Car Design And Philosophy

Apart from matters of horsepower, handling and ashtrays car design is a lens through which one can view a number of philosophical questions.

Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham: source

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.
1988 Buick Regal concept sketch: source

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.
Timeless – the 1985 Renault V6 Turbo: source

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.

When Europe was divided

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.

1977 Volvo 262

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.

Author: richard herriott

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

14 thoughts on “Car Design And Philosophy”

  1. If we really create our own reality from the field of energy that surrounds us are we then the creator of everything we see ? If my brain in fact hallucinate what I know as real life I could logically deduct that I’am the author and creator of everything I see and experience therefore I could theoratically be responsible for every car design ever created too. What was my inspiration when I imagined the Opel Calibra? What on earth went through my mind when I created the Pontiac Aztec ? Why did I drop the Twingo iconic design after the first generation ? So many questions that Nietzsche and Socrate can’t answer for me…..

    1. None of the theorists mentioned go so far as to propose reality is only and exclusively a subjective construct. What is at issue is the extent to which the mind depends on innate cognitive structures versus directly perceiving what’s out there.

  2. Bravo, Richard! As soon as I saw the title of the article I thought “I hope he references Scruton”, and I wasn’t disappointed! This is a superb article, probably the most thought provoking I have read on this site.

    There is, I think, a tension between what constitutes theoretically good design (just like good architecture or good music) versus the court of public opinion. This has been further muddied in the modern world by the proliferation of technology and social networking, which make it easier than ever for ad men and “influencers” to disseminate signals about what is and is not fashionable.

    I realise that Doug de Muro is predominantly an entertainer, and one that I happen to rate highly on that score, but there is an instructive lesson to be drawn from his scoring system. For those that don’t watch his videos (I suspect that he is the most popular one-man car channel on Youtube), he assigns cars a rating scale in several different categories from styling to performance to cargo space. Naturally these are skewed towards performance cars as there are many more points in those spheres, which in itself renders the whole scaling system a useless diagnostic tool for 95% of cars that will ever be produced. Leaving that aside, even when examined individually his pronouncements in individual categories sometimes floor me. He gave the 1967 Maserati Ghibli an 8/10 for styling, saying that it was a beautiful car but that it was “starting to show its age”. Likewise, he gave a Silver Shadow a 4/10 for styling, saying that it was “fine but clearly aging”. On the flipside of that, he often praises newer designs for looking aggressive and chastises modern cars that do not look aggressive *enough*. Tellingly, I have also noticed that he frequently uses the words “aggressive” and “modern” interchangeably. His Autotrader column’s beatdown of the R107 Merc SL was fascinating to anyone who wants an understanding of this guy’s thoughts on styling, and he also reveres the W140 as the best S-Class.

    Now I don’t want to rag on this one man, who I happen to generally really like, but I bring it up because it illustrates how divorced people who care about industrial design are from the kind of parameters of judgement that “ordinary” people use (or are told they *should* use). Does my car look aggressive enough to mark me out as a thrusting man? Is there enough money on display in the materials used, or can we make something more expensive-per-inch like needlessly quilted leather? Does my utility vehicle look sporty? These are not matters of taste, but connotations of social hierarchy and dominance which are necessary in a world where increasingly few people drive a Mondeo or Vectra.

    The counterargument to this is that one does not have to be design-literate to appreciate design, that form languages and ergonomic improvements are formulated in such a way that basic human needs and desires are satisfied without the consumer having to delve too deeply into why. I have propounded this view all my adult life, but my faith is receding. I think (to be presumptuous) “people like us” have taken it too much for granted that Horizontal Homogeneity / Vertical Affinity industrial design of the Sacco stripe is destined to win, because it is better and over time people are converted. That was the lesson that GM drew in the 1990s, for sure. Now, however, we seem to be turning back to the Great Brougham Epoch (t. CC). It could be argued that this says a lot about us as a society, but I think it is more complicated that that. If there were a company that still made cars of the W124 ilk and they sold poorly, then I would concede defeat. However, it seems to be that the big car manufacturers today are engaged in the kind of wilful blindness that characterised the Detroit Big Three in the Malaise era, only with the aforementioned powers of modern technology and globalism they have much more power to make tastes and connote social hierarchy, as well as much less to fear from international competition because of international homogenisation. Just like there are now only a select few highly trained historians who understand the finer details of symbology in medieval Gothic architecture, could there come a time when only a few trained industrial design historians are able to appreciate a Lancia Aurelia, because the great rump of humanity has changed too drastically in their ideas and life experiences? I think that might be the future that we are racing towards.

    Thanks for indulging this response, which was considerably less literate than your original piece and not really about the same ideas at all, but this stuff has been on my mind lately. We all thought modernist industrial design would be so eternal, but it seems to be going the same way as all the rest of academic modernism: down the pan of conscious or unconscious “deconstruction”.

  3. I will have to read this article many times to fully appreciate it. Phew! It’s good, very good. Builds a framework for design understanding well beyond anything I’ve ever seen. And it’s understandable but deep.

    I too look forward to your fuller reply to Waldensian’s thoughtful response to the main article.

  4. All practical considerations being equal in car design, the way a car is perceived is very much dictated by the viewer’s reading of societal norms and a desire to meet or exceed the expectations of peers. In 1968 nobody would have predicted that 4x4s would assume cultural primacy over coupes. But in 2018 the long and low three door form is regarded as an indulgence, viewed by manufacturers as tantamount to commercial suicide.

    Although they serve the same purpose, an Audi Q4 has cultural primacy over a Ford Focus because the former displays more of the signifiers buyers currently deem of value: visibility, brand equity, capability in reserve.

    Against these measures, the question of whether an Audi CUV is beautiful is moot. A resolved faux by four form bearing the right badge is enough to grab attention. Right now, anything else is invisible.

  5. A tangent, I know. But the aesthetic value of a designed object cannot be objectively discussed, never mind quantified, without first considering how those values are both societal and unobjective. It’s a can of worms, I tell you!

    1. Apologies if I am hijacking the argument, your very interesting article provoked a train of thought that I merely wish to document.

      I am always wary of the tendency in academia to regard aesthetics in abstraction. This is to forget that the act of observation is inherently an animalistic act of interpretation. Every human value judgement is inevitably forced through the prism of our sociological and psychosexual constructs. To a greater or lesser degree, every product is designed to play on those constructs, to “press our buttons”. Without acknowledging that framework, we are merely discussing light bouncing from surfaces.

    2. My response to that is to say that the “academic” discussion of aesthetics is not narrow at all and not abstract. It covers the entire gamut of possible factors. I´m looking at a stack of books of about 2000 pages dealing with the matters of visual cognition and evolutionary psychology (that´s the bit related most to crude button pushing design) and that stack has very little on classical philosophical aesthetics or interpretation or semantics.

      I think this discussion would make more sense if I was really clear that by aesthetic I mean the business of a person experiencing something sensual about an object (wow! or yuk!). It´s all happening in the person. “Aesthetics” does not refer to the styling as in “the car´s aesthetics were spot on” though it is often used that way. To me its like thinking the delicious is in the cake. Things make the cake delicious to the human and the human experiences deliciousness. On one side the recipe on the other side the delicious experience. Looking at the recipe won´t tell you what the delicious sensation is like.

      While I agree our experience of objects may involve sociological and pyschosexual elements, these are not the only factors and are often not big factors. For every touchy-sexy sportscar there is a very cool bit of product design that manages to be lovely without having any manifest appeal to our primal instincts.

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