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Sunday
Nov202011

Soul Searching

Every nuance of a car's design expresses its personality or soul—just as people do— through a "body language" of facial expressions, gestures, and postures I call empathic expression. In the same way we sense whether a person is relatively happy or sad by their facial expressions and other aspects of body language, we sense a car’s mood and personality by the expression of its grille and all other aspects of its form. We not only sense it, we feel it to some extent and evaluate it.

We are generally drawn to people and cars whose souls resonate with our values, beliefs, and expectations. Soul mates, if you will, that we tend to like or love. We expect a sports car to seem fast and nimble, for example. But we also expect it honesty and integrity. We are put off by a car that pretends to be faster and more nimble than it really is. Lush seats that promise more comfort than they deliver offend our sensibilities as well as our backsides.

Designers routinely conjure automotive souls from metal, plastic and glass. But, whereas we make sense of written or spoken language by rational means, we have difficulty measuring or even explaining body language—even though we “get it” as readily as we a bellyache or “in love.” But my students and clients expect me to explain souls of products and how to tweak them to for greater compatibility, I have to explain them with words and numbers—especially if the tweaking is to be done with a computer.

This has been traditionally difficult but not impossible. Fortunately, we have a tool for taking a snapshot of a car's soul. Called the semantic differential, this analytic tool was developed by Charles E. Osgood, a professor of psychology and research professor of the Institute of Communications Research (ICR) at the University of Illinois (see his Measurement of Meaning). It has been used for more than half a century as the most effective and respected tool for measuring the meanings associated with anything, from political candidates to automobiles.

The accompanying graph shows results of semantic differential surveys of Ford’s Thunderbird and Nissan’s 350Z I conducted in 2003 (published in the July 2003 issue of Sports Car International). It compares the semantic profiles—the souls—of the two cars. I chose those particular cars because, as most readers probably sense, their souls differed markedly enough to produce decidedly different results.

2002 Ford Thunderbird2003 Nissan 350ZTwenty-one of my industrial design students at San Jose State University (14 men and 7 women, 21-40 years old) participated in the surveys. Looking at side-view photos of the 2002 Thunderbird and 2003 350Z, projected on a screen, they marked paper forms containing several seven-valued scales with opposing adjectives like slow-fast, hot-cold and heavy-light marking their ends.

Each subject simply marked the scales relatively closer to one end or the other, depending on which adjective seemed to best describe the look and feel of the car under consideration. If the car seemed neutral with respect to a particular scale, or only slightly related to either adjective, they placed their mark at or near the scale's midpoint. The averages (means) of all judgments, plotted on the graph, confirm the intuitive impression that these two cars have quite different souls.

Semantic profiles of T-Bird and 350Z compared.Following recommended practice, I randomly arranged the left-right order of the word pairs on the survey form in order to mitigate psychological biases (HOT and FAST, for example might have appeared at opposite ends because they both connote activity and potency). In order to show the differences between the cars most clearly in the graph, however, I arranged the scales, as shown in the graph, so that the adjectives most closely correlated in our minds with activity and potency appear at the right end of each scale. (Studies of Osgood and his colleagues showed that about half of all adjectives are significantly correlated with activity and/or potency; the other half correlate with evaluative notions like GOOD-BAD and its equivalent BEAUTIFUL-UGLY.)

Since judgments of the 350Z's lie to the right of the T-Bird’s in most cases, we can conclude that it seems generally more active and potent (i.e., more energetic) than the T-Bird. It seemed more active, hotter, faster, and more dynamic.

Sharp details of 350ZSoft details of ThunderbirdThe reasons for the differences can be seen in certain lines. Basically, lines that change direction or curvature quickly seem more energetic than those that change more gradually. For example, the sharp points of the 350Z front and rear lights lend its design more energy than the T-Bird's soft ellipses. The crisp creases of the 350Z, compared with the T-Bird's gentler, more flowing lines, also make the 350Z seem more energetic.

Both cars seem desirably clean and simple, and both seem strong. But, generally, the Z's more active and potent soul seems more consistent with what most readers probably expect of a true sports car. This does not necessarily mean that Z's design is better than the T-Bird's—but just different, and appropriately so. Each car has a soul calculated to appeal to different soul mates. The T-Bird seems heavier than the Z, as befits its image as a cruiser. No previous Thunderbird, after all, has been perceived as an aggressive, all-out sports car in the same sense that previous Zs have. While it does seem less active and dynamic than the Z, none of its scores lie at the extreme left. So it by no means comes across as a lame or flightless bird.

In the final analysis, a T-Bird with the Z's soul wouldn't have struck the right chord with traditional T-Bird enthusiasts. By the same token, the T-Bird's more dignified, even genteel, soul would have seemed out of place in the new Z.

 

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