The Future Of Car Design

«There seems to be a need to open our minds a bit as to what a car can look like. Check out the advantages golf-ball dimpling can have. At the Politecnico di Design of Milano I was able to teach a workshop: An Endeavor in Discontinuity: Exterior Car Design of the Future. Here is an excerpt from the brief for the students and a view of some of their work:

One no-no that chains us to the past is a challenge to the idea that Perfect Surfaces can be the only correct forms for cars.  

But will it always be so? The three great ages of Car Design’s Morphological Paradigms have always been thought inescapable until a new manufacturing technology coupled with a dramatic shift in consumer interpretation of the meaning of the automobile come along – then the change can be bewilderingly rapid.

The last century began with a wooden houses on wheels morphology, and the first dramatic shift to the paradigm came with the advent of pressed metal for bodies and a shift to a consumer psychology caught up in the progress of speed. This design canon of a ship’s symmetrical hull combined with voluptuous sculpture relies on a continuity of form to control reflections on a glossy painted surface; a seamless progression of elevations and curves that owes its heritage to the techniques of lofting as perfected by shipwrights over centuries.   

Symmetry and Continuity in Surfacing are a part of our legacy from those boat-hull days of Car Design, and we have kept at it ever since.  Boat hulls with sculpture lasted from the 30’s until the 70’s when it was overthrown in a major shock to design sensibilities by the refrigerator box with a veneer of cake-icing-sculpture, a new design canon driven by fully automated assembly restrictions and a shift in priorities towards rational transportation under the predictive umbrella of Big Brands… The boxes of the 3rd paradigm required some curvature as well, and the twin dogmas of Symmetry and Continuity became reinforced in the changeover. Cartoon facial characteristics and other graphic hijinxs are about all we are confronted with today, and since the 90’s there has been little true progress in Car Design but much ballyhoo about the most insignificant manipulations of the cake icing. However, time does not stand still for Car Design. New materials, new processes, and most importantly, new customer needs and desires are waxing stronger even as car design becomes more dogmatic. We will leave the stagnation of this Age when we endeavor to allow Surface to become something other than an interpretation of a boat hull with some swooping facets. The introduction of patterns and discontinuities may inspire Surface to become Structure itself, allowing thinner and lighter metals to take the place of today’s underlying box beams. Communication may become Surface with the advent of low cost lightweight display coatings that offer something relevant to the social networking Facebook Generation. Or perhaps, as GINA indicates, Gesture and Pose will become Surface with the animation of what was once static. There may be many advantages to be discovered by abandoning Surface Continuity in cars.  The automotive painting process geared to give us shiny reflectivity is the most energy intensive part of car assembly; could that change? 

Baroque’s convoluted architectural facades have shown to look much better than the Modernist sheer geometry when dirty. Perhaps a complexly surfaced car that looks ‘WOW!’ when it is dirty would save us all some energy? There is no hard and fast rule that prohibits asymmetry. Aerodynamic balance is important, but there are new dynamic ways to handle that, and in any case we should be developing a look for cars that we can enjoy because it MUST go slower. Nature as our guide is ripe with examples when it comes to practicing asymmetry. 

More importantly, we Car Designers have an obligation to get the standards of excitement back into the awareness of the consumers, who are beginning to care less about how the cars look. For decades when cars were expected to change dramatically they were either beautiful or ugly. But now we have eliminated the really ugly cars, and made everything look ok – good but the same. When everything is the same, no matter how good, nothing stands out and is beautiful. The biggest Design Challenge is still waiting to be answered: Global Cultural Enfranchisement in Design. Modernism in Design has become the dominant sort of business-English for getting the job done and in the process has smothered local cultural content and threatened to disenfranchise vast areas of the world that never had a background in the Greek geometrical underpinnings of the Bauhaus.  What do we know of the formal vocabularies of the world’s indigenous design cultures, if everything must conform to last century central European rules on shape? Even the geniuses of Bauhaus could only work with the tools they had available: lathes, 3-axis mills, straight saws, drills. They couldn’t imagine production efficiencies with any other shape than those allowed by them and of course had no inkling of what a 5-axis mill or a Laser-Sintering Rapid Prototyping machine could produce. But we as a design community are still enslaved to their 1920’s limits. In Car Design this business-English efficiency combined with Brand-envy has stopped any emerging cultures from using their own heritage and giving us their own interpretations of the automobile. What exactly is a Chinese car, an Indian or Israeli or Iranian or Russian Car? 

Non-Continuity is a way to get young car designers to think outside of the restrictions of the business-English shape dogmas of today.  We need their courage; we are running out of DNA for Car Design. 

The gene pool is too small, we are in danger of an incestuous-design catalyzed Car Design-Irrelevancy. Soon the question will be, “Why should anyone care about cars?”

It only takes one workshop to spark a revolution!!»