Q+A: Ford Chief Creative Officer J Mays on the Redesigned Fusion

On Sept. 18, Ford released the 2013 model of the Fusion—already its best-selling car—which will hit dealership lots this month

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Ford Motor Co.

What’s noteworthy about the new design?
We had this crazy idea that people might respond to a car if it was beautiful. There aren’t very many beautiful cars out there today, so we went out of our way to make everything drop-dead gorgeous on top of technical and environmental aspects, like seats made out of recycled water bottles and 47 miles per gallon in its hybrid form. Because the thing that pulls people in—just like how people are attracted to their partner or spouse—is that the car is beautiful. You don’t fall in love with your spouse because they’re inherently practical; you fall in love with them because they’re hot.

European and Japanese companies are still the industry leaders in terms of car design, though. How do you shift that thinking?
At Ford, it’s been a decade-long process. In my previous life, I was design director at Audi, where we created the aesthetic it’s known for today, from the TT to the A6. Many of the guys who worked with me on those models came with me to Ford about seven years ago, and we’re just seeing the fruit of that labor come to a head. The public doesn’t know that, so it’s going to take 10 years of constant, great cars coming to market from Ford. We’re not trying to create a luxury brand out of Ford, but a brand that’s on people’s shopping list because of cool design.

Ford Motor Co.

Tell us about your creative process.
I want to know where the customer eats, sleeps, vacations—what their house looks like, their favorite music, their culinary habits. If you’re fitting a product like an automobile, which is only a smaller part of their day, into their bigger life, it helps to know that broader context. The democratic part of the new Fusion is the price; the rest of it is sex—and that’s my job, to make a car that seduces you.

Who is the Ford Fusion driver?
I like how Ford has always been a populist brand, going back to when Henry Ford started the company with the idea of putting the world on wheels. And I love giving our mainstream customer a premium experience, so even though they don’t have the money to pay for something as expensive as a BMW or Audi or Mercedes, they still want something that looks more expensive than it is.

Is it hard thinking about designing an American car when you’re based in London, which is also a walking city for many?
No, I travel to Detroit about twice a month. And just like in New York, you drive out to the Hamptons, you go to vacation‚ so you are aware of driving. Every time I’ve been to New York, all the cars have bumpers—which is a phenomenon of this city only—but underneath, it’s still a beautiful car.