By on March 23, 2007

ccsppg87822.jpgHow many of us sketched cars in the margins of our grade school notebooks? For a small minority, that’s the beginning of their life’s work. Those with the gift go on to enroll in design colleges to pursue a career in Transportation Design. Once there, the budding designers’ personal expressions are run through the meat grinder of de-constructive criticism. While the process is daunting, it is nothing compared to the “real world” of car design.

It doesn’t take a Human Resources Manager to recognize the automotive design studio’s crushing stoicism. Those with strong managerial allegiances get the credit they deserve. Others find their artistic expressions on the losing end of the cult of personality. In other words, being a good car designer doesn’t automatically make you a successful car designer. In the cloistered, hyper-competitive world of the automotive studio, networking, company politics and shameless self-promotion trump creativity.

So it’s much like your job, except worse. Imagine those no-nothing know-it-alls, pushy self-promoters and cronies clawing for recognition from the chief megalomaniac. Now imagine that your work, erupting from the very core of your soul, must be defended and nurtured in this environment. A cakewalk it ain’t.

Somehow, into this climate a car is born. To get the job done, the designer may create after the well-paid, well-dressed negative energy checks out for the night. Fraternizing with the clay modelers also helps: down to earth folks who translate a studio junkie’s 2-D rendering into a universally recognizable, high impact masterpiece.

Jeff Sanders lived this life. He was a master of Automotive Americana; someone who invented new forms without resorting to retro styling or cliché proportioning. He designed the custom trimmings on the first-gen Harley Davidson F150, a set of chrome wheels and a few gorgeous interior bits for the 2007 Lincoln Navigator. (Upcoming Ford products may flaunt the Sanders’ design language.)

The native Texan was a soft spoken, sensitive soul who somehow kept his head above the toxic soup filling Ford’s design studios. He kept the faith for two main reasons: his love of design and the dream of working for Ford, his favorite car company. His ‘67 Mustang project car provides ample proof of the artist’s emotional connection with The Blue Oval’s past, present and future.

Jeff weathered the design studio for five years in hopes of reaping the fruits of employment in a leaner, meaner FoMoCo. But things went sour after a particularly demeaning reassignment: his talent and creativity were neglected and ostracized for the last time. After turning down Ford’s white collar buyout plan, Jeff Sanders quit his “dream job” with his “dream company.”

Everyone thought Jeff’s analytical skills, gearhead personality and artistic talent made him a no-brainer for management-level success. But a phone call from the Michigan State Patrol shattered those beliefs. On March 8, Jeff Sanders drove his Ford truck to a secluded country road and committed suicide. None of his friends saw it coming, though we all wish we had.

Jeff and I were design students back in 1998. Aside from the Texas connection, his affectation for American Iron, effortless technique and acute BS detector made him my go-to guy. Jeff brought clarity to my muddy renderings and tightened up my sophomoric designs. I remember the good times; jumping in his truck in search of something, anything to take our minds off of next week’s verbal bloodbath.

I moved to greener pastures. Jeff joined Ford. He told me that somewhere between “Quality is Job 1” and “Bold Moves,” FoMoCo’s corporate design department had turned “teamwork” into a dirty word. I learned the personal struggles and political consequences of design rework. As Jeff put it:

“You want to know why cars look like shit? The designers are usually the last to touch the product.”

Jeff’s visits back to The Lone Star State were filled with laments about the cutthroat, ass-kissing environment and inflated rock-star personalities inside Ford’s design studios. I admired him for never playing that game, letting his brilliance shine on vellum instead.

Unlike most of our friends, I know why Jeff began his downward spiral: Ford’s design studio destroyed his soul. He lost the one thing that sustained him, that gave him a reason to live: his art.

Anyone in the car business knows that passionate designers suffer in the soul-crushing environment of the automotive design studio. While this website mercilessly punishes Detroit for not putting the product first, we got it wrong. People come first. No exceptions, ever.

People are the fertile soil that provides a bountiful harvest of products, innovations and profits. Losing a soaring spirit—especially one who single-handedly designed cars that might have restored Detroit’s fortunes– is a tragedy for all car enthusiasts. When a company stifles personal creativity, one way or another, something important is lost. Forever.

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61 Comments on “Jeff Sanders, Car Designer, Ford Motor Company, RIP...”

  • avatar
    Glenn A.

