have to be more eclectic and broad in terms of where we get our inspirations from. Essentially thinking a lot more before we start styling.”

Bird believes a customer’s emotional involvement in vehicles will not change greatly with the change in how they use cars. “At the end of the day, people still want to see something that they get emotionally attracted to and that brings us on to the technical side. A car in five years’ time may not need an internal combustion engine but it still needs to withstand a crash but, then maybe in 10 years’ time, it may not have to because electronics might mean no cars ever touch each other so you don’t need safety features.

“These are things you just can’t sit down and start drawing but you have to get involved in areas that we haven’t been involved before. Car designers will need different skills than before, not just mechanical engineering and a general feel for materials, interior fabrics etc.”


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