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Car design disruption is here. Right now.

Back from the Geneva Auto Show for a just over a week and we’re still slightly dizzy. There may have been some big car brands not there (Ford, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, Opel, Hyundai, Infiniti) but it was more notable for a huge number and variety of new designs, many giving evidence to the assertion here that car design is beginning to disrupt as so many designs shun the past and strike out in new directions.

So what do we mean by car design disruption, and why is it happening?

Disruption is a slightly cliched, two-decade old, term, but it stands here because it best describes what we are now beginning to see; new types of vehicle design that challenge the dominant design solutions the industry has iteratively come to over many, many years. And this is happening primarily at the fringes of the market; with the smallest and cheapest, and with the fastest and most expensive.

On one hand we have the emergence of the shared car design: the Fiat Centoventi, the Citroen Ami One, the Seat Minimo, the E.GO Life (not shown) —and the Honda e Concept — are all pure-electric small cars designed to be shared by many, with a new found design simplicity and (varying degrees of) modularity to help realise this.

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And on the other hand we have designs reaching for new levels of high performance indulgence with exotic materials and technologies; the McLaren Speedtail, Pininfarina Battista, Aston Martin AM-RB-003 — and the Hispano Suiza Carmen — go beyond the supercar user experience to-date, and also beyond the super-car design vernacular of today with a leaner, shrink-wrapped (less aggressive) aesthetic. 

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These two car design types may be polar opposites that sandwich the mainstream car between them, but they share some attributes as car design disruptors. They are both for fractional use; the small cars to be shared often by many, the hyper-cars to be used by the lucky few on rare occasion — two of the fastest growing types of car user. They also both have far simpler aesthetics than the mainstream designs they bookend; more reserved and calmer exteriors that shun embellishment, and pared back interiors that rely mostly on a few screen-based interfaces. And they also both embrace honest design functionality and materiality way more so than the mainstream — perhaps in part due to their mostly concept car status, but notably so none-the-less. 

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Changing types of user and use, and new technologies, are more impactful at these poles of the market — a reason that we are seeing design disruption take hold here first. But we perhaps also saw other tell-tail signs of this car design disruption in Geneva, albeit not coming so much from new market and technological opportunities, but from incumbent car companies feeling the heat of fast ascending Chinese car brands and the way electrification is being coerced into their space.  

These signs took the form of established brands introducing designs that step slightly further away from the path-most-trodden as their designers try to take a bigger step forwards and create more novel designs. Yet whilst some of these designs in Geneva were convincing, many were either needlessly disconnected from their brands, or failing to offer relevancy to the immediate future — or both. It looked as if designers had been tying hard to be different without a clear strategy underpinning their efforts; their concepts lacked substance or trajectory — they were novel not better. 

So there is a clear trend for for car design disruption with many new designs evidently responding to the opportunities of new usages and technologies to offer something different and something better, just as there is also clear evidence of car designers having recognised the need to create something novel, even if in Geneva many designs lacked a clear vision as to what this might be.  

We have all seen how technical and usage contexts have and are changing so fast for the car, and know that car design disruption shall necessarily follow. Now it’s happening.