    I’m very sorry to hear of your loss, Sajeev. The loss of a friend in this way leaves a big hole in the heart, and this can easily be seen in the article.

    And you are quite right. We gearheads sometimes forget, in our passion for the car, that a car is something conceived, engineered, designed and brought to fruition by people – for people.

  • avatar

    Thank you for the very moving insight into the life of an auto designer. My condolences to you Sajeev and to all of Jeff Sanders’ family and friends.
    This puts life in perspective and make you appreciate what is truly important in life.

  • avatar

    Thanks for sharing, Sajeev.

  • avatar

    Its been a shocking few weeks for the auto industry with suicides at Renault and here in Detroit, bringing the harshness of life to us all.

    Many designers can act like Gods, but really we are all human who get affected by decisions involving our work, we try not to take things personally regarding decisions, but as said, when you put your heart and soul into a project, how can you not. Did you know over 90% of what you do never goes anywhere?!

    The way people are managed should be re-assessed, Fords not the greatest for this, its all about the numbers, not the people. One reason i swapped companies.

    At GM we were shocked to hear this news, many condolences from the General in these trying times.

  • avatar
    Jeff in Canada

    Wow, I’m speechless.
    Thank you Sajeev for providing this view into a world that most of us probably never see or even think about.
    My condolences.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    Well said.

  • avatar

    It’s not uncommon for one to be driven into despair by their job. But when it’s their dream job (I too used to sketch cars in my notebooks), it’s a shame.

    My condolences as well.

  • avatar

    I certainly wish he’d chosen the route of a tell-all book instead, for both his sake, your sake, and ours.

    This editorial is a fitting memorial. If you have additional material, or even if you don’t, you should consider trying to find wider placement. It’s a story that needs to be told.

    When I performed my Ph.D. research inside GM, I was surprised by the almost total lack of fun inside the Design Studios there. These people should have been working their dream jobs, but there was no sign of that. Maybe it’s better under Lutz.

    It’s clearly far worse over at Ford, which has always been the most political of the Detroit 3.

  • avatar

    I feel for your loss and the American auto industry should as well. I admit I’m biased as I’m a web designer but the design should always come first. Of course you should and need to have close interaction with the engineer’s to make sure what you are creating is workable but the design is what generates interest. People may love utilitarian cars but they would also love a beautiful and utilitarian car.

    Creativity should be focus not restrained and teamwork should be fostered. Although designer’s tend to like to do their own work and see their own design succeed. You don’t want design by committee but you can improve design through a team and it’s very useful.

  • avatar

    I don’t know if I agree that the design should come *first*, but it’s far more important than any car companies seem to realize. For regular road cars, I don’t see anything wrong with VWs approach: make one suspension and put it at the corners of various sized unibodies. Getting sheetmetal to fit that shouldn’t be too hard, so the designers shouldn’t be hamstrung at every turn.

    I’d like to see more platform sharing, less badge engineering, and WAY more sheetmetal engineering.

    Since most of us don’t drive past 5/10s, it won’t matter that our jettas have passat suspension bits–so spend the rest of the money making butt-ugly MKV jettas (done and done) along side a pretty coupe, a nice hatch, and a sportwagon. If the AUDI A3 can meet euro pedestrian impact standards, there’s no reason the MKV jetta/rabbit has to look like a minivan.

    sorry i got distracted complaining about VW.

    less sat nav. more pretty skin.

  • avatar

    Thanks for this touching memorial. It’s funny, but for 35 years I’ve dreamed of being a designer at a domestic automaker. Reading this makes me realize that politics infects nearly every job at a big company.

    This story is a more chilling sign of Ford’s troubles than anything in a 10Q or research report.

  • avatar
    Sid Vicious

    One of the true contants at FoMoCo is it’s ability to absolutely crush human beings. We joked right after we hired in that we were nothing but timy little pieces in a big big machine. It couldn’t have been more true.

    Every organization has politics, but Ford is just unbelievable. In the end so little of people’s energy ends up in the car. It’s like the Rio Grande. When we get done with it, it’s just a dirty trickle.

    Over the course of 17 years it just never got any better. If anything it got worse – the next dumb-ass flavor of the week “Process” just came faster and faster, replacing the previous dumb-ass process.

    Good riddance (to Ford Motor, that is.)

  • avatar


    I know what it is like to lose a good friend and I am truly sorry.

