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Automotive Design Takes Cues from Nature and Culture: A Matter of Perspective

The annual Canadian International Auto Show Design Forum brings designers together from around the world to present their work and ideas to students and the media. This year, two presenters showed how nature and culture affect the way we perceive and respond to a design.
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Culture Matters. According to Tom Matano, director of Industrial Design at the Academy of Art College (San Francisco, CA), “I started to gain weight when I moved back to the United States, and couldn’t understand why until I measured the size of the dinner plates.” American dinner plates, he found, were one-inch larger in circumference than their Japanese counterparts, and his wife was putting two helpings on the plate to make it look full. This example opened his eyes to the cultural and regional differences often found in design.

Matano’s background made him sensitive to the differences around him. He was born and raised in Japan, but his parents had a 1950s-era Cadillac, and his neighbor a Citroen 2CV. In his late teens, Matano moved to Los Angeles, enrolled in a language school, and–six months later–entered the Art Center College of Design. After graduation he spent time at GM–one of his most visible designs was the “waterfall” grille on the 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass–before GM moved him to Australia, where he worked at Holden. Next came a stint with BMW in Germany. There he helped shape the E36 3-Series coupe, before Mazda recruited him to start an advanced design studio in–you guessed it–Los Angeles. The time was right. His travels had given him a unique perspective on each of the cultures he had encountered.

American vs Japanese Auto Design

“The difference between American and Japanese design is the difference between sushi and hamburger,” he says. “From the Japanese perspective, our designs are ‘greasy’ and ‘fat,’ while Americans feel Japanese vehicle designs are ‘lean’ and ‘without flavor’.” This translated itself into the Japanese concept for the last MX6 Coupe having flatter sides–which gave it a more two-dimensional look than its American challenger. That car had more curvature to the body side, and rounder shoulders.

Matano also found that simple things often had big impacts on how a design is perceived. “When Japanese drivers park their cars at home, the nose faces the street,” says Matano, “while Americans park with the tail to the street.” In addition, Japan’s crowded streets make it difficult for a complete vehicle to be seen. Matano claims this orientation is remembered by the body, and carries over into everyday life. Therefore, Americans strike the Japanese as larger-than-life characters with little or no volume control (we sit farther away from our TV sets too) or appreciation for detail.

“In the design process, these differences could be very frustrating when it came time to view full-size clay models,” he says, “because the Japanese designers would stand no more than two meters away from the vehicle. We’d have to pull them back until they were about 15 feet away to get the proper perspective.” Unfortunately, their perception of spatial relationships would make them slowly move closer until they were nearly on top of the clay model. “It took time and effort to make them see the design as an American would see it,” says Matano, “and we weren’t always successful.”

Culture Differences in Auto Interiors

Not surprisingly, cultural differences also color how we react to the interior of a vehicle. For example, a typical instrument panel center stack is topped by the air vents, but what follows can be very different. In general, says Matano, Japanese designs place the HVAC controls next, then the ashtray, and–at the bottom of the pile–the controls for the audio system. Americans, on the other hand, place the audio controls above the HVAC unit, and finish with the ashtray. Germans place the HVAC unit over audio controls. Even the color of the materials is culturally dependent.

“We tried to get a beige interior for the United States,” says Matano, “and every time Japan would send us something that was perceived as yellow-green.” As a result, Matano created 10 different gauges of beige, tinted from red to green, and had the swatches presented to both Japanese and American customers. He discovered that a “neutral” tan in Japan is two shades greener than the American control, which looked reddish to the Japanese. This meant regional requests for a “neutral tan” were replaced by a reference to one of the 10 shades on Matano’s chart. “Once we knew the reference point,” he says, “each group got the color its market wanted.”

Automotive Design Takes Cues from Nature

Nature Matters Too. Peter Horbury, newly named executive director of Design, Ford Premium Automotive Group, has had a varied career, and is blessed with a wickedly dry sense of humor. However, he is serious when he says: “There’s something different about designing cars.” The reason, Horbury contends, is that the human mind assigns a metaphor from nature to a vehicle. This visual cue then provides a context for the brain, and colors the response each person has to a particular design or vehicle type. It also explains our need to attach a name, or even a personality type, to a vehicle.

“For 1,000 years,” he says, “the only alternative to walking was a horse, and this animal was one which we named, fed, washed and put away each night in a warm, dry place. Is it any wonder,” he asks, “that we name our cars, give them a personality, and park them in a garage?” This parallel between horse and car had a profound effect on how the automobile developed. Early automobiles followed the convention of the day, placing the power unit (horse) up front, the driver behind, and the passengers over the rear axle. This design language stood unopposed for a number of decades, and affected our perception of other modes of transport.

A sprinter poised in the starting blocks, or a car? Both, says former Volvo design chief Peter Horbury. The natural environment sets the images by which we relate to a design, while regional culture sets proportion. This is why - besides their ability to fly – we see airplanes as birds, and refer to modern trains as snakes rather than “iron horses.”

“Early trains used the same design language, placing the driver at the back of the power unit. These definitely were ‘iron horses’,” he says. When the diesel locomotive replaced the steam train, however, the animal paradigm changed. And the “iron horse” transformed itself into a snake, with the engineer at the head of the beast. Similarly, the bird-like proportions of early airplanes became more pronounced as the jet age arrived, and the pilot and crew were moved forward into an area reminiscent of a bird’s head. “Just look at the Concorde,” Horbury remarks, “it even has a moveable ‘beak’.”

These connections with our environment have a profound effect on how we respond to a design. “The old Volvo 960 looked much more elegant and friendly from the back than the [Volvo 850-based] V70 wagon,” he says. “So, when we did the new V70, we lowered the rear window line to recapture this feeling.” Horbury then sketches the rear view of each vehicle. When he draws circles where the driver’s and passenger’s head would be, the sketches take on human facial features; one of which is big-eyed and friendly, the other with smaller, angrier eyes. The same anthropomorphic device, Horbury feels, explains why the Volvo S60 looks athletic in the side view. “The arched roof, high tail, and wheels at each corner give it,” he says, “the look of a sprinter in the starting blocks.”

Cultural Differences Impact Vehicle Proportions

However, Horbury is quick to point out that these internal images also reflect regional cultures, and often must be adjusted to fit the regional culture. “When we designed a truck for the Chinese when I was at MGA,” says Horbury, “we put the front screen glass down as far as we could. The client–the Chinese government–didn’t like it.” A trip to Beijing pointed out the reason: the “face” of the vehicle had Western proportions. Raising the base of the windshield–which lessened the area occupied by its “eyes”–made an immediate difference. From this, Horbury learned that proportion is important. “It must comply with nature, because that is our internal barometer of what we like or don’t like,” he says. Cultural differences adjust these proportions for the region. And, though he did not explicitly say so, it may be the reason there have been no successful world cars.


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