Just the other day I was thinking about grilles (front grilles, of course). Today I ask you again to consider the Jaguar XJ-S, that famously endearing monster.
Of course the car is not just viewed from the front. From other views the effect vanishes and you notice the plan curvature and also the way the central bonnet edge is set below the level of the lamps. But let’s consider the front view.
My beef with this front treatment has been the instability. In one viewing one is inclined to read the lamps as being separate from the grille. The red outlines in the marked-up photo (above) show this in a forced way.
The other way to view it is to see the grille and lamps as one unit, as shown in the marked-up photo (above). Again, this outlining forces you to see it that way.
In real life one’s eye never settles on one or the other. You can choose to view it either way yet it seems to me to be irritatingly oscillating between two possible designs.
Why is this design doing this? It hinges on the small area where the leading edge of the bonnet meets the upper edge of the grille and the pointy in-board edge of the lamps. That radius on the bonnet (the result of pressing limitations, perhaps) is at odds with the strongly noticeable points of the lamp and the upper corner of the grille. It’s not visually consistent.
Interestingly, this unstable design reveals what cognitive researcher Gregory called active seeing. We can choose to see things a certain way if we concentrate. Vision is not a passive process, not entirely. It is a process where we sort and analyse and can, in the end, determine what we see given enough leeway. Consider how one can see red things more vividly if one is looking for something red (the red Kellogg’s label, for example).
I don’t want to be dogmatic about ambiguity in design. There are ways to suggest a variety of possibilities. It would be best if they were not contradictory in the way the Jaguar’s grille is. We are reminded also here that the human eye is very sensitive to pointy shapes or even just a tendency to relative pointiness. That means designers should be careful with their radii and graphics.