    Although it is always difficult to pinpoint exactly what might cause someone to become so despondent to take their own life, it is safe to say his work environment contributed.

    I never worked in auto design but you saw the same forces at play in the creative side of advertising agencies. There are colossal egos and good ideas are often destroyed by politics.

    The few people I know at Ford are overworked and underapprecaited. Ford has mortgaged both its physical and metaphysical future by cutting talented, young people first. Most of the people who left voluntarily are the ones who had ability (that now serve and strengthen other organizations). The ones who are left are, in several cases, the ones who have nowhere to go. Who will want to work for this company in the future?

    Jeff sounds like the guy who wanted to make a difference and help a company he loved become stronger. It is tragic when a company that needs such passion so desperately, squelches it and marginalizes the people with it.

    Remember your friend at his best as that is the essence of his soul.

  • avatar

    Fomoco is the wrong place for a romantic. The corporate culture at Ford is poisonous, all the “bold Moves” and “Job 1s” won’t change a damned thing.

  • avatar
    Spanish guy

    As Jeff put it “You want to know why cars look like ? The designers are usually the last to touch the product.”

    It´s a bit difficult to critizice the words a a man that just commited , but cars are machines, not sculptures: The designer (estylist) MUST be the last one to touch the product.

    Or, as Volvo said in the 1970´s Volvo ads: “At Volvo the engineer calls the shots”. Pity Volvo forgot that principle with the S-60, with its blind spot creating A and C pillars and space-wasting rear inverted “T” theme. I prefer the body of the good old 700 or 900.

    Yup: I am a rationalist driver, not an emotionalist driver.

    IMO, one of the problems with the American cars from the 50s 60s and 70s was a “form over function” design approach. To be honest: To my European eyes those cars from a bygone era, with Opera Windows, Tailfins and chromed bumpers seem insane machines.

    OTOH, timeless designs as the VW Beetle (the movile, not the 1990´s aberration), the Volvo 200, the Land Rover ot the Range Rover are strictly funcional designs. See this page about the Range Rover

    [About the Range Rover] The body style in this photograph was intended only as a temporary measure in order to clothe the running gear, whilst David Bache devised the definitve design. However, the management of the company liked this proposal so much, they asked for it to remain, with only the lightest of changes

    My condolences.

  • avatar

    What a great tribute to the tragic death of a very talented young man. Thanks, Sajeev. I really feel for his family…what a tremendous loss.

  • avatar

    Truly sorry about your friend, the loss of creativity is a loss to us all, such a shame.

    During my 10 years at Ford in management I was allways amazed at the contradictions you had to deal with almost every moment. The personnel department went to great lengths to find the bet and the brightest, innovation and balls was what you tried to show to get hired. The minute you get out of the front office and hit “Ford Country”, you learn to walk lock step with your manager and just don’t rock the boat. You soon learn that at Ford “Car” is short for careers, tht is what they attempt to build there. I moved on to a company where initiative and innovation was in more than a slogan on the wall, a German Company, Siemens and within several years with their assistance I had 2 patent awards and numerous special recognition awards for innovation. The money was never as good but you can’t put a price on job satisfaction. All most people really want out of their job is some satisfaction and a chance to fly once in a while. Everyone at Ford has been grounded by weather for years.

  • avatar
    blue adidas

    As disturbing as this is to hear about your friend, it unfortunately is sometimes the nature of working in a job that is also a personal passion. We all, in theory, would love to hold jobs that provide us with a creative outlet. If successful, it’s euphoria. But for those who don’t succeed, due to personal failure or politics or whatever, it’s crushing. People have profoundly strong opinions about the automotive industry, more so than just about any other industry. Automakers appear to develop products that lack integrity and without any regard to what buyers want. Because of this, loyal customers convert into angry verbal lynch mobs.

    This is the dark ages for Ford. Most other automakers have been in the same position at one time or another. I hope that the Ford executives, the UAW and everyone in this industry reflect on what has happened and use this to help rediscover what business they are in.

  • avatar

    Very nicely said, Sajeev. We are all missing Jeff something awful here in Detroit. (on a multitude of levels) After Jeff completed an internship with our studio (while he was still in school) I was only able to chat with him once or twice a year… usually at “Designer’s Night”. He was such a warm and insightful individual.

