Car Design News Agrees With Us

Two weeks ago we ran a favourable commentary on the 2015 Toyota SF-R concept car. Car Design News (a  great source) has declared the SF-R the car of the show. We just liked its use of felt on the door-skins.

2015 Toyota FSR door skin. That really is a superb application of this material:
2015 Toyota S-FR door skin. That really is a superb application of this material:

I am not sure I could say definitively the S-FR is the best of the show (I wasn’t there) but I like almost all of it. The one part troubling me is the way the headlamps are treated. Here they are again. This is what the designer said: “So yes it’s cute but being cute is not enough which is why we used the hood surface to cut off the corner of its eyes.” I think that such is the power of circular and elliptical shapes that one has a tendency to imagine they “continue” when they are cut-off in this way. This is a classic Gestalt phenomenon.

2015 Toyota SFR:
2015 Toyota SFR:

So, what were Toyota afraid of? Here is the lamp again, close up:

2015 toyota-sfr concept car lamp original

And this is what they didn’t want to do, leave the ellipse complete which would have looked too friendly (like a Mini).

I complete the ellipse, somewhat roughly but I think you get the idea. The ellipse has ownership of the outline, remember. It is a figure on a yellow ground.
I completed the ellipse, somewhat roughly but I think you get the idea. The ellipse has “ownership”of the outline, remember. It is a figure on a yellow ground.

Here is a car which has something of the same problem as the SFR. It’s the 2006 Connaught. At the time I had not the design vocabulary to express why the headlamps bothered me.

2006 Connaught concept car:
2006 Connaught concept car:

I think the lamps at the least need a thicker strip of metal where the bonnet folds down to meet them:

In this detail I have quickly added a bit more meat to the surface running over the lamps. In reality it would take a few iterations to see what exact width looked best.
In this detail I have quickly added a bit more meat to the surface running over the lamps. In reality it would take a few iterations to see what exact width looked best.

The extra flange I have added disrupts the impression of the circle continuing under the sheet metal of the bonnet and also gives the bonnet more substance. The edge gives an impression of less fragility.

Now, the 2011 Audi A1 also has a bonnet shutline that defines part of the headlamp´s outline.


The question is why does this work and the Connaught and Toyota don’t? I would argue that the cut line does not interrupt the oblong shape but runs parallel to it or is congruent with it. There’s no implication the lamp continues under the bonnet.

The 1995 Buick Riviera had an implied continuity problem, caused in part by the oval grille which doesn’t harmonise easily.

1995 Buick Riviera lamps, a problem of continuity:
1995 Buick Riviera lamps, a problem of continuity:

And the 1997 Ford Mondeo clearly doesn’t have the same problem despite its oval grille:

1997 Ford Mondeo lamps

The 2014 Citroen C4 Cactus hedges its bets in this way….

2014 Citroen C4 Cactus headlamps:
2014 Citroen C4 Cactus headlamps:

Taking all that on board, here is my revised SFR. What I have done is cut out part of the bonnet to suggest – in accordance in Gestalt theory – that the line belongs to the lamp (figure) and not to the surroundings (ground).

It´s not great...
It´s not great…

I have added a strip of body-colour between the bonnet shutline and the lamp. This adds an unsatisfactory bump or corner to the lamp outline, which is visual noise. The complete ellipse is still implied, I feel.

What I conclude here is that either Toyota needed to be brave and stick with a pure ellipse as they are after all, classic shapes and are not owned by anyone. Or, change one of the parameters I have left fixed such as the bonnet shutline which I have not explored.

Behind every problematic design solution is a worse design solution.

Author: richard herriott

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

10 thoughts on “Car Design News Agrees With Us”

  1. The cut-off circular form is a recurrent car design trope in itself. Is the Mark 3 Capri facelift (by Peter Stevens I believe) its first outing? Then there’s the Rover 75 and the rear of the last Range Rover. I do wish designers weren’t so eager to always relate the front of a car to the face though.

  2. Richard, I don’t quite understand your obsession against these cut-off lights. I even rather think that it was intended to have the lights appear as partly covered. It’s that “fierce look” that is achieved on many tuned cars by adding plastic blinds to the top of the headlights. A fierce look on a human face is similar: we all know that the eye is round(ish), but it’s partly covered in that special emotional state.

    1. I don´t like the suggestion that the bonnet is covering lamps that exist under its surface. The shape suggests continuity disrupted. It´s a Gestalt thing.

    2. I agree with Richard that it implies that the function of the lights is compromised. That may not be so, but it’s a bit like having 4 exhaust pipes coming out the back, with blanking plates on two. The RR rear lamp I found particularly odd in this way – but then it was distinctive.

    3. I understand what you are saying with the Gestalt theory. My point is that they use it deliberately (and knowingly) to produce said effect. Whether one likes it or not is a different question.

      I wonder what you think about covered rear wheels, e.g. on old Citroëns. Is there a fundamental difference to these headlights from a Gestalt perspective?

    4. Richard: Since none of my Citroëns I ever owned had semicircular wheels, you must be entirely right. The difference is thus suggesting something that actually is there or something that isn’t. That makes perfect sense.

      Kajetan: This is good! It conserves (or even reinforces) the fierce impression while taking away a good deal of the incompleteness. Maybe diverting a bit more from the perfect elliptical contour of the glass would help even more, e.g. rounding the angles towards the shutline or ending the lamp in an acute angle, a bit like on the Audi shown above.

  3. Toyota did know the cutting off of the ellipse would give the car a more aggressive expression. It’s not clear they get the idea that it suggests the lamps are hidden partially.
    Citroen’s covered wheels offer no problems to Gestalt obsessives: there really is the rest of the circle behind the faring. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t although I am only able to say this based on induction.

  4. I really do think it’s the matter of the graphics. The current ones suggest that the lamp is covered. My quick redo shows how much less annoying it would be if it weren’t for the “disappearing” LED strips. And you get a double-bonus of twin salesmen.

    1. Thanks for that- your version dramatically reduces the occlusion effect. It could be enough to convince many and understandably. My feeling is a full ellipse dodges the problem without creating a worse one. At this point it’s a very close call.

  5. I often agree with Owen Ready’s commentary but with this car we part company. The Mazda RX Vision won the sports car styling contest at Tokyo this year for me (Top Gear audience blokes grunt agreeably in the background) and in terms of compact sports cars I preferred the Yamaha Sports Ride for its engineering and some great interior details. To add insult to injury Toyota’s small car specialists at Daihatsu already have a cute small sportscar which provides Gestalt-friendly headlights, with the Copen Cero version of the Copen

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