Highlights of Last Night

Long, thin lights make interesting reflections on car bodies. A malfunctioning restaurant sign made this Volvo panel especially fascinating.

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These reflections show the contours of the front wing of a Volvo S60 from a sign. It had two strips running horizontally, one of which turned on and off at intervals. Image one shows the wing with one light illuminated. The second shows it with both strips illuminated.
One can read the flow of the surface traced out by the two strips of white light. The path of the reflection is fluid and consistent. This shows the smoothness of the wing’s curvature.

Curvature diagnosis: source
Curvature diagnosis: source

CAD programmes (those used to design this very car) have tools which can graphically display the rate of curvature change or the local radius of curvature. The image shows a section through a surface (red). The “comb” is the diagnostic tool. The taller the fence the more curvature there is. Wobbles in the fence show abrupt changes in curvature. They also have tools that can analyse the curvature of the light path itself. Designers can end up even trying to make the curvature analysis graphic itself look nice. Some programmes allow the designer to modify the curvature using curvature analysis tool: adjust the curve and the surface it measures will alter accordingly.

The designer’s aim (other things being equal) is to make a surface that looks good under even light such as when you apprehend the whole surface in daylight. A side effect of this aim is that linear reflections are pleasing and this produces an eye-catching secondary level of aesthetic enjoyment. In isolation, curves like those shown here are appealing things to look at – something the philosopher Kant would have judged to be a pure aesthetic experience. That is to say where one is considering nothing but the phenomenon alone (and not, for example, thinking about whether it’s a functional object, how one might enjoy owning such a thing or what one might use it for).

If there is a risk with a focus on highlights in isolation it is that one can lose sight of the bigger picture. The totality of the car might still be quite ordinary or even inadequate despite every surface having technically correct curvature quality. It is a certainty that the surface and highlights analyses of cars like the current Focus are quite satisfactory. However, the totality of the design is rather disappointing. Steel pressing in mass manufactured cars from before about the 90s allowed for a lot of small distortions that made for odd swerves in the panels’ reflections without detracting from the overall appearance.

Audi A6: simpe but satisfying
Audi A6: simple but satisfying

As a counter example, the Jaguar XJ-S has quite uninteresting surfaces: clean enough but not very lively. Despite that, the car itself is perplexingly entertaining and parts of the sculpture jolly nice indeed. The buttress, for example, is very distinctive even if it’s merely a negatively curved ribbon of metal. Many Audis have quite simple surfaces too. The interest lies in the satisfying integration of the elements and the way the designers adhered to a very narrow rule set. The parts clearly belong to the whole. Even if the parts lack much expression, they add up to a calm and orderly whole. The aesthetic pleasure is intellectual rather than sensual.

The truly great designs place equal emphasis on all the possible parameters: surface, highlights, shutlines and panel gaps, proportions and graphics.


Author: richard herriott

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

2 thoughts on “Highlights of Last Night”

  1. My favourite shape under artificial light would be a 1958 Porsche Speedster. I do not believe there is a straight line or flat surface anywhere on the body.

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