    Unfortunately, most design studios have these terrible traits but just in varying degrees. Sounds as though his particular environment was worse than average.

    I’m taking this experience of loss as a lesson, though. Jeff was clearly sending a message with such dramatic action. My interpretations are personal, but suffice it to say I refuse to let ANY job drive me to despair of this magnitude. Peace be with Jeff, his family and all else who loved him.

  • avatar

    Very sorry for your less – but this was a compelling piece of information that really deserves a little more space.

  • avatar

    Whoops – “loss” not “less”. Oh Edit, where are thou?

  • avatar

    I have been a graphic designer for about fifteen years and can say that Jeff’s experience at Ford is not unique. Almost all designers, architects, screenwriters, filmmakers—essentially creative professionals—have the almost impossible uphill battle to get the project they want and the freedom to complete it they way they envisioned it. In the rare case that one is able to make a name for themselves and become a celebrity in their respective field, they may get carte blance over a project. Maybe. But almost always they will end up butting heads with other designers or marketing types or the suits, and climbing an uphill battle. It’s sad. It’s sad that a lot of talented people become discouraged and give up because the process is what it is, and it’s especially sad in Jeff’s case. My condolences.

  • avatar
    Megan Benoit

    Words fail me. What a loss.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    Mr. Mehta,

    Man… that’s sad. How old was this Jeff, 28? 29?

    “You want to know why cars look like shit? The designers are usually the last to touch the product.”

    We should get that up in the masthead.

    It’s interesting, because just last night I was having some beers with a buddy who just participated in a Chevy consumer clinic where he and others were shown a bunch of car interiors and asked to tell their likes and dislikes.

    I asked him who was conducting the clinics, designers? No, sadly, just MBAs and project managers.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    Thank you all for your kind words. I know Jeff’s family also deeply appreciates what you’ve said about their remarkable son.

  • avatar

    As I began to read this and his dedication to nothing-but-Ford, I’m thinking to myself that’s the way I used to be. May be I should still be that way. Then the story becomes tragic and I come to my senses.

  • avatar

    Condolences to the family.

    Do you have any more examples of Jeff’s work?

  • avatar
    Steve Biro

    A tragic, heart-rending story. And a telling one – about a man, a company, an industry – and possibly a nation. I can easily see similar scenarios in any line of work populated by empassioned, creative people. Blue adidas wrote “this is the dark ages for Ford.” I would expand that statement to include, with only a few exceptions, almost all of corporate America.

  • avatar

    Amen Steve Biro
    One of the many problems within American society.
    Coming from an architect who can relate to how Jeff felt in that dark place.

  • avatar

    Your article is far more important than you may know. I would highly rec. that you send it to Autoweek as a reply to the recent glamourized portrayal of the car designer. Many of my students dream of this type of job and suffer through the high cost of a specialized education (most of which contributes to the dementing of the soul in order to create the beasts tied to creative output) in an effort to earn this vaulted status. The schools play into it heavily – it makes them money.
    Your superb statments on Jeff’s behalf should ring clear into everyones ears that teaches, administrates, or educates within the automotive design community. I did not know Jeff personally but a little bit of him rests deep in the dark caverns of everyone who works under the pressure cooker of creative dreaming within the automotive design world. My sympathies to his family and close friends.

  • avatar

    Thank you for sharing Sajeev; that was a very touching eulogy to your dear friend. Condolences to Jeff’s family as well.

    I agree with many of the comments posted by others with regards to pressures one deals with working in corporate America. I for one cannot wait to get away from the rat race.

  • avatar

    Not what you typically expect at a car website, but greatly appreciated none-the-less. For the outsider, this is perhaps one of the most telling editorials in explaining the downward spiral of the big 3.

  • avatar
    Joe Chiaramonte

    My condolences to you and Jeff’s family and friends, Sajeev. What an unnecessary loss.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    JL: he was 35, one of the older guys at my design school. Wiser too. Your friend who attended that clinic only adds to the “no teamwork here” attitude I hear about in product planning. Sad.

    JSForbes: I do, but I’d rather not have people swipe his work and use it elsewhere. Its just too good to share like this. I’ll gladly post some of the junk I designed back at school. (kidding)

    raffim: one of my former car design friends showed me the Autoweek article. Aside from the vomit-inducing CCS propaganda (gotta make that money) I didn’t mind it. If you like ID or Trans, you have to go for it…otherwise you’ll never know if you’re cut out for it.

