The Year Before Monday

Sometimes my academic work overlaps with the kind of thing we do here at Driven to write. At the moment, I am immersed (again) in Gestalt Theory.

Old-school headlamp with nice panel-gap management.

This is not the first time I have handled this topic. In January 2015 (happy days!) I used Gestalt theory to discuss why the 1993 Citroen Xantia’s graphics failed to be seen as the designer intended. This time the cases are not examples of failure but show how Gestalt theory can explain what is happening in the world of headlamp fashion trends style stuff.

It took me a while to identify what the theme was with the lamps I’ve photographed later on in the article. We´ll get to that in mere moments.

The mechanic’s diagnosed the issue with yer ol’ Xantia: figure-ground problems. It’ll cost hundreds to fix…

First, let’s re-re-appraise ourselves of what Gestalt theory is. The ideas were put forward in 1912 by the German psychologists Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler. Simply put the idea is that the visual cognition system in a human brain tends to interpret visual stimuli in the simplest possible terms. There are several laws describing aspects of this phenomenon.

Among them are the figure-ground rule and the law of continuity.The figure-ground rule says edges belong to an object not the background it is on. The law of continuity states that we tend to extrapolate lines that are interrupted if the extrapollation makes a simpler line.

Closure: the mind assumes this is probably a square.

The laws all makes sense if you imagine the example of what rules you would write to tell a robot to identify a moving target: visually isolate the moving thing in a complex back-ground and find out which way it is moving. The same principles are the ones you would use to see a moving bull in a field and avoid it if it was running at you – you just don’t realise this because they are not conscious processes. They run all the time and only sometimes do anomalies draw our attention to them.

Figure-ground: the mind assumes the edge belongs to the white square. However, you could see it as a black oblong with a square hole on a white background. The edge then belongs to the black shape.

We are discussing cars so today I will show a classic headlamp and some recent designs that seem to rely on the law of continuity for their effect, which is to overcome the figure-ground law.

The usual way to do a headlamp is to treat it as a hole (the “figure”) in the bodywork (the “ground”) and have the geometry inside independent of the surrounding surfaces. Here is the good old Fiat 500 as an example:

2016 Fiat 500 Sport: source

The structures inside the lamp are circular and complete unto themselves. The bonnet-body shutline runs from the front to the lamp and then carries on around the lamp’s perimeter and then scurries rearward to the window.

Note here that the law of contintuity is being respected because the two straightish shutlines seem to be optically related.

The two shutlines are arranged to meet congruently as shown in red.

Why did I not mark it up like this (below)?

I did not mark it up as above because the boundary between the body and the lamp belongs to the lamp. It is a figure on a ground. We see things like this all the time. A black dog sitting on a white carpet is not seen as a black hole on the floor**. The “edge” or boundary belongs to the dog. Similarly, we intuitively read the edge here as belonging to the lamp.

Now let’s look at a more daring use of the law of continuity to make a car seem wider and to more strongly integrate the lamp into the front graphics.

2018 VW Passat: source

The car is already pretty wide but the flow of the grille louvres into the lamp accentuates the effect. This feature also makes use of the idea that adding stripes makes something look longer in the dimension parallel to the stripes:

The lower rectangle seems a bit wider and thinner than the top one.

With that in mind look at the marked up lines in the Passat again (below). And so the figure-ground relation alters, depending on which way you understand the shapes. Why did VW do this? Possibly because there were not so many ways to make a free-standing lamp seem distinctive.

Longer, lower, wider, that’s how you sell cars!

So, the formal innovation here is to graphically break into the lamps’ area and to rely on the law of continuity to overcome the figure-ground rule. Thus instead of the lamps stopping the grille, they are united as one graphic area.

The lamps and grille area are now one entity (a figure) on the ground of the sheet metal:

How new is this idea? We have come back full circle:

1988 BMW E-30. Wikipedia

So, that is what VW has done with the Passat (and the Polo and the Golf). Once a good idea is spotted it quickly gets adopted:

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Having taken a look at this particular deployment of Gestalt Theory (I assume the designers knew what they were doing), the next thing is to see which car demonstrates the most examples of Gestalt theory and which car shows the most examples of failures to understant Gestalt theory at all.

**though people with Alzheimers do often misread dark patches on the floor as holes

Author: richard herriott

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

11 thoughts on “The Year Before Monday”

  1. Thanks Richard for another very interesting design analysis article! Reading DTW has definitely altered the way I appreciate car design.

    1. You are very welcome. Now that I have my eye out for this I can see weak versions of what VW did with the Passat. It was done to some extent on slightly earlier cars and the Peugeot shows both a zany headlamp and a bit of geometry inside the lamp that refers to the surrounding forms.

  2. Thank you Richard! Your explanation on Gestalt and what we now call machine vision is particularly clever.

  3. Slightly off topic perhaps, but staring at that the lead photo of the Corolla’s headlamp and indicator units, I experienced something of an epiphany. I now realise what was sitting pride of place upon Luc Donkerwolke’s moodboard at Crewe, along with the obligatory images of Mitsuoka Galue’s and the like. I wonder how much Gestalt he puts on his cornflakes of a morning. Corolla begets Bentley – who’da thunk it?

    1. Funnily, there seem to be a good number of these Corollas around my turf. I think there are four living inside 600 metres of my front door. I saw a tasty metallic grey one which would make for an even better image than the green one I deployed. Exactly the grille and lamp area of the car – it´s snout – are a really distinct and lovely bit of mid-90s. The rest of the car simply is not up the promise made by the front. History repeated because Toyota grafted Waku Doki onto the Avensis´ front end without dragging the rest of the car with it.

  4. Richard, please help me understand what’s so unique/new/special about this Passat’s grille and lamp arrangement. Having them inside some sort of rectangle was more or less standard throughout the 70s and 80s. A black plastic rectangle in the middle, two white glass rectangles on the sides, maybe another two orange ones at the outer edges. The only new thing I can see on the Passat is the lower chrome outline that is continued INSIDE the headlight glass. Is that the feature you wanted to highlight?

    1. Exactly, Simon: the features outside the lamp are now being carried on inside the lamp. My innovation is to find a very abstract theoretical way of explaining what a designer probably sketched while munching a Rosinenschnecke.

    2. Thanks for the clarification! I thought they are eating Currywurst at Volkswagen, but maybe they have Rosinenschnecken for breakfast.

  5. Good introduction to the theory. A few cars popped into my mind: The Chinese Citroën C6 front-end which mimics the VW motif and is quite special to say the least, the 2018 Honda Civic and Accord, the Renault Super 5, the China-only DS 5LS and DS 6 (although I’am not sure if the grille’s wings eating into the headlamp is relevant here)

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