Amko Leenarts: Don’t All Cars Just Look the Same?
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Amko Leenarts: Don’t All Cars Just Look the Same?

Amko Leenarts: Don’t All Cars Just Look the Same?

This is a question I’m often asked by people in the village looking for a discount who know I’m working in the car industry, or by my frustrated family after I left my home-country, or friends that are extremely modern and stopped driving cars altogether for politically correct reasons.

Of course I’ve been extremely bothered by this question that begins as a casual conversation started by the questioner and ends in a fight about mobility, pollution and unpractical city centres. All of which are beyond my ability to change in my daily work as a car designer. I will try to answer the question so that, once and for all, I can refer to this book the next time the question arises!

The first reason for making cars look alike is because of safety regulations.

On the outside, safety regulations oblige a certain height and width of the front lights and the space in between them. It pushes the front nose up for pedestrian impact reasons unless they invest in so-called ‘active hoods’ that throw the victim back on the street instead of over the car. We identify ourselves with the car by its front face and they are forced to be—plus or minus a chrome detail—the same!

On the inside, the interior is build around the human body. Ergonomics dictate, for instance, the distance between the driver’s eyes and the dashboard, or his knees and the steering wheel. As a result, apart from the driving position but also for the safety of the inhabitants in airbag positioning or soft-padding integrated at strategic places, all surfaces are, within millimetres, pretty much the same from one car to the other. The margins left after all these hard points are very limited and thus result in—to outsiders’ opinions— very similar designs.

The second reason pertains to innovation patents.

Unfortunately, the car industry is obsessed with patenting all innovations. The result is an enormous library of innovations being stocked that nobody can use, unless they pay the original author while he wasn’t even thinking of developing the innovation himself! Most companies are not willing to pay and don’t develop the variants in case of lawsuits. Which leads to the conclusion that: the more we patent, the more slowly we develop new concepts.

These are reasons that—unless I take a seat in the European government—even the most influential figures in car design cannot manipulate. I’ve been wondering what we can do within our field. It’s the design department of any large company that is able to push the boundaries technically, asking the right questions to members of the board, and planting doubts in marketing peoples’ heads. So why can’t we?

To answer this question, I’d like to permit myself some self criticism: strange enough, the car industry is, to the best of my knowledge, the only field of creation where we apparently need young designers in order to move the imagination forward. Contrary to architecture, industrial design or fashion, where the most innovative designs and thinking processes are coming from the established names: Rem Koolhaas, Philippe Starck and Karl Lagerfeld.

I think we should not mix up creativity and naivety. Creativity represents for me a whole process, while naivety can only answer to a partial process. In other words: the lack of experience can give naïve and fresh solutions without digging further into a problem, while a long experience can give a more complete answer in multiple layers: the product, its technical beauty, its marketing and its added value to society. It’s the design that answers to all of these parameters that stand out from the others. With only naivety as a motor in the design process, we won’t differentiate sufficiently from other brands.

We love objects that remind us of something else: the citrus press of Starck that reminds us of a spaceship or a spider, the kitchen series from Allesi, seats with bottoms sculptured in, a lamp that looks like an old chandelier, etc. The more variable the range of inspiration or associations the object stimulates, the more successful the product will be. I remember having designed an instrument cluster that reminded the CEO of the company of a peanut. From that moment this unflattering word became the name of this product and it took about a week before people completely unknown to me came up to me to ask about my ‘peanut’.

It never made production. Likewise, I designed a mid-console that reminded some people of an elephant trunk. And a button that looked like the anti-stress pills the boss had to take in the morning. Systematically they were refused because they reminded decision makers of something else, usually negative. Their—and these days my— thinking is, if my associations are negative, the clients will perceive them to be negative too. This might result in them not buying the cars. So this is the start of cars that look like cars. On top of that, a car could never look like, let’s say, a coffee machine. This is because people want cars to look like a car with a front face that they can relate to. An aggressive Peugeot mouth, those cute Renault Twingo eyes or the bouncer SUV nose say something about their driver. Give or take a few differences, all human faces look alike, so all cars are bound to look alike too!

Inbreed, copying and solutions that won’t shock the client. The risks are financially too important and make us do MAYA design: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.

After having explained in little depth the reasons why, you can probably understand my frustration, since I believe we do a marvellous job, given the circumstances. So how can I give a short answer to those neighbours’ question: “Why do cars look alike?”

I’ll just admit it: they do. And we’ll have a great afternoon talking about other things in life. More at Hiatus’ book.