Toxic Emissions

Does it really matter what car designers say? Should it?

(c) nissan-infiniti

Car designers nowadays are expected not only to be adept at the creative aspects of their calling, but must also learn to articulate it in a manner which in theory at least, helps us, the end user, to engage with and better understand their vision. To be frank, given how some designers appear to struggle with the first component, it is not entirely a surprise to discover that so few of them are anything but inept when it comes to the latter.

It has long been known and indeed commented upon that car designers, and especially those in a leadership role, speak such unregurgitated twaddle. Given the amount of time they spend making impassioned presentations to senior management who require their hands held throughout the stylistic decision-making process, they appear to have lost their ability to filter their pronouncements once outside the secure walls of the design studio.

This observation drifted into harsher focus having absorbed the thoughts of Chief Creative Officer for Nissan, Alfonso Albaisa, who in a recent interview laid the aesthetic groundwork for the forthcoming 2019 Nissan Juke. On one hand one could state that Albaisa didn’t exactly mince his words but on the other, he did exactly that, insisting to Autocar’s Matt Saunders that the forthcoming B-segment CUV is not simply to be a reprise of the outgoing car.

The second one couldn’t be derivative or evolutionary and still be a Juke. We’d almost have to change its name to ‘Nancy’, otherwise,” he stated. It’s possible to see what Mr. Albaisa is trying to articulate here and while one can sympathise to some extent with what was probably something of a throwaway comment, one which may or may not have been applied out of context, perhaps we ought to allow him some critical leeway.

Perhaps – had he left it there. Instead, he proffered the following in relation to what we can expect from the soon to be announced Juke-2, informing Saunders, “It’s an urban meteor with a nasty attitude.” Now this statement begs further scrutiny. Firstly, meteors, while dazzling celestial phenomena, are notoriously short-lived, which either suggests a lack of consideration on his part, or alternatively a devastating critique of the entire compact CUV genre. But that’s a side-issue. It’s the second half of this statement which troubles the most.

Because one really does have to question why Mr. Albaisa feels it necessary to use such inflammatory language. Our roads are already populated with SUV drivers who feel entitled to comport themselves as though they were at war with their fellow road users without the representatives of the car industry (who ought to know better) adding further fuel to the pyre.

Spend time reading what contemporary car designers post on social media nowadays, and the over-riding impression one gets is that they are not deep thinkers, regardless of their talents with magic marker or CAD programme. And quite frankly, this is increasingly apparent in the cars they shape.

Car designers have up to now managed to swerve responsibility for the state of affairs on our roads, taking the position that they simply reflect trends, rather than shape them – which is both slightly disingenuous and not a little faint hearted.

Mind you, given car design’s ever closer relationship with marketing, the likelihood exists that car stylists’ pronouncements are increasingly viewed as simply another necessary component of the pre-launch build-up, suggesting that perhaps, the words they choose may not entirely be their own. The irony being of course that legislators would never allow a car advertisement to employ such blatant imagery.

But Nissan are not operating in a vacuum. Since its 2010 launch, the Juke  has been something of a sales phenomenon. Instrumental in the huge growth of the B-segment crossover sector, Nissan is launching its successor into a far more competitive environment, exemplified by Toyota’s hugely popular and fiercely polarising C-HR, which has given the Juke something of a commercial run for its money of late.

What we’re witnessing is perhaps something of a B-segment CUV arms race, akin to the sight of a pair of enraged five-year-olds slugging it out over a hotly contested Star Wars figurine both feel is theirs by right. An image both vaguely amusing, yet slightly alarming. But for both carmakers of course, a huge amount lies at stake.

But laying commercial imperatives to one side for a moment (and they are by no means a insignificant factor), surely car manufacturers have a social responsibility? Because it is simply not good enough for them to fling this type of imagery about, then simply wring their hands when their customers behave reprehensibly.

Hasn’t this gone far enough? By employing such hostile language, is not the car design community tacitly culpable in the weaponization of the automobile? Not only should their be a levy imposed upon auto-stylists spouting this sort of nonsense, carmakers themselves must start to recognise how toxic careless words can be in the wrong hands.

After all, not all pollution emanates from car exhausts.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

27 thoughts on “Toxic Emissions”

  1. Mr Albaisa neatly, if inadvertently, articulated the mindset problem that affects many SUV and CUV drivers: “I’m bigger/ higher/stronger than you, so get out of my way!” He also inadvertantly suggested a solution: would (male) drivers who need to prop up their masculinity with such a car really buy a Nissan Nancy?

