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Freeman Thomas, Ford Design Director – Design at the Crossroads of Image and Efficiency

Designers have been thinking about design and efficiency for years,” Freeman Thomas tells us. “But it really hadn’t risen to the top of the agenda until fuel prices got up there and got everyone’s attention. We’ve now become part of the problem-solving exercise.

“We are getting away from things that are big and learning how to create things that are efficient. It’s like when you get down to that last piece of toilet paper. You really start to think about how you’re going to use it. We’re now at that last piece of TP. Suddenly, top engineers in the company and top management and people in the government are championing efficiency. Efficiency is beauty. There is a new sense of being more athletic. There’s more of a sense of lifestyle. Vehicles are going to transcend just being this object to drive.

“We’re working even more closely with engineering to develop proportions, which is what separates a donkey from a racehorse. An object’s proportion talks about its agility and athleticism, about its efficiency. Then you take the silhouette, which defines what it is. You can take exactly the same proportion and have five or ten different vehicles on top of that proportion. The Volkswagen Beetle and Golf share the same proportion, but they have completely different silhouettes. The silhouette is the first thing you see, either from a side, quarter, or front view. Like when you watch an animal or a person from 300 yards and you just see that silhouette. It says confident, sporty, powerful, weak, whatever. Both proportion and silhouette will be very important in the future of design.

“We will be addressing the issue of weight more, the way we get inside [a vehicle], and how we feel once we’re inside of it… even the fonts used on the instrument panel.

“We still believe that touching and washing, being part of the vehicle, is a very personal experience. When you talk about materials, you have to talk in a three-dimensional tone. When I worked at Porsche, I gave the painter Walter Gotschke a tour of the studio. He was blind then, and as we walked through, he touched and smelled a clay model. We went into color and materials, and he smelled. We went down into the cellar where the leather was, and he touched everything. We always think of things visually, but there’s a tactile, sensual aspect of color and material – the quality of the surfaces that you touch. This is the difference between an Apple iPhone and a BlackBerry. A BlackBerry is a nice object; it’s technically really efficient. But the iPhone… you feel the weight, you touch it, it’s a polished pebble. It has value, and you protect it. You don’t let others use it. When you put it away, you wipe it off. It’s this thing you care about. When you make something an appliance, you stop caring about it.

“The material that something is made of is going to become more important. Malcolm Sayer, the engineer of the Jaguar D-type, came from the aeronautical industry. He used materials like aluminum and rivets, materials that create great patina. They have character after they’ve been in a battle. Today, we want to make things new and sanitary. But if you look at a person’s face, it tells a story. That’s what we are attracted to: To that for which we don’t have an answer. To things that challenge us, to things we can’t predict. To things that don’t make us feel comfortable.

“A good friend of mine, Tom Kellogg, who worked for Raymond Loewy, was interviewed on public television about his vision of the future of color and materials. He talked about tropical fish, reptiles, leaves, and how you can see through them when the sun hits them. We are so primitive as far as developing inanimate objects. We paint with paint, make interiors of leather, cloth, and plastic. Then you look at a reptile’s skin, its texture, and its ability to change color. Maybe in years to come, just like an animal does, we can grow a product and its color will be based off its DNA. We’re just touching the surface. Compared with nature, we are children.

“We have to become awake – from the design side, from the engineering side, from the marketing side. We’re going to sit down together, roll up our sleeves, have the conversation, and not leave until we’re all happy. The designers are leading the show. They are the ones who can take all of the aspects from all areas, the ideas that are hard to express in one object, and communicate them through design.”

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