Design, among many things, is about attempting to control how a product will be seen by the user. Control has limits.
The other day I had the opportunity to see a 1998-1994 Lincoln Continental roaming around the city. Unfortunately for Driven to Write’s readers I could not take a photo in time, so a stock photo will have to suffice. Until that point I had not seen one of these in motion. My impression of the car differed markedly from that based on photos like the image above.
The experience led me to consider how little control designers have over the way the car is seen in motion. First, the car is now set in the context of a moving background (one’s eye is fixed on the car). Second, the car’s apparent size alters in relation to the environment. Third, there’s a driver in the car and their presence scales the space of the interior and its relation to the exterior.
Interestingly, an in the light of my recent readings, the moment became elongated or stretched out in relation to the short and relatively empty moments around it. The phenomenon altered my perception of time. Simultaneously, the moment seemed to be a freezing of perception: all my concentration was absorbed by the car in motion.
My contention here is that while the designers had drawings, clay-models and eventually prototypes to work with, they did not have the ability to account for the manner in which the car would be seen when realised in metal and set in motion upon tarmac. Statically, the car’s volumes and details suggest inertia and chromed edges. It’s a far from unattractive car: I happen to like this period for its rounding of the edges of blockier masses. The 1991 Oldsmobile 98 Regency has something of a similar charm.
These static characteristics are what the designers could handle during development with perhaps an eye to how it might be seen in motion; perhaps they walked around the car or stood at various distances; it may have been possible to roll a model around an area outdoors. None of that especially corresponds to seeing the machine gliding at 45 mph in a complex urban setting.
In such a setting, the details and masses blur. The Continental I saw took on a clearer shape and I saw past the edges and lines to what I might call the deep structure, maybe corresponding to something of the first ten lines of a quick sketch, features often submerged by 18 months of further development. It might take a minute to have a great idea for a shape and it surely takes 18 months to conceal and confuse it through repeated reworking and elaboration.
The upshot of the Continental moment is that I have another, and very different notion of the car than I had before. The tension between the formality of the upright forms (plus falling sweep of the roof and wedge of the belt-line) and the way it glided through the traffic produced an unresolvable third impression, a positive one, I should say.
I doubt very much the designers could be certain this was how the car would be seen. Parked up, the car is pleasing enough. Seen from inside another moving car, it might gain a little. Seen from the pavement, the Lincoln becomes a fine statement of the “town car” or limousine values. Luckily for Lincoln, the static work paid off.
The final thought is that we see a lot of cars in motion, so many we don’t notice them except as hazards or visual noise. The Lincoln attracted my attention because it’s a rare car. What will I notice when I start looking at more mundane vehicles in motion?