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Modernist design for the post-truth age

We live in a post-truth age where trust in institutions and brands is more diminished than ever. We also live surrounded by products defined by amorphous invisible technologies that provide valuable function mostly separate to their form: the shape of a phone is neither dictated by its innards nor by the need to clasp it in a hand to an ear as it used to be. This perhaps presents a paradox of a latent need for modernist design (that evidences simple honesty) with an inability to wholly realise this approach because the truth of the function in the machine is impossible to see. But maybe within mobility design we are now seeing something shift in this paradox.

Modernism is a creative movement that shared with the car its embrace of the then new machine world a hundred years ago. Central to its philosophy was honesty and pragmatism, just as the first cars also were transparent in their engineering make-up and lack of superfluousness. But mobility design and modernism diverged as the twentieth century progressed: examples of modernist design cited in books, articles and documentaries are any form of design except vehicle design (with rare exception). The idea of an honest, reduced industrial aesthetic didn’t by-pass mobility design altogether, but it was never given the oxygen it had in other design disciplines because of its inherent connection with romantic ideas of speed and movement, the anthropological associations vehicles take literally and figuratively from animals, and maybe because the modern vehicle became such a complex compound of different technical elements making its truth messy and hard to fathom.  

But this year we can see a new impetuous for mobility design to become more simple and honest — to become more modernist — that comes from the confluence of three big emergent factors: 

The first of these factors is a small, but burgeoning, personal mobility sector of shared electric vehicles with pragmatic and elegant ‘product design’ style solutions. Many vehicles in this area —not traditional cars or motorbikes, but electric scooters, vans, and more pod-like cars — have been introduced over the last few months and will create progressively moe acceptance in the market, if not expectation, for this design approach. These vehicles may then relegate the classical automotive approach — with its idiom of posturing private ownership, throbbing internal combustion engine, and expression of potency and speed — to seem rather ‘yesterday’. Examples of these vehicles include the Canoo, the Toyota APM, the Yamaha and Sony SC-1, and the Local Motors Oli to name but four, as well as a host of e-scooters and concept vehicle designs from single to multi-person occupancy.  

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Beyond the emergent change in the newest part of vehicle design influencing the wider automotive design space, there is the huge and growing influence from consumer technology goods. This takes the form of a very simple, reduced hard-ware aesthetic, as these products are necessarily more and more about the animated screen-based UI design within them. As a product sector it is increasingly dominant because of both the growth in number of products, and the growth in their usage value and frequency — the reach and impact of them on the market. The related influence within this realm of Apple and its extension of the minimalist design lineage from Ive through Rams to Bauhaus, adds further to the acceptance of, and appetite for, modernist design that this sector is creating. 

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Complementing both the modernist trend within the leading edge of vehicle design, and the way consumer technology products are shaping wider market expectation for a more modernist design approach, is this third factor: a latent market opportunity for modernist design. This is born of a growing appetite for trust, authenticity and honestly to compensate for so much of the uncertain, post-truth late twenty-teens age where politicians, brands and media seemingly trade in untruths and fake-news. Amplified by an exceptional fast churn of social media, there is not just a more pervasive culture of perverting truths, there is greater awareness of it too, leading to an unprecedented low level of trust within societies and thus an unmet need for trust in other areas to compensate for this. This then chimes with the simple honestly of modernist design. 

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Having a groundswell of market appetite for honesty combining with emergent vehicle design aligned with the modernist design of influential consumer technology products, is a powerful set of drivers for new modernist car design in a post-truth age. This then also sits within a context of other mobility types already having made a similar move away from their original forms as animated machines with strong anthropomorphic and dynamic design associations, to their current more architectural (or product) like forms: trains have gone from the steam powered mechanical dragons that they used to be (with giant wheels and external pistons thrashing whilst huge bellows of smoke and steam noisily exhaled) to the smooth long buildings-on-wheels of all trains today; jet aircraft are similarly less machine-like in aesthetic than their propeller powered predecessors, just as diesel powered ships lack the big wheels of their ancient puffing paddle steamer ancestors. 

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It will not happen overnight, but we are already seeing the first signs of an automotive design response to these powerful drivers behind this impetuous for more modernist car design. Honda appear to be making a shift in design strategy with their e and to a lesser extent the new Jazz / Fit (in its interior at least) that is wholly aligned with this modernist direction.

Mercedes Benz EQS concept
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The Mercedes EQS concept presents simpler automotive forms than any large Mercedes Benz design before (only its LEDs renders the design embellished and distinct), the MX-30 similarly shows a newly reduced and less classically automotive approach from Mazda.

The simplified interiors of cars from the McLaren Speedtail to the Tesla Model 3 show this too. And details such as the proudly visible circuit board in the trunk of the Polestar 1, or the exposed cross-beam and screw heads in the interior of new Land Rover Defender, are also evidence of more honest approach of recent car designs in the premium space. Baby steps perhaps, but this major trend is a big one and we are at an early stage.

Polestar 1
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Maybe in the future documentaries and books will continue to not reference automotive design as a proponent of Modernism; cars will surely always be dynamic artefacts and even without a percussive heart will have some anthropomorphic qualities. But with such strong drivers of change behind this new direction, precedents already being realised, and with so many different ways that automotive design can consciously be more simple and clear (we can see a huge array of ways this could happen) this trend for new Modernist automotive design will come to pass. With there being so many facets to the car that will always provide customer value through tangible, physical form — unlike so many tech products — so Modernist automotive design might rise to lead this movement ahead of other design disciplines in the post-truth age. Maybe the paradox of a modern technological product being truly Modernist will be best realised by car designers working today.