Take My Hand and Let’s Walk Down Church Hill

Automotive design research can veer sharply between the obvious and the obscure.

A warm-coloured Ford C-Max seen recently in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany. All images: the author.

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.

A rather baffling design: the Suzuki Baleno.

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.

From 2019: Lisbon.

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.

Guess the brand.

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.

Mystery car time?

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.

Author: richard herriott

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

23 thoughts on “Take My Hand and Let’s Walk Down Church Hill”

  1. Quoting, “I am thinking here that adherence to brand identity was really destructive for Jaguar as it stopped them making estates and using diesel motors.”

    Not so. For a start take a look at Sayer’s sketches for a Jaguar on- box minivan way back in the late ’60s. There were also several prototype estates among other things. Jaguar also prototyped diesel engines. Until the Peugeot-Ford V-6 came along there really wasn’t anything satisfactory for a Jaguar.

    The trouble was that Jaguar just did not have the money to plunge ahead with any of these projects. The state conglomerate to which Jaguar belonged starved the company of resource and all but halted its progress. On top of this Jaguar lost its stylist and #1 recruiter of talent. That key man retired. After that, one by one, the A-team members departed. There was no-one who could “put the band back on the road.” When Ford took over there were improvements but also terrible problems created as that company’s management never did understand what they were purchasing and what actually needed to be done*.

    In summary, the brand identity could not be adhered to since there was no-one left who knew what it was or could express it. In the end management monkey mimicked and figured that was the go. It wasn’t.

    *There are a pair of quotes from Jaguar managers of differing eras which are well worth thinking about. The earlier quote is from the late ’60s and goes, “If you need to measure it, then you haven’t really made an improvement.” Years later came this one, “Everything must be quantified so that it is possible to tell if an improvement has occurred.” The second quote is from a career Ford manager seconded to Jaguar. The culture is completely different between these two.

    1. Thank you for this. How could a Jaguar possibly have “brand identity” with a Peugeot/Ford engine though… It would need a Jaguar specific engine. Brand identity is about more than body-styling.

    2. I can only go on the debates in car magazines with journalists saying what was and wasn´t acceptable for X or Y marque and readers writing letters on a similar theme. I am sure you read the articles about shock-horror, a diesel engine in a Jaguar or Alfa Romeo… or from America, shock-horror a L4 Cadillac.
      Yes, it´s more than about car-body design but this article was about car body design “DNA” and not other aspects of brand character.

    3. Hi Mervyn. The R50 original new MINI had a Brazilian built Chrysler Tritec engine (which wasn’t great) but that didn’t seem to harm its prospects. If the brand image is strong enough, manufacturers can get away with that sort of thing!

  2. Quoting, “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.”

    Not so!

    The ideal academic paper is written to be all but impenetrable to the ordinary person. Such material is crowded with jargon and buzz words. The highest forms of the art of academic writing feature long, complex sentences which ultimately are vague or meaningless (they are said to be “living”!). To get a feel for what is aimed for read J M Keynes’ General Theory (it’s all content free nonsense of course, falsified long before it was published, but the point here is to analyse the style).

    Now your question should be- Why is this?

    1. You´ve mixed up “is” and “ought”. Good academic writing is not obscure. I began the sentence with “ideally”. I am not responsible for the people who can´t write clearly and who tolerate the kind of thing you list.
      Why do academics sometimes write obscurely? For the same reason some film-makers make rubbish films, some clothes are badly made, some music is awful, I suppose.

    2. It starts with middle- and high-school teachers who specify a minimum word count (or page length, single-spaced please) when giving assignments and snowballs from there. People can get through an entire formal education without learning to write succinctly unless they study some sort of writing.

  3. Good morning Richard and thanks for an interesting analysis. I must say that the academic text you are interrogating is all but impenetrable for a layman such as me. I cannot help wondering if the tortuous form of language frequently used in such texts is designed deliberately to intimidate and exclude those who are ‘not in the know’.

    It reminds me of an occasion some years ago when I visited an online chat room populated by computer nerds in an attempt to find an answer to an issue I was having with my laptop. I was made to feel like a lump of fresh meat thrown to the wolves as each tried to outdo the other in offering me increasingly complex and convoluted ‘explanations’ and ‘solutions’ to the issue. I’m sure they were simply ‘showboating’ and either didn’t know or didn’t want to tell me how to fix the issue. Hence, I have developed a visceral hatred for those ‘user community forums’ that manufacturers of computer hardware and software establish in place of providing proper technical support for their products!

