Should The Waves Of Joy Be At One With The Tide? Well, Should They?

Despite the enormous size of the automotive industry and the enormous importance of aesthetics, the academic literature on the topic is sparse.

Citroen C5 sketch: (c)

There can be found in any bookshop a shelf of ten to thirty books on marques, full of glossy images and I am not talking about these. A few books supposedly on automotive design exist and these are inadequate. This has a few nice pages on rendering. The rest is fluff, sorry to say. The same goes for this book which is mostly about drawing not design.

Car Styling and Auto & Design purport to tell the design story and do often have revealing studio photos of rejected clay models and theme sketches that lead to the final cars. Both, however, are essentially very dependent on the industry that provides the information and so, apart from Robert Cumberford’s articles, they only lick the hand that feeds them.

Early Mustang Sketch: Side elevation proposal sketches for the original Mustang fastback:  Pinterest.

Using Google Scholar I went in search of academic research on the topic. Top of the list is the Journal of Car Design, which is made up of “peer-reviewed” research. That means before the work is published it has been reviewed and approved (or not) anonymously by other qualified researchers in the field. The reviewers don’t know the author’s identity and vice versa.

The current edition has nothing on aesthetics but one article on older drivers and interior design concludes that even the latest car models do not fully provide the highest levels of safety and comfort that could be achieved, with some manufacturers opting to include extra resources to mitigate the changes that result from ageing and driving.”

That isn’t news because the Inclusive Design movement said that in 1999. This article handles the business of packaging a car for the driver and passengers: Turning automotive design ‘inside–out’.

Using the search tool I discovered a few items on aesthetics deeper down the pile of back issues from the Journal of Car Design’s publisher..

“Interior aesthetics: an experience-focused approach for the design of brand-specific automotive identity”  didn’t address aesthetics directly but looked at user-responses during a design process. “The final design proposal was assessed by an external lead user group through a subjective qualitative-quantitative survey study.” Such work amounts to asking customers if they like the taste of a dish at a restaurant but doesn’t get at what the taste is like.

“Aesthetic consequences of making car exteriors visually robust to geometrical variation” is an article which, as I understand it, deals with how to design in manufacturing variability so it doesn’t trouble the user. One example is the use of sleeve joints in interior trim. These are sleeve-like joints with one part sliding under the other so that even if the parts

That’s not quality. A 1990 Buick Riviera interior with a sleeve joint by the safety belt base:

fit with several millimetres of variation there is still a join. Sleeve joints are always a sign of variation in the car’s side to side symmetry. See: Citroen. Again, this is not really what I am looking for in an article on automotive aesthetics. And that’s about it from that source. A shingle joint is nicer as in that case the fit it is almost flush:

Shingle joint in car trim (section).

In 2006 this article appeared: “Role of sketching in conceptual design of car styling”. As it is behind a paywall you will have to make do with the abstract: “This paper aims at studying the role of sketching in car styling. Prior studies have shown that sketches play a major role in the early phases of design. A definition of the intermediate representations and mental representations will enable a better understanding of how sketches are produced. Two distinct experiments are proposed: a series of interviews of 40 professional car designers and a protocol study with six junior car designers. A comparative study demonstrated that two main phases appear in the specific car design process, including ‘routine’ and ‘non routine’ activities linked with external inspiration sources.”  The protocol study might be of interest. I’ll report back.

Recently we have discussed the business of BMW bringing its design DNA into the large SUV class. And what do we find but a 2014 article  attempting to discuss the concept of “design DNA”. I will print, verbatim, an early paragraph to give you an idea of the generally poor quality of writing on design:

“Recently, research on styling DNA has become important in car design. There is no clear definition about styling DNA which can be found in any English dictionaries. Here, a styling DNA is defined as a molecule that encodes the genetic instructions employed in the growth physical form or product. Even though, car design is being looked at as an innovative product and challenging discipline, it can be classified and positioning between the direction of technology-driven product and user-driven product.

Many researches on styling DNA towards car design have given focus on observing stylist in the design activities. This is because stylist plays an important role in producing visual appearance towards aesthetics appealing of new products in the light of a general consideration of conceptual design [3]. Since aesthetics are common in the field of Art, it produces the reasons to gratify the concept such as: judgment, attitude, understanding, emotion, and value [4]. However, the most important part of styling is in the conceptual design phase, where there is a need to match the technical constraints or hard points such as identifying essential problems, establish function structures, search for principle solutions, combine and firm up into concept variants.”

Good grief, that’s bad. One of the problems in academic writing is the lack of proper sub-editorial revision. When I read an article for peer-review I always send back a full sub-edit. I am much better at reading other people’s work than my own, by the way.

