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The inside track: Ford vehicle designer

Being one of the design managers at the UK’s biggest-selling car and van manufacturer comes with a certain amount of pressure.

Not only does a designer need to be creative, adaptive and skilled in a number of specialities, the real challenge is to make cars and vans visually appealing at the same time as aerodynamic, safe and legally compliant.

Paul Wraith, exterior design manager of commercial vehicles, has been at Ford for the past 10 years after graduating from the Royal College of Art.

He admits that being a designer is an emotional business whose core purpose is to constantly challenge what the vehicle of the future could look like.

Tight security

The Ford design team in the UK consists of designers, digital modellers, clay modellers, sculptures and engineers.

All are experts in their field and all sharing a passion for vehicles and design.

Millions of pounds are invested annually and security is tight with only a few people in the entire company granted access to the design studio.

Ford has design studios around the world and team members regularly have meetings to ensure that wherever a motorist lives in the world, a Ford is easily noticeable.

The studios generally work on those models which will be available in their geographical area.

For example, the UK team was the creative force behind the new Transit which was unveiled at the Commercial Vehicle Show earlier this year.

The process – facelifts and redesigns

There are two types of project the design team will work on: facelifts and re-designs of existing products, and the new vehicle designs or concepts that appear at motor shows.

All designers first work on their sketch pads. It is then Wraith and other design managers’ jobs to pull together the best of everyone’s ideas, including their own, to create a complete sketch.

The traditional Ford traits need to be incorporated into the design and then individual design characteristics are added.

“The hardest thing is getting all the ideas and containing them in the work,” says Wraith.

“We need to be really clever to demonstrate the ideas in a clear way.”

Once the principal look of the vehicle is agreed, engineers and designers work closely together to balance the design with functionality and practicality.

In some cases a designer’s vision may be halted because in reality it is not practical, safe or legal.

“The worst thing that could happen is that you have the best idea which is not able to be manufactured because it is not compliant in one way or another,” says Wraith.

“The reality is compromise and working within the limits. You need constraints. That is what makes it exciting.”

Every area of the design is looked at in intricate detail by a specialist to ensure it meets all the legal and safety requirements.

Designers need to be flexible to adapt to fulfil every criteria.

After the initial sketch phase, the design of the new vehicle will be digitally created, using both animation and photography, which enables the designers to see the vehicle in a variety of real world scenarios and locations.

Once the designers are happy, the process moves to creating clay models, starting small and then moving to full-size models.

Life-like models are presented to the heads of department to review and agree to move over to production.

The whole design process, from idea to production, is immensely complicated and there is no definitive timescale.

The design team is currently working on future models as much as eight years ahead.

A key part of re-designing an existing model is being able to criticise the current one.

The design team will use market research and take part in customer meetings to find out what the audience thinks of the latest model and what they would like to see in the future.

Recognising un-met needs and listening to what customers want forms a key part of the whole design process.

Challenges of designing new Transit

The new Transit was designed and engineered in UK, and Wraith admitted that one of the biggest challenges was making the Transit look appealing.

“It’s very difficult to make a van look nice. We wanted to move towards a more car-like feel.

"A van is like a home for drivers and it should be somewhere they are proud to work in. Creating a product that people enjoy is what being a designer is all about.”

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