Apart from matters of horsepower, handling and ashtrays car design is a lens through which one can view a number of philosophical questions.
So today I will have a go sketching out what these might be. This list is not exhaustive, and is more a set of sign-posts pointing at some on-going problems which may not be resolvable: form versus function, aesthetics, semiotics, hermeneutics, phenomenology, approaches to engineering design. I wouldn’t say this list is the final one.
My starting point is the end point of an interesting essay on the significance of appearance in industrial design by Annina Schneller. She writes that design is where questions of aesthetics reside now that fine art is not a matter of pure form and its perception. The essay begins by asking of what concern can design be for philosophy and of what import can philosophy be for design. I will narrow this down by adding a modifier so the two questions are now: of what concern can car design be for philosophy and of what import can philosophy be for car design?
One of the central issues in car design is appearance or form. That means car design raises questions for the philosophically minded as how to handle form so that it achieves its desired effect. From the philosopher’s standpoint, one can ask what is going on when one experiences a car’s form.
The designer has a number of tools with which to address form, these tools being related to how we understand visual experience. At the most basic level this involves asking how the human mind processes visual experience. That is a matter of aesthetics. We want to know (1) just what it is about a car that provokes an aesthetic experience and (2) what the nature of that experience might be. That pairing divides the phenomenon into two parts: the object (the car) and the viewer.
Without offering any direct answer, the first part suggests the car is an object that differs in some way from ordinary objects such as a stone or a bird and other designed objects. Looking deeper we wish to ask in what way a car differs from other industrial design artefacts. This leads us out of abstract philosophy into the realm of visual semiotics. Is there any difference between cars and other industrial design object at all? And if so what is the nature of that difference, is it of degree or of kind?
To return to the pairing, we also want to consider the viewer. The car is a phenomenon out in the world which the viewer sees and registers. Something happens inside the viewer’s mind when she sees the car and that may be an aesthetic experience. From a historical standpoint, that is a relatively new way of considering aesthetics because for a long time aesthetics related to art objects as in fine art or the sublime in nature. According to Dewey and later writers, we have now begun to consider aesthetic experience in relation to what might be considered ordinary things.
Kant provides some answers as to what the aesthetic experience consists of and this translates, crudely, into the car as an object which has some quality that makes us disregard all matters of utility and personal interest and become for a moment utterly absorbed in pure appearance.
As I have said before, David Pye suggests a designed object allows us to enter a form of relationship which has no end other than itself: that is a beautiful Lancia, that Citroën is captivating and we are lifted out of the here and now. And Roger Scruton proposes that a designed thing encourages imaginative looking. The car invites us to disengage with ordinary experience and to enter a mental state related only to meanings, possibilities and interpretations.
Still with the perceiver, a car is an object which must be understood. The matter of what goes on in the viewer’s mind requires we deal with the philosophy of perception and how the mind operates. Gibson proposes that there are existing structures in the mind that sort out the visual stimulus (a Toyota C-HR, say) and in this view the locus of interest is very much inside our heads.
Gregory on the other hand seems to presume that perception is a system of the thing out there and the viewer too. How we understand the process of perception is not a matter of a homunculus inside our minds matching the object to memories of all other objects but the thing itself affords interpretation and the mind is guided towards comprehension.
How we read the car is also based on our understanding of human cognitive evolution. Assume we have minds set up to deal with inter-human relations and to survive in our environment. That means a) we are disposed to see cars in anthropomorphic terms and b) we are disposed to see cars according to Gestalt Theory laws and c) we read cars’ forms in a way that accords with our empirical understanding of how forces act on materials.
Cars are objects that are rich in meaning. Cognitive approaches to design don’t tell the whole story because whether we go with Gibson, Gregory or Gestalt, we are still left with the fact we see much meaning in car design once we have decided it is, in fact, a nice looking car. None of the three deal with what Folkman calls “surplus of meaning”. An electric plug has no little or no surplus while a Citroën CX is thick with meaning.
That takes us down the road to applying hermeneutics to car design. That means dealing with meaning and interpretation. Under this approach we are required to devise a way to read the car’s forms in terms of other forms. In this way the car becomes a text to be decoded: consider the references of one car to an earlier car or the reference between form and engineering.
Under this category I will set the vexed matter of form and function. Car design especially challenges our understanding of the relationship between form and function with the archetypal case of fake wood appliqué alongside more subtle ones to do with the nature of style.
This means we must deal with the question of values and we enter a tiny domain which I have just discovered called the ethics of design. Is it right to make a car look faster than it is? Is it right to make a front-wheel drive car look rear-wheel drive? What is the car visually signifying in relation to the user?
Allied to this is engineering design which has a sub-philosophy of its own related to values. A classical engineering ethical dilemma is manifest as Volvo versus Renault. Should one make a long-lived car that consumes a lot of fuel and is not pleasurable or should one make a light, agile car that is thrifty but not durable.
Is an expensive HVAC system with rotary controls better than a very flexible and cheap system governed by buttons? Three speed gearboxes or seven speed gearboxes? Design for construction or design for maintenance? Those are value questions and only philosophy can answer them. Marketing people are not fit to handle this at all.
Alternatively, we can look to the phenomenology of design: the “study of the structures of consciousness and the phenomena that appear in acts of consciousness”.The focus here is in judgements, perceptions and emotions. This is an area I am not familiar with so I will not delve any deeper now.
Lastly for today, car design is the result of a process. At a meta-level this requires we deal with the nature of design itself. Is design a process reducible to manageable and repeatable steps or is inspiration a necessary requirement. Consider the inspiration of Issigonis and the management of 80s GM, the inspiration of Bertoni and the management of Toyota.
Hillier (1998) wondered if it was possible at all to address the intuitive in design (which must refer in some sense to the aesthetic/subjective). In addressing that point we must reflect on the relationship of design to art and to science.
One seems to deal with experience (art) and the other to knowledge (science). As you will have spotted, experience (the empirical) is the basis of science and artists look also to experience with emotional content. Design then lurks between these two relying at times on art methods and at times on science. The boundary is often infinitely finely interleaved.
Car design involves a form of knowledge yet getting at the nature of that knowledge is not a clear-cut matter.