What this admittedly cursory and haphazard literature review tells me is that a truly useful article on the aesthetics of car design has not been written yet. I was asking myself as I wrote this, what aspects of this research could be translated into something digestible for readers. The answer is not very much at all. Tantalisingly though, this list of articles cited in a Chinese-language study on feature lines suggests that it is not in Europe that work is being done on elements of car design.

A further point to make is that the lack of useful articles on aesthetics in car design is matched in product design generally. We still don’t know and can’t describe what is being done by designers.

[** The undated Olds sketch is a very fine drawing indeed. I can see what they were getting at and how, in production, the car lost something important, namely a sense of depth and substance.]


Author: richard herriott

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

9 thoughts on “Should The Waves Of Joy Be At One With The Tide? Well, Should They?”

  1. You’ve made a brave attempt here, Richard.
    I wonder if the lack of thinking about aesthetics comes partly from the fact that the subject, once a recognisable part of a Philosophy of Art course/module, has declined as a result of the disparagement of “essentialist” philosophy. That’s to say, that a visual/aural thing is really a graspable thing at all. So academic thinking on aesthetice is all over the place now, and mainly nowhere at all.

    It seems obvious to me that memes/tropes — or we could just call them “themes” — do exist in car design, and once put on the market, can be persuasive just by being there. Look at the effects of, say, the (first) Mini, the Kangoo, or Range Rover Evoque.

    Heavy regulation has also limited the aesthetic possibilities hugely.

    1. Just when I thought this post would be commentless for a whole day – I thank you.

      It’s helpful to note that I am not a philosopher so my ignorance has to be pardoned.

      The bit I will respond too first is the regulation-kills-styling idea. It’s obvious regulations are stronger and more uniform. What’s not obvious is that cars are less attractive absolutely as a result or that they differ less as a result. I do think cars are certainly different in deep ways compared to, say 2000. My contention is that the most powerful “regulator” of all is the market or boring old economies. Designers are a clever bunch (with notable exceptions) and can always find a path through constraints and on to distinction. Take my favourite class of cars, the Mondeo/Insignia/Passat class. That’s actually really diverse in appearance. They could have had other technical differences but stylists don’t choose that (which is why the Saab 900/Lancia Trevi/Citroen CX buyer was totally spoiled).

      I’ll now read up on essentialism.

  2. A mild digression from the subject at hand, but I see a good deal of Bristol’s Brigand in that Oldsmobile render.

    1. It´s the lamps. By the time all Bristol´s hamfisted mods were applied the theme was dead.
      I really love that Olds image. It is way more beautiful than the car it turned out to be.

  3. Richard – you’re fighting a hard battle.

    However high-minded and well-intentioned the content, design students will always spend their lecture time doodling cars in the corners of their notebooks.

    Even Pio Manzù was at it:

  4. Exactly which Oldsmobile are you referring to Richard? How can you say the production version was compromised when you don’t reference which model? It looks like a late 1970’s A Body to me because of the chrome bumper. Copied from a Bristol Brigand? What, in a back to the future machine? What a hoot! The man/designer in question is Gray Counts and even I’ve heard of him, because he was pretty prolific. So far as aesthetics go, surely that’s what separates the gifted from the journeymen.
    Chris Bangle endorses this one!

    Google “GM designer gray counts”, “GM Design School” and you’ll end up with a wealth of leads on all sorts of stuff. I know nothing of design myself because I cannot draw well at all which is a bit limiting, but even here we have the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

    Yesterday on TTAC they featured an article on recent Toyota “insane styling” and attributed the blame to Akio Toyoda’s need for “exciting” and coughed up a load of official rubbish justifying the ugliness. Sample:

    “The era of boring cars, of bland cars and anonymous design is over,” Ian Cartabiano, studio chief designer for Toyota and Lexus, told Automotive News carmaker’s global headquarters. “It’s what Akio expects. When the president says something like that, it really allows designers to feel creative freedom.”

    And binge on something besides food, I’d say.

    1. I think Eoin meant the other way around, Bill, and the similarity was probably just down to using c/o lamps or a coincidence. You don’t imagine Bristol bothered looking at other cars, do you?
      The Oldsmobile this drawing may have been made for is the 1986 Delta. I bunged some photos into the article. I still can’t attach them below the line.

    2. Thanks for the Grey Counts reference. That was new to
      me. He’s a really good draughtsman.
      Even if the book Bangle commends looks pretty nice, the publisher blurb suggests fine images but not “hardcore” aesthetics as in boring stuff for academics.

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