    1. Strangely, a Nissan Nancy might do well in eastern France, as that city is a beautiful wonder. Place Stanislas works, though, only because of its scale: close up, all the gold and black ironwork is vulgarly shouty — so like a CUV, which from all distances says: “Psycho problem”.

    2. Vic: thanks for drawing my attention to Place Stanislas. It´s very much of the 18th century: large buildings and big open spaces. Is it not a bit hot and windswept in the summer? You could say that a lot of 20th century town planning longed to recreate the big spaces of squares like Stanislas but leave over too much area to car parking. I think those big squares make sense if you want a huge bit of pavement for soldiers to parade on.


  2. Eóin you have “nailed it in one” a really thought provoking take on this trend of aggressive designs. This reminds of elements of the population embracing noisy exhaust systems or overly large engines, seems there will always be customers trying to project their egos and companies take advantage of this.
    So the question is who’s leading who?
    The companies are only exploiting the buyers quest for individualism by cajoling them into parting with hard cash while buyers are chasing that never ending dream.

    1. When I was last there, c 10 years ago, Stanislas wasn’t windswept, for two reasons: a good 25m all round is taken up by bars/bistros under parasols or even “tents”, so the walkable area is quite small; and Nancy is in a big river valley, so the winds which strake the plateau don’t affect it much. It was hot, though!

  3. Designers are famously poorly suited to verbal reasoning. Marketing staff know nothing of design. Any communications arising from these two groups is bound to be of limited value.
    The chief spokespeople for car firms need to avoid talking about the cars in the way a third party art critic talks about a design.

  4. Interesting that you write designers off as little more than morons with pencils.
    While it is a fact that the majority of senior design managers spout all manner of balderdash when faced with an audience, it is not necessarily a fact that designers are knuckle-draggers with some modicum of draughting talent.
    Perhaps it is interesting to consider the discipline practised by the people you have in mind before they strut and fret upon a stage.
    Almost all are from career paths where exterior design was prominent. Making the box pretty. Most are promoted rapidly, so rapidly that the learning of their craft is interrupted. These are rarely multi-discipline individuals.
    Interior designers invariably have less stellar careers, yet spend more time communicating with engineers and suppliers which necsessitates an ability to negotiate and communicate. We are less likely to suffer fools. Or to be fools.
    Promoting a designer because he is a « good designer « to an elevated position rarely ensures the selection of a good leader of designers.
    A lifetime of critiquing the work of others does not confer wisdom on the individual.
    Good design should not need a great orator to laud it at the moment of its presentation. Even less to explain it.
    It is difficult to articulate the convoluted process behind most new cars. Mainly because the truth would bore people to tears.
    The best designs often have short stories.
    However, your belittlement of designers betrays a certain ignorance.
    Mépris, perhaps?

    1. I obviously cannot speak for Eoin, but I personally don’t see this as an attack on car designers in general. I see it as a necessary comment on a certain class of (executive) designer’s inability to look beyond their professional domain – coupled with a troubling sense of self-importance.

      Based on my own experience, I can attest that there are some exceptional people working in car design. Even more of the designers whose views I value particularly highly are retired though. Which is to do with the fact that retirement and a bit of distance can have a positive effect on one’s capacity for (self-)reflection. But also with most young designers having been educated in such a way that they are incredibly professional, but lack an understanding (and sometimes even appreciation) of quite a few non-aesthetic matters – which hardly comes as a surprise if 70% of one’s lifetime since the age of, say, 15 years old has been dedicated to automotive design.

      I’d never expect each and every stylist to be an intellectual of some sort, but my respect for any designer automatically dwindles as soon as a question is met with the a half aggressive shrug and some statement suggesting that I may not criticise anything anyway, as I’m no ‘professional designer’ myself. Which would suggest that those living inside a house are not entitled to criticise its architect (unless they share that profession), or that a paying customer may only comment on the food served at a restaurant if he/she happens to be a chef.

      If an architect stated he intends to create a skyscraper like an ‘urban meteor with a nasty attitude’, residents, politicians and the client would be likely to question his ability to add something meaningful to the cityscape. Car designers deserve to be held accountable the same way.

