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Oct302011

Boo! Scary Design

2000 (Gen 1) Honda Insight

2004 (Gen 2) Toyota Prius

Why do so many people think Honda’s first-generation (Gen 1) Insight of 2000 and Toyota’s Gen 2 Prius of 2004 are weird or downright ugly? Look no further than that word “ugly,” which comes from a guttural growl of an Old Norse word, uggligr, meaning fearful; an ugly car literally scares us.

It’s not as scary as it would be bearing down on you in a crosswalk. But ugliness triggers the same “fight or flight” reflex any tangible threat does, albeit less intense. The same psychological and physiological reactions automatically unleash the familiar adrenaline rush associated with fear. Your heartbeat quickens, your breathing deepens, the hairs on the back of your neck perk up, and the pupils of your eyes dilate.

You flee an ugly car by averting your eyes, showing it your back, and scratching it from your shopping list. You don’t physically attack it (although I know a man who did go after his Subaru Brat with a sledgehammer). You fight it instead by hurling insults at it: “Ugh!” “dreadful!” “frightful!”  Someone chastised the Insight by saying it looked “like a kid hauling a load in his diapers.” One friend calls the Prius a “pregnant armadillo.” Another, who owns and loves one, reminds me of enthusiastic Volkswagen owners of the 1960s who made fun of their “bugs” and “beetles.” Like them, I suspect that when my friend calls his Prius a “pig on roller skates” he does so with the same indulgent affection.

 Our nervous systems are wired to make us instinctively wary of anything novel because most threats arise from things or situations that are unusual, abnormal, unexpected, or strange (including strangers). Your brain seems to have concluded that, if familiar surroundings haven’t harmed you yet, they probably won’t. If you weren’t wary of novelty you might have already poisoned yourself by indiscriminately sampling every new fruit, berry, and mushroom that caught your eye. Imagine how long you would last if you went up to every unusual animal you encountered to examine it more closely: “My goodness! What a big kitty you are!”

It doesn’t take much novelty to turn people off. The subtle bulges in the sides of the infamous “Pregnant Buick” of 1929 are to us hardly distinguishable from the virtually flat sides common then. But novelty has a way of exaggerating differences. The Buick’s sides seemed so blatantly outrageous compared with other cars in 1929 that they sent Buick sales into a nosedive and nearly nipped in the bud Harley Earl’s career as GM’s first styling chief.

2011 Buick LaCrosse. If the 1929 Buick had looked like this it would have bombed, despite its considerable appeal today; it would have seemed weird because it was so unfashionable. We are so sensitive to novelty that If General Motors designers and management had been far-sighted enough—and gutsy enough—to launch in 1929 a model shaped like any of today’s quite attractive Buicks they would have offended most car buyers simply because they were too far out of step with then-current fashions. At best, people would have said it was “too far ahead of its time,” the polite way of dismissing a radical design. If you think this is a far-fetched supposition, consider the initial negative reactions to the revolutionary grille-less1986 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. Critics called them, among other things, “bars of soap” because of their unusually curvaceous forms. When I stopped in Southern Utah to gas up a Sable wagon just days after they reached showrooms the station attendant, seeing one for the first time, said: "Wow! That looks like a car from the moon!" As they became more commonplace over time they looked quite normal. Nothing, after all, can remain new—and shocking— forever. The extremely raked tailgates on the wagons soon seemed normal. Their curves seemed to flatten out over the years until, today, they look quite boxy. In hindsight, they weren’t so different after all.

1986 Mercury Sable

Hypothetical 198X "Aero Citation"Or consider the illustration I did for an article I published in the November 1980 issue of Crossroads (a now defunct automotive magazine), fully five years before the controversial 1986 Taurus and Sable were introduced. Titled "Aerodynamics Take Off as Fuel Economy Soars," I illustrated it with a rendering of a stock 1980 Chevy Citation parked alongside a hypothetical future Citation with a smoother, slightly modified shape calculated to deliver aerodynamic efficiency some 15 percent better than the stock Citation. The changes were based on principles I became familiar with while at Ford’s Advanced Vehicle Concepts Dept. They included a grilleless, more circular nose and a rounder windshield and skirts covering the rear wheels. By today’s standards, it looks quite ordinary, even humdrum. But my editor refused at first to publish it. “That’s the ugliest car I have ever seen!” he proclaimed. He didn’t reluctantly agree to publish it until I made the design more normal by adding whitewall tires—and gave it to him without payment.

