Grand designs

Grand designs

Car manufacturer Ford’s executive design director Martin Smith talks about the challenges and rewards of turning his boyhood dream into a lifelong career

Martin Smith counts many objects in his repertoire of things that inspire him: his vintage Omega watches, an original Bertone car model which he keeps on his desk, a couple of massive hand-guns (“it often raises eyebrows when I say that, but where I live in Germany sport shooting is quite common”) and his bespoke loafers, which he designed himself. “But they only took 10 minutes to design, even though it’s nice to have anything to your own specification,” he notes.

Of the objects, it is the Bertone model that is perhaps most revealing – because Smith himself is a car designer, more specifically the executive design director of Ford, for Europe and Asia Pacific, where this year he celebrates his tenth year at the car giant. Indeed, not just any car designer, Smith can claim to be the designer of the world’s best-selling car – the Focus. That also happens to be the best-selling car in the world’s fastest-growing new car market – China.

“Some boys are into planes or trains. For me it was always cars. I always wanted to be a car designer,” says the man who, still in short trousers, wrote to the Mini maestro Alec Issigonis requesting some tips on how to get into the job. “But it’s certainly gratifying when you can work at your hobby, especially when someone else is prepared to put up $1bn to put your design into production and you can then actually drive it around.”

Not that Smith’s success comes through simply doing what he wants – and this despite his greatest hits including the likes of the Audi Quattro and Audi TT. One thing he has learned over his career – which began with Porsche just over 40 years ago, before heading both the external and then the interior design studios for Audi, and then overseeing design for Opel and Vauxhall before being lured away by Ford – is exactly what his job is.

“And that isn’t necessarily to design something I like but something that is right for the company,” says the Sheffield-born Briton, who is credited with giving Ford its so-called ‘kinetic design’ philosophy – one that helped, through introducing a more complex surface architecture, transform a maker of often rather dull cars into one of much more dynamic, energised ones.

“I think cars just happen to be the most complex piece of industrial design there is –  as well as the necessities to be safe and functional, it has to look good too,” he adds. “The fact is that people subconsciously expect aspects of a car design, like safety, to be there. What they really respond to is the sense of the driving experience being reflected in the way it looks. You have to express to them the car’s capabilities in those looks.

Today any car has to exude that it is a quality piece of work. The customer wants gorgeousness. Well, at least some people do. Of course some people buy a car like they buy a refrigerator. I buy a refrigerator as I would a car – I assume it will keep things cold, but I want it to look good.”

Smith says, smiling, that he just happens to like all the cars he has designed. But getting that balancing of style and functionality is, he admits, no easy trick. Car design has become an ever more complex business too. While, when he began his career, cars were developed using sketchpads and clay modelling, now to these have been added the tools of computer-aided design and illustration – “not that this doesn’t mean car design cannot still be artistic,” he adds. “People often tend to think you press a button and a car design is produced, which definitely isn’t the case.”

Technology has also changed what cars actually are: and, Smith says, the advent of new technologies, from the voice control systems already on the market to the retina
controls to come, from changes in power plants and materials that will allow vehicles to be lighter, tougher, more efficient, “will radically change the way the typical car looks, both for its interior and the exterior.

Ford Montage

But I’ve no idea what exactly that look will be. Not yet.” Presumably two of Smith’s latest designs – the Edge concept, an upscale, more sleek take on the SUV, and the first-of-its-kind C-Max Solar Energi concept, with a solar panel roof with a concentrator lens that provides 30km of sun-powered driving a day – at least hint at the future. If, that is, customers buy into the ideas. Certainly customer higher expectations have transformed the market during Smith’s time in the business too, whether that be for the way super-cars are built and sold, or volume producers like Ford. Customers, in fact, are what drive the market. And the customer is ever more vocal, with an opinion that needs to be taken into consideration with each new iteration of a model.

“The latest Focus, for example, responded to a lot of points raised by consumers about the design - that the front end was too busy, or the lights too large,” Smith says. “People get very emotional about car design, which is good because we’re always trying to add more emotion into a car design. People actually write in to tell us what they want. Of course, we don’t just listen to one guy in the street who tells you he thinks your car is ugly. But we do have to listen to a groundswell of opinion over several years.”

Indeed, those changing demands have affected the way the industry operates at all levels: witness Ford pushing on with its Vignale concept, essentially an upgrading of the materials, presentation and sales environment of its cars that aims to put it more on a par with much more expensive vehicles. “The difference is that in my work we still have to work within a budget that allows us to produce cars in major plants, that sell all over the world and do so at a good price,” says Smith. “They don’t have quite the same problems at Rolls Royce. But I don’t mind. In fact, I love the challenge of designing mass production cars. In my job even a commercial vehicle gets a lot of attention - even that has to look good.”