For millennia individualistic design differentiation has been engrained in societies.
Typically so as an identifier of perceived social standing; from Ancient Royal Egyptians' adornment of the scarab beetle (representing the god-like powers of the sun) through to the 20th century's western obsession with aspiration and one-upmanship; from the 1950s wave of kitchen appliances to the 2000s proliferation of designer handbags (whether real or fake).
An eminent signifier of social standing – at least perceived through apparent wealth – has been the private vehicle; when both horse-drawn and when motorised. Hence, personalisation and differentiation have been in vogue ever since the personal or household livery was painted upon a sedan-chair or carriage, that transportation trend obviously today relating to the ever greater individualisation of the car.
Whilst craftsmen have historically been the translators and creators of an individual client's wants, the industrial revolution meant that a new breed of professionals were created from an arts background, who would not interpret the external market's desire, but actually seek to lead that desire, with ever greater emotional attachment and ever quicker product replacement cycles, so as to gain brand loyalty and ensure consistent demand.
The Design Function :
For the mass-market it was Alfred Sloane's efforts to build a 'ladder empire' of brands within General Motors during the 1920s that ultimately initiated what is now known as modern 'car design'.
Of course, various “coach-builders” had already for two decades been mating a personalised body to a separately made standard or altered chassis. But it was Sloane's deployment of Hollywood stage-set designer Harley Earl, initially on the La Salle project, then continuously through the creation of the 'Art and Colour ' department with the activity known as 'Styling', that created the modern template for the Design function.
Set-up in the midst of the Great Depression this department would seek to revitalise the previous consumer boom of the high-flying late 1920s into a now much more sombre 1930s. To create that boost would require a holistic re-think about all visual aspects of the car. So for the first time actually spanned all aesthetic considerations, and in doing so introduced newer development processes (such as the use of scale and full size clay-modelling) that sped-up the new product development time, and so the ability to seemingly create an all new vehicle – at least to the buyer.
Most prescient though was the introduction of the Budd Metal Press system, which allowed for the creation of far more curvaceous hoods, fenders, door skins, rear quarter-panels and trunk-lid. This allowed for far more rounded styling of the clay models to be directly translated into sheet metal; and done so vastly quicker (than if hand-rolled). Thus it was the very speed of this stamping and forming process that could be said to have 'democratised' a more artful styling. The masses could now enjoy the true fruits of long latent aspiration, with in GM's case, each brand from Chevrolet to Cadillac, though often using similar mechanicals, differentiated in form and detailing.
[NB by the mid 1950s the ideology of conspicuous consumption had become so socially ingrained that it was 'supercharged' to annualised levels, through corporate efforts of 'planned obsolescence'; as exemplified with the 1955/56/57 model-change Chevrolets].
The adoption of these working practices allowed Detroit and other auto-cities' (Coventry, Milan, Wolfsburg etc) to revolutionise national and international consumerism. And so it was that the profile and influence of the Styling / Design department has grown in corporate importance ever since.
[NB this said, it must be noted that the semi-ethereal nature of the Design process to most Board members – themselves typically with backgrounds in finance, engineering, production and marketing-sales - means that during lean corporate times Design will typically see (in budget percentage terms) a greater cut-back than other more 'core' corporate functions. This not only because of perception of corporate criticality, but naturally correlated to the expected reduction of man-hours regards hi-concept work in favour of in-market model update work; with accordant changes to the work-load of 'concept' vs 'current' studios)].
However, give its market-facing role, and its ethereal, unquantifiable manner, corporate seniors have tended to provide this department with greater freedoms, budgetary allowance and overall influence during the mid-point of an upward economic cycle, after the financial gains of a previous austerity phase have been obtained. So it is perhaps only during the good times, when design attention has become more valued in itself, that Design would gain greater attention.
In recognition of its ability to be used as a marketing aid, and indeed a trend-spotting 'marketing antenna', the once narrow responsibility of Design has successively grown over the decades. Especially so over the last 30 years, buoyed by the late 1980s and early 1990s 'corporate design age' wherein all design aspects of leading corporations were considered in part and whole.
It could be seen that Ford led the way from the early 1980s, the then Design Head Uwe Bahnsen with his broad corporate design remit spanning the aero-programmes of Escort/Sierra/Taurus to Dealership Environment and Brand Identity Manuals. As with Harley Earl previously the new expanded Design template became more effective in other producers, with the desire to leverage the function to obtain a pan-corporate unified identity. The experience of Chrysler in the late 1980s and its need to move beyond an ad-hoc approach as central to its turnaround proved successful, from the introduction of its 'cabin-forward' large cars to the aspirations of Bob Lutz to pen and create in concept form a Bugatti-esque idea of what Chrysler was aspiring to.
Similarly the strong Japanese economy of the period allowed for increased use of the notionally 'Hi-Concepts' section - last seen industry-wide during the late 1960s, early 1970s - with elements trickled-down into a Marketing Concepts section. It was this confidence that created the still iconic Pike range at Nissan.
Thereafter, this 'vision to reality' exercise would rationalise concept ideas toward greater market credibility. So the 'Market Design' section would act as an analytical 'bridge' toward the early stage of a new vehicle programme.
Whilst 'Project Design' was dedicated to a specific Board approved new product, working in parallel with concept engineers. It would notionally end with a 'signed-off' 1:1 scale clay model; itself usually one of three or four styling packages each with different design philosophies or even alternative mechanical layouts. The gestation period of the original Mazda MX-5 provides an interesting example.
Historically, companies also created specials or new hi-concept inputs from prestige Italian Carrozzeria (ie Touring, Zagato, Pinifarina, Ghia, ItalDesign et al). These were firstly used by various makers to gain Italian stylistic flair, such as Kaiser-Frazer with Pininfarina, with each carrozzeria seeking new design services. This seen with Zagato's Superleggera 'bird-cage' construction which drew the likes of Aston-Martin for its specials. Those who wanted to bring new brands to market with associative prestige used the Italians for immediate appeal, such as the Bizzerini: US financed , US engine but Italian-made. Later on with that caché now a given, mainstream producers sought to provide what was considered “Italian flair” either through merger, as with Ford's use of the Ghia badge on top-line cars, or via specific project commissions that required that 'Euro' feel, as with Cadillac's Allanté.
Additionally, beyond the car sphere and into product design, auto-firms have commissioned well recognised external designers to inject alternative thinking; either prosaically to keep in touch with design trends, such as Land-Rover's use of Fitch and Conran for the interior of the original 1989 Discovery. Or indeed, during the 1990s 'designer age' onward as a “high-art” PR ploy, Ford's invitation to Marc Newsome.
Yet quite obviously by the mid 1970s it was recognised that design, brand and marketing were increasingly coalesced. This merging especially visible regards the glamorous worlds of aeronautics and motorsports. Whereby high day-wear fashions had been influenced by the cock-pit and pit-lane; men's flying and racing overalls transformed into women's 'jump-suits'. And once high-tech Aviator eye-glasses by Bausch and Lomb became purveyors of high priced fashion items.
It was within this context that 'Porsche Design' was created, focused upon a range of apparel goods spanning sun-glasses to jackets to much else, and with later entry into broader personal items. By the mid 1980s 'Porsche Design' had become the aspirant and de-riguer brand for the aspirant yuppie era; seen as Euro-cool by many Californians who could and could not afford a 'whale-tail' 911 Turbo. Ironically, it was a 'fit for purpose' uniqueness (not always well styled) that created the personality and so the first footprint in the sands of (an at least semi-credible) premium auto-related luxury goods brand. The critical factor here was that, although seen as odd and distasteful by many of the old-guard establishment, 'Porsche Design' was not simply a branding exercise. Each of its items from glasses to bags had been designed to perform properly. Ironically, arguably unlike the historically embedded poor packaging of the 911 itself, these designed from scratch luxury goods were usually wholly fit for purpose, even if obviously 'Germanic'.
[NB since that strict Teutonic stance, given the commercial appeal, Porsche Design now overlaps with the prestige of Porsche Cars, functional design overtaken by marketing led, hi-style design: as with the 911 GT3 exhaust derived Audio Soundbar.
That 1980s consumerist designer-fever spread into the next decade, various instances of the in-house design team asked to consider new brand extension projects for marketing and new revenues purposes. Perhaps the high water mark of that era – sublime or ridiculous - being a pasta firm's use of the auto-design guru Giorgetto Giugiaro to create a 'designer pasta'. Like 'Porsche Design' the name 'ItalDesign-Giugaro' brought auto-design cache and so its order book became increasingly product design orientated thereafter.
The term 'lifestyle' and 'designer' has been synonymous with prestige goods ever since; especially so in personal luxury goods.
Critically, unlike previous eras whereby (because of its innate history of expertise) a specific best-in-class brand would be the natural destination for a buyer of a specific item, the mid 1990s onward saw an ever greater proliferation of branded “families” of related and non-related goods: for personal use, home use, office use or as often as prestige gift items.
The first auto-branded items -beyond conventional merchandising - were those which were sympathetic to auto-brand extension in the transportation realm.
Such corporate moves seen were partially adapted or wholly redesigned branded bicycles with own design studio input, even if realistically very little. These sold individually or as part of a new car package with good margins, and used by dealers for life-style window-dressing of their expansive windows. Land-Rover Design's first offering of a convincing mountain-bike having now led to what is effectively a licensing of the logo adorning various types of bicycles. Similarly, Ferrari Design started out with items of greater brand and design integrity. But there soon emerged a blur between the “brand-values” quality of the original products and the desire to increasingly enter the mainstream with ever higher volume expectations; leading to unconvincing overly styling on poor quality products; so little more than additional merchandised items on low margins.
Nonetheless, these and other premium marques have continued to explore the prestige retail space that sits between the wholly in-house created and the wholly externally generated. Herein we have seen Bentley Motors co-create a range of home-ware products primarily around the sitting-room/lounge and bedroom. Aston-Martin similarly co-created dining silver home-wares and gift-wares alongside personal accoutrements. And more recently Bugatti has co-created a range of haute couture fashions for him and her; with an expectation that it will likewise create additional 'artistic' items befitting the highly collectable artefacts Rembrandt Bugatti (Ettore's sibling) created at the very beginning of the 20th century.
And lastly is the deployment of of 'sexy design' as a brand marketing tool within below and above the lines advertising to revitalise brand interest.
The most current prominent exploiter being Ford using the second iteration of the Ford GT supercar in its UK advertising, along with the notionally exotic Mustang in its 'Unlearn' campaign, citing 'Mondeo Man'; intended to shake off the the blue oval's previous conventionality.
But most socio-technically powerful, and so most interesting, have been the efforts thus far of Stuttgart, Detroit and Munich.
Thanks to economic expansion from the mid 1960s onward, the European suburban 'micro-car' (BMW Isetta et al) soon disappeared into the rear-view mirror as 'proper' car demand took hold. However, it still held sway in two primary niche markets, France and Japan thanks to local regulatory regimes, but within Europe a fraction of the market TIV.
However, the seeds of re-invention were being sewn by the early 1990s, with the Kyoto Summit acting as a catalyst for experimentation. Demographers and social scientists foresaw the upcoming economic growth of EM regions on the horizon with the inevitable mass-urbanisation effect. This leading to the notion of the ten million plus 'Mega-City'. Similarly there were observations that Europe's ageing population and singleton trends amongst the young would require vehicles with smaller footprint, packaged effectively for the urban and suburban environments.
The then very fashionable Swatch watch company of Switzerland sought to explore diversification and started to undertake a radical 2-seater city-car vehicle project which utilised the same inter-changability which made their watches so popular. That set the basic tone of what was to be a revolutionary step forward in small car design. Recognising the size of the challenge ahead Swatch approached various auto-players, eventually partnering with Daimler's Mercedes car unit in early 1994.
[NB Mercedes was also underway with its own city-car, the Vision A, as a truly small 4-seater 4-door, far smaller than the original A-class, this seemingly grown in size with the advent of the SmartCar].
So it was that only two and half years after Kyoto that concepts were shown to press and public, and three and a half years later that the first Smart ForTwo rolled out of the dedicated production centre in Hambach, NE France.
It was a courageous exercise by Daimler that would be criticised by many for the time taken to reach break-even – well over a decade in fact (even with the derived Smart Roadster) – but effectively set the bar for a new era of micro-cars suited to city-use.
Recognising this probable social shift, at the turn of the new century whilst riding upon the populist wave that was the internet bubble – itself poised to radically change society - the American 'Big Three' started to showcase their interpretations of tomorrow's personal mobility solutions. Similarly, the Japanese reviewed how the Kei car format could itself be accompanies by even smaller, single and couple orientated products.
GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda and Nissan each depicted that future as the 'Urban Pod'.
Small in footprint and tall in height, powered electrically and to carrying one or two passengers. Such thought provoking proposals, regards an intelligently integrated cityscape, laid the foundations for the public's current fascination with Google's experimental 'pod' and Apple's visions of a similar device. That once slow-track of a radically altered urban future now almost accepted by the public as the expected future of long-term transport evolution.
Appearing upon the fast-track of transport revolution - toward the MegaCity idiom – has been BMW's truly revolutionary i3. Unlike Nissan's Leaf or the GM Volt/Ampera, both beset by the problem of adapting of a conventional (ie heavy) steel platform (albeit partly 'lightweighted'), BMW recognised it would need to start with a clean-sheet design, the disadvantages of platform adaption rightly seen as far too limiting. Moreover, most importantly it demonstrated the firm's willingness to heavily invest in the expensive but right technology mix as an optimal solution.
A carbon fibre and composites intensive body, riding upon a separate (battery-integrated) aluminium chassis. And instead of simply 'testing the water' before committing itself in 2009 the German firm created a joint venture with its carbon strands and matting supplier SGL Carbon. This assurance of supply, along with its own research and plant investment for the moulding, trimming and conjoining of CFRP (carbon fibre reinforced plastics) for comparatively high carbon-vehicle production volumes, meant that BMW has effectively leap-frogged its automotive peers in knowledge and competitive advantage. The advantageous 'snowballing' of the carbon-car business model itself enabled by partial carbon-components inclusion on the high margin new 7-series, along with aluminium.
The i3, created as a purposely obvious 'design-led' sub-brand (with i8 and new i5), thanks to corporate courage - underpinned by the logicality of the business template - essentially changed the playing field within the automotive sector for eco-vehicles.
Thus paradoxically we see that whereas the Design function was previously 'given its head' only during the good times, we today live in such a competitive, PESTEL led, global market environment, it was paradoxically during the worst downturn for 80 years that Design has become far better respected, and vitally exploited, by those companies that wish to lead into tomorrow.