The rear-wheel skirts were probably the most controversial feature, even though many cars had them during the period between the 1930s and 1950s and even into the 1960s. My automotive design students at the College for Creative Studies at the time also found the skirts especially disgusting. With fingers in their open mouths they’d give me the gag sign whenever I suggested skirts would return for the sake of aerodynamic efficiency. And I still believe it.

But wait! Don’t we also crave and enjoy novelty? Indeed, we do. We seek it in every work of art, music, and literature. We expect next year’s car to differ from all that have gone before just as we expect the next novel to be novel. But, remembering Goldilocks, we have our limits.

Each of us has an appetite for a particular level of novelty that seems “just right!” The optimal level differs from one person to the next. A car that misses the mark for a particular viewer, will either offend him (if it is too novel) or bore him (if it isn’t novel enough). Generally, conservative consumers have little tolerance for novelty and lean toward traditional designs like the Gen 1 Prius. Early adopters who can’t get enough novelty favor radical designs more like the Gen 2 Prius.

Beautiful cars are at root ugly. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux suggests in his book, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, that fear is the prototypical emotion. All stimuli provoke fear first. All other emotions, including the good ones associated with joy, love and beauty, emerge from initial jolts of fear. And that’s a good thing. If you had only one emotion, you’d want it to be fear—if you are to survive into old age.

Beautiful things always come shrouded in some degree of stress due to doubt and uncertainty, just as ugliness does. There is a critical moment of hesitation as apprehension grips you and a negative bias takes hold and begins to grow. “Why is that car so peculiar?” your mind says. Your wariness grows until you determine, perhaps unconsciously, that the design’s strangeness somehow makes sense. It enables the car to do something better than other cars or in a new and better way than before. Only then does your mood swing from disliking to liking. As the age-old maxim of good design goes: form follows function.

We might more aptly say, “Beauty lies in the mind of the beholder” rather than merely “in the eye.” Philosopher George Santayana said it best: Anything that pleases us—for whatever reason—is by definition beautiful. What Santayana called the “sense of beauty” is empowered as much by rationality as emotion. Liking a car’s idea or rationale can account for its beauty as much or more than its tangible form.

 LeDoux goes further: The sense of beauty depends as much on knowing as feeling. He describes what amounts to a race between two basically different processes in the viewer’s brain: affective processes involving feelings and emotions; cognitive processes involving thinking and reasoning. A new car activates both simultaneously. But hair-trigger affective processes led by fear always jump out ahead of sluggish, deliberative cognitive processes trying to make sense of its unusual aspects. So cognition always lags behind affect.

Put simply, the designer must create (1) a design novel enough to excite the viewer and get his emotional juices flowing and (2) a design that is obviously better than usual by virtue of its novel aspects in order to speed cognition and thereby shorten the affective-cognitive lag. When the car looks quick, nimble and otherwise like a car should, the viewer feels good and likes its design. “Getting” a design in microseconds is like getting a joke right away. That feels really good. Since the viewer can’t make sense of a car that looks like a pig on roller skates no matter how long he ponders it, he ends up dismissing it like a bad joke. And you know how a joke not gotten makes you feel.

I immediately liked the Gen 2 Prius because it met both of those objectives: It was new enough to be very exciting (lots of affect); and I “got it” right away because it was more aerodynamically efficient than other cars (quick cognition that made for a brief affective-cognitive lag). Its profile conformed closely to a profile tested by England’s Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) that I became familiar with while a designer at Ford’s Advanced Vehicle Concepts Department. It had a CD (coefficient of aerodynamic drag) of just 0.27; the Gen 2 Prius’ CD of 0.26 is 4 percent better but well within the plus or minus 7 percent predicted error of the MIRA method. The Gen 2 Prius was the aerodynamic champ until the Gen 3 Prius, launched in 2010, edged it out with a CD of 0.25.

Ideal MIRA profile (orange) compared with 2011 (Gen 3) Prius. For perspective, a CD of 1.0 corresponds to the worst possible aerodynamics; a CD of 0.0 corresponds to the lowest, but unachievable, drag. CDs of between 0.30 and 0.35 are typical today, down from a whopping 0.55 in the 1970s before the Arab Oil Embargo focused attention on reduction of air drag as the least expensive way to increase fuel efficiency. Some of today’s SUVs still have CDs as high as 0.60, which accounts largely for their relative inefficiency. The greater frontal areas of wider and taller SUVs also contribute to their fuel consumption.

Incidentally, those skirts covering the rear wheels of the Gen I Insight might have reduced its overall wind drag by as much as 3 to 10 percent.

 

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