    2. This is a point I´ll need to come back to. For now I think it´s worth recalling that inarticulacy is not a function of intelligence. Design is a visual activity and the inruitive aspects of it do not naturally lend themselves to verbal explanations. The kind of verbal critique provided by third parties is not appropriate for those who made the work.

      I would like to make it clear I didn´t belittle designers or mean to – I am trained as one myself and know loads of smart designers. What I have noticed is they aren´t the best explainers of their work.

  5. The very point is that the days of one person « creating » are car are long gone. Indeed, to the hundreds involved in the process, it is often a bit of a slap in the face that some incoherent pretty boy stands up in front of the world and talks bollocks!
    I personally think that a car should be judged by its buyers as a product, and by a sense of perspective that only time can bring.
    As a designer I tend to be slightly prickly about being judged by the low standards of oratory of my « betters ».
    I invite unbiased critique from ANYBODY, in the world of industry a bad job won’t sell, and jobs in factories are put at risk. This is the responsibility of the designer. A middle-aged designers careless choice of words is hardly cause for a call to arms.
    Agressive design seems to have met with some success. I hate it, but I am a voice in the wilderness. Or to be more blunt, it is my opinion that agressive design has no place on the crowded roads of 2018.
    « Designers are famously poorly suited to verbal reasoning » is like saying «  Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. »

    1. Rob: Let me first out myself as indeed being ignorant. I don’t possess a design background, have never worked in the arena of car design and therefore am wholly unqualified to hold an opinion on the matter. (Or so the orthodoxy goes).

      It is regrettable that you perceive an element of contempt in my piece. It was not written in that spirit and is a long way from the esteem in which I hold car design and (many) car designers. In fact it is partly from that place that my sense of exasperation is rooted.

      One of the reasons I wrote this piece stems from a genuine disquiet with an anti-intellectualism (which by the way is far from unique to the motor industry), which has become pervasive in the manner in which the car business communicates, be this at CEO, Senior Marketing or Design leadership level. With one or two exceptions, individuals in these positions are notable mostly for the utter banality of their utterances and indeed, much of contemporary car (exterior) design, as I see it, suffers from a similar lack of depth.

      One of the more frustrating aspects of this lies in my belief that a number of individuals, (notably Uwe Bahnsen at Ford) laboured hard for design and designers to be accorded a quantum of respect and acknowledgement within car companies at a time when they were mostly dismissed by their fellows as ‘hairdressers’. That so many of his latterday equivalents see fit to undermine and belittle that struggle by the manner in which they comport themselves is to my eyes, somewhat shameful and ultimately, self-defeating.

      What I would say Rob, is that if you feel that the language I have used to express this was demeaning to you or your calling, I will accept that perhaps I could have phrased it differently. If however, you take the view that the points raised are something of a non-issue, I’m afraid I will have to respectfully disagree with you.

      Not that it makes a blind bit of difference either way. After all, Driven to Write is in no position to undermine the car design universe or indeed the broader industry – even had that been my aim. My slightly vainglorious position here allows me a platform to present my views as I see fit – views I might add, I don’t throw about lightly or for the purposes of stoking controversy for its own sake.

      The car industry is facing an existential watershed. The kind of language employed by Nissan’s Alfonso Albiasa isn’t aiding its cause. Nor is, I would suggest, simply ignoring it.

  6. Eóin, Richard, we agree with each other! At least about all that matters.
    The points raised are indeed an issue. The subject of over-wrought, agressive design is one I myself have mentioned in your pages. ( Pages that are a welcome sanctuary from the vapid world I inhabit. I have the utmost respect for your points of view.)
    In no way can we ignore the problems that this design direction are fuelling.
    The sad fact is, a generalist constructor can in no way dictate trends. We appropriate and rehash, one step from outright plagiarism most of the time, eking out meagre budgets so that our product seems less brittle, less two dimensional.
    The football set, rappers and hedge fund managers drive the stuff the big dogs design. Your dentist probably drives German and for those who can’t stretch to a VW there is always Seat. The purchasing power of VAG is such that they can do things that we can simply not afford.
    If VAG become more edgy, or Daimler becomes more Uber Baroque it is inevitable we generalists will follow suit. To buck trends set by the « specialists »  is economical suicide. People want these weaponised objects. Our shareholders will not finance « good » design. And contrary to popular opinion, design departments do not choose designs in their ivory towers. Corporate power is absolute.
    This is in no way an excuse, simply a fact.
    We have one car that is not possessed of this spirit. The Zoe. Arguably the best resolved electric car on sale today, Zoe has a non-aggressive demeanour that gives some hope that cars can be calm objects. Alas, Zoe is electric. She is the future, but simply not red meat enough for a largely male car buying public.
    The car is a mirror of society. We project our image by what we drive. I choose to drive an Alfa Romeo Giulia GT. A green beauty built just before the GTV was launched. Elegant and lithe, timelessly elegant.
    What chance do we have to regain our composure as designers?

