J Mays retired in 2014 after 16 years as Ford Motor's group vice president of design. "That's a very long time for anybody," says Mays, 62. "I'd gotten through about five CEOs, and at some point you just think, 'OK, I'm not sure I've got a lot more to add here.'
"I went through the same thing at Audi when I left in 1994. I woke up one morning and thought, 'I know what the next two to three generations of Audis are going to look like, and I'm not sure this is going to be that interesting.'"
Mays was born in Oklahoma and started at Audi in 1980 soon after graduating from the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. He went on to work at BMW and later returned to Audi as design director, where he worked on the Audi AVUS supercar concept and Volkswagen Concept One, which was produced as the New Beetle.
Now a resident of London, Mays spoke to Automotive News Europe Correspondent Peter Sigal about the current and future state of automotive design from his weekend home in Suffolk, England.
Q: What were the circumstances under which you left Ford, and what have you been doing since leaving the auto industry?
A: One of the things I'm doing now, because the industry's been so good to me over the past 33 years, I spend one day a week at the Royal College of Art in London as a visiting professor.
The rest of my time has been acting in advisory roles to the motion picture industry at Disney and Pixar. I've worked on four feature films, including Cars and Zootopia. I went to the Cars 3 premiere in June at Disneyland. They invite you to the premiere, you get a credit on the film. They pay a grown man money for that, believe it or not!
I've got my design consultancy business as well, but I can't talk about any of my clients.
Was the current generation of Ford products designed under your watch?
Yes, with a few exceptions [the new Fiesta, several Lincolns, the new Ford GT]. I'm pretty sure my influence is still being felt there. We worked very hard not only on creativity but on process, to get to the right sequencing of how an automobile gets designed.
How did you change that sequencing and process?
If you've got a finite number of hours or days to design a car, you really don't want to spend 80 percent of the time trying to be creative and 20 percent of the time trying to execute. You want to do it completely the opposite way. I was adamant that you want to have an idea and design locked down tightly 20 percent into the process, so you can spend the next 80 percent executing like a laser —with a microscope — to get the quality that you want.
Do you have regrets about not staying in the auto industry when you see some of the ideas and innovations that are appearing, such as autonomous vehicles?
No. A good portion of what's going on is software engineers and scientists trying to make sure that things don't bump into each other. That is exciting work, without a doubt, and there's loads more to be done on that until we get to a point where it's going to be for public use. At the Royal College of Art, it's been necessary to rethink a curriculum for the future that allows new students to either choose a traditional path for automotive design or choose a parallel road that would be more along the lines of intelligent mobility.
What does "intelligent mobility" mean to you as a designer?
If you're a designer, thinking about something that doesn't have a steering wheel presents you with a completely different set of criteria in order to try to draw a customer in, and hopefully grab hold of his or her heartstrings. The challenge for students coming into the industry these days, particularly if they're going to concentrate on autonomous vehicles, is that they understand that there still has to be an emotional connection there, but that connection is not tied to testosterone like it once was.
Do you talk to students about creating a brand identity in an autonomous future?
Yes, absolutely. [I believe] that if you don't understand brand you'll never be able to design a good car, because you won't be able to place that car into something that's true to the brand, meaningful to the customer or differentiated from the competition.
Where do you see automotive design in the next 10 years?
I'm a big stickler for cultural relevance. If you're going to go to work in Italy, France or Germany, you really want to make sure the brand represents the mindset of the culture it comes from. I think the British do a pretty good job — they seem to produce cars that look British. I don't think the Germans, with the exception of Porsche, are really doing that at the moment. I think BMW and Audi are close, but it could be improved.
I could not tell you what Mercedes is doing, but it's not German.
What would make a Mercedes more German?
A quieter design language and continuity from one model to the next, not only throughout the lineup but from generation to generation.
We're seeing a lot of cars potentially coming out of China, with plans to enter the European or North American market. What can they communicate with their design?
I don't think I have the answer for that, and I don't think they do either. You see an industry that is struggling to find its footing in terms of what they want to be and what they want to look like. It's a little bit like the Japanese industry before they found their footing in the 1980s. Roll back the clock before Peter Schreyer arrived at Hyundai and you would have said the South Koreans will never be able to design a car, but today they're designing some of the best cars in the world.
What are some of the best design practices for autonomous vehicles, when the car will be taking control and the driver's input will be less important?
I'm not absolutely sure that the answer is a one-box vehicle with four seats and a couple of iPads facing each other, and that's about all I've seen so far from the manufacturers. Just because there's not a steering wheel doesn't mean there can't be a compelling experience.