Steno Pad: Outtakes From My Interview With Ford Designer Chris Svensson

A few weeks ago, I got to take a classic Mustang road trip with Moray Callum and Chris Svensson, Ford's top two designers. The trip generated a two-part story for Gizmodo which you can read here [1] and here [2], but there was way more interview material than I could ever fit. Here are some of my favorite side conversations from Day 1, riding with Chris Svensson, straight from my notebook in unedited form.

Chris Svensson, Director of Design, Ford of the Americas

One of the reasons Ford stopping manufacturing in Australia is that there's a drive to a smaller more compact car in Australia, and even though there's a massive car culture in Australia for big rear-wheel-drive, big engine cars, there just isn't the demand for it in volume. So they love it as a culture but customers just aren't buying it. That's the struggle you have is that people want to buy compacts and fuel efficient cars but what we were producing in Australia as a manufacturing facility was the big Falcon, big Saloon. So we struggled a bit with that manufacturing in Australia.

Chris has done design for Ford in Europe, Australia, Asia, and now North & South America. I asked if there are major differences designing for those different markets.

There are nuances that are different but I think, because of the access people have these days to information, it's much more neutral in terms of differences between regions. So I think you'll find as a design community we're designing much more global products than regional products. Now on the regional side of it, there are nuances, there are certain particular things different regions prefer. It might be material finishes, it might be color, it might be chrome versus gloss blacks, so you have to tailor the product toward each particular region, but I don't think there's any reason why global products wouldn't be successful.

I've got a 1957 Porsche 356A which is beautiful, it's even better than this [the 1965 Mustang fastback we were riding in]. Full race spec. Door skins in aluminum, it's a beautiful, beautiful car.

I love Porsches. I've got two Porsches. I'm an advocate, I just think they do beautiful design, well executed, they've lived up to the essence of the heritage. My old one [the 1957] I love because it's a beautiful piece of automotive sculpture. The new one [a brand-new 911], I think is just so finessed, so beautifully executed, I adore that car as well. I have a soft spot for Porsches. I wouldn't want to work for them because I'd be frustrated as a designer. Working for a company like Porsche would drive me nuts. I like the breadth of product that we have, I like that we challenge ourselves and try stuff, and it's new fresh and contemporary. I think working for Porsche must be hard work because you've got an iconic car that you repeat over and over again and try to make better each time. They've got basically one or two car lines. In that respect I like the freedom and opportunity that comes with what the Ford line's got. But they've done it beautifully.

We'd been driving in rain most of the day when Moray's 67 Mustang broke down. While we waited at a garage for an alternator delivery, Chris couldn't stop himself from cleaning the road grime off his 65. It started raining again nearly immediately.

The problem with us designers is, we're detail fanatics, so with this car I just wanted it to be perfect.

Something I've always wondered about is the challenge of designing around the technology that goes into new cars. Touchscreens, phone connections, things like that. Is that a big challenge?

No, I think it's great. It gives you the opportunity to try different architectures and layouts and landscapes. I think technology is throwing out some great opportunities for design, because we've been so limited with things like airbags and things like that. The new technology that we might gain like this kind of stuff, it's just giving us lots of opportunity and flexibility.

So when you say the airbags and things were limiting, you mean from a style standpoint?

Yeah, they really limited the structures of the passenger compartment, the engines, the knee clearances . . . it made everything a little restrictive. But with new technologies, even things on the exterior like headlight technologies, it's throwing off so much opportunity.

With things like LED signature lighting, at what point does it just become a tacked-on feature?

It could be, but at the moment its not. It's so refreshing versus where we've been. With the bulbs, and the technology that we've had, its not reached that saturation point yet. It's not reached that gold medallion mentality yet. I'm sure once everyone's started it, it could, but I still think it's quite cool to have right now.

So do you think that connected car technology is sort of taking the place of driving enjoyment?

No I don't. I think it supports the driving experience. And I think that's the key for me, is that it shouldn't overtake the driving experience: you should still feel like you're interacting and responsible for doing the driving, but how things support you, what information you require to support that experience...

[at this point, Chris's iPhone, speaking through a hidden Bluetooth speaker in the 65's dash, interrupts to tell us our exit is coming up in 10 miles]

Yeah! These kinds of things (he taps the phone in his jacket pocket). It's there and you don't need to watch it and interact with it, but it just reminds you. In ten miles you need to be aware that you need to turn off. And I think that's how the technology is supporting the driving experiences. I kind of like it.

I asked Chris about some of Ford's more outrageous paint colors, like Green Envy on the Fiesta ST or Grabber Blue. How did we get out of the silver blandess of the early 2000s?

People are much more adventurous these days. You look at the 70s, some of the colors in the 70s were amazing. So I think it's not so much design, it's the appetite of the consumers to buy the colors. Silver and black have always been our mainstream. They're very successful. I think white is a very popular color these days.

I like black cars. The reason I like black cars is because when it's a beautiful day, the reflections you get on a black car are just amazing, and I love those reflections. I think on silver cars, the silver shows off the body sculpture really well with the light and dark, while white pushes the car out a little bit. But I do like the blues and the greens. Whether I'd have one myself I'm not sure.