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OCBJ Ford Designers

OCBJ Ford Designers

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Published by: SherriLCruz on Feb 01, 2013
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Ford’s Irvine Design Studio Still Here, Thinking Globally SHERRI CRUZ Monday, August 17, 2009

Orange County — Ford Motor Co.’s design center in Irvine has gone from 95 designers a few years back to 15 today. Some might be surprised to hear there’s still that many here. In the late 1990s, Ford moved operations for its Lincoln, Mercury and European brands to Orange County to gain some fresh perspective in California’s competitive auto market. A few years later, Lincoln and Mercury returned to Detroit, leaving Irvine as the U.S. hub for Ford’s European brands. Now those are gone, too, after a series of selloffs and a relocation. Taco Bell Corp., the Irvine-based Mexican fast food chain that is part of Kentucky-based Yum Brands Inc., is taking over much of the Irvine Spectrum office complex Ford had built at the start of the decade. What’s left of Ford here now is in a smaller building at the complex. The automaker’s remaining design studio is a shadow of its former self. The smaller operation is a reflection of Ford’s restructuring amid financial woes and the worst downturn for automakers in recent memory. “We have to work faster and harder because our organization is smaller,” Irvine designer Jeff Nield said. Designers now are focused on coming up with vehicles that have more global appeal, said Freeman Thomas, design director for the Irvine studio. “Before, we were much more focused on North America,” he said. Ford’s goal is to build one model for the world that can be tweaked here

and there, as opposed to making different autos for various regions. That stands to significantly cut costs, according to Ford. Chief Executive Alan Mulally, who took over Ford in 2006, has pushed for global auto design, according to Jack Nerad, an analyst with Irvinebased auto industry tracker Kelley Blue Book Co. It’ll be a challenge for Ford, he said, despite a convergence of global auto tastes. “I’m hoping it’s not wishful thinking,” Nerad said. The Irvine design center now reports to J Mays, group vice president of design and chief creative officer at Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. He assigns projects to designers in Irvine, Dearborn, Europe and Australia. OC long has been a design hub for automakers, including Fountain Valley-based Hyundai Motor America and Toyota Motor Corp. with its Calty Design Research Inc. in Newport Beach. The downturn has caused others to scale back or close local studios. This year, Cypress-based Mitsubishi Motors North America Inc. closed its auto design center in Cypress, cutting 60 jobs.
Recently Ford opened up its Irvine studio to journalists. Designers touted their inchworm-green Lincoln C concept car, an example of where Ford design is headed. For years, Lincoln meant large, luxury autos. The Lincoln C is smaller and more shapely. It’s designed for young people doing city driving. It’s now up to Ford executives to decide on whether to make the Lincoln C. The prototype isn’t just a designer’s indulgence, according to Andrei Markevich, senior designer for Ford in Irvine. The Lincoln C and others are designed to be more like a vehicle that might roll off a factory floor. “For previous auto shows, we presented things we wouldn’t even have

considered for production,” he said. Markevich had a hand in designing the Lincoln C. He also worked on the Flex, a smaller sport utility vehicle dubbed a crossover and born from a traditional family station wagon. Instead of wood panels, Ford designers used grooves to make lines in the side of the vehicle, a design stroke that made all the difference in setting the Flex apart from other crossovers, according to Markevich. “We wanted a subliminal level that reminds you of station wagon panels,” he said. The Flex had a record month in June, selling 4,784 vehicles, the most since it was launched a year earlier. The vehicle began in Ford’s studio in Dearborn. Then Irvine designers enhanced it, Markevich said. Ford’s studios often compete for projects but can end up working together. Along with Mays, Ford’s Irvine designers report to Dearborn’s Moray Callum, known for his Jaguar designs, and Britain’s Martin Smith, designer of the original BMW Mini. “We’re dealing with very creative people,” Thomas said. “It’s almost like pitching your screenplay to Spielberg or pitching your next song to Paul McCartney.” The design executives get involved in sketching and clay work for prototypes. When Mays recently visited the Irvine studio, “we were all covered in clay,” Thomas said. Thomas has worked for several automakers, including Germany’s Porsche AG and Audi AG. He had a hand in designing the new Volkswagen Beetle and the Audi TT. Other Ford designers have worked all over the map. “My design team is multicultural, multinational,” Thomas said.

The top schools for recruiting designers are the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, College for Creative Studies in Detroit and Royal College of Art in London, according to Thomas. New Breed Nield, one of Ford’s younger designers, is an example of someone the automaker has nurtured. He sought out Thomas’ advice even before he started design school. Nield also interned at Ford. He was hired in 2005. Nield, who also has a marketing degree, is working on a concept car that’s under wraps. Thomas teases the crowd visiting the studio: “You’re going to want to remember him.” In Nield’s four years at Ford, he has worked on some major projects: a taxi proposal to replace New York City’s fleet of Crown Victorias, a Hybrid Escape for Los Angeles County lifeguards and an Edge for the Department of Energy. Most people end up buying a vehicle for design, even if they don’t know it, Nield said. “Design can be very subconscious,” he said. “People know what looks right or wrong. Human beings can get excited about proportions that they can’t even explain.” Design often is an automakers’ edge, especially in a down market, Nield said. “We’re most valuable in times of uncertainty and confusion,” he said. “If the marketplace stayed the same, they wouldn’t need us as much.”

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