Manchester, patronage of tanning salons in (1983-1987)

Quite possibly the most exciting aspect of today’s post is this rather splendid photo. The rest of it is about product semantics.

I never tire of looking at this car. Source

After having considered why is difficult to understand the visual (it’s about cognition), the next tricky thing is to understand design as compromise (all design is failure). And the next level of complexity deals with understanding that even geometrically exquisite lines are open to interpretation. That means semantics or the meaning of the thing or the meaning of the parts of things. If you think you somehow

This is a form of opium: source

don’t know what that is, you might be surprised that writers like Stephen Bayley have taken a product-semantic approach to discussing design even if they might not have used the term. They earn their pay by making it very interesting and entertaining.

While writers like Krippendorff and Butter are known for the “semantic turn” in design writing in the 1980s, Jochen Gros began work on this approach in the 1970s. ” In this conceptual approach, Gros makes a distinction between the practical functions of a product (and various others such as ergonomical, economical, ecological functions) on the one hand, and the formal and communicative aspects, the so-called product language functions on the other.”

To turn back to Bayley, he wrote in Sex, Drink, Fast Cars about the meaning of Benz’s large radii on the coachwork of their 1970s car. That’s a semantic interpretation exactly in line with Gros’s thinking.

Product semantics: Gros, Jochen (1976)

This diagram above shows Gros’s concept in its various parts. Take a moment to read the components.

It makes much more sense if it is filled in with examples. So, using the Rolls Royce as an case (hence the lovely images) we find we can show what each box means in practice. So, read the boxes of the second diagram and match them to the corresponding box in the upper diagram e.g “product” in the upper diagram corresponds to “Rolls Royce” in the lower. It is transport. It is used for driving.

You’ll have to excuse the blank box because as of this afternoon I can’t find the right level of abstraction for “product language functions”. It might mean the purpose of each bit of the usual forms associated with the thing. I am open to comment and criticism here.

If you take any vehicle (or indeed product) you ought to be able to match the levels of the upper diagrams to some level of abstraction in the object and ultimately to the individual surfaces and curves and the elements they define.

Much of the diagram is general to a lot of cars. The bit that gets more interesting and specific is around the lower right boxes. If you agree with me that some cars are hard to parse (I have called them “contemporary vernacular”) then it might that the semantic content of their lower two boxes would rather vague or hard to define or sparse.

The Silver Shadow is easy. That’s why most people will recognise it and have something to say about it. You’d even imagine an author would be tempted to use cars like this in books to convey messages about the characters or events being depicted.

Image: favcars

With time a 1976 Ford Cortina will accumulate semantic references (the lowest, rightmost box) whereas a Ford Mondeo today has little semantic content. Ditto anything made by Renault. Or indeed many marques.

Why not take two cars and try to dissect them using this structure. I suggest you pick one of your faves and something on sale right now. What do you find?

Author: richard herriott

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

6 thoughts on “Manchester, patronage of tanning salons in (1983-1987)”

  1. I am glad that someone else shares my admiration for the deeply unfashionable Shadow. Chrome bumpers only and very dark blue for preference.

    1. Is it unfashionable? I consider it a poorer man’s Bristol. The detailing and quality are lovely. From a design semantics point of view this car is a bull’s eye.

    2. Actually, the Shadow has rather come back into fashion, now that they’re no longer the wheels of choice for nightclub owners and scrap metal magnates. Many of the clunkers have been scrapped and those that are left are mainly in decent to pristine condition.

      It’s now the turn of the Silver Spirit to occupy the bottom rung if the desirability ladder. I took a quick and entirely unscientific look on AutoTrader. The most expensive Spirit is £28k whereas the most expensive Shadow is £76k. The cheapest of each is around the £6k Mark (from which I’d run a mile).

      Will the Spirit ever become desirable? It is very 1980’s and brash, entirely lacking the Shadow’s delicacy. It is Joan Collins to the Shadow’s Audrey Hepburn, IMHO.

  2. Reposted from the wrong story I’d attached it to:

    “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.

  3. For the empty box, I’d suggest a very high level statement of what sort of transport it’s trying to convey – the overall language. I’d suggest ‘To convey luxury, status and modernity’.

    From that, come the boxes underneath (‘What elements?’ = good surfaces, finish, etc – the code or syntax used, and then ‘What’s it’s aim / meaning?’ = specifically to look like a British luxury car, e.g. as opposed to an Italian one – a sign).

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