    I did…and now I’m here.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    This is a fine piece that shows the human price of “downsizing.” I sure hope that someone steps forward to help complete the restoration of his 1967 Ford Mustang.

  • avatar

    Deepest condolences, Sajeev.

    Link to more pictures of Jeff’s PPG Design Challenge work:

  • avatar

    And amen to the astute Michael Karesh for his wish that Mr. Sanders had alleviated his despondency with a tell-all book. This site is frequented by many who have personal experience with the decision-making processes and product development errors in the auto industry, but rarely do outsiders hear concrete examples. It’s been more than a decade since Mary Walton’s wonderful in-the-trenches book “Car” about the development of the ill-fated 1996 Taurus.
    Design is important, but we should keep in mind that cars are inevitably a product of many compromises. That’s often a good thing. Stylists had unusual power over the ’96 Taurus. (Remember the boast it had “no straight lines”? That tells you something about priorities). My wife saw a Taurus wagon from the rear and, without knowing the brand, pronounced it the “ugliest car ever.” Engineers and production people struggled to cope with mechanical and assembly problems created by styling features. I bet the current Chrysler 300’s slit-like windows have lost it more sales than were won. As the blood-letting continues in Detroit, those who still have and still want their jobs must be under tremendous pressure to justify their paychecks, by whatever means necessary.

  • avatar

    Wow. I’m sorry that you lost a friend, and I’m sorry that the guy suffered from emotional problems so severe that he found it necessary to take his own life. But really . . . to blame this on a big, bad corporate culture is a bit too much of a stretch for me. I’ve read plenty of Dilbert cartoons, and never once did he eat a bullet.

  • avatar

    I concur with some of the earlier posts regarding the work-life of people involved in the creative arts and toiling away in large organizations.

    From personal experience, I can say that people in these positions suffer mightily, precisely because they are able to recognize the futility of the situation – even when John MBA and Sally CPA are enjoying their careers and swimming along in happy oblivion.

    However, I would caution against distilling down the incredibly complex web of human experience that sometimes leads to such a tragic event to support our opinions regarding the Zeitgeist at the big 2.5 – and at Ford in particular.

  • avatar

    My condolences.

    Well, I’m 17 years old, my school notebooks are full of car designs, probably should pay more attention in class, but my dream job… probably guessed it to be a car designer, and at FoMoCo, as well, and now this artice, might be time to reconsider dream jobs.

  • avatar
    Ben Naphtali

    Sajeev: This is an eloquent and personal remembrance. Very well done. I have one point to make that I hope will be of value to all. I don't doubt that FoMoCo is a terrible place to work, or that it has been since long before things got so openly dismal. There's also no doubt that the environment and pressure affected Jeff's perspective on himself and the world. With all that acknowledged, Ford didn't kill Jeff. Depression did. If an unhealhy work environment were a killer, wouldn't most of us be dead? Now more than ever, Americans seem to be coming around to the fact that depression is a disease. That no one (or few people) saw it coming is unfortunately meaningless, because it's actually very common for people to suffer in silence. By their nature, suicide attempts are perhaps the clearest, and sometimes tragically too late, symptom of mental illness. If we're to look at the environment, then there certainly are people who have suffered things more horrendous than Jeff did, and stayed alive. If it sounds like I'm saying he wasn't tough enough, then you miss my point. The point is that we can't put too much emphasis on the environment. If you want to blame Ford for being a toxic place to work, I'm right there with you. But until we recognize suicide as coming from within, from something that's as difficult for people to understand as a neurological disorder, cancer or even alcoholism, then we won't be able to prevent others from taking the same tragic action Jeff did. Thanks for your time. –Ben

  • avatar

    While I knew Jeff and he was a good friend and will miss him, maybe just maybe he just got tired of hearing that his lifes work was shit. on the inside and the outside, Think about that.

  • avatar

    Its a nasty buisness with lots of tragic stories and I’m afraid it will get worse before it gets better.
    Sajeev my sympathy to you, your friend and his family.

  • avatar

    Jeff Sanders, may your work be appreciated appropriately in your next life. As with many of the Human Race’s greatest artists, proper appreciation happens only after unfortunate circumstances.

    theantirice, though I’m an industry outsider, I firmly believe that people like you are absolutely necessary to bring about what the rest of us crave from the American auto industry. Take what you know, learn, and desire from the outside and apply it to the inside when you get there. Good luck at Ford and let us know when you get there.