    1. Rob: Indeed, I accept that the generalist carmakers are between a rock and a hard place. And as the industry approaches the abyss, it is they who are most exposed. So yes, I accept that the constraints that someone like Renault / Nissan or say, PSA is working under are perhaps not entirely conducive to bucking the tide.

      It is the duty of a leader to lead and there are car companies who hold this position and are sorely in remiss in their obligations, ad captandum vulgus. One only has to view his Gorden-ness prancing about at Pebble Beach during the debut of Mercedes’ latest rather silly EQ concept – or more to the point, inelegantly falling out of same in a desperate, if futile attempt to emerge with a shred of dignity. Indeed, it was only slightly less excruciating to watch than the sight of Teresa May dancing during her recent African visit, albeit, considerably more amusing.

      I would also point out that I by no means hold designers entirely responsible for the choices made by senior management, who of course are (and always have been) the final arbiters. It is they who deserve the bulk of our disdain. Renault and indeed Nissan are by no means the worst offenders when it comes to stylistic offence. I profess to appreciate a good many of both marque’s work – I really like the Zoe – in fact I was admiring one today.

      However, as you can probably tell by now, Mr. Albiasa’s inanities really made me cross – (to say nothing of the Blessed one). While I accept that I am raging somewhat Canute-like against what is probably a fait accompli, I choose not to go out quietly.

      Chapeau on the Alfa. A truly beautiful car.

    2. About Zoe, Rob, so far I’m afraid you’re right. Most of its drivers are female while men choose e-cars by Nissan, Toyota and BMW. Imposs for me to predict this changing.

    3. “for those who can’t stretch to a VW there is always Seat.” There’s never Seat; There’s always Skoda.

      That petty quibble apart, there’s obviously a low standard of teaching at degree level, if those boxes are supposed to refine thought. They’re just pointless shorn of their origins in the linguistics of Saussure, Bakhtin and Voloshinov.

      A bit like a Musa’s Dolce Far Niente gearbox being a cut-down version of an F1 sequential: a seductive idea, but in practice far removed from the full Monty.

      One main purpose of a car is just transport (not “driving” as such, unless you’re the lucky Giulietta owner), but sometimes followed closely by “having an effect on others” — so there’s a potentially infinite feedback loop between your first and last boxes. In fact, for an increasing number now, as we’re mainly lamenting here, the “gaze” effect is replacing even the transport purpose.

      Character references using cars are more common in TV and films than in books. Showing, say, Graber’s Alvis is far easier than putting it into words.

      Instructions for use: I recently injured myself trying to follow the wordless sheet that came with a flatpack: not a brand i’ll be buying again.

      Compare a smartphone and a SatNav screen: big leap in mental gymnastics.

  7. I hope some of you have the Car design books of Tumminelli. He makes a nice attempt a connecting the state of society with car design trends. When you open a newspaper, the general state of society can be described poetically as a meteor with a nasty attitude. I feel like we are all victims of a generation of leaders (also in design) that grew up during the eighties. I know many young car designers who are fed up with aggressive designs. I think in a couple of years things will change in positive sense.

    1. I hope you’re right.

      Incidentally, I know Car Design Europe/America/Italy rather well. I’m glad to hear you appreciate them.

  8. I have no background in design, automotive or otherwise, and am merely an interested observer. The following observation may be coloured by nostalgia on my part, but I don’t think it is wholly without foundation.

    Mercedes-Benz, during the Sacco era, was the world’s pre-eminent automotive engineering company, driven by an ethos of technical excellence, and the design of the cars was integral to this ethos. Form absolutely followed function and the cars, from the 190 up to the S-Class, had a rigorously rational design that eschewed any attempt to add ornamentation with superfluous brightwork or bodywork creases. This approach attracted customers who appreciated, either explicitly or subliminally, the company’s underlying philosophy. Equally, it probably lost the company customers who wanted “more for he money”.

