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Monday
Nov122012

Creating Excitement

 

2004 G2 Prius (background) and 2010 G3 Prius (foreground). (Source: Toyota)

Toyota’s global design chief, Akihiro “Dezi” Nagaya, who was responsible for design of the groundbreaking 2004 Prius, has promised that future Toyotas will look more emotional, dynamic, aggressive and, generally, more exciting. How will designers fulfill his pledge? In a word, with more information—the only thing capable of exciting the nervous system and arousing the emotional states that characterize aesthetic experience.  

That confusing word "information" means a lot of things ranging from "knowledge" and bad guys snitching on each other to the bits and bytes stored in a computer's memory. To understand what it means in the context of design we merely dig down to its Latin root; “to inform” simply means “to form or shape” something, which is what car designers do, of course.

Since shaping something always changes its form, information always involves variation of some sort. More variation equals more information equals more excitement. When a designer bends a flat sheet of metal into a curve it gains information. Bending it further—varying its shape abruptly enough to crease it—adds even more exciting information.

So the creased sides of the current G3 (third generation) Prius, introduced in 2010, embody more information than the smoothly curved sides of the 2004 G2 (second generation) Prius. Likewise, the zig-zagging outlines of the G3's headlights—which change direction more frequently and more abruptly than those of the G2's simpler lights—embody more information. These two features are enough to make most people conclude that the G3 Prius seems more complex and active than the G2, as though something more is happening throughout its form. That is to say, it seems generally more exciting.

And just about everyone agrees about which design is more exciting than another. Just ask anyone. But their judgments are based on nothing more tangible than feelings, after all, even if there is broad consensus. A designer would be better off knowing just how exciting a design is—and exactly how much information should be added or subtracted to make it just right. 

Semantic profiles of G2 Prius and G3 PriusCharles Osgood, of the University of Illinois, provided the means with development of the semantic differential survey instrument he described in The Measurement of Meaning (‪University of Illinois Press, 1957). It has proved to be the most reliable means for objectively measuring a product's essential character or soul. I have used it effectively as a teacher and consultant of industrial design for some 40 years.

The accompanying graph arose from a survey I conducted to derive semantic profiles of the G2 and G3 Prii. The survey form, on paper, consisted of adjective pairs of opposite meanings (complex-simple, heavy-light, FAST-SLOW, etc.) separated by seven-valued scales. The vertical ordering of the scales and their left-right orientation were randomized to mitigate bias effects.

Participants indicated their gut feelings about the look of each car by marking each scale relatively closer to the most descriptive adjective in their opinion. Normally, I would have conducted a separate survey for each car. This time I had participants score cars on the same form because I was more interested in how different the cars seemed.

For the results shown in the graph I rearranged the scales top to bottom in order of significance; the cars differed most on the SIMPLE-COMPLEX scale and least on the FEMININE-MASCULINE scale. I arranged them left to right in order of their arousal potential; that is, how exciting they seem. Those adjectives on the right are correlated with general potency and activity according to Osgood's research. With the exception of the CURVED-STRAIGHT scale, the right hand terms are associated with greater information than those on the left.

Note that I don't mean suggest the G3 Prius necessarily looks better than the G2 Prius—just more exciting. Bear in mind that ugly cars are also exciting, just not likable. I happen to think the simpler, smoother and more graceful G2 is prettier than rough, angular and masculine G3. I am apparently in the minority, however. (That's a subject I dealt with in "Scary Design" and will expand on it in future articles.) 

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