  • avatar

    Jeff was an amazing individual who was appreciated and valued by many—including hundreds of his co-workers at Ford. What is most sad is that the anger and hostility in this writing does absolutely nothing to honor Jeff’s life. Rather than sensationalizing his death, we would all be better off celebrating his accomplishments.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    A sobering story.

  • avatar

    This is really sad & tragic story …

    I can only imagine how things are now in the DC and how Ford in general is reverting back to how it operated 30 years ago … I worked there in a non-design capacity as a new hire but saw 1st hand how VP’s amassed the troops, lined them up, & shot them down … who could walk the fastest thru the studios to keep up w/VP’s & mgr’s, long after-work meetings in DB’s finer watering holes w/E.B. … female designers using all options to get 3rd/4th/5th looks for a mgr slot or Turrin assignment from J.T. … greasing the skids with modelers to get it on time & right …

    FoMoCo had moved beyond that mentality in the mid 80’s – 90’s but the cancer appears to have resurfaced … saw this happen about month ago with LL5 & LL6’s favoritism played out for music chairs postions & walking the others out the door …

    Unfortunately … Way “Forward” will bring “back” the “old Ford Management ways” …

    good luck — “Back to the Future”

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    While I knew Jeff and he was a good friend and will miss him, maybe just maybe he just got tired of hearing that his lifes work was shit. on the inside and the outside, Think about that.


    Even if you disagree with the serious/harsh tone of my eulogy, the above statement sums it up for all of us.

  • avatar

    What a tragic tale. My heart goes out to Mr. Sanders’s family and friends.

    This should be a bit of a wake-up call.

    Behind the companies we disdain and whose downfall we prognosticate there are people who design, build and manage, most of whom do their jobs with skill and honour.

    The next time we get the urge to inject a dose of schadenfreude into our discussions, let’s try to remember that the destruction of thousands of livelihoods is an immense human tragedy.

    Reading about Jeff Sanders puts things in perspective: a lousy car isn’t the end of the world.

  • avatar

    Jeff was a great guy. Sometimes it is difficult to see these things coming. We all wish we had. Sajeev, that was a good tribute, but Ben sums up what the important issues are here, and he has done a better job at it than I can.
    However, I do believe that there is yet another issue at play, the issue of expectations. A dream job sometimes does not live up to what one may have imagined. It is a tough world. Even success in this field is tough. If a sketch is picked to be developed you have to watch it become compromised in order to make it feasible. Expecting your work to make it to the road as you intended in your sketch is never realistic. As others have eloquently expressed, there is no easy outcome for anyone in a creative field, successful or not.
    I remember seeing Jeff’s work for the first time in E studio. My jaw dropped. Very creative. It is true that Jeff was talented. But sometimes the most creative design work is not always the most appropriate for the specific product. Jeff knew that his work was good, there was no shortage of people telling him so. But knowing that you do good work does not always ease the pain of not having your sketch” chosen”. Combine this with the issues Ben addressed and you have a problem.
    We lost another friend here two years ago. A clay sculpture died in a similar manner to Jeff. I will not blame this on Ford. Ford has problems, that is true. Any time you put people together you have politics. We have politics. There are some boneheads here, but there are also some absolutely great, wonderful, selfless, talented car people, and believe it or not, a few good leaders.
    I am proud that Jeff worked at Ford. He did a good job. He will be missed.

  • avatar

    edit – make that sculptor, not scupture.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta


    Both you and Ben bring an important counterpoint to the discussion, and I’m glad you did.

    Design isn’t like most careers, but it can be less of a pressure cooker. For one thing, foster a culture of teamwork within studios and the entire department. We all know its important, and its long overdue.

    Another, designers need more face time with engineering, marketing and finance departments. That’s crucial to help a designer understand the environment, and not let the system drag them down. And there’s no doubt in my mind that this will improve the creative power of your designers, engineers and marketing analysts.

    Yes, those are generalizations you get from a $20 management book, but there is a lot of merit to these basic moves.

    I believe positive change will come after the loss of a great person–one of my best friends–I no longer regret my decision to find another career.

    The world of Automotive Design needs to grow up and join the rest of us.

