The state of design [1]

May 26th, 2010 § 7

Do cars look as good today as they looked in the past?

Recently, in several magazine and website articles I found comments of automotive journalists and simple car enthusiasts talking about the car design of the previous decade. They were not very excited about it and overall the opinion was that car design didn’t reach the levels of the previous decades.
Most of the last ten years represented an economic boom which, by definition, means a period when companies spend more than normal to develop and expand their products. It’s the time when innovation gets much more attention. That’s when one would expect a large number of very exciting designs to come to the market. It is interesting, if not strange then, to hear people saying that in the last decade car design was not as exciting as before. What happened? Is this true?

For one thing we have to be very honest with ourselves: the late 50s and early 60s, Detroit’s golden era, will never repeat again. That was a time when decorative design dominated the car industry. Also a time when, mostly in US, design dominated the other departments, engineers being the ones to compromise in favor of style.

Regulations were very loose or not existent. Very thin pillars looked good but they would not support the car in a roll-over. In the interior there were no airbags taking room in doors, pillars, steering wheel, seats, etc… Ergonomics and user interface were in part ignored because styling was the king. Excess, like chrome surfaces and fins, were the norm of the day. Along the decades, more and more regulations were imposed, making cars safer and more comfortable but, at the same time, giving designers a lot less freedom today than they ever had before.

Next to regulations, which always restrict design, what other factors influence the design to become “less exciting”? Perhaps there are factors like education (design schools), business models (including management and marketing) and higher consumer expectations. Today I’d like to touch one of the causes I would call computer illustration.

In the mid to late 90s, Alias and Photoshop programs got to a level of sophistication which put them on the desk of any car designer, replacing the typical vellum, markers and pastels. In the last decade they became the norm and the illustration quality got to a point of competing with professional photography. It’s what some call photorealistic illustration. This is where I see one of the causes for our issue. And it’s not the fault of Alias, Photoshop and photorealistic illustration but the management of them.

In art there are two distinctive areas: painting and sculpting. It is generally agreed that painters are not good sculptors and, sculptors are not good painters, with some exceptions. Car designers have to be those exceptions. They have to be exceptionally talented in 2-D because, the way the business processes in any automotive company are set, this is how they sell their ideas. Once the design is selected, the car designers have to provide exceptional talent in 3-D as well, the state of the final product. Then, the 2-D vs. 3-D work has to be managed properly.

In the past, when there was no photorealistic illustration, car designers were spending less time on renderings and were concentrating more on modeling. Their process was similar to that of a sculptor, fast minimal sketches to help develop the idea and then, it was mostly model work. That gave them a very good understanding of 3-D surfacing. Some designers were also sculptors, like Flaminio Bertoni, the one who created the audacious Citroen DS, an icon in automotive design.

Today, due to Alias’ or Photoshop’s exceptional power, do designers spend too much time doing 2-D work at the expense of what counts the most, the overall balance of proportions, shapes and graphics of the real model? Are their 3-D skills at a lower level than their 2-D skills? As a consequence, do today’s designs look better in illustrations than in real life?

An automobile is a 3-dimentional object of a quite substantial size and it requires minutious work at full scale to achieve the right results. Schools prepare today the future designers extensively in 2-D work. Cost and space is prohibitive, even for first class schools like Art Center, to facilitate work on full size models. One solution is to have as many students as possible take internships with car companies. I remember my first year after graduation spending many hours with two talented design managers, walking around the clay models and exchange our opinions on surfacing. It was a very good learning process which helped me a lot in later years.

The truth is the flat work will make the management buy the idea internally but only the 3-D execution will make the potential customer buy the product. Illustrations are a fast, easy way to create, develop and sell ideas. To refine a product, the expensive and painfully slow full size clay model is still the king. And that’s where a lot of attention and a good trained eye need to be directed. There should be a very good, balanced correlation between 2-D and 3-D.

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§ 7 Responses to “The state of design [1]”

  • Jim Shook says:

    I totally agree.

    I think that 3D CAD modeling is creating lower quality designers and designs. I am an instructor of car design at the Academy of Art University. One of the good things about this school is that students are required to make their own highly detailed and painted clay models for at least 5 of the semesters they are taking car design classes. Eventually some of the students argue that they should not need to labor over physical models when they can do it in Alias. To make their point, they show me how they can develop surfaces in Alias and rotate the model to view from any angle. Then I have to remind them they are viewing it on a two dimensional surface and that they cannot run their hands or eyes over it like a physical model. It is a totally different experience in my view.

    Physical modeling is an important part of the process of learning to develoop and “feel” surfaces.

    I believe that too many current car design managers never really learned how to manipulate and refine sophisticated forms. Some current car designs are obviously influenced by the CAD tools that helped create them. The managers are not able to recognize the opportunities to refine, and are not able to communicate and demand this refinement to the designers.

    Some older era cars were modeled by master modelers and designers who truly understood the sculptural aspects of the design. This is being lost when designers believe they can do it in Alias.

    Jim Shook

  • Avery Pavey says:

    Wonderful thank you very much for the knowledge. A Very nice example of text.

  • CanadaCraig says:

    Hi Lucian!! :o)
    I hope you’re OK.
    I appreciate the link to this page. [You 'met' me over at the autoblog site] I enjoyed the article. As far as the 2D/3D thing is concerned – I’ve been quite surprised lately [The past decade or so] by how different some cars looked in photos in comparison to how the looked in ‘real life’. Sometimes there was a night and day difference. The 2D images failed [Miserably - in some cases] to give any sense of what a particular car really looked like. Sometimes it was much better looking ‘in person’. And sometimes it wasn’t. I also find it interesting how some cars have to ‘grow on you’. As if the design of those cars are speaking a language you’re not familiar with. Another thing that I’ve noticed lately – with many cars – is the ‘design committee’ look. As if 5 guys where hired to design one car but were forbidden to talk to each other. So you end up with a car that looks like 5 different design ideas all glued together. I think things are starting to get a little better. None of this is a huge deal – of course. But I do find it very interesting. Have a great day. Craig! :o)

    • Lucian Rosca says:

      Craig, thanks for your comment, you touched some interesting subjects in car design.
      Mostly, cars look better in real life, the way the consumers see them. Sometimes the problem is the poor photography, some other times the printing. A good, professional automotive photographer is essential. But, there are cases when the reflection of the light, created by surfaces, can’t be replicated very well in 2D.
      Same thing happens in the design studio when, in the first stage, of 2D art work, sketches and renderings, the design manager needs to select some proposals for further elaboration and eliminate the others. This is a critical stage, when the manager looks at a drawing and at the same time creates in his mind a 3D image of it which he can turn around and see how the surfaces flow in space. This is one of the steps where an exceptional manager makes the difference and distinguishes himself from a run-of-the-mill one.
      The cars that “grow on you” are usually new designs that brake the common rules and succeed. We live in a world of sameness where most of the products are just improvements over the old ones. When something brakes the sameness rule, at first looks different and unexpected. After the initial reaction of surprise and the questioning of the new, if its image “grows on you” that implies that it becomes accepted and then, successful. If it doesn’t “grow in you”, it means the idea was not the right one.
      When it comes to the “design committee” look or 5 guys hired to design one car but were forbidden to talk to each other, believe it or not, this scenarios are real and they happen. It all comes down to understanding how to manage people and projects. And, as we can see, some studios are doing this very well, others perhaps not so much.

  • I don’t usually post comments, but I will in this case. Nice work. I look forward to reading more

  • Hey I like your blog !

  • Great post! I really enjoy your blog! Thanks

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