At the first car design conference in China in 2008, run by the Chinese Society of Automotive Engineers, Car Design Research presented a paper on ‘C-factor’. C-factor is the idea that Chinese car design might seek to be (better) known as Chinese – to have some identifiable, and attractive ‘Chinese-ness’ just as many other cars have a nationally specific design orientation. It was a long time ago, and there has been much talk of ‘C-factor’ since, but earlier this year in Beijing when we were reviewing most of the new Chinese market designs it seemed pretty clear that Chinese car design has yet to find its C-factor. All the cars we looked at were generically ‘western-ish’ car designs - none had any particularly Chinese quality. But what should this ‘C-factor’ be — what might Chinese car design come to be known as, and does it really matter?
When we think of American car design, or Italian car design, or German car design there are various classic designs that come to mind. The classic large Cadillac’s of the fifties, the refined mid-size BMWs, the small functional yet friendly Fiats perhaps. We know those brands come from America, from Germany, from Italy just as we know these cars were made in those countries too. We expect they were designed in those countries and presume that their designers were American and German and Italian respectively. So we comfortably use labels like ‘American car design’ and ‘German car design’ and ‘Italian car design’.
Yet the success of classic American, German and Italian (and Japanese and English and Swedish and French) car designs was not because of where they were designed or by whom; it was because of the customers in those countries that chose to buy them and that sometimes came to much value them. A large finned Cadillac perfectly suited the expansive highways and the expressive nature of society in the booming jet-age of fifties America. At the same time a tiny friendly-looking Fiat suited the crowed old cities and small purses of those most sociable people of Italy. And the mid-sized and high-quality looking BMW suited the slightly reserved, autobahn driving ‘new (middle) class’ of Germany a decade later. Classic American car designs, German car designs and Italian car designs were designs that particularly suited the Americans, the Germans and the Italians. And they still are today. Nationality in car design is not so much about where the producer or the designer are from, but about the customer.
Over the last eight years we’ve seen and heard a lot on this subject of ‘C-factor’ and the ways in which car design might best appeal to the Chinese market. Many have put the view that Chinese car design needs to take direct reference from its rich national visual culture; the use of forms and shapes that relate to classic Chinese architecture, calligraphy, fashion and art. Without the industrial and design heritage of the western brands, taking literal inspiration from other Chinese things may seem a logical approach. But Car Design Research does not think it is the right approach. To do so would be to misconstrue what ‘C-factor’ as an idea is and how it should be manifest in design.
It is our business to help clients see how this type of challenge can be met, and we have some clear ideas for C-factor just as we have worked with Japanese, German, Swedish, French and Italian clients on related issues.
Instead of conforming to the western ideas of car design, or choosing to directly reference some part of Chinese visual culture, the future of Chinese car design we think should look at what is uniquely needed and wanted in China by the Chinese people. C-factor needs to focus on car designs better suited to the unique mix of means, needs, tastes and related experiences of the Chinese car customer, and the Chinese infrastructures that support them. It must clearly deliver something better for China and the Chinese than that offered by American and European car design.
Chinese cars have come a long way in eight years technically, and the best Chinese car design has closed the gap to the best western car design. But until C-factor — an identifiable and positive set of design qualities that uniquely suit China — makes some progress, Chinese car brands will continue to produce cars that its Chinese customers perceive as inferior to imported western car designs. C-Factor is as much an issue today as it was eight years ago.
by Sam Livingstone