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Less is More
“Less is more” so said Ludwig Mies van der Rohe*, an aphorism imbedded in the Design culture of the industrial world, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the culture of car design. It tends toward the intellectual high ground; an approach classically championed by the designer and rebuffed by the marketer. It feels like it has a European, even a German, centricity – the distant echo of Bauhaus still being heard.
We see it in the exterior design of some cars where it is much discussed, but perhaps more affectingly it is an approach that underpins some of the best interior designs. We wondered: what are the best (and perhaps also some of the forgotten) exemplars of interior design modernism? And then we realised that this wasn’t a half hour Insight piece, but a book! So here are some of the edited highlights – some of the best known and some of the lesser-known examples of (mostly) 1970s interior design modernism that we thought worth reminding ourselves of.
A couple of months ago we wrote about Technicon’s Ixion concept – which did away with windows on a plane, replacing them with projected images from outside.
This week, we saw the first step towards a similar technology being introduced in cars. Jaguar’s 360-degree ‘virtual urban windscreen’ utilises screens ‘embedded inside the car and take a live video feed from the cameras covering angles outside the car usually obscured in the blind spots created by the A, B and C-pillars’.
When Formula 1 opened its first test session last January in Jerez, Spain, it heralded a new era of smaller V6 turbo hybrid powerplants that promised to bring the sport into the modern age. However, it wasn't the mind boggling technology that turned heads that day, it was the noise the cars made, or, to be more precise, the lack thereof. The efficiency of the engines had resulted in a quieter exhaust sound than anyone (bar F1 engineers) had envisioned, and, for many, it threatened the sport. 2014 was also the year of the hybrid supercar, and with them we are also having conversations about whether they could, or should, sound different to the dream cars of our youth.
Is the future of the car dealer the product genius?
While the car is fast forwarding into a future of electric drivetrains, connected interiors and the customer shopping in a world of online configurators, the car dealer still exists in a world of token balloons, special finance rate weekends and is situated on a business park on the wrong side of town. The traditional business of selling cars – and everything that goes with it – is becoming trickier in a world of online retail, mass-urbanisation and customers looking for an Apple Store or Amazon style shopping experience.
The Cactus is being heralded as a return to the “different is better” approach of Citroens of old. Having spent a week with it, we think that others could learn a lot from this design – and there are maybe a few things that Citroen might look to amend in version 2.0.
Plato said that necessity is the mother of invention. And in the world of in-car technology and HMI, it is at the bottom of the pile (where cost constraints are highest) where we’re seeing the greatest invention right now. Recent drives in two latest city cars – the Peugeot 108 and Renault Twingo – have made us ask if bottom-up innovation provdes some answers to the current issues in automotive HMI. There isn’t any great alchemy at work here. But the Peugeot and Renault systems work for three fundamental reasons: limited feature set, simple on-screen design and use of third-party add-ons.
Just over a year ago, an unknown Dutch designer named Dave Hakkens posted a video on YouTube that set the internet abuzz. His idea was Phonebloks, and the modular smartphone he proposed was a response to the throw-away culture in the electronics industry. It firmly hit the mark with consumers who have grown tired of the designed obsolescence model that currently dominates smartphones and other personal electronics. With the auto industry now spending so much time, effort, and money designing and promoting smartphone-like infotainment systems, there's nowhere that would be a more appropriate implementation of modular or upgradeable components.
It’s not an uncommon thing to find yourself driving a car full of empty seats. Most car drivers do it most of the time, so we generally don’t tend to think about very often.
But then isn’t it odd that more than half of the car seats travelling on the road right now are empty? On average every car has only 1.6 occupants. Isn’t it a major waste of resource, and one that perhaps car designers might think about?
As Drew Smith, Director of Consulting at Seren remarked to me recently “there is only one screen in my W140 S-class – it’s for the temperature display”. Contrast that with the (three generations newer) S63 AMG Coupe I drove last week, which features two 12.3” TFT displays as its primary means of driver communication and interaction.
