Concept Cars and One-Offs

So, rapid prototyping is accelerating the design process. This comes with pitfalls as well as advantages. 

2008 Rolls Royce Hyperion: madle.org
2008 Rolls Royce Hyperion: madle.org

As someone pointed out, the Hyperion concept car could be said to have an unfinished or immature look to it. What is this quality exactly? It has to do with the reduced time available to evaluate the forms in the cold light of many days. While a design is a finished and static thing, there is a dynamic and iterative process leading up to its creation. Designers begin with raw ideas and select from these the most plausible concepts. The process goes from a sketch to a clay model to a final, definitive version and in so doing the designers must test and re-test ideas.

Think of it as resembling the way a musician practices a score until they play it the way they feel best expresses the idea of the music. A car design is an idea that needs to be refined and this process means making small and smaller additions and subtractions which result in a nuanced, subtle set of shapes that must sustain extended inspection. This process can’t be rushed. They used to refer to “soak time” at GM when a concept car would be left on display to give people a chance to reflect on the shape.

Magna´s 2012 show car -hurried? Caranddriver.com
Magna’s 2012 show car -hurried? Caranddriver.com

As we know, some show cars seem to look worse and worse as time goes by. What seemed fresh and exciting gradually reveals itself to be unrefined, problematic and lacking nuance. If there is a critique to be made of the Hyperion, for example, it is that while its overall form is quite good it lacks inflection, nuance, richness at the small-scale.

Rapid prototyping is very effective when applied to mechanical element that have only a functional requirement. Testing shows up whether the part works as intended or not. It is easy to quantify the success criteria. Aesthetic objects are different. Whether the shape is good enough to withstand close scrutiny and whether it adds up to a satisfactory whole is is a matter requiring time to reflect and consider. Rapid prototyping can quickly allow a shape to be realised, saving days, but can’t speed up reflection. I would argue that there is a danger that in speeding up the development of aesthetic elements, designers run the risk of being misled into accepting forms that in the long-term will not endure.

A casual reading of the literature on aesthetics makes apparent the complexity of people’s response to form (there is not much agreement on what even happens when we look). One view is that the aesthetic gaze is a kind of reflective, active looking. As philosopher Roger Scruton points out in his 1978 book on the aesthetics of architecture, one looks at an object and redescribes it internally; reconsideration causes further redescription that changes the way the object appears to us.

David Pye discusses the business of looking at the signal (the core idea) and then also the noise (the inessential), toggling between close looking and taking in the entirety of the object as one evaluates it. Ralf Weber, another writer on aesthetics, refers to the way we then fit a form into structures of our cognitive capacities, examining meaning at three very different levels, from personal, to socio-cultural to organistic or ecological (in the sense of the given surroundings).

While this philosophy of aesthetics might seem a long way from milling slabs of clay or rapidly sintering something, it does need to relate to the complex and necessarily non-immediate comprehension required when one looks at something unfamiliar. Rapid prototypes can speed up the making of things but can’t speed up the evaluation of things with an aesthetic character as complex as an automobile, in part or in whole.

Author: richard herriott

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

5 thoughts on “Concept Cars and One-Offs”

  1. From reading many designer’s comments, they have little time for an intellectual-based approach to aesthetics. Possibly they’d say that if, for example, Roger Scruton really understood aesthetics, he’d round his book off with a few of his sketches of the most beautiful imaginary buildings. But that’s not the point.

    It’s quite excusable for an artist to lack the language to describe what they do, and even to coherently analyse it to themselves – even if, nowadays, many seem very happy to explain it incoherently. What they do is personal, and you can either like it or not. It’s not so excusable for the designer to be the same. However, the simplistic explanations that many car designers give to why they think their design works – often just by comparing it to something else it resembles, without considering why or whether that other object has impact – are often not only unsatisfactory, but make me wonder if the car design industry is in particularly good hands. They also, maybe because many are young, don’t understand the various things cars represent to individuals – which go beyond trite adjectives like aspirational and purposeful.

    Where I work (not in the auto industry) we use CAD and CNC up to a point, we’ve even used rapid prototyping, but after that we stop and work by hand which gives us the time to spot aesthetic flaws and make changes. As you suggest Richard, the increased speed afforded by new design processes is a temptation to sign off stuff in your head prematurely.

  2. Thanks for that answer. Based on the meetings I have had with car designers, they seem to be very consumed with creating and are not that interested in reflection or reading books. There´s a reason for this related to left brain and right brain modes of thinking. Quite simply the talent for shapes and drawing *tend* to be exclusive. You are either Roger Scruton or Giorgetto Giugiario. The two menta modes don´t sit well in the same person. That´s why I think a debate between the two types of people would be constructive. It´s lop sided. The writers respect the stylists but the stylists don´t show the same regard for contemplation. Of course there are exceptions and a lack of contemplation does not imply stupidity. The drawing people are often really smart too – it´s that they don´t much care for applying this thinking in other ways that might put their remarkable skill in a broader context.
    I would like to tout myself as a philosopher-in-residence at a car company, if anyone is interested. Warm climes preferred. Competitive rates.

  3. RE: designerspeak, I wonder how much of it is drilled into them by the communications department at the manufacturer. – “…sound thoughtful, like Jony Ive in those cool Apple product intro videos, and emphasise that the new car epitomises our design dna through the tensed, athletic exterior surfacing like a runner on the starting blocks. Don’t forget to focus on the extensive use of real carbonfibre inserts in the interior. Those inserts cost a lot of money y’know so we have to mention them at every opportunity.”

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