Ford Targets Imaginary Customer

by Conor Friedersdorf

Does this make you feel better or worse about the American automotive industry?

ANTONELLA is an attractive 28-year old woman who lives in Rome. Her life is focused on friends and fun, clubbing and parties.

She is also completely imaginary.

But her influence is definitely real. It is evident in the design of the Ford Fiesta, on sale in Europe now and arriving in the United States next summer as a 2011 model.

Antonella was the guiding personality for the Ford Verve, a design study that served as the basis for the latest-generation Fiesta. A character invented by Ford designers to help them imagine cars better tailored to their intended customers, she embodies a philosophy that guides the company’s design studios these days: to design the car, first design the driver.

It couldn't help but remind me of this Simpson's episode, which is hardly a fair assessment, so I tried to stay open-minded. But then I got to this part:

Antonella cares more about the design and function of her telephone than that of her car. Her priorities in the Fiesta are visible in the car’s central panel, where controls inspired by those of a cellphone operate the audio and air-conditioning systems. Designers working on the Fiesta referred to the shape framing the dashboard instruments as “Antonella’s glasses.”

I care about the design and function of my Web browser more than I do about my car, so I suppose if Ford ever designs a vehicle for me it will swap out the gear shift for "forward" and "back" buttons, the clock will be replaced by a cartoon Japanese fox whose activities signal the time of day, and touching a small house icon will cause the car to automatically drive me home.

In seriousness, a central panel inspired by those of a cellphone seems like an awful idea. Cell phones are quite different from one another, for starters, and most of them presume that you're looking at the interface as you use them. What car makers should do is eschew the gimmicks and buttons in favor of a return to the tactile control panels of yore. Is there anything better than a radio dial or a volume knob for intuitively sensing finite adjustments while keeping your eyes on the road?