MARTIN SMITH: FATHER OF KINETIC DESIGN SHAPES THE NEXT-GENERATION FORD FOCUS
executive director, Design,
Ford of Europe.
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- Martin Smith is executive director, Design, Ford of Europe. He is the father of kinetic design, the expressive design language that has transformed Ford’s European lineup and is going global with cars like the next-generation Ford Focus
- A dean of European automotive design, Smith joined Ford in 2004. His first job, at age 23, was as a staff designer with Porsche in 1973. He would go on to significant roles at Audi and Opel before joining the blue oval
- A lover of classic British sports cars, Smith participates in rallies with a vintage1961 Austin Healey 3000
As the latest expression of kinetic design makes its debut in the shape of the next-generation Ford Focus, its creator reflects on how this new design language that transformed the Ford product range in Europe could now have the same impact worldwide.
Martin Smith, one of Europe’s leading automotive designers, was asked in 2004 to infuse the Ford European brand with more expressive appeal. He now calls his five years with Ford a “fascinating challenge.”
“It was a fantastic creative opportunity to be entrusted with rejuvenating a great brand like Ford through design,” said Smith who runs Ford’s European design operations from his studio outside Cologne, Germany.
Smith’s kinetic design, which has been infused into Ford’s entire European range, is now on an even bigger mission. The next-generation Ford Focus, created by Ford’s European small and medium car center of excellence, is playing an important role as Ford’s new global product strategy accelerates.
Smith points to the next-generation Focus as the latest expression of the kinetic design language.
“Kinetic design is something we can actually describe,” said Smith, a Briton who has spent most of his career as a designer in Germany. “The key elements are confident stance, dynamic lines, expressive form language, taut surfacing, bold graphics and great detailing. Together they convey movement and athleticism, and they telegraph the dynamic capabilities of our cars with that fun-to-drive spirit. It looks like the car is moving when it’s standing still.”
He remembers his first day on the job after Ford approached him to head its European design unit from Opel.
“I knew our challenge would be to design the next-generation Mondeo,” Smith said. “So I turned up at Ford with a sketch of a car that was my vision for how Mondeo could look in a different design language. And while the design of the Mondeo was already well along, management accepted my approach and mandated shifting the Mondeo’s design accordingly.”
Subsequent brainstorming with Ford’s talented design team led to the creation of the kinetic design philosophy.
“The final design for Mondeo was remarkably close to the original sketches,” Smith said.
That kind of visionary perspective is the product of the design talent and experience of one of the deans of European automotive design. Smith has had an interesting and varied career, crossing paths with the doyens of the world’s automotive families, from Ferdinand Piëch of Porsche and Audi to Bill Ford of Ford Motor Company.
“Ford’s leadership team wanted a compelling, far more emotionally appealing and expressive design approach,” Smith said. “[Ford executive] Lewis Booth put it very succinctly. He called it ‘drop-dead gorgeous cars’.”
“I found Ford’s new approach refreshing and challenging, and I was convinced I could help. The time was right for a new approach, and Ford’s challenge sparked a vision for a potential solution.”
Smith has always relished a challenge and claims actually to be working at his hobby – automobile design.
His first design job, at age 23, was with Porsche, where he was responsible for the Martini Porsche 911 RSR race car. Later, after recruitment to Audi, he designed the famous Audi Quattro as the firm’s first university-trained designer. He was still in his 20s.
“I was a car spotter as a kid,” Smith said. “I was always interested in cars, particularly the sports cars of the ’50s. I was mad about design and always sketching cars,” he said.
“I even wrote to Alec Issigonis [designer of the original Mini] and asked how to become a car designer. He wrote me a letter, which I unfortunately no longer possess, advising me to learn about engineering at university because he approached design from a technical background.”
Duly following Issigonis’ advice, Smith enrolled in Liverpool University to study mechanical engineering with the intention of becoming an automotive designer.
“I had no idea there were specialized colleges to learn specifically about designing cars,” Smith said. “Halfway through engineering school, I learned about a new school of automotive design at the Royal College of Art. I had to get in.”
Without a background in art or industrial design he was seriously disadvantaged, but Smith won a place at the college by demonstrating enthusiasm, drive and commitment, which impressed the faculty. He called his initial experience “a revelation,” and he discovered a place where others, like him, were car design fanatics.
Smith would spend nearly 20 years at Audi, influencing many products and founding an advance design studio in Munich. He is particularly proud of the Audi Avus concept car, a product of his advanced studio that was featured at the 1991 Tokyo Motor Show.
Smith moved to Opel in 1997 and became the company’s design director in 2001.
J May, a designer he once hired who would become Ford’s global design chief, approached Smith in 2004 to lead Ford of Europe’s design-inspired product transformation.
Smith said his approach isn’t to shock or provoke with design.
“I want to create design that’s absolutely compelling to look at and love. My goal is to create something that’ll be the first choice of many people, which means a design that’s dramatic and pleasing. A design appealing to as many customers as possible is tremendously important because we want Ford to be seen as the design leader in the volume car market.”
Smith has high hopes that the next-generation Ford Focus could become the world’s biggest-selling car nameplate. The Ford Fiesta, another of his kinetic design creations, has already proven highly popular globally.
Looking at the compelling designs of these two leading European-designed Fords, Smith believes his greatest challenge could still be ahead of him.
“When you’ve got such a compelling design that’s resonating well, it can be daunting to consider a time in the future when we have to redesign either of these cars. They’re such great cars. That second generation of kinetic design will be a bigger challenge – but it’s the kind of challenge we designers love.”
Now, the car-spotting kid-turned-name designer is living out some of his childhood dreams. Smith owns two 1950s British sports cars, a 1956 Jaguar XK140 roadster and a 1961 Austin Healey 3000 rally car. He and his wife Laura, also a car designer, participate in vintage rallies with cars across Europe.
Passionate skiers, Martin and Laura have a ski hut near Kitzbühel in the Austrian Alps. They are also restoring a farmhouse in the Provence region of France.
Personal Insights and Fun Facts
- Martin Smith drives a Ford Kuga with design elements from Ford’s Individual range, including an interior created by his wife Laura
- Smith lives in the old town of central Cologne, Germany, a short drive along the Rhine to the Ford of Europe Design Studio
- In addition to his classic British sports cars, Smith owns a Ferrari 512 TR
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About Ford Motor Company
Ford Motor Company, a global automotive industry leader based in Dearborn, Mich., manufactures or distributes automobiles across six continents. With about 200,000 employees and about 90 plants worldwide, the company’s automotive brands include Ford, Lincoln, Mercury and Volvo. The company provides financial services through Ford Motor Credit Company. For more information regarding Ford’s products, please visit www.ford.com.
Jan. 11, 2010