I Meet J Mays
Sep 26, 2015
It's not all that often you get to meet a highly respected automotive designer, especially in Omaha, Nebraska, but last night, I got to hear and then meet one of the best.
For an country boy from Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, J Mays has come a long ways. Before retiring from Ford Motor Company as their Chief Creative Officer and Group Vice President of Global Design in 2013, Mays has had a long and often illustrious design career working on some of the most iconic car designs to date, including the remake of the Volkswagen Beetle, though he admitted to the audience that his Ford 500 wasn't one of his more stellar moments.
Mays was in another midwestern town, Omaha, Nebraska, as part of The Kaneko's "Great Minds Series". Talking for about half an hour, he shared some of his early sketches as an aspiring 9-year-old designer. Even back then, he signed his illustrations simply 'J Mays.' Over the years, which include design stints at Audi, VW, BMW, and Ford, he came to realize that people buy cars, not for pragmatic, well-reasoned rationales, but out of emotion. Like love, great design must convey a sense of mystery, sensuality, and intimacy, he explained.
It also must tell a story that is, in his words, "true to the brand, is meaningful to the customer, while also clearly differentiated from the competition." Here the story behind the redesign of the classic Volkswagen Beetle is instructive, he explained. When VW hired him to run their new design studio in Simi Valley, California, his commission was to come up with a design that could, frankly, save the company whose US car sales had fallen from half a million a year to just 50,000. He and his team began in the most elementary way: asking customers their impressions of VW, which by this time had long since stopped building its little Beetle. What they learned was that it was that little car with which people most readily identified VW, noting that they saw it as "simple, honest, reliable."
Mays next step was to find a way to physically manifest those three qualities. To do this, he put six basic shape on a table and asked some 75 different people over the course of several weeks to arrange them in order of simplest to most complex. It turned out, they viewed the circle as the simplest of all the shapes. This became the underlying theme of the Beetle redesign, which incorporates three circles: the front and rear wheel wells and the larger passenger cabin. It was this retro-design that essentially saved the company in America -- that is until it was discovered recently they have been lying to regulators and their customers about their TDI emissions and fuel economy ratings.
Wrapping up his talk before taking audience questions, Mays gave a number of points of advice that he believes apply equally to either design or running a business. They are:
- Don't be blind to bad design
- Be willing to hit the reset button
- Stay on story, don't get distracted or diverted
- Look to the edges for inspiration
- Be consumer conscious, but brand led
- Don't try to delegate your enthusiasm
- Always make what you create 'magical.'
Mays took a dozen or so questions from the audience, one asking what he thinks Apple is building. Cautioning that this is just his opinion and he has no actually insight into Apple's 'Titan' project, he doesn't think they are actually building a car. Instead, they are working on some kind of technology that they can sell to carmakers.
Afterwards, I took the opportunity to introduce myself, hand him my card, and ask him two follow-up questions. Now that he's moving back to London, is he planning to follow Henrik Fisker's example and start his own car company. Amused, he said no. He's too old to tackle something like that, adding that he'd cautioned Henrik about starting Fisker Automotive. The company eventually went bankrupt, costing US taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. Under new (Chinese) ownership and management, it's staging a comeback.
Then I asked Mays whether or not Google and/or Apple had approached him to work on their projects. He smiled and replied, he wasn't at liberty to discuss it. Read into that what you may. He did say during his talk that he's working with Pixar Animation's John Lasseter on several movie projects after having consulted on the original 'Cars' movie.
Still, something tells me that we've not seen the last car design from that 9-year-old boy from Oklahoma.
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