So far there is no evidence that many car designers know much of the theories of Richard L. Gregory. I have been working a bit lately on the psychology of visual perception and by chance I might have found a case where an understanding of his ideas may have changed a design outcome.
The case is the Peugeot 308 tail lamp. Like other current Peugeots it features a small tab of body colour which projects into the main body of the lamp. It seems to me to be wrong. Maybe a bit of Gregory’s theory could explain why.
Gregory developed ideas on “perception as hypothesis”. According to Gregory vision is not merely the passive reception of shapes from outside the mind. It involves memory and the interplay of various cognitive processes. In particular, his theory casts some light on how one can misinterpret visual stimuli or, in other words, experience an optical illusion.
According to Gregory there are four classes of optical illusion. You can read this for an overview of the four. They are: ambiguities, distortions, paradoxes and fictions. Today we deal with an ambiguity.
A classical example of an ambiguity is the Necker Cube:
Much of the information points in the direction of this being a three-dimensional cube. It has four exterior edges meeting at angles. The front and back squares meet at right angles. The diagonals are parallel.
According to Gregory we build up quickly the hypothesis that it is a cube. However, the hypothesis can’t be fully resolved as to which face of the cube is nearer. It might be the lower one or the upper one. The fact we can see either as the front or back tells us the mind can actively decide how it is seen. Other theories of perception (such as Gibson’s) can’t account for this.
The ambiguity is caused by the way the verticals and the horizontals are not clearly in front of or behind each other. The Gestalt Law of continuity leads us to assume a line crossed by another line is one line and not two. This applies to the horizontals interrupted by verticals and vice versa.
In the case of the Peugeot we have another ambiguity where the shapes can be read two ways and it is not clear which is “correct”. First, we can read the outline as belonging to the lamp:
Or we can read it as if part of the outline belongs to the body. The effect is clearer in the metal. This is caused by the way the crease runs from the door handle rearward, joins the lamp tab and then runs down the bumper-to-body panel gap:
For a tail lamp with a tab that is unambiguous consider the 2008-2016 Renault Megane:
The Megane’s tail lamp has full ownership of its outline as per the Gestalt Law stating the outline belongs to the figure where a figure-ground relationship is perceived.
At some point the Mégane’s name was written with an accent. At Renault’s French website they shout it as MEGANE.
You could say that the ambiguity of the 308 is a form of design richness, where one has the opportunity to gaze and switch between interpretations. I rather think it simply disturbs my eye as the alternative interpretation where the outline is joined with the panel gap and feature line has no structural meaning.
It’s curious though how few examples there are of this kind of ambiguity in car design.
Here is my solution to the “problem”:
29 thoughts on “The Quickest Way From Carrow Road to Glanford Park”
Oddly enough, that body-work tab is made out of “chrome” on the 108. I guess it was a cheaper way to have the tail lights look like claws as intended but that visual effect obviously only appear (and faintly at that) if the car is painted grey or white.
Funny, I’ve never even noticed the ‘tab’ on the 108. Of course they couldn’t extend the body panel as it had to stay the same as for the Citroën. A body-coloured insert also is out of the question, as it would multiply the number of different light cluster versions. The only solution I see for this is to order your 108 in chrome body colour.
Imagine, all the maintenance needed for a chrome job just to have that bit coordinated 😀
Perhaps a way to counteract this dual effect would have been to add a shutline running from the top corner of the taillight, joining both “claws” and then meeting the bumper line on the side (pic below) even if to be fair this wouldn’t have been what they were going for but just for the sake of argument and to adress the dilemma referred to in the article. With this small alteration maybe the tail lights would get visually stunted, losing all the dynamism they had in the first place and rendering the ‘Claw’ effect not as striking as before.
Maybe Peugeot is banking, rightly or wrongly, on the assumption that the casual observer will see it immediatly as the ‘lamp dominant’ shape and as a ‘claw’ because of the ‘Feline’ imagery already unconsciously associated with the brand.
Hi: Thanks for that. I think that revision wouldn´t go over for the same reason the little body-colored strips in the tail lamps of the 406 Series 2 didn´t work.
I have added a revision proposal to the article because I lack the technical skill to attach an image to a reply.
Hi Richard. I was thinking of the 406 1.2 too and looking at pictures of it before posting, trying to figure out if that strip of metal worked better or not 🙂
Thanks for the revised image, I seee you moved the bumper line back. I need more time to appreciate the change and stare at it a bit.
Maybe it’s just me but I think I can still see both shapes on the revised version. It’s like the Automotive version of ‘The Dress’ or ‘Yanni and Laurel’!
Maybe the tiny shutline between the claws on the original car is a problem too ? a bit disruptive for the desired effect ?
I think it may have looked better if they would have smoothed that area out but perhaps cost and industrialisation issues forbade such a choice.
Maybe the revision work but I stared too long and can’t figure out anything anymore. I will look again with a rested mind.
I actually thought until last night that the white part of the tail lamp was shorter than it actually is: there’s one chunk of it that I thought was body-work and not plastic. That wouldn’t look half-bad I think if body-couloured metal took over a part of the white lamp as seen here:
Oops. The link to the image didn’t appear the 1st time round, here it is:
I learnt something today! Thanks Richard.
Has anyone else seen the photos of the new 508 SW? I rather like it – from the side DLO, it could be a V60 or V90. Peugeot also seems to have dropped the open-to-interpretation rear lamps.
