Deconstructing how we ‘read’ car design

Look at a car and what do we see? The short answer is that we all see the same thing and yet we all see it differently. One car design is the same to all of our eyes, but each of us then processes what our eyes tell us differently; it’s not just our ‘like-dislike’ response to the design that differs — or the way we interpret meaning into it — it is the way we differently picture the design in our mind’s eye. But there are some consistent ways we 'read' car designs, and it can be useful to consider these to make more conscious design evaluation and decision making.

The first glimpse of a car — a fleeting sighting in traffic for example, or the initial impression from afar during a longer 'read' — is of its type; the most fundamental metric of car design. Beyond being a car (as opposed to a bus or a truck or another vehicle) we see if it is a big car or a small car, and if it is a sports-car or a wagon. The headline sub-categories of car are a mix of body-style and scale: a large sedan; a small hatchback; a mid-size SUV etc — and these are what we first ‘read’ about a car’s design. 


The second read, when a car is closer to us and or when we have had a little more time to see the car — if only for a fraction of a second more than the first read perhaps — is its proportions. Connecting to scale, but beyond overall length and height and width, this perception of the design is about the relative relationships between key elements and ‘hard-points’ of the design and how these elements are positioned relative to the boundaries of the car: how the wheels, hood, windshield, trunk-deck, and glazing are in proportion to one another and positioned relative to its front and back ends, and to its top and bottom. So we have cars with long overhangs, shallow day-light-openings, upright windscreens, low hoods; cars that are slender hipped, cab-rearward, broad-shouldered, or just plain stumpy. These proportions may ‘work’ or not, the design may have ‘good’, ‘balanced’, ‘comfortable’ proportions or not. And proportions are perceived relative to comparable car designs: today’s slightly narrow compact sedan might have been yesterdays slightly wide compact sedan. Proportions also denote the more subtle aspects of car type: a sporty type of sedan; a mid-engine sports-car; a traditional, up-right wagon etc.


The third read is graphics — the core two-dimensional shapes of design elements within the car, such as the wheel-arches and day-light-opening (side window parameter), the various shut-lines and body-side creases and boundaries of the larger separate elements of the design, and in particular the shape of the headlamps and grille. Very much a progression of the read of proportions, but less about the core underpinning (engineering) hard-points of the design — it’s bones — and more about how the designer realises the more superficial elements of the design, albeit elements that are often some of the most impactful ‘signatures’ of a car design. 


The fourth layer of car design that we read is its form; the nature of volumes and shapes of the main metal (or plastic) body panels that sit between the core ‘hard-points’ or graphical design elements of the design, often referred to as its its form or surface language. This part of car design is almost wholly design aesthetic rather than engineering design, with technical constraints being mostly limited to production pressing capabilities that may or may not realise tight radio creases, deep section curves, and concave surfaces. But the form of a car body is central to the craft of car design, much of it to the credit of design modellers, and the element that may make or break a car design in realising a uniquely of-the-moment aesthetic, or in being resolved harmoniously for a high-quality look.  

The last layer or stage of the design read of a car is its details, the smallest elements of the design — its lights, door handles, grille, or fuel filler cap —that inherently are read only when close to the design and after larger scale elements have been taken in. Design details may not define the theme or contribute to the valuable early impressions, but they work much as the decorative historical initial letters at the start of the paragraphs in old texts do in showing a level of care and effort taken to realise the design to a fine level. They take the narrative from a car design’s initial impression to its most progressed point of realisation; they are assuring proof of a design’s integrity and depth of character evident to those who scrutinise it closely. 


Considering the different layers or sequential elements of the ‘read’ of a car design enables practitioners to more clearly analyse a design: what is or is not working successfully, how elements complement one another, and how they might consistently communicate the same story to realise a design with a distinct and appealing identity — and it enables different designs to be compared to one-another across different layers, not just as singular entities. This value in deconstructing the way customers ‘read’ a car design is central to the proprietary processes Car Design Research uses in Design Evaluation programmes, enabling both a more objective measure of design performance and providing evaluation findings more useful to designers.

Individual car customers across all of the world’s car markets may see the same car design differently, but the way that they subconsciously read car designs is similar. So deconstructing designs to consciously consider how car customers ‘read’ a car design enables us to more fully understand a car design - and thus to realise more commercially successful car designs.