It’s not unusual to be greeted by a world of screens beyond the door of modern cars. But the S63’s tandem screens really are something else. Yet they ultimately raise more questions than they provide answers for.
The rationale for their existence is simple. So complex and technically customisable is the new S-Class, that trying to provide an interface other than a constantly reconfigurable digital display, is inconceivable.
At the upcoming Paris Auto Show there will be virtually no production or concept car launches that haven't already featured in the media. For the first time in years, journalists are deciding to forego the chaos and crowds of the exhibition halls of Porte de Versailles in favour of the private events sponsored by the automakers. The use of social media means that those sitting at home often have a better view of the show floor than those present. So has the auto show outlived its usefulness?
So the Tesla Model S has no buttons now; just a large touch screen. Other brands are jumping fast to get-rid-of-the-button in their interiors. It’s the twenty teens auto industry response to the mobile device trend for the screen-based human-machine-interface (HMI). You can see why customers would want this. You can see how clearly “new-tech” screens make car interiors look too.
But is this the best solution. What will follow this?
Our business at CDR is rooted in the future; in helping our clients to see and to make the curve that’s just ahead. But we’re skeptical about the way most brands are throwing touchscreens at the car. And we think we can see the first signs of what's coming next.
Car Design Research has been busy this week lending our expertise to some distinguished publications around the world.
Joe Simpson's experience and expertise in mobility and future transport to an article in The Guardian about the future of transport and driverless cars. You can read the full article here: here
Sam Livingstone's encyclopedic knowledge of motoring history is on show in a Wired article about a very peculiar German car that illustrates the fine balance of form and function necessary for good automotive design. You can read that article on the Wired website.
Have you noticed? Renault Zoe’s blue-ghosted chrome
It's been about a decade since the first hybrids and EVs came storming onto the market with bold 'leaf' badging and in-your-face 'green' graphics splashed across the bodyside. But today there continues to be a struggle between owners who want to shout their envorinmental credentials from the rooftop and those that want to keep it entirely to themselves. While BMW has placed its bold blue trim front and center on the i3 and i8, Toyota is now content with only the smallest of badges on its Prius line of hybrids. But Renault seems to have hit a very clever happy medium with its Zoe electric car.
Technicon’s windowless private jet concept – Ixion – does away with one of the fundamentals of current air travel, replacing windows with large scale projected displays of what's happening outside the plane. It's a slightly unsettling yet utlimately exciting design concept, that on one hand makes a lot of sense.
Doing away with windows reduces weight, potentially increases strucutral integrity and gives much greater cabin layout flexibility. At the same time, the tyranny of the 'window or aisle seat' lottery is massively diminished, as everyone on board is treated to an immersive, one might say cinematic view, of what's going on outside.
The idea of the car as an extension of the driver is well established. The image of the car – from its brand, its design – reflects upon those who drive and own it.
But the car is also a physical extension of the driver. Like a giant, metal set of super-hero clothes, getting into a car is akin to Clark Kent putting on his leotard, cape and trunks to become Superman. As drivers of a car we are empowered to accelerate and move in ways far beyond our human abilities. The car literally extends from our fingertips and toes as we steer a wheel and press peddles.
We know all this. But how much do car designers consider the symbiotic, physical relationship between driver and car? How much does car design embrace the way a car physically extends from the user and become part of them?
Car design is a young creative profession. It doesn't have the hundreds of years of history – not to mention critical theory – of a discipline like architecture. There is, quite simply, comparatively very little documented about car design or car designers – in print or digitally. So we thought it was worth highlighting the endeavour of Gianluca Migliarotti and CDR associate, Daniel Tomicic – who have set out to fund a film about the great Italian car designers of the 60s and 70s. From Brovarone, through Giugiaro, Gandini, Fioravante to Spada, Driving Dreams aims to track down the godfathers of car design, tell their stories and paint pictures of the men who created some of the most groundbreaking and important car designs ever.
