Theme: Dashboards – Toyota’s Subtle Game

Little credit goes to Toyota’s designers for their contribution to dashboard design. Let’s change that and reconsider the seventh generation of the Corolla, the E100, on sale from 1991 to 1995.

1993 Toyota Corolla interior (EU model).
1993 Toyota Corolla interior (EU model).

Toyota has always carefully controlled the extent to which the fashions of the times have influenced its dashboards’ appearance. Corolla customers are such that they want the car to be as unobtrusive as possible and perhaps they are even unaware of this powerful desire. For any designer to make a shape that meets this requirement is far from easy. It is like designing unspoken rules, design for the tacit. To do what designers often do, driven by ego, is to seek attention.

But making an impact requires removing control and applying more force. Jackson Pollock is an extreme example of this. Typically the expressive interiors of some manufacturers receive plaudits from designers themselves but both alienate customers and are prone to dating savagely in the half decade that follows first sale.

Design analysis
Design analysis

Toyota’s 1993 Corolla interior exemplifies another approach. It is more about the craft of the interior designer and very much less about the supposed “art”. The instrument binnacle is set back under a subtle cowl which smoothly carries over from the base of the a-pillar to the centre console before gradually merging into the main body of the structure.

If we read the horizontals, there is continuity (in line with Gestalt theory) from the centre to the side. The upper centre console vents left and right of the steering wheel retain their unity even if the steering wheel and steering column shroud interrupt the flow. Since the underlying forms are correctly structured, the horizontal can withstand the occlusion resulting from the functional necessity of having the steering wheel so located.

Local colour: a Toyota in Erfurt, Germany.
Local colour: a Toyota in Erfurt, Germany.

Starting again from the upper centre console, there is a secondary form with a strong vertical orientation that carries the eye downwards and backwards to the gearshift. The ribbon or band that describes this form has been subtly angled towards the driver, a nod to her central importance in the car’s scheme.

But at the same time this is still in full accord with Japanese notions of courtesy to others as they are not excluded by the orientation of the strip. Within the discipline of this framing, the other controls can be located easily and seen without undue effort. Underlying this, a tertiary “grace note” exists to satisfy the patient onlooker.

This is a mirrored n-shape (though it must have been designed for right hand drive) detectable as a line – not a surface – running from the left of the steering column, over the IP, downwards along the left of the centre console, around the gear lever and back up to terminate in by the right of the upper centre vents.

Each of these three elements, which trace three-dimensional curves, amount to a very complex interaction of lines and volumes. And yet nothing jars. There are no forced twists. If we analysed the curvature acceleration and deceleration the rates would be as smooth as the most perfectly chauffeured vehicle.

Blue velour and stripes. I don´t mind the colours but the patterns of the 90s have not worn well.
Blue velour and stripes. I don´t mind the colours but the patterns of the 90s have not worn well.

While one can take issue with the generally organic theme used in the E100 interior, it is hard to find fault with its execution or underlying discipline. This dashboard has successfully represented the most important aspects of contemporary design and kept the designer’s own values out of the process. It is design for the customer. It is modest.

The small scale design questions of detail have been handled correctly too. For some people this kind of interior is “underdesigned” or, to use the lazy expression of motoring journalists, “they forgot to style it”. Nothing could be further from the truth (and that goes for reserved vehicles like the 2003-2006 VW Touran too). This kind of form-giving demands very intense levels of visual consideration and numerous re-iterations during the clay modelling process.

Imagine the concert violinist practising until she can not get the part wrong. To view the Corolla as “underdesigned” or boring is to entirely misunderstand what sort of stringent demands are made on this product, one sold across the world into remarkably diverse societies. The dashboard design served quite disparate markets effectively.

Yet it still retains a clear allegiance to Japanese notions of subtle form and Toyota’s exacting demands for functionality and ease of production. A striking achievement indeed.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

3 thoughts on “Theme: Dashboards – Toyota’s Subtle Game”

  1. I found this informative and educational, thanks Richard. Reading your comments and essays over the last few years has changed the way I look at cars, and indeed other objects that require functional and engineering design. So, thanks.

    So this Toyota has a thoroughly and rationally designed dashboard, and can be admired for that. It’s still rather hard to love, if you try to understand me. I would love to see a little more invention in the format, layout and choice of controls within such thoughtful design, but maybe that’s a contradiction. The uniformity of column stalks, gearstick, heater controls, and, to an extent, air vent usage and positioning in today’s cars is striking when you think about it. Such innovation in the past usually led to more unconventional styling and placement in the past. I miss the diversity.

    1. S.V. I agree with you over Richard’s insights. I might pass over the Toyota’s dash as just another piece of grey plastic without seeing the quality of the detailing. As you’ll see from future things I’ll write on dashboards, I have an inclination to the flashy and too often ignore the refined and understated. Richard is, after all, a man who will notice the cut of Bryan Ferry’s suits. To make a contemporary comparison, I am sometimes too ready to applaud the equivalent of Noddy Holder’s top hats.

  2. It´s nice to know you got something from the analysis. I decided to choose something difficult to write about and in the end discovered something myself. If everything in innovative and strange then it´s hard to judge.This kind of design forms a base-line, I think and in its own way is hard enough to do. It is hard to love but still worthwhile.

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