    I had the pleasure of driving a 190E “user chooser” company car for three years in the late eighties, when I was in my late 20’s. None of my colleagues could understand my choice: they were repelled by the “Stuttgart taxi’s” austerity and my arguments about engineering excellence fell on deaf ears. When I pointed out, for example, the beautiful “pantograph” single windscreen wiper, they thought I was deranged!

    After the company’s terrible quality nadir in the late ’90’s, it is again producing technically excellent cars, albeit considerably less distinguished from the competition than during the Sacco era. However, the company has bowed to the “more is more” demands of the majority of consumers and decided that their cars should be “styled” to cater for these tastes. This is, of course, perfectly rational, if your primary corporate goal is no longer engineering excellence, but maximising profits and shareholder value.

  9. When I studied car design, the course was known as « Industrial Design (Transportation) » and the seat of learning was Coventry (Lanchester) Polytechnic.
    That the « transportation » element was played down in Britain’s Motor City surprised not at all, given the scant regard for the excellence of thought wielded in favour of the advancement of the automobile by the namesake of the establishment, Fred Lanchester.
    Our lecturers were of the opinion that we were all a waste of space until we proved otherwise. Car design as a discipline was rarely talked about, let alone taught. Things have changed now the course has become something of a cash-cow (Nissan, anybody?), though the proportion of scholars of design to dilettantes is probably another matter.
    We were callow youths, eager to learn. Our enthusiasm was tempered by the institutional apathy that had to be overcome on the way to greatness..
    With hindsight, our lecturers had vast reserves of knowledge that they were either unwilling or unable to impart.
    Designers and communication or lack thereof. Was this born of embarrassment? Was being ex Ford or ex British Leyland SO bad that experience garnered could not be shared? Was the mind-numbing pettiness of the design process in industry so shameful that it could not be spoken aloud?
    The education machine is only as efficient as its component parts. If these components are not fit for purpose, the inefficiency of the machine will yield poor production.
    Somewhere between the Pasadena Penis School of Design (ACCD) and The Lanch lay the ideal teaching. Somewhere between overbearing self-belief and humility, between the huckster and the preacher lay truth.
    And an honest grounding in the craft of Automobile Design.

    1. As a matter of interest, Rob, are there spells of these courses spent working in the industry (as there can be for HNDs etc)?

    2. I too passed through the hallowed halls of the CSAD in Coventry. I remember having just one lecture on form where a teacher drew an egg-shape on a flip-board. There were some lessons on drawing and not really very much apart from a brief being handed out periodically with occasional “crits”. The best teacher is chap who is still there – he was really good as showing various solutions to design problems. Everything I really learned about car design came of a) being in a real studio and b) reading a whole lot of design literature. My approach to education is to make it everything that mine was not. There are some very good people in the CSAD – they have a hard time because British higher education is in such a horrific mess.

    3. Seems there’s a good argument for students (maybe just the best) having a few months’ placement with the likes of Pininfarina, still one of the most successful design houses in Europe (the world?) I expect they still have a few English speakers on their staff, if that’s a problem.

      Indeed, I’m half expecting Aston Martin to be calling on them for it’s new submarines, as PF have been there already.

    1. Without a doubt a work placement is very helpful in gaining practical experience. I would still not underestimate the value of a good theoretical structuring of knowledge. I see theory and practice as two wings of an aeroplane. Anyone dismissing either is making a mistake. If the continentals over-rely on theory, the Anglo-Saxon failure is a dismissal of theory.

  10. FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! I do love it when passions are provoked in the comments at DTW. In the middle of it there is usually a Herriott, coat off, school shirt streaked with sweat and mud, holding one of the other boys in a semantic headlock.

    My own experience with graphic designers is that they are not the best at explaining their rationale. This is often because graphic design is often regarded romantically by its most successful practitioners, with their response to a brief coming from the wellspring of their inbuilt creative instinct. To my mind this is a lazy cop out, not the least because it expects the end client to be “on the same wavelength”, which of course they can never be. Personally I prefer a rationale that can be thoroughly articulated, as it is often the story that draws in the client, not the graphics themselves.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: