By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Last week, in my column entitled “The Most Dangerous Game” I discussed how the perennial tussle between design reach vs. design predictability could have far-reaching - and in some cases, devastating - effects on the success or failure of a car company’s models in the market. And it seemed to have struck a nerve, resonating particularly with the design community and with upper echelon executives involved in the process every day.
Reiterating the point that I made last week, design remains the Ultimate Product Differentiator, and its importance grows with each passing model year. With the democratization of technology and luxury, and the onslaught of product similarity that comes with it, design remains the most powerful, emotionally compelling reason for buying.
But sometimes that’s hard to decipher, especially when manufacturers show up in the marketplace with cars that look so alike that only hard-core car people can point out the real differences.
Take the mid-size passenger car market, for instance, and consider the look of the Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler 200, Ford Fusion and the Toyota Camry. Yes, of course there are meaningful differences in the front grille work, headlights and taillights, rear end designs and brand signature jewelry, but if they were lined up all in a row and you were 25 yards away, it would be difficult to tell them apart unless you were a car aficionado. As for the average consumer? Not so much.
How the hell did this happen? How did we get from planned obsolescence with massive design changes every fall in the Glory Days of the 50s and 60s, to the cookie-cutter design dance of today where every manufacturer offers a slightly different variation on the same theme?
Well, it’s complicated. And the answer to that question gets to the very heart of this design reach vs. design predictability business.
Automobile designers, no matter the company, walk a fine line, having to take into account brand signatures, packaging requirements, safety and regulatory items, engineering dictates (including aero-shaping for fuel economy), manufacturing constraints, input from the marketing troops (welcome, or not), and, to top that all off, having to wrestle with executive input and the ego-wrangling that entails, because, this just in, an executive’s ego rarely matches the quality of the input.
(Translation? Just because you have a title doesn’t mean you’re qualified to offer up opinions and input in a design studio. Until proven otherwise you’re just another suit with an opinion, and as such an inconvenient obstacle to creativity and vision more than anything else. Does that stop lesser executive lights from offering their “insights”? No, of course not. This is the automobile business, remember, and the egos involved are only slightly eclipsed by those in Hollywood.)
So, in this crazy and demanding environment – where designers are extolling current and slightly future designs to various constituencies (executives of various stripes and the media, etc.), while working on future looks five years hence - it’s easy to see how designers, given all the variables and inputs they have to consider, end up producing eerily similar shapes.
It’s the plague of lowest common denominator thinking as applied to the design business, and as you might imagine, it’s a giant, steaming bowl of Not Good.
Sometimes the similarities among automotive designs are downright confounding. Consider the 2015 Ford Edge and the new 2016 Hyundai Tucson for instance. The design for the new Edge has been shown in public for going on two-and-one-half years now, but the Tucson has just recently been unveiled. And even though the Tucson is a smaller vehicle, the design similarities between these two vehicles are frightening. (It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to go after fly-by-night Chinese auto companies for producing blatant brand ripoffs, I have no idea what Ford has to say about the, ahem, “ironic” design similarity between the new Tucson and the Edge.)
I talked to John Manoogian II about this for some perspective. John is one of this industry’s True Believers, having spent 33 years at GM design, with his last position being Director of Design, Cadillac Exterior. Currently John is an Adjunct Professor at the College for Creative Studies here in Detroit and owner-principal of Forzablitz design.
I asked John this: Why can some companies succeed in delivering distinctive designs while others appear to follow a formula?
“Design has become 'democratized' globally," Manoogian commented. "With the power of the Internet, every designer in every company knows what everyone else is doing in real-time. Design students across the globe can see what other students are doing, so it starts there and the corporate design teams can do likewise. There are very few real surprises anymore.”
Even casual observers of the automobile business can see design trends that have been picked up across the board, especially at auto shows where – except for the occasional exceptions – a true “lemming-effect” can be observed, with grilles, greenhouses, design “gestures” and overall shapes blending together like seamless beige wallpaper.
To me, this is a direct result of senior management playing it safe, or even worse, senior management unqualified to make design calls making them anyway, with the resulting detrimental, or in some cases, disastrous, consequences.
Manoogian agrees: “Once senior management 'weighs-in' creativity oftentimes is sacrificed. No one wants to take any risks, particularly when billions are at stake on a new vehicle program. Anyone remember the 'dust buster' minivan? The Aztek? The early '90s Chevrolet Caprice? It seemed that every time GM took a risk they got burned in the marketplace. No self-respecting senior manager/corporate leader wants to stick his or her neck out for a possible failure when it's easier to do copious market research and stick to the data.”
Ah yes, the data. As I said last week, it’s much easier to take the results from a clinic at face value and then wave the “data” around as proof that you did the right thing than it is to be bold and actually lead. But then again that’s how you end up with a parking lot of mid-size cars that all look exactly the same.
Manoogian adds: “Much like any creative endeavor, whether it's cinema, literature, advertising, etc., too many cooks can ruin the meal. Singular, strong designers with genuine vision don't exist very often in the corporate world of today. But designers have an obligation to propose the best possible solutions, rather than trying to please everyone. And senior management owes the stockholders and their customers the very best effort, too, not just a 'safe' go-along-to-get-along solution. This is what Apple does so well.”
In my discussion with John, we both agreed that the customer shares some responsibility as well. Appliance shoppers deserve appliances, they’re comfortable with them and their expectations are correspondingly low. If vanilla is their flavor, some car company out there is going to offer it to them. And yes, of course there’s a place for that in the market today, with some companies chugging along just fine while delivering that kind of automotive pabulum. It’s also much easier to play it safe in the market than it is to lead, because the consequences can be monumentally dire if you get it wrong. At times in the past GM tried to lead, as Manoogian mentioned, and got it very, very wrong. Now GM Design is, at least for the most part, delivering many more hits than misses.
Every automobile designer in the world walks a very fine line. Get it right, and you’re a hero. Get it really right while starting a definitive design trend, and you’re instantly considered one of the design visionaries of the day, with all of the acclaim that goes with that. Get it wrong and in no time you’re designing stinkin’ badges for subcompacts.
Am I excusing design predictability? Oh, hell no. Coming up with rote designs similar to what’s going on in the market speaks to organizational laziness and the desire – and comfort – that comes with being one of the crowd. Instead of having the cojones to forge a markedly different point of view, these companies are taking the easy way out and to me the resulting cookie-cutter design similarities breed contempt, or even worse, boredom.
The automakers that execute a focused consistency with their brand images are the ones that are generally succeeding in today’s market. Look at Porsche, Audi, Bentley, and to a lesser extent BMW and Mercedes-Benz, (which are only marked down because of their occasional bouts of blatant inconsistency).
It takes tremendous discipline and a fundamental understanding within those companies that the design function is creativity at its most intense, a process that’s best left to the experts with the talent to deliver the genuine vision required for success.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.