Design VS Design

Design is about selling you an idea.

Longtime readers may stop me here right now and ask Haven’t you been telling us that design is fulfilling the constumers’ needs and want, and how they need to be utilitarian? Yes, I have, and almost unwittingly so.

Let’s consider something we all should more or less understand from design perspective; cars. The faster and the smoother the car is, the more expensive and the more time on its design has been spent. The ungodly amount of options modern cars aside, we recognize a car that has been designed to be used in every possible place on Earth and a car that’s only for Sunday drives.

For simplicity and to make my point a bit clearer, I will be using two cars from the yesteryears; the one I learned to drive in, and the one that I still think is absolutely fantastic in its design; Ford Escort MkIV and the Lamborghini Countach.

The Escort looks what you’d expect from an everyman’s car. It’s simple, easy to take care of and didn’t break all that easily. Nowadays it’s horribly difficult to find spare parts if something breaks down. It’s a bit boxy and drove like a tractor, but that’s what I liked the Escort about. I could feel every single inch of the car underneath me and could control its heavy steering properly. No power steering in this baby.

It’s design sells you simplicity with no bells and whistles. It’s unsurprising design made it a good car to drive and you knew exactly what it would do in what situation. The Escort was like a lovable next door girl; safe and she’d love you as long as you kept your shit straight.

The Countach on the other is everything but simple. It’s aggressive wedge shaped design makes it sleek and modern. The panel lining breaks its surfaces extremely well and the intakes in the back look like they were taken from a jet fighter. It looks expensive and fast, which it was. It was something people wanted to own and drive.

However, the Countach was rather awful experience overall terms. It didn’t turn too well, steering was iffy at best, the seats were uncomfortable even if they looked good, the instruments panel was a mess, it ate gasoline like cheap whores and its suspension was fully made of steel and would need to be replaced incredibly often. A trip from a town to another might end up in a visit to the garage shop. The Countach was like having a one night stand with a busty blond from the pub; it was fun, but most likely something went wrong and you need to spend a lot of money to get it fixed.

Answer me this; Which one of these have better design?

I could drive the Escort in -30°C without any troubles, and it could go through rather thick layers of snow without much worrying. I doubt the Countach could even start in that coldness and its low profile and wedge shape doesn’t really suit the weather here. It’s a car you’d rather drive in California, and that sort of car it was.

The design the Countach has is to sell you an idea. It was a car to those who could afford it and showcase their status in the society. It’s design that is expensive to make and produce and it caters straights to the ideology of high calibre car. It’s something the common people yearn for, something that you strive for and dream of. It wasn’t a car you’d see commercials of, because it wasn’t exactly a car that was specifically meant to be sold to everybody. The reason why supercars and other luxury items are not advertised on the telly is because people who sit down and watch television simply are not wealthy enough to purchase them. It was luxury design to those who could afford it. Just give a look at this Turtlewax commercial.

The Countach had an established position in the minds of the consumer, and using it to showcase how strong Turtlewax was a no-brainer. If Turtlewax is enough to protect Countach from the elements, it’s more than good enough for your car. Both this commercial and the Countach fights with an image.

The Escort on the other was a car made for mass consumption, and its TV ads reflect this.

Escort’s commercials hit where it counts, going over why sort of new elements the MkIV had, and the commercial after the first one just lays out data alongside footage that shows how the car handles on what looks like your normal Finnish forest road.

To make it short; the Escort and Countach represent two design philosophies. One that is made to be effective and easily available for everybody, and the other is luxury design for limited group of people.

Nevertheless, there is third kind of design that is both of them. It has one exceptionally well made example that still stands as something many would be willing to dub as an example on perfect design;

RIP Kenji Ekuan
RIP Kenji Ekuan

The Kikkoman soy bottle by Kenji Ekuan has not changed during the last fifty four years. The bottle is easy to produce, does not spill soy sauce, does not drop one drip if you hold your thumb on the other nozzle and fits universally on any hand on Earth. The nozzle is based on an inverted teapot’s design, and there has been nothing like it ever since. It has no moving parts or the like, it’s just pure physics.

This is a product that can be found around the world in almost any restaurant, from street level vendors to the highest level of gourmet salons. It’s not just utilitarian beauty in its simplicity, but also sells us an idea of perfect luxury design that we could never dream to get our hands of, yet when you step in your groceries store you can find one sitting royally on the shelf among others, cruder designs.

The best thing about Ekuan’s bottle design that it is ultimately something you don’t notice until you stop and think about it. The Countach in comparison screams straight up how expensive piece of equipment is and shoves its ideology on you. The Escort does the exact same thing, but hits different beats. Much like with engineering, the best design is something that comes out naturally, unnoticed and still appreciated.

