Designing for an Automotive Environment

Driving on the Highway. The phone rings. It’s Italy’s area code, +39.
Mateo is phoning to tell me they’ve decided to move the Alfa Romeo’s studio to Israel, that they need engineers and designers and that he only wants to ask me if I know people who would like to apply for the job. The alarm clock goes off and the dream is gone.
True, an exotic automotive company has yet to open a design studio in Israel, but there is a revolution in the vehicle realm and it offers other options. The electric and autonomic era is on our doorstep, and if up till now Israel was watching the automotive industry from the sidelines, nowadays we have a real chance to get into the mix. Companies like Mobileye, Waze and Better Place have made the impression that they have something to look for in Israel, not only for its technology but also for its fearlessness and development philosophy, which are so foreign to the traditional automotive industry.
Nowadays one can see a lot of startup companies developing relevant products, from complementary products up to actual cars. So now it’s time to ask if there is a unique way to design a product for the automotive realm.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, cars have become devices which external form derives from the way they function and the way they are used. This obviously does not mean there weren’t nifty looking cars (Bugatti Type 35, for example, but also many others), but it does mean that design was not part of a separate developing discipline. Still, those cars are the cornerstones of vehicle design to this day.
Car design has become a separate discipline when people started making vehicles with Monocoque chassis or a partial chassis. Actually, the car casing depended less on its content. The shapes could be richer and unique for every model or manufacturer.

The first car designing studio was established by Harley Earl in General Motors in 1936, and it laid the foundation for the field. Since then, the car has been distinct in comparison to other products, and was an expensive and significant commodity. It has unique requirements. The design serves a number of issues. The obvious issues like aesthetics or ergonomics also appear in other products. Although some of the design challenges are common with other consumer goods, they are especially significant in car design.
The first challenge is seasonality, a concept borrowed from the fashion industry. In 1942, Alfred Sloan, Head of Marketing and Sales in General Motors, suggested that every company in the Corporation should come up with a new model or design every year. The goal was to encourage the consumers to replace their cars more frequently (until then the models were not replaced for more than a decade). Many of the smaller manufacturers disappeared because of the new GM norm, unable to meet the frequent design changes.
The second challenge is the design language. Nowadays most of the consumer goods companies strive to create a precise design characterization and language, but in car design it’s critical and of the utmost importance. The design language is managed zealously, and its goal is positioning the car from a marketing point of view, and stirring expectations about the car’s “behavior” and even its “social status.” For example, the BMW creates a feeling of a very long engine compartment (by pushing the front wheel to the edge and flattening the nose). It also integrates voluptuous lines that divide the car and create sharp and fast elements, like the headlights. The goal is to relate to the BMW’s characterization as a strong and wild but also a manageable car. That’s the company’s “genetic code.” Audi is another example of this category: it derives elements from the industrial world, sharp and distinct lines as well as an expressive waistline. As in the BMW, the goal is to project strength, but also precision and restrained power. That’s Audi’s genetic code.
The third challenge is the emotional characterization. With this characterization the companies attract their clients and bond with the drivers. Actually, the company attempts to create a faithful tribe. We’ve all heard of “the Alfa crowd” or people “who will only drive a Toyota.” A lot of people use a car photo as their computer background picture. When did you last see a T-shirt with a Phillips print or someone with a toaster screen saver on their cell? The emotional characterization is part of the design, but it’s focused on the feeling the manufacturer wants to evoke in the client (as opposed to the actual feeling). Cars can feel like sports cars and others less so, even if they are in the same category and have an identical or a close performance package (for example, the sportive Seat and its VW sibling, the domesticated Skoda). The emotional characterization is a whole package that can be seen in commercials, car races etc. In design, it can be expressed in the nature of the dividing lines, in the wheels and body proportions, etc. For example, the strong horizontal and balanced lines in the Skoda versus the curved lines that create a gliding motion around the wheel in the Seat.
But above all that there’s a special tone. Even the Skoda (which is fabulously designed, in my opinion), with its calm and mild design, is “dynamically designed.” It has a strong and dominant shoulder line, a slender thickening above the wheel well and a unique and strong window line. How does the cliché goes? “Make it look like it’s moving even while standing still.”
While designing a product for the automotive environment, do we have to accept these rules and premises? Does the navigation screen we added to the car should look like it’s “going 60 mph” even while standing still? Not necessarily.
First of all we have to understand the placement of our product in the physical and the conscious space. Are we talking about the interior or the exterior? Is the product adapted to a specific brand or is it supposed to fit a wide range of companies? In my opinion, the rule of the thumb is that if the product is specifically made for a certain car, it should be loyal to the brand’s rules, the genetic code and the values of car design.
Now I want to talk about the car interior as a test case. An interior product can be essential (like Awacs, Mobileye) or a by-product (a screen or a camera). It can also be a “stupid” product like a cup holder or a child safety seat. In recent years, the car interior has undergone big changes. The many functions and operation facilities make the car very crowded, especially the driver’s surroundings. It creates a basic challenge to find enough space, but it’s also a designing challenge. It’s hard to fit a product for a crowded space. It’s especially hard when you have to design a product that will cater to different manufacturers and models. This difficulty leads to a growing propensity to make products designed specifically for a certain model or manufacturer. It’s a challenge and a logistical hurdle cost-wise, but it’s crucial so the clients and distributers will agree to include these products in their cars. Nowadays, professional drivers (truck drivers or cabbies) expect a well-designed product. Obviously these products will be industrial and tougher looking, but there is still an expectation for a meticulous design. Today the industrial products for the car’s interior are less “dynamic” or influenced by a specific manufacturer’s design language. Even such products will have to assume more of the automotive design rules and maybe even find a way to adjust themselves to certain models in order to overcome the consumers’ objections to “messing with their new truck’s design.” Even if our dream won’t come true and Alfa Romeo won’t open a studio in Israel, the growing involvement of the Israeli industry in the vehicle and transport field is an opportunity for design innovations. Local manufacturers and developers should embrace the principles and meticulousness that characterize the car industry as part of endeavoring to involve Israel in the transport revolution that’s coming our way.

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