The project is being crowd-funded, with contributors able to give anythign from €5 to €10,000 towards the making of the film. You can see more and contribute on the Driving Dreams indiegogo funding page. See the promo video below:
When someone says the word ‘car’, what type – or more basically, shape – comes to mind? Cars are ingrained on our memory from a young age and your basic notion of what de facto ‘car’ is probably depends on where you were born. If you’re in Europe it’s probably a two-box hatchback. The States or China? A three-box sedan. Why? Well, these are the predominant vehicle typologies in those territories – and have been for the last few decades.
But in the future, that might be different. The very way we think of ‘car’ is perhaps migrating its centre of gravity away from the traditional ‘hatch’ or ‘sedan’ and become something a bit higher, a bit more crossover-like.
That’s because the crossover is becoming the default car type of choice. The premium brands in particular are focusing on this area – CAR magazine today reporting that Audi have five new crossovers planned, BMW three and Mercedes two in the next development cycle.
Much has been made of the so-called ‘lifecycle’ architecture BMW’s using as the basis for its new i cars. The structural approach – which features an aluminium lower chassis (onto which engine, batteries, suspension are bolted) with a carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) upper structure – is cutting edge in technology and material terms.
In fact, the i8 the I drove last week while moonlighting in my occasional role as an automotive columnist for a technology magazine, stands for something altogether more futuristic and technology-led in image than any supercar that’s gone before it. It’s a very interesting way of moving the typology forward, one that largely abandons the pretence of motor-racing heritage as the basis for prowess and image.
Are Google’s driverless cars set to change car design?
The Google self-driving car has taken a bit of stick in both the mainstream automotive and specialist design press for the way it looks. We’re not about to start defending it, as from a purely automotive design resolution perspective it leaves quite a lot to be desired.
Nonetheless we do think that some people are missing the point. And in a video released by Google to chart the development of the car (and why it is like it is), we find some interesting clues as to the car’s looks.
With the official introduction of Android Auto at their annual I/O developer's convention last week, Google has already jumped ahead of Apple by offering smart solutions to in-car usability and not just a simple conduit to control your phone. Several manufacturers, including Audi, Bentley, Hyundai, Kia and Volvo were announced to be the first to feature the technology, although Google claims a huge list of nearly 40 (all?) major carmakers are on board.
Isn’t it odd how the driver’s seat in every car is not designed specifically for a driver? How all drivers’ seats are exactly the same as the (often very well designed) front passenger’s seat, yet the driver drives whilst the passenger doesn’t…
We postulate that, in such a mature product as the car, the focus of new product development has to be at the creative leading edge and assume that it steps off a robust basis of well established good practice. But maybe there ought to be more energy devoted to ‘cleansheeting’ and to question what has gone before. Maybe the driver’s seat should be reconsidered? Maybe other aspects of car design should be too?
Screens have resulted in much simpler yet more premium interior designs that tend to do away with many physical buttons and switches. The impact on the user experience and ergonomics has been variable – to say the least – but a secondary trend impact of this development is the horizontal button island. Buttons used to be everywhere in the car interior, but now the few buttons left are becoming a design feature. Clearly demarcated in an 'island' zone, these typically high-quality buttons remain to control key, safety-critical functions such as screen demist and the hazard warning lights.
While cruising comfortably on Europe's well-maintained motorways, it's easy to sit back and dismiss America's fascination with SUVs as a product of the stereotypical "everything's bigger" mentality. However, on a recent holiday in America I was struck by the state of US roads and the relation to the cars Americans choose.
Sat outside a cafe in Berlin's up-and-coming Neukoln distrinct on an unseasonably warm spring day, we couldn't help noticing the proliferation of Transporter Shuttles, or 'Multivans' as they are known in their native land, adorning the quiet streets. Berlin still has that enjoyable, bohemian feel right now which means that older cars are the order of the day. Every road isn't peppered with late-model Porsches, BMWs and SUVs as it now seems to be in the leafier parts of London and New York.