Electronics don’t really like the cold

Recently I’ve had some car troubles. Well, I always I always have in some form, but when the car you’re driving decides to leave you standing in the yard of your customers’ factory, then something is wrong.

Living in a colder region of the world has its share of problems when it comes to modern day products. The amount of electronics that are put into anything nowadays is rather mind boggling. Cars are a good example how a simple product is filled with unnecessary electronics, relatively speaking. I can’t state that driving computers, power steering, ABS system and Lord knows what else is standard nowadays in cars, as those are things most customers seem to want. What I can state is that when the car has relies far too greatly on the electronics to function, then there needs to be a concern about different climates during the very design process of the car.

Middle-European car designers don’t really think of other regions than their own while designing a car, or at least so it seems from a northerner’s point of view. When I was in a driving school, I noticed that most cars at the time were well sealed, were warm to drive and had little to no troubles in starting. This was because most of them were automatic and less reliant on the driving computer. Nowadays the standard has changed that every car has a driving computer. This poses a problem, and as I was being towed away, the tow truck driver did slip information how most of the jobs they have during coldest frosts are cars with high amount of electronics. That, and the occasional people who have driven out of road into a snow bank.

It is true that not all cars fit every environment. They can be modified and adapted for sure, but that’s often extremely expensive. Sometimes regional laws may prevent you from even making some of the needed modifications. I know that local laws are so strict that deviating from the factory-ready models can’ really be changed. Some people have troubles with the legality of imported cars and I know few cases where a person had to fight against the government to get his German car noted street legal due to some minor differences between the local and German variants.

There used to be a saying that a Lada will start even in -40 Celsius around here. This doesn’t apply anymore, as even Russian cars have become more or less electronics driven. The market for cold region cars exists for sure and it is explored without a doubt, however I have always felt that having your driving computer to freeze and making the car a huge pile useless scrap has always been a mistake in the design of the cards. The electronics have become an irreplaceable part of the cars themselves, and if they fail the cars usually lock themselves down. I would imagine that a certain degree of separation between the digital and analog parts of the cars should exist, where you could have the driving computer utterly fail and still be able to drive the car just fine. Without some of the smart systems, but it’s never the computer that drive the car; it’s the driver. Much like in Zone of the Enders, it’s the Runner and not the Frame.

One could argue that cars have become too electronic and that nowadays the Joe Everybody can’t really go in and fix these things by himself without any specific tools. More often than not I hear that somebody needs to reset a car’s driving computer so it shows no errors. I was taught by my neighbour some car mechanics 101, but nowadays those are somewhat moot as you can barely lift the hood without the car going berserk. Actually, I know a case where two different sensor would prevent the car from running. This is because one temperature sensor is near engine oil that is heated via wall socket, and the other has no pre-heatable components near it. The driver has a cold spray with him in the car so that he can cool down the heated sensor. This sort of thing is absolutely stupid and unforgivable from consumer standpoint.

Then there’s the whole thing that batteries seem to hate cold places with a passion. There are stories about the frost shortening the life or even killing all sorts of batteries. I can say that this is true, as experience has taught me that certain batteries just can’t stand negative degrees. However, if you hold pocket electronics inside your jacket and near your body, they shouldn’t experience the cold. Still, using an iPhone or any other smarts electronics that is easy to damage anyway isn’t really recommended. Ultimately, cold climate demands robust design coupled with somewhat low level but well designed products, not the likes that consume the battery even when shut down.

I have a bias against cars with high amount of electronics. I prefer manual cars over automatic in real life and most of my driving life I drove a Ford Escort mk4. It was a rough car that required the driver to be able to handle its somewhat stiff steering. The time had done its deed to it as well as the trunk door didn’t keep itself up anymore, the seats were well loved and the gear shaft didn’t recognize the positions all that well. Nevertheless, it was a car that responded to the driver’s skills and intentions very well and the driver knew everything the Ford was doing. No bullshit suspension or power steering here, sometimes it felt like driving a tractor on an icy road. Many times I was able to save the car from a crash because I could tell how the car behaved because there was nothing in between me and and the wheels. This doesn’t apply to cars with ABS systems or other stuff. The electronics are in-between the driver, and driving an automatic makes me feel like I’m playing OutRun arcade cabinet with an actual danger. It’s a horrible feeling when you realize how little control you have over the car your driving when you switch from the Escort mk4 to any automatic. No longer I could tell what the car was doing or thinking, which meant that I had learn the finer aspects of driving an automatic car.