My wife recently gave the go-ahead for a new car purchase.
Ordinarily, that would launch me into a palpable state of elation in that I’ve had a life-long love affair with cars. In fact, I spent 40 years as an automotive designer and will readily confess that it is the styling of any given car that stirs my love for it. I’ve even bought lemons that just looked so good sitting on the driveway, it didn’t matter whether they ran or not. Almost.
But the world has changed. Now it is hard to find a car that doesn’t reflect a troubling design trend. Somehow, the design world has opted for complexity of content. I’m not referring to technical content like Bluetooth (whatever that is) or cars that park themselves (really?). I’m bewildered by the aesthetic content of today’s cars that seem to only have had only one directive: Incorporate into the design every possible twist of body shape, interruption of theme, unexpected application of lights, trim, accents, spoilers, grilles and air scoops, whether functional or not.
Never let a surface be uninterrupted for more than a few inches, and be sure to put as many unrelated shapes as possible near the bottoms of front and rear bumpers. Don’t forget to give the headlamps shapes that no self-respecting amoeba could tolerate. In fact, on some designs, head and tail lamps have become the new Grand Central Station, where a multitude of body themes and details come from one direction, only to take off in another.
Of course, the net result is that cars are not only confusing and displeasing to look at, but a worldwide slate of cars which all look alike! There was a time when the average person could identify most cars from a block away. Now, a Jaguar sedan looks like a Lincoln sedan looks like a Kia sedan, not to mention Audi, Toyota or Chrysler. What’s worse, in the old days, an eagerly awaited new model looked decidedly more advanced than the style it replaced. (Not necessarily better, but you could always tell which was newer.) But in 2013, the latest Honda Accord or Toyota Camry could just as easily be the older model when compared with its predecessor. (What does the word “Camry” mean, anyway?)
Maybe it is no surprise that cars have taken on a schizophrenic look. After all, something sinister is causing the same look in many other areas of our lives. Take the McMansions that line our suburban streets these days. How many gables, styles of windows, materials and arrangements of multiple garage doors can be force-fed into one home design? Again, the phrenetic effort to distinguish one home from those around it has, instead, made them so similar that many suspected cases of marital infidelity are really not what they appear: People are simply turning into the wrong driveways!
The effects of content overload are even more obvious in the realm of present-day attire. Where once, the color, or pattern, or cut, or fit of a garment was enough to help you look your best, now we seek to scramble all of these in layers. Colors that actually harmonize have been found to be too predictable. Instead, let a surprise flash of fuchsia burst forth under that leopard print shirt. And at the top, what looks like a marvelous engineering feat turns out to be nothing more than a mish-mash of straps crossing each other, many tied to multiple layers of shirt, and most likely, one of them connected to the owner’s underwear.
The word “underwear” should be self-explanatory, but even men now find it necessary to show a band of boxer above their comically located waistbands. So far, no one has figured out how to display their under shorts while at the same time, allowing their shirt tails to protrude beyond their sweaters or jackets, but I’m sure it is coming. Honestly, I’m inclined to trace this whole mess back to sneaker designers. Have you ever noticed how many colors, materials, shapes, holes and even lights and boingy things clutter the design of your sneakers, especially if you spent a lot of money for them?
Really, every aspect of our lives now stirs in too many elements for us to make sense of any of them. Your phone not only goes with you, but brings along the encyclopedia, news that your BFF is walking through the produce aisle and a camera that can make movies. That quick search you wanted to do about lumbago is painfully hard to read because of all the pop-up ads for discounted movie tickets and opportunities to meet that special someone.
In fact, technology has a lot to do with what has happened to car design. I’ve worked with both clay modelers and digital modelers and gladly attest to the marvelous skills of both. But that practically limitless black box utilized by digital sculptors now makes the answer to every question, “Yes!”
Can we take this fender form and twist it around to where it bisects the tail lamp, but stop it just short of where the backup light comes in from the deck lid molding, giving it a little different character from the other-worldly spoiler shape that lies above it? Yes, yes we can. We can blend any number of ideas you can think of without hurting anything, except the viewer’s eyeballs.
Maybe, instead of too much content complexity, the problem is too much content equality. Something has to dominate. Some lines have to tie the design together, rather than split it apart. For example, there is one complex car design that I really like, that being the current McLaren GT. But at $435,000 a copy, I’ll have to go back to my wife for more discussion.
Anyway, now that I look at it, I’m wondering why that door cut takes such an angular departure when a more rounded effect would be more compatible with the lines around it. Oh, well.