Have you noticed...? Volvo plays Chess in the Concept Estate
It's easy to miss small details in the hectic environment of an auto show. But this often means small – but great – conceptual ideas or particularly exceptional design execution can be overlooked. One such "Have you noticed...?" detail we were particularly impressed with at the Geneva auto show was the game of 'Kubb' (Viking Chess) integrated under the transparent trunk floor of Volvo's Concept Estate
At CDR we spend a lot of time flying around the world visiting clients and attending auto shows. In just the past month alone I've flown to the UK, Switzerland, Germany, China, and Denmark. While most of these flights are fairly unremarkable and aren't really sources of inspiration or ideas, my recent flight to Copenhagen got me thinking about seat design in the automotive and aerospace industries.
From the moment I boarded my SAS Airbus, there was a sense of space that's exceedingly rare on a intra-European flight these days. Finding my preferred spot by the window, I was especially surprised at the firm but supportive seat that greeted me. Staring at me from the seat back was the surprise answer to the question I hadn't even fully formed yet—"who's responsible for these great seats?"
This week we were excited to have for a few days one of the first BMW i3 on the Sixt fleet – the most radically different production car of our time. It's a design that conceptually, thematically and technically is very different to anything else. But what we really weren't expecting was the way the experience of driving and being in the i3 on many different roads would be dominated by a very different shift in the bias of sensory responses to it. It was far less about how the car looked and behaved and far more about the soundscape that the car design delivered...
Touchscreens - the Emperor's New Clothes of the car world?
Touchscreens are the current doyen of in-car user interface. But the marketing dream of offering car occupants an iPad-like experience often comes crashing down against the reality of hurtling down a bumpy road in a fast-moving metal box.
Ford was one of the first companies to push towards touchscreen-driven controls with its Sync + MyFordTouch interface in the American market. But so problematic has this move proven, that Consumer Reports took several Ford cars off its recommended list. And now Ford has fronted up, said it’s learnt lessons and thus—in the new Mustang—reintroduced some buttons as a primary control method.
Apple CarPlay: taking over the in-car UI, or a ‘play’ for something else?
Much has been written about Apple’s CarPlay, but after our first hands-on experience with it in Geneva last week (as part of Volvo’s new user interface), we now have a clearer sense of what Apple is trying to do and the impact CarPlay might have.
The first question is whether Apple’s real aim here is to simply sell more Apple devices. Many think this is a play to muscle-out native automotive systems, but the short-term reality might not be so sinister.
One of the playful trends in stand design in Geneva was the clever "X-ray" from both Renault and Citroën. As both companies were keen to show off their radical new designs as more than skin deep, they approached the problem in different but clever ways on their respective stands.
Touch me – Geneva shows its love for the 'Airbump' [w/video]
Some things we just want to reach out and touch – even when perhaps we shouldn’t! They speak to us of tactile curiosity, they suggest some sort of haptic loveliness. So we reach out with our hand to experience the feel of this new thing; to see if it feels like it looks – like we think it might ‘be’. We touch with our fingertips to experience something possibly new and interesting.
Have you noticed...? Digital engagement at auto shows
Recent auto shows have seen auto makers increasing their reach and engagement with a host of new ways to draw in customers and get them talking about their brand on social media.
While show-casing the latest in-car technology remains inherently tricky in the arena of an auto show, shows have become huge points of traffic spikes on social media for car brands, so this desire for engagement is hardly a surprise.
The Citroen C4 Cactus has been heralded as a breath of fresh air on the automotive design scene. Certainly, many have been surprised and impressed at how closely the production car matches Frankfurt’s concept of the same name.
The logos on cars today are bigger than they have ever been; they increasingly shout out loudly so no one can doubt which car is from which brand. This is because car companies have realised the value in their designs being recognised on the road as from their brand, because it contributes to raising brand awareness. And the easiest way to do this is to make sure that the logo is very large.
Historically car logos – or graphical logo marks to give them their full title – derived from the heraldry of the place or people behind the company (such as Porsche, Cadillac), or their name or initials (Ford, Rolls Royce), the symbolism consciously chosen (Jaguar, Audi) or a mix of these (most companies!). The logo sat on the car as a label for those who were curious to know the car’s origins; the small point of reference for an otherwise label-free, non-communicative artefact.