For Ford's Top Designer, Car Design Is Car Experience

I know someone who got a degree in design from Stanford around human-machine interface. Talk about writing your own check. Especially if you’re going into the automotive business. Where car-interior design used to be solely about considerations like where the door handle should be and what textures are more conducive to inner peace, and how the dials should look, it is now about data, communication, and entertainment — the virtual worlds beckoning from the screens and dials of the connected car. It's what the car can give you, and how much of it you actually want. It's about how much information, how many buttons, switches, options, workarounds and stimuli of various kinds you can deal with without becoming a hazardous driver. 

Ford's global chief of design, Moray Callum, was in New York last week to talk about design, informally, with a small group of journalists. The conversation ranged hither and yon, from how the new Edge crossover is going to be a big part of Ford's Europe strategy, to the autonomous car, to — of course — the new Mustang. But this idea of the how important the interior has become in design struck me as a key idea. 

After all, the stereotype of the car designer is the guy with a trowel and a sharp-edge shaping the exterior lines of a car out of a huge block of clay, something designers still do. Isn’t car design about “the look” both inside and out? Yes, okay, the ergonomics have to be right, but it’s the look, the style that matters. It still matters, but now what to do with all of the technology in your car, and how it should be seamlessly part of the whole matters more.

Nowadays there are so many features, so much technology, so much stuff to consider that it even affects the size of the vehicle, something Callum conceded. “We are hoping that as cars become autonomous, though, we can the reduce size.” Parenthetically, it is challenge enough for a designer to meet legislative requirements for safety in just one country like the U.S., while keeping a vehicle relatively compact. When its a global car? Ouch, let me loosen that belt. “They don't always give you same set of rules,” he says.

But while designers have gotten much better at packing tightly all of the technologies cars are loaded with these days, “the big challenge is not just the space aspect of it, but how you make the user comfortable. It's all of this technology to help the customer, technology we want to put into the car, but the worst thing you can do is end up with an interior loaded with too many switches that winds up intimidating the customer. Interior design is about getting that balance right.” Thus, the importance of human machine interface, which Callum points out is more than “interface.” 

“It's the whole interior of the car.” The connected-car part of it has required a re-orientation among designers. Take the first version of Sync, Ford’s telematics system, which was too confusing. Callum says the lesson learned there is that before you give people information about something, make sure they want it. That's a cultural shift as engineers are not necessarily trained to put on the brakes when it comes to the latest, coolest technology. “We are engineers and designers who love technology, so we like to put more and more in, but half the time people don't know it's there. We learned to look not from engineer's standpoint, but from what people actually want.”

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