Why Do All New Cars Look the Same?

…asks Paul Sanderson at the blog 5thcolour. He has a rather clever diagram of the profiles of eight saloon cars and asks us why they are so alike. 

Car silhouettes: 5thcolor.wordpress.com
Car silhouettes: by Paul Sanderson 5thcolor.wordpress.com

Paul Sanderson’s blog is worth a good look over and above this particular posting. I liked the article about the value of colour in branding and there are plenty more like that at his site. Since we are a broad church here, I am confident our readers will appreciate something from outside the narrow confines defined by four wheels. 

Sanderson’s point has a grain of truth in it. More than anything it points out the real challenge faced by designers in making their cars distinctive. I have thrown a lot of brick bats at wacky C-pillars lately. And the crazes for unanchored graphics, strakes and feature lines are all well documented here. Sanderson’s diagram gets at one reason why the creative efforts of designers have focused on these areas. The car profile – the most obvious place to start when trying to be distinctive – is a fiercely contested design space.

Design space: particlesciences.com
Design space: particlesciences.com

Imagine that diagram only with a much smaller ‘design space’ than is shown on the right. Thus constrained designers change other things.

Having considered this problem for two decades, I conclude that in most periods most cars in the same class looked the same as one another for the reasons they do today. If you took ten mainstream saloons from 1986 and did a profile analysis of them they’d have similar profiles. Even in 1986 people were talking about all cars looking the same. And if we take a bland, mainstream car from 1986 and park it among eight members of the same class today, the ´86 will look striking, characterful and original, the very same car that in 1986 was just another boring saloon.

The other point I’d make about the profile exercise is that it discounts people’s capacity to judge small differences. The dimensional difference between me and my brother’s face is very small but nobody mistakes us for one another. Cars aren’t seen as abstract profiles but as three dimensional objects in space. I agree some people can’t tell them apart very easily and I don’t think you can ever do much for those people. Sell them a ’81 Cortina, perhaps?

Author: richard herriott

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

11 thoughts on “Why Do All New Cars Look the Same?”

  1. Unlike , say, drink brands, most cars aren’t tied irrevocably to a particular colour. Ferraris, of course, are and, because they need a different signature colour, Lamborghinis might be considered yellow, by default.

    I think I mentioned before that my partner once tried to get into the passenger door of someone else’s car in a car park rather than mine, simply because it was a similar blue colour. To me, the other car looked nothing at all like my Audi. She is generally disinterested in cars, but she is a visual artist (and in her defence I’d point out she was distracted at the time) so the conclusion is obviously that the majority of people drive the same car these days, which is the silver one.

  2. Walking around the supermarket I navigate by colour. You could change every bit of the geometry on a Kellog´s cornflakes box and I would still identify it by its colours. I don´t buy cornflakes though.

  3. Possibly the most irritating thing that branding people and graphic designers do is tinkering with established colours. In an extreme, though minor, example, Motor Sport magazine once changed its masthead from decades old green, to red. I assume this was so that it would stand out more amongst all the other red magazines, including Red. It sensibly changed back.

    Odd too, is the consensus that Blue now represents low emission vehicles, particularly those that have an electric motor somewhere within the system. Presumably branders have an insight into the colour of electricity that I (and CERN researchers) lack.

    1. The blueness comes from an association with the sky and air. Air is pure and the sky is full of air so air is blue. Electric power means clean air so electric drive should be link to blue. Dead people turn blue though. Conservatism is blue.

    1. Hello PThomas!
      Which year? And yes, Saabs were distinctive. The pre-GM 900, Citroen CX and Jaguar XJ Series III are cars I never tire of looking at.

    1. Yes, that would look very distinctive, both in 1977 and today. It has a really nicely sculpted bonnet. Have you seen the “review” here of the Saab 99? I would not take it too seriously as it´s allegedly by “Archie Vicar”.

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