  • avatar

    You have said in your tribute to Jeff that the sort of ‘winner take all’ mentality starts in design school. This may be a necessary evil, there has to be a weeding out process to identify talent (Jeff succeeded there). However, those grab-it-all thought patterns are now ingrained in the industry and have had decades to percolate. I am as guilty as any. It will take a deep change in our culture if we are to think as a team. I believe that it can be done, but egos die hard.

    On the other hand there are some real dangers to ‘team’ design. There is a subtle but important difference between ‘design by committee’ and ‘design by consensus’. Success can be found in consensus IF you have the right team. I certainly think that Jeff was a good team member.

    One ‘$20 management book’ that might help is Collins ‘From Good to Great’. But the smaller egos described there-in rarely make it up the steep slop of corporate management.

  • avatar
    Sajeev Mehta

    Agreed, the winner take all theme in design schools separates the men from the boys. I’m proof of that. :)

    And, you’re right, teamwork isn’t the design gospel: competition between people/studios for the next product/concept is healthy. Teamwork during ideation sketching is a horrible idea. But once the idea is concrete, the market is defined, engineering hard points set etc. the design team must rally together and make the best damn product they possibly can and not waste time with all the stuff we’ve spoken of.

    And I still think designers need to be included in cross-functional teams with other departments. Creative juices can easily flow between marketing and engineering folks. Finance needs to know what designers do, if for no other reason than to help designers learn the mechanics of beancounting.

    Somewhere in this cross functional team, I see the next 1964 1/2 Mustang. I have to believe that, because my faith is all I’ve got.

  • avatar

    Having worked as a clay modeler for 25 years I can attest to the politics and sole destroying decisions that plague a well executed design. Most designers when in tune with their modeling team will walk through hell to get what they feel has correct proportion and design queues but ineventably many decisions are made on the strength of, is the designer popular or does he suck up to his peers.

    All designs must go through a director who is in charge of that programme and he/she will dillute the initial concept to stamp his or her own authority on that design until it goes to the next level. Then it starts all over again until it reaches its final destination in front of the executives and bean counters who ultimately make the final decision. If you are at the bottom end of the pyramid and you are seeing your labor of love disintergrate before your very eyes, the despair can be intolerable as in Jeffs case. Passion and creativity can result in a dynamic and world beating design but this has to be nurtured with all disciplines, meeting together to form a common goal.

    The fact that the big three are reeling from erosion of their market share is only putting more emphasis on quality design and tighter time frames but is it purely a design factor. Many of the newer models still suffer from “out of the parts bin” syndrome which will never influence a more educated and aware consumer. Jeff’s ultimate sacrifice may have been the result of total dispair in having to compromise not only his design but also his belief.

  • avatar
    dr. detroit

    At the end of the day, all we have left is ourselves and our thoughts. Perhaps he felt that his self and his thoughts had been damaged irreparably.

    I wouldn’t want Jeff Sander’s death on my conscience.

  • avatar

    My heart goes out to Jeff and his family…I didn’t know him very well but have admired his work while employed at Ford Design.

    It has been said that undertaking a career in automotive design is a bit akin to packing your bags and leaving for Hollywood…most end up in the same situation…a prostitute or dead. I would never encourage my sons to follow my path.

    Here’s my 02 cents for you guys still in school persuing a degree in transportation design. Check your ambitions at the studio’s door and find other creative outlets in your personal life that you find rewarding. Design for yourself…sketch for the moment…most importantly, enjoy your craft. Because after it leaves your hands, it is beyond your control so don’t hang your hopes that anyone above you might have a clue that you know what you’re doing and give you the time of day. Always remember…good design may be subjective to the moron in charge and more importanly, “it all pays the same” whether you’re enjoying your Christmas vacation or pulling 60hours in December following a showcar for NAIAS! Personally, I find that I’m much happier stretched out on my couch next to the Christmas Tree…


  • avatar

    hey, can someone please tell me where jeff sanders went to college? or what he did to get where he was?

  • avatar

    Hi Sajeev,

    Jeff and I were friends. Though several years have passed and we hadn’t talked I am shocked to find this news : ( Sajeev, is there anything else you can tell me about this?

  • avatar

    nocars, thank you for posting. Feel free to email me @

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    10 years after I originally read this piece, it is still so chilling. Raise a glass to the creative spirits of the world, and pray that their passion continues to bear fruit.

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