Only Connect

For New Design magazine. Ford interior design feature


It’s when I attempt to roar off the start line with the handbrake still on that I realise I am utterly out of my element. I’m at Goodwood, albeit the car park rather than the famous circuit, test-driving the new Ford Tourneo Connect.

There’s a Top Gear style competition in progress to see who can make it round an obstacle course in the swiftest time. What chance does a design writer have against a grid of seasoned motoring hacks? Traffic cones and spectators breathe a collective sigh of relief when my second ‘flying lap’ is completed. I’m happy enough not to be bottom of the leader board having bested a single participant who I can only assume did the whole course in reverse just for more of a challenge.

Whilst my colleagues from the automotive press are interested in engine spec, fuel efficiency and ride quality, my goal is to learn more about the design process that sees a vehicle move from the sketchpad to the showroom. What defines the way a vehicle looks? What tools and techniques are deployed? And how does the relationship between designers and engineers function (indeed are those two teams definitely distinct)?

The Tourneo Connect is a passenger vehicle based on Ford’s van platform. The five-seater vehicle’s key selling points include its capacity – in terms of flexibility in accommodating both passengers and cargo – and its reliability. A seven-seat version is also available aimed more towards the crew bus and transfer market. The Tourneo Connect is perhaps not a natural candidate with which to consider design – it’s not a sports car or concept vehicle. However, this makes it all the more interesting a case study in examining the, sometimes unseen, work of automotive design teams; Transit, Ka, Focus, or Tourneo, design is a fundamental aspect of Ford’s approach.

Exterior design manager Paul Wraith is the man responsible for defining the external appearance of the Tourneo Connect. Based at the Ford Technical Centre in Dunton, Essex, Wraith and his team oversee the exterior design of a range of Ford models in addition to some work in the motorsport sector. He explains that even when working on a van-platform passenger vehicle like the Tourneo Connect, design is taken extremely seriously. “If you speak to people who use such vehicles as domestic cars, they probably haven’t had a great choice of good looking vehicles to choose from,” he says. “Many have been clearly derived from a van and perhaps rather crudely executed in some cases. I would like to think with this vehicle we are offering parity: car-like execution with headlights and taillights, car-like windows, essentially an overall car-like aesthetic. The people who will buy this vehicle appreciate that they are getting the practical stuff that they want and also getting the style that maybe they didn’t expect.”

Wraith, who has been at Ford for 12 years having studied transportation design at Coventry University and the Royal College of Art, explains that the design process, whether for a new vehicle or replacement of an existing vehicle within a range, starts with discussion. “Designers are intrinsically opinionated, we tend to have a view about a product or a task ahead that will inform the development work,” he comments. “In the early stages the design team, through a process of debate and discussion, will reach a consensus about what this new vehicle should be.”

Turning to the Tourneo Connect, he argues that making the vehicle more appealing to passenger customers was a priority. “When we started this project we were convinced we had a sensational commercial vehicle,” he says. “We needed to find a way of injecting enough style with substance into the object so it would be acceptable as a Transit and also a very nice passenger car for someone to park outside their home and take their family around in. That was a tricky balance and we needed to find a way through it.”

Picking up on the idea of ‘style’ I ask Paul to what extent he is comfortable with the term ‘stylist’ to describe what he does. “It comes from the States where being a ‘car stylist’ was a decent title. Personally I think being referred to as a stylist makes me sound like a hairdresser and I’m less comfortable with that,” he says. “I’m a designer first and foremost and the style comes with it – you could make the best functioning design in the world but if it looks rubbish, people are emotionally switched of from it and it won’t succeed as being a functional object because people won’t use it. Style is important in any object; people might claim to not have an opinion about car design, but under the skin they really do. We’ve got to get that message right.”

The automotive industry demands high standards and the utmost precision. Furthermore, within Ford there is a need for each vehicle to communicate what Wraith calls a “Fordness”. “We want our cars to look athletic and energetic; this sense of movement is really important,” he continues. “Agility comes in the form of how we design the arches, how much wedge the vehicle has got, and the position of wheels relative to body – but none of those things can stand in the way of intrinsic functionality.”

With a direction agreed, design proceeds with sketching. Most car designers tend to be art school trained and are by nature scribblers. Wraith explains that it is not unusual for designers to arrive at work with a drawing on the back of an envelope. However, he admits that sketching techniques are changing: “Over the last few years we have moved away from marker pens and pastels to Photoshop to create coloured-in sketches. We move very quickly from that to photorealistic imagery to conceive what the vehicle will look like in the street.”

Whilst 3D CAD (AutoDesk Alias) software is used, clay modelling remains the central element of the design process. “We start with scale clays and move to full size clays quite quickly,” describes Wraith. “We can render those clays with paint and film to give the impression of a real vehicle. And those models are enhanced with parts that are 3D printed. You can achieve refinement in a clay model by hand that you just can’t get with a computer so clay modelling remains an essential tool.”

Addressing the application of 3D printing, Wraith explains that the technology is used for detailed, intricate parts, such as a grill mesh, that might take longer to model by hand. However, he does not believe that it is likely that 3D printing might replace clay modelling entirely. “Clay modelling is in itself an artistic process. You are adding material and you are taking it away, adjusting it by feet or by fractions of inches,” he says. “There’s a craft and a humanity to it that I think will take time to replicate.”

Within Ford the design teams work closely with the engineering teams. Nevertheless, the automotive designer must learn to accept compromise. “It [the relationship with the engineers] is very collaborative,” elaborates Wraith. “At its best it is very creative, at its worst it is very ‘passionate’. Every person in my position feels upset when it turns out their dream can’t be realised – but you take it on the chin, move on and try another plan. Producing one offs is fun, but the real purpose of design is to produce many of and to make your object accessible to as many people as possible. That’s the nature of mass production.”

He continues: “Pretty much every single bit of a vehicle becomes has been worried about in a detailed way. On the Tourneo Connect one of the areas where we really pushed the limits was the lighting. The lighting looks very car-like. It was a challenge to make those lights look slot like and thin, essentially as the cheaper the tech you use the bigger headlights tend to be.”

It is no surprise that there is a constant dialogue and significant collaboration between the exterior and interior design teams. Interior design manager Ulf Roentgen led the design of the Tourneo Connect’s dashboard panel and door trims. The process of interior design is broadly similar to the exterior, starting with sketching before moving to 3D CAD and clay modelling. “[Starting a project] is really a blank canvas, a white sheet of paper,” says Roentgen. “We tell our designers to sketch, then we take all the best ideas and develop towards a key sketch before moving into CAD software. Step by step we have to consider all the parts and later, stage by stage, it will be developed with the engineering teams. For instance, quite early we get the surface from safety [certain things that can’t be moved] and we have to surface around it. Furthermore. we are work closely with the craftsmanship team and design quality team to get a high quality appearance.”

A process of in-house review operates between the interior and exterior designers and there is stylistic crossover between the teams. “There are features of the interior that we’re excited about and have tried to pick up on the outside and elements of the outside that got picked up and used on the interior,” adds Paul Wraith. “The team that designs all the fabrics, grains and finishes applied to both the exterior and interior are part of our community too. It’s very much collaborative.”

At least I am able to leave Goodwood with a detailed insight into Ford’s design process if not top spot on the Tourneo car park lap leaderboard.