EARBORN, MI — Video games such as Grand Theft Auto draw criticism in some circles for sexual and violent content, but the head of a design school says their visual style will influence future vehicle designs.
Young car designers are taking cues from outré designers of video games, College for Creative Studies President Richard Rogers says at a J.D. Power and Associates roundtable here.
“The aesthetics of video games will have an impact on car designs,” he says. “We'll start seeing that five to 10 years from now with edgy and futuristic auto designs.”
Among pressures auto stylists face is the need to come up with distinctive designs that can be brought to market quickly in today's highly competitive market, says Rogers. His Detroit college is one of only a few in the U.S. that specifically teaches auto design.
“The mantra is to get into the consumers' minds, and figure out their needs and wants when, perhaps in some cases, they don't know those needs and wants,” he says.
Besides expressing creativity, auto designers must address customer emotions, cultural trends and business strategies.
“It is not just about making things look good,” says Rogers. “At its best, it's about making form and function work together. That is hard to do.”
He comments on five prevalent automotive design trends of today:
- Muscular and athletic
Examples: Ford F-150 pickup truck and Cadillac CTS. “They express speed, emotion, brawniness and the movements of an athlete.”
- Aggressive and intimidating
Examples: Hummer, Dodge Magnum; even the Audi A6, with its bold front end. “I don't know to what extreme this will go.”
Examples: Honda Element and Scion xB. “They reflect simplicity, functionality and are almost anti-style.”
Examples: Toyota Prius and Mercedes-Benz CLS. “Swooping curves and concave shapes interplay with each other.”
Example: Ford Mustang. “These are vehicles with a sense of place. The Mustang is very American and looks it.”
Despite the virtues of artistic freedom, designers sometimes need to restrain their creativity, says Rogers. “It is not just about freedom, but about understanding limits as well.”
That is tricky to teach, he says. So is the need to tell what a particular design is about.
“We're trying to teach our auto design students to verbalize more,” he says. “They are good at designing but not necessarily at expressing the ideas behind their designs.
“The toughest decision — what design will go to market — is not one designers make. So they need to be able to explain their work to the people who do make those decisions.”
Styling is the most emotional part of a car, says J.D. Power partner and automotive research director Chris Denove.
“It is the single-most important physical attribute determining if someone is going to shop that car,” he says.
Yet styling can take a back seat if a vehicle has other attributes that are stronger. Denove cites the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. “They are top sellers, but styling for both is a non-starter because people buy them for reliability.”
He says the Chrysler Group — unable to beat Toyota and Honda in perceived reliability — wisely is designing eye-catching vehicles.
“You can't overnight change perceptions of reliability, but you can quickly change perceptions about styling,” says Denove. “That's what Chrysler is doing with the Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum and Dodge Charger. Blandness is fine for Camry and Accord, not for Chrysler and Ford.”
Love and Hate of Auto Design
Based on J.D. Power and Associates polling, the following are the top 10 vehicles purchased strictly for their design (and the percentage of polled people who mention styling as the primary reason to purchase).
These are buyers who say, “I like the way that looks and don't care much about anything else,” says J.D. Power research director Chris Denove.
- Chevrolet SSR (53%)
- Chrysler Crossfire (53%)
- Dodge Magnum (53%)
- Chrysler PT Cruiser (48%)
- Mini Cooper (46%)
- Chrysler 300 (45%)
- Volkswagen Beetle (44%)
- Ford Thunderbird (44%)
- Mitsubishi Eclipse (43%)
- Cadillac XLR (43%)
“More than half of those are retro designs,” notes Denove. “When retro is done right, it sells.”
Adds Richard Rogers, president of the College for Creative Studies: “Design is always built on what's before. It is an evolutionary process, but a messy one that is not linear. It never follows a straight line.”
Making that top-10 list doesn't necessarily reflect sales success (i.e, the Thunderbird), only that consumers who did buy were most motivated by styling.
Conversely, what follows are 10 vehicles that polled consumers deemed the ugliest (and the percentage of people who mention styling as a primary reason to avoid).
These are non-buyers who, according to Denove, say, “That thing is not getting near my driveway.”
- Honda Element (60%)
- Infiniti Q45 (59%)
- Pontiac Aztek (57%)
- Mazda RX-8 (51%)
- Chevrolet Avalanche (51%
- Scion xB (49%)
- Toyota Celica (47%)
- Lexus LS 430 (46%)
- Infiniti QX56 (46%)
- Mitsubishi Diamante (45%))
Denove says a vehicle that came close to making “the ugly list” ironically is at the top of the list of vehicles that people bought mostly for looks: the Chevy SSR, a combination pickup-roadster-convertible.
In automotive design, there's a fine line between love and hate.
By Steve Finlay