How Ford's Top Interior Designer Puts the Future in the Front Seat

Amko Leenarts is the Director of Interior Design for Ford Motor Company, creating the interior look for Ford's products worldwide. He spoke with Gizmodo about the design influences, technology, and safety considerations that go into future designs, and later today he'll be in Gizmodo's comments section answering your questions.

Amko has been with Ford since 2012, after a 12 years tour of duty with France's Peugeot-Citroen motor company. The Netherlands-born designer oversees the interior design teams working on Ford and Lincoln vehicles that will be coming out in the next several years.

Check out our interview below, and come back to Gizmodo at 1PM EST today, when we'll be hosting a commenter Q&A session with Amko.

Gizmodo: When you're doing interior styling, how closely are you following trends? Are you trying to make something that looks new right now or are you trying to predict what will look good down the line?

Amko Leenarts: The length of development that we do in cars is one of the longest in the world of industrial design. It varies from three to five years. So we are obliged to watch the meta-trends, but we don't necessarily have to be hyper-fashionable with the latest trends, because usually they go quickly back out of fashion as well. And remember, our cars keep being on the road for quite awhile, so we don't want them to be completely out of fashion within a year's time. However, there are some of what we call meta-trends that happen in terms of cultural environment, certain traditions in the world, obviously that leads us to certain material trends. So the materials that we add to the design have to have some sort of relevance in where the car is sold.

Gizmodo: How do you differentiate a car for the U.S. market versus one that's built for Europe or China?

Amko: That is definitely one of the challenges that I would say in my experience is a little bit unique to Ford Motor Company, since we do make models that are sold all over the world with the same structure and a similar appearance. The challenge that we have as a design organization is to make sure that the design is as flexible as possible so it can handle different material executions. That could mean that we have a variability in the size of the cupholders—they need to be bigger in the U.S. than they need to be in Europe, while the cupholder in China needs to be more deep but slightly smaller diameter. So apart from materials we also have functional differentiation between the different regions that is definitely a big challenge. And the designs that can handle that variability the best are the ones that we choose for further development.

You can see it very clearly, there are large differences between Europe, America and China, they ask for different materials because their tastes, the cultural references that people have with materials, are different. So to give you an example, in America we have more difficulties to have the American customer accept wood without any lacquer, they want the wood trim really shiny. While in Europe [dull wood without lacquer] is considered as a more high-end solution. So it's that kind of flexibility that we talk about.

Gizmodo: What do you do differently when you're designing the interior for a $15,000 economy car versus, say, a $70,000 luxury SUV?

Amko: You would be surprised that not everybody wants to drive a luxury car or a very sporty car. There are many, many different types of customers and I think that we've defined about 100 to 150 different archetypes of customers that are really looking for different things, they value things quite differently. So not everybody wants to drive luxury. However you do want to make sure that your design looks more expensive than it actually is. So no matter which bracket your project falls in: If you spend $15,ooo on the car, you want it to look like it's an $18,000 car or a $20,000 car. If you spend $40,000 you want it to look like a $50,000 car. But there are brackets that we navigate in that works pretty well . If you go too far out, it's not acceptable either. So a customer that buys a value car might be more than happy to not have the leather let's say, but what he does want is smartphone connectivity.

Gizmodo: So how do you make that $15,000 car look like an $18,000 car?

Amko: That's a Ford secret (laughs). In terms of design, you can make things look more expensive. We can be smart about how we design the surfaces so they look more expensive, they can catch more light or we find ways to inject several different finishes into the same mold, so we try as hard as possible to make it look expensive. There are some standard paradigms, like leather is more expensive, but there are certain fabrics that actually look more expensive than leather, and still are a lot cheaper.

Gizmodo: With all the technology showing up in cars, like touchscreens, navigation systems, smartphone integration, is there a way to add those features without increasing driver distraction?

Amko: On the interior we have a lot of regulations and laws that we have to work around or with, distraction regulations. So technology has to be developed in a way that we can keep on doing that. We've invested quite heavily in voice control, we have the touchscreen, but we need to put them in a way that they're not taking your eyes off the road too long. For example, one of the regulations that is coming in more and more is that there is a certain, we call it the down-looking angle within the interior, how far down do you have to look to see a primary control, like climate control for example. That cannot be lower than a certain degree of your angle anymore. So what you see is a meta-trend where all of the controls are being moved up in the vehicle. It's quite an interesting piece of the puzzle and I certainly love that kind of problem-solving challenge. Because these regulations might not in fact be necessarily very positive on ergonomics, on physical ergonomics like reach. So we always have to find ways to make some really interesting design ideas.

Gizmodo: Are you ever tempted to do something really outlandish for an interior?

Amko: That's really what we are always balancing in between: On one hand, you want something unique that fits the brand, and on the other hand you don't want to have something so unique that only 10 percent of people like it. So apart from regulations that have got to do with distraction or driving at night, there are a couple of other constraints that are just as difficult. For example, can you fabricate it in the factory? The size of a dashboard is determined by the opening of the door, because the dashboard is going in through the side door [during assembly]. So if exterior design and interior design together design a door that is relatively small, then my dashboard has to be small as well because otherwise the robot cannot get the dashboard in.

Gizmodo: Is there one signature feature that you like to include in your future designs?

Amko: I think the biggest difference in the future is that we won't only have one or two features, but a series of features that are creating in the end an emotional connection with the customer. So if you compare it with music, or you compare it with poetry, or you compare it with a painting or a book, it's got different layers that create extra value in how you experience that book, or movie, or piece of poetry. And I think when we achieve that, it's much more valuable than only one or two features.

Gizmodo: Where do you get inspiration for your designs?

Amko: We get it from everywhere. I personally get it a lot from interior architecture, I get it a lot from furniture, from industrial design. But the funny thing with automotive design is that it can only look like it's a car. If a car looks like something else other than a car it won't be acceptable as a car. On an interior it's the same thing. I once designed an interior where the console somehow looked like an animal's nose. If people recognize it as an animal's nose, they don't like it anymore, because they don't want to be reminded of that. It's got to do with creating a design language that is sufficiently unique for your brand, that doesn't look like anything else, but still has the neutrality that you need to in order to have it accepted. There is a certain neutrality demanded in car design that keeps it looking like a car, so your inspiration is much more philosophical than literal.