Mobility Futures: J Mays

J Mays, one of the world's most experienced and respected automotive designers and RCA Visiting Professor in Vehicle Design, is presented with an Honorary Doctorate from the RCA this week. He talks to RCA Blog about vehicle design, intelligent mobility and how designers can positively shape the future that’s accelerating towards us.

Whatever your position on the future of transportation – behind the wheel, comfortably in the passenger seat or even on the pavement – making automobiles relevant for the twenty-first century is a pressing issue for a world grappling with mega-cities, environmental responsibility, globalisation and digital connectivity.

J Mays, Visiting Professor, Vehicle Design
J Mays, Visiting Professor, Vehicle Design
The autonomous vehicle is materialising from film fantasy to pragmatic reality, but is the future of cars in the balance? J Mays thinks not, but acknowledges that there are challenges to being a vehicle designer today that didn’t exist 30 years ago, when he joined the German Audi team as their first-ever American designer.

How designers can lead and shape the future is a passionate concern, which is why Mays finds himself at the Royal College of Art, engaging with postgraduate students and – after a career leading the global automotive industry – frequently finding himself thinking: ‘That’s something I hadn’t really considered before.’

RCA Blog: Vehicle design requires a vast range of skills: pragmatism and vision, a deep understanding of material, engineering and form alongside a sensitive marketing nose and a crystal ball. How do you train designers to do that?

J Mays: Formally, you need to understand not only colour, shape, material, texture and proportion, but also meaning in terms of the brand of the car, and how you can manipulate that and seduce customers – essentially by the way you bend sheet metal.

If you can’t achieve that as a designer, you’re just making the engineering less ugly. We don’t need stylists, we need designers who understand the end-to-end challenges we face. Automotive designers are coming out of the traditional, siloed world of the ‘gear head’, and becoming designers first and automobile enthusiasts second.

If I had to name my early influences, they would be Giugiaro, Pininfarina, Mies van der Rohe and Walt Disney – seriously, and it’s the variety that matters. A lot of the work we’re doing with these young designers is to try to break down the wall between automobile design, architecture and interior design, and instill a more purposeful understanding of material, fabrics and textures. You have to find a way as a designer these days to be multifaceted and multidisciplinary.

Experimentation is a critical component of the two-year MA environment: the opportunity to fail and make mistakes. When you go out into industry, it’s good to have well-thought-through failures in your portfolio alongside realised projects, and to be able to talk about the aspirations for those designs – it shows your ability to think strategically, with analytical rigour, alongside your creativity.

RCA Blog: Is it important that industry-led projects are embedded in the curriculum, making students work with other disciplines to overcome complex design challenges?

J Mays: MA Vehicle Design students are immersed in an environment where they work on real projects with product designers, engineers, textile designers, who all have their own deep, disciplinary knowledge and creative design thinking. The students need to know about their field but also the thought processes that other designers use. The basis for innovative design is being able to think differently to everyone else. If you’re using the same thought processes, you’ll get to the same answer.

The students work together through a tough programme, imagining a Jaguar for 2025 onwards. That means designing for people who don’t exist yet – Y and Z between 30 and 40 years old, who are vastly different customers with potentially unimaginably different aspirations for life and products – and with the intimidating shadow of the E-type, the world’s most beautiful car, hanging over their heads.

RCA Blog: Do you think that education – if it’s done right – is about training design leaders to shape the future of the industry?

J Mays: Absolutely. I’m of the opinion that – as a designer – unless you control everything, you control nothing. You may have a beautiful design, but if the marketing and brand departments wrestle it out of your hands you might as well toss it in the trash. You have to be able to convince other departments in a company that your way is the right way. For that, you need design skills and also the temperament to deal with the politics.

Designers who want to influence the future of the automobile need to understand their own creative processes as well as how to operate within a large, commercial company. You have a certain period of time when you can make all the mistakes, then you have to go to work and have your designs rolling out and being produced. There’s an absolute responsibility as a car designer: the reality that people are going to get in the vehicle you make, and it has to be safe. You need to come up with real-world answers that will make your customers’ lives better.

I had a great boss at Audi, when I was just starting out. He said, 'There are two sides to this car. On that side you can do anything you want, and on this side you need to answer my design brief.' The key is to strike a balance between creativity and the commercial needs of the company.

RCA Blog: What are your predictions for an industry that – in addition to material, global challenges – is potentially moving away from ownership, towards autonomous vehicles.  

For the next twenty years, vehicle companies will want to design autonomous and analogue (driven) vehicles. We live in a saturated digital world, and there will also be some who seek a digital detox as a luxury. Cars that you drive could become the luxury of the future, as an analogue experience, fulfilling an inherent human need to know something was made by hand.

You can’t design an autonomous vehicle in isolation. It can’t just be an orb that you crawl in and get out of. It has to have a point of view that separates it from all the other driverless vehicles, a reason to choose that vehicle, that service. As well as the customer hook, there’s the service scenario: how does that autonomous vehicle arrive, who’s running the service, and who’s controlling the data? Designers can’t figure out all the social and legal ramifications, but they need to understand them and be locked into the overall user experience.

RCA Blog: There’s a slightly apocalyptic edge to conversations about the future of the car. Are we facing challenges we haven’t faced before?

J Mays: There’s nothing inherently new in twenty-first-century problems. They’re reset for a new generation, with ever-more-sophisticated technologies. If you go back to the 1950s, designers had unbridled optimism, producing what we now think of as ‘retrofuturism’ because it’s so positive. In the 1970s, it became all about paring back. As a designer, you have to make sure you don’t get lost in the noise of the news.

You need to keep playing out scenarios of the future, and recognise that some will be really positive and some really negative. It feels challenging, but the skills, attitudes, aptitudes designers need are about being open to approaches, and working collaboratively with people in other disciplines. You cannot have enough experiences, and the more you have, the more ‘palette’ you have to mix into a world-changing design cocktail.

These young designers graduating will still be alive in 50 years’ time and need to be thinking about what that world is going to look like. This generation will change in the most positive way how we think about transportation. They’re trying to find their personalities as designers, and grappling with the fundamentals of how to design something that looks really compelling, or beautiful, or meets a particular customer need. They’re also very concerned about the amount of materials ratcheting around the world, and those ethical viewpoints needs to be reconciled with going into industry. If they can get in there and change its direction, that’s where they’ll have the biggest effect.

RCA Blog: How have your experiences – at Audi, VW, BMW or overseeing the designs of Ford’s seven marques – enabled you to help guide these young designers?

Industry thinks it wants designers with personality, but when they arrive it still scares the hell out of them. In an industry where Google and Apple are moving in, what they should be doing is making their products as different as possible. But most car companies still bristle at designs that look different from what everyone else is doing.

It’s easy to design something abstract, something so crazy that there’s no measure to be taken, because you have nothing to compare it to. Something that works for people now is a very different proposition. Car companies need to find solutions to practical problems, so there needs to be a pragmatism to designers’ thinking.

What I did was think about a different way to design a car, and a different way to create formal language based on the concept you wanted to communicate, rather than just styling cars. There’s a huge amount of brand and commercial marketing thinking in the cars that I’ve designed.

If I had to sum up my career, it would be a belief that innovations of the past should be used to inform future solutions. Students need to really understand everything that’s on the road today, before they start trying to make it better. You have to know how to do everything now before you can focus in and design something radical and new.