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Interview: Ford Atlas Designers Gordon Platto and Aileen Barraza

The ideations behind the next generation of pick-up trucks

by Evan Orensten in Design on 13 August 2013

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We've admired the 2013 Ford Atlas Concept truck since its debut at Detroit's 2013 North American International Auto Show earlier this year. The Atlas makes a big statement about design, capability, fuel efficiency and technology that's certain to influence the next generation or two of Ford trucks.

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On a recent trip to the Motor City we met with chief designer for Ford pickups, Gordon Platto, and color and materials designer Aileen Barraza, who provided us with an in-depth look at what makes the Atlas the pickup truck of the future. The concept car is more than a fantasy automobile—this is a model with features we can expect to see in Ford F-150 production in the very near future.

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Cool Hunting: Tell us a little about your basic approach to designing pickups.

Gordon Platto: Part of what we do as designers is try and stretch the boundaries of not only reality, but of what we could potentially see in production. Maybe understanding what the ceiling is in terms of premium-ness on pickup trucks. So that's part of what we explored here and you can see all these pieces, each piece makes up a design element. We've tried to make it look very structural, but very premium as well.

CH: Can you walk us through a few of those details?

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GP: LEDs have made it affordable to get lights in places you really never would have thought of. It also allows us to do colors that harmonize with everything, interior and exterior, and really enhance the overall appearance. So on this particular truck we used cobalt blue as accents. Ford trucks are all about Ford toughness and that Ford-built, Ford-tough DNA. So we wanted everything to look like it was milled out of a solid build of steel.

Our guys, our truckers, really want to be genuine and authentic, and if you've got a fake scoop on the hood or a side vent that doesn't function, they're not interested because they want it to be real and functional. So everything that you see on here—even if it's way out there—serves a purpose. Like we have the active wheel shutters. On this particular vehicle we really pushed some of the innovative technologies to help out the aerodynamics, which typically you don't really talk about on trucks.

CH: Is it realistic that this could be a future option or is it pure fantasy?

GP: No, not pure fantasy. By pushing the boundaries of what we could do in production, it's got enough reality to really look into it for the future, but still push the boundaries.

CH: What are other ways this concept demonstrates Ford's evolution?

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GP: With all the functional features, we want to be leaders not only in styling, but also functionality. We want to be leaders in fuel economy, which is on the mind of every customer nowadays. And that's part of what kicked off and spawned some ideas for us like the wheel covers. So at speed [the wheels covers] would actually articulate and close for better aerodynamics.

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CH: There's been a move recently, particularly at Ford, to have concept cars that are similar to production cars. Can we expect to see some of these features on new F-150s?

GP: We want to make it look tough, rugged, bold and purpose-built. That's part of the reason why we designed these really sheer crisp edges, these really bold sections with a lot of height and a lot of drop to it. I'd look for that kind of stuff in the future. One thing we want to do is make sure it looks like a Ford brand truck, so this in the end falls in between a super duty and an F-150.

I've worked on a lot of programs in the past and I've been in trucks for quite a while. Not only on the design side, but on the program and the engineering side, they're passionate about trucks, man. They know their customer, they're passionate about understanding the wants and needs of the customer. We're passionate about our trucks, and we love them.

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CH: People think concepts start with someone sketching the exterior of the car. And that's obviously a big part of it. I imagine similarly you're always thinking about the inside, and materials, and combinations and things. How does it start? What's the parallel path to exterior sketching?

Aileen Barraza: I guess that's where trucks, in general, are different, right? Especially this truck team. We've worked together from the beginning as a whole. It's not interior sketching, exterior sketching, color or material. We all get together in a room and say, "What do we envision? What do we want this to be?"

CH: I assume you have all kinds of inspiration boards?

AB: Oh, yeah. It was looking at blogs, websites like Cool Hunting, or finding out little details in architecture. We all look at architecture a lot because it's timeless, and that's what we want our designs to be—timeless.

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CH: What are some of the things you really fought for?

AB: Well, we really fought for a lot of the aluminum. It has to be authentic—so you can't just pretend and make it out of something else. Even though these shapes are really hard to build, you can imagine the shape of the built aluminum, it just has to get this little tiny detail right. That's what it has to be.

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EO: Your job is about little moments and angles.

AB: It is, because we don't often think about the rear of the car or the second passenger as second thought, but making the person that's sitting in the second row feel as important as the person sitting in the front row.

CH: As the only woman on the truck design team, do you feel like you were able to represent in some way, balance out the hormones?

AB: I think as the sole female designer on this program, I have to sometimes bring in that angle and kind of ground the guys. I know aluminum is cool, but it might be too much if you chrome-dip the whole truck. So sometimes it can get that way. It's shiny, it's big, it's fast and it can drive any car off the road. So I think that's my role—to make it pleasant for everyone.

Truck images courtesy of Ford Motor Company, portraits by Evan Orensten

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