Yes, I like it too. It also has frameless doors, which is a delightful touch.
Unfortunately, they are persisting with that stupid tiny steering wheel and perched instruments inside. This is a deal breaker for me.
Agree about the i-Cockpit. Is a pity!
I found myself quite at home after an enforced day with an i-cockpit, which very much surprised me.
The new 508 SW is a bomb. The only thing i don´t like are the lion claws of the front-lights.
Now, that the Talisman and the Espace are nearly not visible on our streets, i hope the 508 will be the fleur de sel in a soup of Passats, Superbs, A4s and BMWs.
Insightful stuff Richard.
Personally I much prefer the design of the 308 to the Megane here. Is that because I don’t read the rear lamp treatment as ambiguous? The 308’s rear lamp seems to have a neat relationship with all that surrounds it. The Megane is rather messy.
Also, the 308 overall reads much more cohesively as an estate. It has a fat arse, but is rightly proud of it. The Megane makes the cardinal mistake of shortening the rear window in order to try and disguise the bulk of the rear luggage compartment. This never works.
Is this too obvious a solution for the 308?
Regarding the facelifted 406 tail lights, yes those body coloured strips were very unconvincing. Mercedes-Benz did something similarly unsatisfactory on the W221 S-Class:
In this case the strips were deleted when the model was faceflifted.
Daniel: that works in isolation and I’d argue that the car is handsome enough to manage without “claws”. I’ve noticed more and more 308 estates around here in nice colours. The bordeaux metallic with full brightwork seems quite distinguished. The only reason the tab is there is to ensure family characteristics. So, yes, I’m fine with the lamps. Peugeot wouldn’t be though. I don’t want to get top OCD but it’s dawned on me that the tab is supposed to be “continued” by a shape inside the lamp which impression is defeated by the radii on the tab.
My first thought was that the tab is meant to flow into the silver part of the rear light in order to give the impression that the light were cinsisting only of the red part. This obviously works only on some colours and is generally pretty unconvincing. By far the best looking approach is the one above where the red part is extended vertically to give a proper rear light instead of that nonsensical fussy outline of the real thing.
Today I followed a 108 whose rear lights looked as if someone had fitted a blob of chrome to a standard red rear light or as if US style side markers had been hidden by a chrome cover. Probably not what Peugeot intended.
At least Peugeot seem to slowly get out of their ‘everybody bring in his favourite design gimmick’ phase.
Dave: I have only now “read” the lamp as a red C-shape. Previously I’ve seen the red and white part as the figure. To judge by the discussion here among visually literate people the lamp is confusing. It demonstrates several characteristics of design “error” and so is really ambiguous. Possibly the designer saw what they wanted to see and not what was really there.
I thought somewhat about the ambiguity bit and asked myself why it’s primarily seen as an “error”. Of course it’s something that challenges our perception, but done well (which is rather not the case here) it could serve to give the eye something more interesting than just a simple light cluster sitting on a background of body colour. It reminds me of the discussion of the Passat front some days ago – there is also something that we read as an outline, but is continued inside an other shape.
The difference I can see between the VW and the Peugeot example is that the former is clearly readable as that sort of playful approach to our perception habits, whereas with the latter we somehow can not be sure if it’s really intended to work this way.
I have no problem with ambiguity as such. It´s when the ambiguity is not constructive or leads not to alternative readings so much as “what were they getting at”?
As I mentioned earlier or elsewhere, artists can use ambiguity more liberally than industrial designers who, after all, have to get a message across and also have to give the customer a car they know will send out the right signals.
I’m generally not a big fan of over decorated light units.
I didn’t like the rear lights of the BMW E28 with their ghastly thick chrome strip nor do I like the current Fiat 500’s with a body coloured panel in the centre. My pet hate were ‘aquarium’ rear lights with separate units under a clear cover like in several Toyotas or aftermarket tuning kits.
I can’t see a fault in a part of a car openly displaying its purpose and therefore do not mind amber indicator glasses. I don’t get the advantage of clear indicators with yellow or interference blue bulbs and the same goes for generally fussy lamps like the ones of the Peugeot.
Give me a Lucas ‘wart type’ unit any day. Not so long ago designers were able to give cars a distinct character and use standard light units like 5 1/4” or 7” front lights and ubiquitous standard rear lights at the same time. Just think of a Land Rover Defender and an Aston DB 5 using the same lamp units front and rear.
Regarding the Necker cube, I naturally saw the lower-left square as the front side and had to work quite hard to see the upper-right square as the front. Just me, or other people too? I wonder if it’s because I’m been conditioned to read from left-to-right, so my eyes instinctively see the lower-left square first. Interesting stuff.
Interesting. Conceivably some part of the population tend to see it one way – though it’s always presented as fifty/fifty. That you could see it the other way at all is what (I believe) Gregory suggests is an indication of active seeing.
Me too. Even though I knew it could be seen both ways, it took some effort to “unlearn” my first interpretation.
I think reading the lower-left as being in front could also be slightly more “natural” because it’s the way we would see a cube sitting on a table. The other way it’s rather like an object hanging above our eye level, which is something not often encountered in reality.
By the way, the 308 *has* a rear centre arm-rest. Peugeot is winning me back a little.
Even the estate?
Yes, I looked at one today.