Joel Piaskowski on Design

Gary S. Vasilash

“Every brand has to evolve and stay relevant,” says Joel Piaskowski, design director at Ford, where the evolution is taking place at such a rate that the word -revolution- comes to mind.

Background

If experience and understanding of the global nature of the automotive industry vis-à-vis design matter, then you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has a greater grasp of them than Joel Piaskowski, design director, the Americas, Ford Motor Co.

Don’t let that “the Americas” make you think that his familiarity starts and stops in this hemisphere. Far from it. Joel Piaskowski is one of the most international of designers.

Consider: the graduate of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit (1990), Piaskowski began his career at General Motors after graduation. He remained at GM, undertaking a variety of projects not only for U.S. brands like Chevrolet and Buick, but for Holden (Australia), Vauxhall (England), and Opel (Germany), as well. Piaskowski left GM at the end of 2002 to join Hyundai, where he was the director of North American design for the company’s studio in Irvine, CA. During his tenure at Hyundai, the company undertook the massive transformation of its sheet metal sculptural forms, which continues today. Piaskowski was at Hyundai through the end of 2008, and then started at the Mercedes-Benz Research and Development, North America, Advanced Design Div., (also in Irvine) as president in January 2009. He was there until March 2010.

Then it was on to Ford.

Point of View

And the point of view that he has is undoubtedly valuable as the Dearborn-based company creates global products for its “One Ford” vision. Yes, the company has studios in Europe, China, Australia, and South America, as well as the U.S. But the objective is to develop products that are characteristic of Ford first and foremost.

“We have global design leadership meetings three times a year,” Piaskowski says. “We have program reviews, design discussions, collaborate, and get alignment on where we are as a global brand and what we want to do from a design standpoint as we move forward.”

And of his colleagues for the various locales, he says, “You can take any one of us and do a shell game—switch us around, put us in a different studio, and we’d pick up just where the others left off.”

“If you look at great brands,” he says, “they don’t design specifically for a market.”

Apple is Apple. Prada is Prada. Boeing is Boeing. And, ideally, Ford is Ford.

That said, he acknowledges that there are regional differences. Stressing the point that he is generalizing, he says that in North America “We have an ability to see cars from a greater distance than other cultures can.” So there is more of a broad gesture. “In North America, size matters. We have the ability to have large vehicles, and people want those large vehicles. (E.g., the F-150 is clearly a North American vehicle in size and shape.)

“In Asia, you live in tight quarters, so you look at things up close. There is a different perspective, an intimacy of detail. In Europe, you’re born growing up with quality. There is a sense of craftsmanship and timelessness in the studios in Europe.”

So while there may not be a one-design-fits-all because there are regional differences, the objective is to make sure that there is sufficient similarity of approach so that a Ford is a Ford regardless of where it is designed and built.

Global DNA

“Before I joined the organization, J Mays, Moray Callum and Martin Smith”—that would be Ford group vp of Design and Chief Creative Officer; executive director, Americas Design; and executive director, Design, Ford of Europe—“were all integral in architecting a global design language,” Piaskowski says. While this language can be read in the Ford Fiesta and the Escape (which is the Kuga in Europe), a clear indication of the direction of “oneness” in what Ford is doing is, Piaskowski says, found in the 2013 Ford Fusion—which is the Ford Mondeo in Europe. He describes it “As the beginning of the new design DNA for the Ford Motor Company on a global basis.”

“The Fusion started its life in a global design competition,” he says. “There were themes in both Europe and North America. They eventually fused together, if I may” [yes, he is aware of the pun]. “We got to one design solution, but it stems from having a global design vision.”

Sophisticated Desire

One interesting aspect of the Fusion design as compared with the other vehicles that have rolled out of the Ford studios of late is that while there is a lot of expression in their form, the Fusion is, comparatively, less extreme. “What we’ve done with the Fusion is calmed down some of those expressive design elements intentionally because it is a larger vehicle, and to be trendy on a larger C-D platform probably isn’t the way to create a successful global product,” he says. Realize that this is a car that is meant to sell on a massive scale, so a certain amount of restraint, maturity, is beneficial. Yet he emphasizes that there is still a sufficient seductiveness in the car’s design.

“What’s interesting about the C-D segment now is there is a revelation about design. Quality is high in the segment, so there is a focus on the design.” A focus on design by all OEMs. “People want something that looks good. Even though it may be a pragmatic vehicle, people want style in their lives. They want to feel good about their purchase,” he says.

Piaskowski talks about the “new global design DNA” that they are pursuing at Ford, with the Fusion being instrumental in its definition. Does this new design language have a name? “No, it doesn’t and that’s intentional because other global brands that have this premium-feel don’t have trendy nicknames. True global brands don’t need a tag for their design vernacular.”