Recently I’ve done a bit more driving and I’ve spent some of the journey looking at and pondering car design.
I’ve been interested in the way cars look for as long as I can remember, and although I can’t really afford a car that looks great, I was wondering why it should be that some cars look good and others don’t – and I’m trying to keep my personal opinion out of this – I really think it’s true some cars look better than others.
An ideal of honesty
One of the ideas I turned over was that perhaps honesty and integrity are crucial in car design. This is a concept widely used in art and design – that the designer or maker is 100% committed to the truth of the design, that there is some ideal form that they feel they can create (this may just be an unreachable ideal) which completely expresses either how they feel about an artwork or product – or what the artwork or product is envisaged as.
Some cars look like the designer has been given a set of criteria that the car should express – eg luxury, sportiness, pedigree, utility, fun etc, but that they (the designer) don’t really believe the car really is that eg: fun and as a consequence the car – when you look at it, does not convince you that it is a fun car. It’s insistence that it is fun seems strained, it seems to be hiding something – it doesn’t look comfortable about itself.
Other cars look much more confident about what they are. Even if the design is unambitious, or even ugly… (I’m thinking of BMWs) A confident designer know what they are expressing, and has not rested until they have expressed it. Then, even if we wouldn’t have designed the car that way ourselves, we can at least admire the integrity of the design.
Clearly an expensive luxury car costs more, and as well as having a better engineered vehicle, you would also expect a sharp design. I say “sharp” here as I imagine the idea in the designer’s imagination would be in very clear sharp focus, and they would have realised it exactly, so that a camera taking a picture of it would not have to struggle to find a good-looking angle, whereas with less time, less well-funded, perhaps less focussed designers would have a vague idea of how their design should look, and would accept compromises to finish the job on time or on budget, and the result would be a less satisfying overall design – perhaps you would have to use some sort of soft-focus on the camera or in Photoshop to make the car look decent.
Here “satisfying” is an interesting word. because I started by assuming that car designs could be good or bad in an a priori sense. And satisfying is a thing you do with appetites. Human beings certainly have an appetite for design – for aesthetics and particularly for the mythology and whatever anthropomorphisms a design might seem to have. Surely everybody has made the comparison between car headlights and eyes, between the front of a car and a face. But although some people are more sensitive than others to seeing things like this, we are probably all affected on some level by a piece of car design, we are getting a sense from the designer of what they were feeling when they made the design. A good design will give us a focussed sense of what they were feeling – a striking looking car. And a bad design – a compromised design – will give a weak or confused sense of the designer’s state of mind – “designed by committee” – either literally a committee of stakeholders in a room, each trying to get their own thumbprints on the design, but also possible – a committee whose members are time constraints, lack of focus on the part of the designer, interference from unqualified managers, negative pressures from an unpleasant working environment etc.
The reality of honesty
Ideally the car that looked fantastic would also be fantastic – it would be reliable, efficient, nice to drive, practical, and make you feel fantastic, but I know this isn’t always the case. In fact – although I don’t have personal experience of the fantastic-looking Ford GT, from watching Jeremy Clarkson being tortured by it I can tell that it has serious practical issues that prevent it from really being anything other than a toy.
But that’s kind of an aside – the cars I began this blog thinking about were the Ford Mondeos, the Volvos, the BMWs, the Golfs, Mazdas, Hyundai Deawoo etc.. regular cars that you see all the time.
None of these looks horrific, but some certainly do look bland. And always, new models come out that are simply re-dressed versions of the same thing. The body has been re-modelled to reflect current trends – trends here are what are thought to be selling cars, not fantastic, honest, striking design.
Also popular is to bring out a striking sports car – like the VW Scirocco or Aston Martin DB, and a couple of years later to move the distinctive sporty styling onto mum’s school-run car – the Golf now has a Scirocco front grille, and most amusingly, Ford Fiestas have had Aston Martin facelifts. The idea of course is to borrow the cache of the luxury car and use it to sell “reasonably priced cars” – and the Fiestas do look very nice – but is this because the Aston Martin’s are fantastic to look at? or is it because we’re so used to associating the way Aston Martins look with “cool” “excellent” “prestige” etc that the Fiesta is simply wearing a disguise, and pretending it looks nice – that in a few years we will realise it doesn’t look that good, and that in fact, because the Fiesta has by association removed some of the tarnish from the Aston Martin brand, that now Aston Martins are not as exciting as they once were?
I’m muddying the water here a bit by confusing the way a brand design might be associated with quality through advertising campaigns and effective brainwashing – without itself having design merit, rather than just sticking to the idea of designs being either good or bad. But Ferrari – recently I would say their car designs are not classic pieces of work that will stand the test of time, and yet I have to look at a Ferrari if I see one.
Also worth considering is the idea that – to paraphrase – “there is no beauty that hath not some strangeness about it’s proportion” – perhaps, taking “strangeness” here to mean “something we’re not used to / something that is strange to us” (I may get to other interpretations of strangeness later) – the nature of something we see very rarely is to be “strange”, but if we were to see it every day – for example the grille of an Aston Martin because they are now on every Fiesta – it would loose its strangeness and therefore also its beauty.
“Strange” could also be all we can say when lost for words “that’s strange” when encountering something new and have not yet thought of a vocabulary to describe it more semantically. New striking car designs are also strange in this sense – that is – yet to be explained, and perhaps we will feel compelled to discuss and explain them “How do you like the new Mercedes?” etc…
So does this honesty thing work? Car design is obviously subject to a lot of forces, and all I’ve done is riff in an irresponsible way about one aspect – how cars look and what kind of sensation does that produce in the observer.
I wasn’t ever really intending to sum up, other than to state that integrity – if only all cars had it, and if only time and finances allowed that we could have that in our work, if only instead of having to scramble to pay bills, we could focus on integrity – I find it is only possible in painting or drawing – and then not very often.
Is integrity possible in everyday life in:
And if not – is satisfaction possible? I mean is it possible to feel satisfied with your life under these pressures? Or perhaps – satisfaction would be bad for business – imagine a consumer who had everything they wanted already: “No more thanks – now I have everything”.
At least you can buy art or design that had integrity – and that thing, or that image on the wall, or even that car, can show you integrity, to remind you of the state of grace and perfection that we can imagine, but never attain.