How do you de­fine good car de­sign? Trust your in­stincts. And your tod­dler

Car (South Africa) - - COLUMN -

N my line of work, I meet many au­to­mo­tive de­sign­ers, usu­ally at in­ter­na­tional car launches. Over the years, at th­ese events I have heard all man­ner of ex­pla­na­tions to jus­tify why their lat­est pride and joy looks the way it does. I sus­pect part of their stud­ies in­volves a course on the use of evoca­tive ter­mi­nol­ogy, and there are some favourites that are re­peat­edly drafted into ser­vice. “Ath­leti­cism” is pop­u­lar, as are “tensed” and “ten­sion”; “strength” is thrown around eas­ily; and “dy­namism” is look­ing par­tic­u­larly worn out.

In long, drawn-out pre­sen­ta­tions, de­sign­ers try to ex­plain the com­plex thought pro­cesses and artis­tic in­spi­ra­tions be­hind a car that can also count on aero­dy­namic re­quire­ments and crash-safety leg­is­la­tion as equally im­por­tant de­sign pa­ram­e­ters. They wax lyri­cal about any­thing from the radii of cham­fers used on fen­ders to the par­tic­u­lar an­gle of a rear-win­dow sail panel, or an ever-in­creas­ing tum­ble­home used to cre­ate an im­pres­sion of so­lid­ity. In the case of one par­tic­u­larly dowdy Ger­man hatch­back, the chap pre­sent­ing ex­plained that the frontal as­pect would draw sym­pa­thy from on­look­ers, pre­sum­ably just like a sad puppy would. Through it all, I have smiled and nod­ded po­litely to men in dark polo-neck jer­seys, funky shoes and brightly coloured spec­ta­cle frames, when what I re­ally wanted to do was jump in the brand-new car and drive.

While it is nice to hear the cre­ative ways and the pas­sion with which

Ide­sign­ers talk about their cars, re­gard­less of the dash-to-axle ra­tio or the in­ten­sity of swage lines, I think we all re­act to their cre­ations at an in­stinc­tual level. Our im­me­di­ate re­sponse to a car that’s easy on the eye was re­cently high­lighted to me in no un­cer­tain terms ... by a tod­dler.

Many of my fam­ily and friends are in the child-rais­ing phase of their lives, so there is an abun­dance of lit­tle ones around. A par­tic­u­larly close fam­ily mem­ber called me to re­late a story about her lit­tle boy’s love of cars; not that un­com­mon among lit­tle boys, I thought to my­self. She re­layed that he can watch cars zoom by for hours at a time from his par­ents’ front room and lights up when­ever he re­alises a car trip is in the of ng.

More in­ter­est­ing was his re­sponse when re­cently vis­ited by a Porsche­own­ing un­cle. The an­kle-biter’s ini­tial shock was re­placed by de­light and a huge smile to show that the 996-se­ries 911 Turbo met with his ap­proval. A rapt stare was in­ter­rupted only by the words “mum … go kah” and a tiny, out­stretched nger. Some­how, some­where in that 18-month-old skull, a pri­mal part of his grey mat­ter was tick­led.

It couldn’t have been the 911’s colour; the car in ques­tion is char­coal grey; so the ef­fects of, say, a pri­mary red or yel­low hue on his young mind are negated. If you’re a reg­u­lar reader of this mag­a­zine, you may have no­ticed that the rear wing or the air in­takes on the rear fen­ders set this apart as the force-fed 911, per­haps cast­ing an ap­pre­cia­tive nod at the driver for choos­ing the top dog of the range. But, for a rug rat whose tech­ni­cal knowl­edge ex­tends as far as the word “vroom”, there were only de­sign cues to let him know that he had his eyes xed on some­thing spe­cial. But what were they?

I can con rm that he isn’t be­ing drilled with mo­tor­ing/car info on a daily ba­sis. His fa­ther would much rather watch over­paid drama queens kick a ball around for 90 min­utes than catch 20 mod­ern glad­i­a­tors do high-speed bat­tle around Spa-francorchamps. His twin brother is as happy ter­ror­is­ing the fam­ily labrador as he is watch­ing rush-hour traf c, so it can­not be ge­netic. Some­how, though, this lit­tle chap clocked that the two-door car parked out­side was a bit more spe­cial than his mum’s SUV, and he did this with zero prompt­ing or knowl­edge of what lay be­fore his eyes. To cause the re­ac­tion of that or­der in a tod­dler can only mean that the visual cues are pri­mal in na­ture. Sud­denly, the sub­tle el­e­ments that de­sign­ers work into de­signs to show ten­sion, strength and dy­namism all seem to make sense.

I’ve read that good de­sign is sup­posed to make you feel some­thing, pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive, and never leave you un­moved; the Nis­san Juke is a very good ex­am­ple of this ethos. But, to ex­tract feel­ings of pos­i­tiv­ity from some­one with lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of the world around him is a very im­pres­sive achieve­ment for any de­signer. Next time I nd my­self face to face with one, I think I’ll take a few ex­tra min­utes and re off some search­ing ques­tions be­fore hit­ting the road to write my story. Tell me more about that swage line or cham­fer, and ex­plain ex­actly how you have de­signed it to tickle the pri­mal brain cen­tres that makes lit­tle boys fall in love with sportscars, turn­ing them into life-long petrol­heads…

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