Automotive design research can veer sharply between the obvious and the obscure.
What would a lay-person get from this recent bit of research? Its title is ‘Identifying sequence maps or locus to represent the genetic structure or genome standard of styling DNA in automotive design’. Ideally an academic article title is supposed to clearly state what the text deals with. That then makes the reader feel unstoppably compelled to put down whatever they are doing and just run to read the article.
Well, the paper’s main purpose is to understand part of the car design process. The authors worked with designers from Proton to do this. First, they discovered that Proton designers’ own taste correlated with the taste of the Malaysian public. More interestingly, the sketching process was anchored to a specific area of the car. The next step is a little harder to put into clear language though: “the sequence maps or locus have been established in this research and the challenges revealed how it can be used as a starting point to build or create characters as embodied agents of character traits concerning brand and identity of a car design.” Um.
What does this mean? The idea is to understand how to link start points in a sketching programme to what they call design DNA. The article somewhat earnestly begins with a lengthy explanation of what DNA is literally but then sensibly moves to what this means in design terms. The term DNA replaced ‘form language’ in recent years. Both are metaphors and not much more than that. That point is not made in the research, though.
The authors of the article are concerned: “However, until today, there is no clear evidence shown that the terminology of styling DNA is being used correctly in automotive design“. I will have to overlook this concern with a note to the effect that since DNA is here just as a figure of speech, therefore it’s not that necessary to get unsettled by how precisely designers map their concepts to a language from the hardest of natural sciences.
The researchers in the DNA study posited some research questions:
“RQ1. The ambiguous characteristics of styling DNA through designers sketching processes of Malaysian design will lead to a natural variety in output. We refer to this phenomenon as consistency. Thus, how do designers assess styling DNA through their sketching assignments on intended achievement?” This is hard to translate into normal speech. The third sentence doesn’t really follow directly from the first two. It might mean ‘How do designers check if the design looks like it’s adhering to brand identity markers?’ Compare the geometry, I assume.
“RQ2. Designers choose what elements of styling DNA to sketch rather than transforming uniformly. We refer to this phenomenon as selectivity. Thus, we are interested in understanding what types of elements designers sketch. What are the characteristics (character traits) of these elements?”
It’s worth pointing out that DNA doesn’t choose which bits get expressed, otherwise lion DNA might not make new lions. Selection of DNA comes after expression (the organism lives to breed or doesn’t). Designers are also reflective entities, unlike nature. This RQ’s phrasing is based on a lot of misapprehensions about DNA. The question itself, on its own terms is daft. It might mean something banal such as this: what are the characteristics of the elements they choose? Well, it’s anything they think useful I suppose. But the better question is a how question not a what question.
On the to the last question. “RQ3. Designers may sketch only to a partial degree (completeness) in Styling DNA process. How, then, are elements styling DNA by designers for completeness?” That’s verbatim. The missing word might be ‘assessed’. It doesn’t make much sense here to even try to guess the point of this question. I will then short-cut my plan to read and gloss the text of the rest of the article by suggesting that brand character is a better way of talking about the identity of a car than DNA is.
After some time in the market, the marque owners will develop a hypothesis that characteristics X, Y, Z etc are attractive to customers and give the marque a competitive advantage. These characteristics are used again until they no longer confer a competitive advantage. The characteristics may be either abstract e.g. modernism or classicism or they may be related to specific geometries e.g. double round headlamps, floating roofs and proportions. That’s not a full list, but a brief stab leads me to think that instead of distracting waffle about DNA, designers needed to read their own field’s ample literature which has the concept of semantics, and we dealt with it here.
I am thinking here that adherence to brand identity was really destructive for Jaguar as it stopped them making estates and using diesel motors. Failure to adhere to brand identity ruined Citroen. Failure to understand brand identity killed Lancia and BMW play fast and loose with brand identity and do very well, thank you.