HawkPride: Ford F-150 designer talks blood, sweat, and tears
G rowing up in Taylor, HFC alumnus Rob Brancheau lived six miles from a Ford Motor Co. plant and wondered what it would be like to work for the automotive giant as his father tinkered with cars at their home.
These days, Brancheau – who was recently featured in the Detroit Free Press – is a Senior Color and Materials (C&M) Designer for Ford, working on the F-150, Ford’s iconic pickup truck.
“My dad was a mechanic by trade. He was the guy everyone brought cars over for him to fix, and I was always in the garage with him. I grew up playing with Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, so I’ve always had a thing for cars,” said Brancheau, who lives in Woodhaven with his wife and two children.
After graduating from John F. Kennedy High School in Taylor in 1998, Brancheau went to work as a professional carpenter. The first truck he owned was a used 1997 F-150, which he took to and from work for seven years. He became a fan of the F-150.
“I was drawn to the F-150 because of the new styling in 1997. It was a big redesign that really helped lead the design trends of that time. The other trucks were still quite boxy,” he said.
A colorful start that led to U-M, Ford
By day, Brancheau worked as a carpenter. By night, he attended classes at HFC. In 2002, he graduated from HFC, earning his associate degree in graphic design. He transferred to the University of Michigan (U-M) in Ann Arbor, earning his bachelor’s degree in fine arts in 2008.
Brancheau attended HFC because of its affordable tuition, its proximity to home, and the ability to take classes while working full-time.
“The art program was very good to learn the ins and outs of design, as well as the software typically used in the creative industries. It was a good stepping stone,” he said. “(HFC) gave me an exceptional knowledge of design fundamentals and a very good skillset in the Adobe software programs. I had also taken a number of drawing and color classes that helped me at U-M.”
Not only did attending HFC prepare him for U-M, it also prepared him for Ford.
“I took a color theory class that was very valuable for my career at Ford,” said Brancheau. “This class taught me the fundamentals on how colors are perceived, how the color spectrum works, and how different cultures view color.”
From burp cloths, bibs, and changing pads to redesigning the F-150
Brancheau got his job at Ford for a unique reason.
“I applied on the Ford website. I had no inside connections,” he recalled. “What really enabled me to get my foot in the door was a collection of baby items I made that my wife and I started selling at OB-GYN offices. These were boutique burp cloths, bibs, and changing pads. We dyed the fabrics, added custom embroidery, and embellished them with accent ribbons and so on. These items became my color and materials portfolio, which in turn got me the job.”
Since 2011, Brancheau has worked on the F-150 – Ford’s iconic pickup truck for more than 40 years – including the 2021 model.
“My primary focus on the 2021 F-150 was the color and materials for the full exterior,” explained Brancheau. “We had another C&M designer that laid out the strategy for the interior. Once her strategy was approved, I worked to implement it. The exterior, on the other hand, was my strategy from start to finish. On the interior, we offer a much wider range of color options than in previous years. Across the full vehicle, we meticulously revised every color, grain, and gloss to deliver a much more crafted feel that I think customers will appreciate.”
According to Brancheau, the F-150 team wanted to break away from the notion that stiff and rough means tough and durable.
“We pushed our materials to feel more like home furnishings than standard automotive materials,” he said. “We did this without compromising any durability. We wanted to make everything you touch while driving have a softer, more inviting feel.”
F-150: the blood, sweat, and tears of life
Being a carpenter and owning an F-150 has been advantageous when working on the F-150 on many levels.
“I experienced how passionate the core truck customers are with their trucks, and I gained insight on how the trucks are used every day,” said Brancheau. “I challenged myself and the team to identify areas we can make the product better. The step pads are one example. I created a new texture on the stepping surfaces that gives a technical appearance similar to the grips on hand tools and also provides grip when it’s stepped on.”
Surprisingly, Brancheau doesn’t feel any pressure working on such an iconic vehicle.
“The entire F-150 team works very well together and we had a clearly defined goal and a consistent vision for the product,” he said. “A while back, I worked the Ford GT, which had a ton of pressure. With this said, from a pressure standpoint, the F-150 was quite a walk in the park, because everyone on F-150 works as a team.”
Brancheau gave his perspective on what makes the F-150 the definitive pickup truck for Ford – and America.
“I think the history speaks for itself,” he said. “On a more personal level, I think Ford always has an emphasis on the blue-collar middle class. Within that, F-150 embodies the hard work, commitment to family, helping friends out, getting dirty, and the blood, sweat, and tears of life – I think we all can relate to that.”
He was honored to be profiled in the Free Press.
“It was surprising to be on the front page of the Sunday paper,” he said. “Within the design group at Ford, we are often going full speed on our next program when the media covers a reveal. We usually miss out on these opportunities. It was rather nice to have a breather and share our story.”