Wednesday, 15 February 2012


Strange I would start an article about cars by talking about the Interior Design Show, but it goes to a point. I had the opportunity to go to IDS last week, as I do every year, and this year was a sad one for design. It all started this winter at IIDEX the largest design show in Canada and the Formula 1 of showing off. This year was, to say the least, like watching a couple of teenagers race shopping carts down a ramp. The innovation was gone. It was like someone said, ‘Oh no the economy is crashing don’t look too flashy!’ This theme of low key sadly went from the Haute couture of design shows to the more provincial IDS show. Standard faire abounded at both. The usual suspects showed up, but only in person, with only the staples of their business on display knowing full well that tried and true will sell. What chance did the auto manufacturers have, hat in hand looking for money, to be able to glitz up their products with great displays at their most important Canadian show?
Import-ant knowledge
It was almost as if an ocean apart from the woes of their own crisis gave the imports leave to be somewhat flamboyant. I really think they just ‘get’ design and it’s ability to do more than just style something. Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi, Toyota all had bright open airy booths with views to the future. There was no hint at recession, rather they used their misfortune of being in a business driven by the cost of oil as a mantra to show off the challenges they would champion through the superiority of innovation, creation and vision. Standing inside the Honda booth, or Nissan, you felt like there was a bright future ahead and you were already in it. You couldn’t help but be enveloped by the experience. From the shape of the walls, to the detail colours, from the materials and elevation texture, everything set off their products and made them stand out. More than that, as a whole experience package, you were left reaching for your wallet in order to be part of this wonderful future where the dismal goings on of real life couldn’t penetrate. Design touched everything and was consistent with the same message, ‘the bright clean future beyond the short term challenges’. The European offerings were not too far afield of the Japanese, their booths, as bright, yet somewhat less futuristic, gave a great sense of ‘it ain’t so bad’ attitude. A Stoic, ‘we will endure’ feeling which showcased their engineering marvels in a clean minimalist now-future.
De-sign of the times
The effect of the overall visual presentation by the North American car companies was very very different. Their booths were like fogs where even though they were brightly lit, made you feel like the weight of their woes were squarely set on your shoulders. In the case of Chrysler, it wasn’t even lit well. A black curtain back drop, a few plant and signs made it feel like a community cruise night. There was no bright future, no better tomorrow, no joi de vivre. It was as if so much as a handful of glitter might draw unwanted attention by the media. I can understand the point, no matter how misguided, of not wanting to seem like scarce money was being wasted, was translated into minimalist booths. But, the one place we expected to find a reachable American dream was devoid of any excitement.  Although smiles abound, and new shiny products were displayed and talked about with vigour, something behind the scenes made it all feel like hushed tones. Booths, when actually there, were flat and fairly sparse in their groupings. Duo or tri-tones were only used in so far as to portray company colours and green to show concern for the environment. Overhead dynamics and movement were ridged and didn’t help to draw the eye or body towards the parking lot style layout of their offerings. A bit more was given to new releases in the form of their own display backdrop, or turntable but nothing too gregarious. Standing in one of these booths left me feeling like I didn’t want to be part of their problems. It was like arriving late at a party where someone had just punched a hole in the wall.
The story of E2
What they all had in common was their focus on the economic crisis and the environment. Although different approaches, technologies and visual presentations, the message was the same. ‘There are tough times ahead but our products are better for the environment, better for the future, better for your children.’ As mentioned, the imports wrapped their message tightly into their whole brand image. Everything revolved around what they will do after the crisis abates and how they are going to help you bridge it. The domestic companies had islands of environmental consciousness surrounded by pickups, SUV’s and muscle cars, seemingly unwilling to take the whole future thing into the heart of their business model. You would think that after having seen what the Japanese accomplished in the 70’s, they would be quick to pick up on the cues of what everyone else is doing now. Again, the European approach to showcase new technology was to rest on the superiority of their engineering.
The different types of technology shown was interesting in that unlike the gas powered engine, several different methods of creating electricity for power are actually viable. There was even a system which captures breaking energy, stores it in batteries and uses it to power the electrical systems of the car leaving more engine power for driving. There were pure fuel cell hybrids which turned gasoline into electricity to run the motor. There were pure electric vehicles and electric gas hybrids which use batteries that are topped up by a small gas engine. Every company with a program showed off their technology. Interestingly Honda was the only one who showed it off in a true future concept car which took it to the next level. They explored the users relationship with the automobile and it’s changing economies and visually explored it.
Tragic Vaudeville.
If there is one thing to be learned from the biggest consumer consumption marketing machine, it is that a weak package, with poor experience design, no matter how great the offerings, will fail to inspire people to desire your products.  As with the interior design show, the auto show has numerous components that have to go together to create a compelling experience. There is of course the product and the technology as well as the promotional items. But there is also the lighting design, the texture, movement, walking patterns, points of interest, communal and private areas. All the things of good environmental design, great architecture and usable space. Each of which also have to combine to create an entertainment which draws you in, tells a story with you at the centre, gives you joy and won’t let you leave.
Every aspect needs to be designed. Be it by an industrial designer, environmental designer, graphic artist or architect all working together under one large experience design. The big picture needs to be drawn, planned and executed. Picasso only works because one vision brings it all together.

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