    Glad I got that off my chest!

    1. “I cannot help wondering if the tortuous form of language frequently used in such texts is designed deliberately to intimidate and exclude those who are ‘not in the know’. ” Speaking with my academic hat on, there might sometimes be an element of this but mostly it´s laziness.

    2. I’d go further than that and say many disciplines don’t have much worth while content and it’s therefore felt necessary by some to dress them up with cobblers-speak to justify the pomposity and hubris that accompanies the profession. I don’t count design as one of those professions, but it’s not done any favours by writing such as that quoted above.

      Using a gobbledegook analyser when writing can be very useful.

      The mystery car picture is very intriguing.

    3. Isn’t the first one a pre-facelift BMW E91 3 Series Touring?

      For some reason, the section of the tail light incorporating the reversing lamp is coloured red rather than being left clear.

      The second photo is, I think, a different car.

    4. Here’s the ‘all-red’ rear light clusters fitted to a pre-facelift E90 saloon:

      Possibly aftermarket?

    5. There are plenty of aftermarket rear lights for the E90 from fishbowl to LED.

    6. Daniel, I believe the affliction is known as verbal diarrhoea. In the pre-Murdoch era when newspaper content was produced by professional journalists, it was common among young reporters – quickly spotted and stamped on by editors who would cross out every adjective, throw the copy back and bark “Now do it again properly!”

    7. Among the people who departed from Murdoch´s News International stable was Bill Bryson. He worked (I believe) as a sub-editor and used his experience to write Troublesome Words which I recommend to anyone who wants to write a bit better. I´d love to say I adhere always to his guidance but I don´t. In my academic work I have to try a bit harder. The enemy here is compression – I have to work to 6,000 word limits (app.) and that can play hell with an argument because a) you have to leave unaddressed some ramifications of your main point and b) a comfortable sentence gets cut down by 4 words and loses the clarity of nuance.

    8. Good morning gents. When I was studying for my PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate in Education, a qualification required for teaching in Further Education) one of our lectures was on the subject of writing appropriate to the the reading age of your audience. The lecturer opened by posing a question: what is the reading age to which the UK ‘red-top’ tabloid newspapers are written? The answer was interesting: eight years old…

    1. Ah, of course, it’s the current 7 Series:

      The bright trim along the bottom edge of the doors is the giveaway.

    2. That is quite a fine photograph, much better than what I’ve seen in real life…

      By contrast to either of these extremes, I find Richard’s photos for this article quite satisfyingly honest, yet compelling.

  4. “More interestingly, the sketching process was anchored to a specific area of the car.”

    I wonder what area that is?

    Proton. I see some attractive looking cars in their history, some with unusual and noteworthy features, but I don’t see any consistency to their designs over generations, which is the opposite of “DNA”. Their newest designs are rather conservative and don’t stand out to me, and furthermore do not seem to embody much from the concepts that preceded them.

    I actually find the following sentence from the preview to be telling, and quite annoying “for instance Volvo’s value-based design cue (Soft nose and grille, V-shape bonnet, shoulder line, tail lights, third side windows, and flowing line).” I doubt that it’s a coincidence that Volvo is also owned by Geely.

    This appears to be the kind of sophistry that Aristotle railed against. I don’t suppose any of us are willing to donate 229 USD for brand Proton’s “spirit journey” to try and solve their existential crisis.

    My advice is worth little, but at least it is free: Try imbuing a bit more of the “DNA” that your designers have conjured for their concept cars into your production vehicles, and strive for a palpable degree of consistency over the medium to long term… i.e. do what Volvo have done. Did they really need a stuffy academic screed to point out the obvious?

    1. Exactly.

      ‘and strive for a palpable degree of consistency over the medium to long term… i.e. do what Volvo have done.’

      and what Mercedes Benz, BMW and Audi used to do. Maybe some of the reason Volvo is taken a little more seriously now?

  5. I am sorry I picked this exact article as if gives impression academic research is all bad. Some if it is dire. Some of it is mind-expanding, pretty much following the 90% rule like in all other walks of life. I would though qualify this by saying design research suffers from a problem which is that although design is a compound of natural science, social science and arts/humanities, the bias is towards the first and it neglects the third. And some of it tends towards spurious positivism.

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