PDL did a follow-up to his previous column www.autoextremist.com
Last week’s column about “blandtastic” design stirred the pot yet again among the AE faithful as well as with industry insiders. Some readers were stunned at the profile similarities on display from the different manufacturers, which is understandable when you’re really able to see them juxtaposed against one another.
But then again, it shouldn’t really have come as a surprise. The members of the design community have mimicked and frankly ripped off each other for decades now. The design schools have contributed to this phenomenon by churning out graduates taught with similar perspectives who then go to work at the manufacturers’ design houses. Yes, of course, safety standards and interior packaging requirements come into play, but the systematic blandness that has overrun what should be the most exciting part of the business has resulted in a homogenization of design that is debilitating.
As I’ve often said, design is the Ultimate Initial Product Differentiator, and in the transition to the EV Age, compelling design will become even more critical. With similar battery platform designs – aka “the skateboard” – and other technical commonalities such as range and charging capability, the look and street presence of vehicles will directly affect consumer desire. That’s not to say that interior design isn’t important, because it certainly it is – after all, that’s where we spend all of our time when driving. But exciting, breakthrough interiors will never be enough on their own; you first have to lure the consumer in for a closer look, and it’s the exterior design that does that, no matter how impressive the interior is.
Since Day One of the automotive design business, which started with the “Art and Colour” department at General Motors in the 1930s under Harley Earl’s direction, the concept of design “reach” has been an ongoing battle. The easiest thing to do in the design business – before Earl arrived on the scene – was to stay the course, do a few tweaks and call it good. This attitude sustained itself more often than not over the previous decades. But in Detroit’s heyday, roughly from the mid-50s to the early 70s – when GM Styling (now Design) often set the tone for the entire mainstream automobile industry – every year was a momentous year, because "design reach" were the operative words of the day. Staying in place was not an option back then, and each year a series of breakthrough designs was unleashed on the long-since-lost “Announcement Day,” with the manufacturers vying for consumer attention with designs that made the previous year’s lineup instantly obsolete. (Planned obsolescence wasn’t always a bad thing.) And, Bill Mitchell, Earl’s gifted successor, was the absolute Maestro at it.
Understanding this and despite what I presented last week, all is not lost, however, as evocative designs – though few and far between – still have a way of surfacing, which is a very good thing. Given what I know, I have a few comments on what’s out and what’s coming…