The zeitgeist of design for cars, and your personal space
With his book Are We There Yet?, Dan Albert wrote a comprehensive history of cars and the automotive evolution. In a segment that caught my eye, he describes how influential the aviation industry was during and after the Second World War. People were expecting to own a private plane after the war, as this was naturally presented by advertising at the time.
When this didn’t play out, a number of factors came together to have the auto industry come to life as we know it until today. I recommend the book to everyone interested in why things are they way they are.
Are We There Yet? A new book by Dan Albert - Dan Albert
Before the days of GPS, we crossed the country with a Rand McNally and a good supply of highlighter pens. Everyone said…
Cars were designed like airplanes
As an effect of the average US consumer who was primed to lust for airplanes, the first post-war car designs resembled them. As many aviation references as possible were added in countless ways to the basic design of the car.
Imagine, the lust for cars was actually a lust for planes. People were downgrading their expectations to something that could not fly, not gave them an experience like a pilot, not take them any place as the crow flies.
I remember my dad in the Eighties still wearing pilot gloves for long road trips.
But you get it. People were hearing most of the innovation stories in the context of the war, and this went on for over a decade. Planes were the big thing, they were what decided battles, and what changed the course of the war.
It was the times’ zeitgeist. Planes were what people thought was most valuable.
But was this the first time car design was so heavily influenced by something else?
Cars were designed like carriages
Well, we know that the very first cars, at the turn of the century, were also designed to resemble the zeitgeist. What was most valuable back then, and had been for decades, was the horse. You had been very wealthy, had you had a horse carriage. That was what was being advertised.
And that’s why the first cars were designed like carriages.
Look at these milestones and the myriad ways a times’ state of mind influenced design decisions and marketing, and you wonder what today’s zeitgeist is.
Cars today are designed like paradox toys
SUVs today are generic in look, and two-fold in experience: Hostile to the outside, and like a cave in the inside. Sheltered, but less and less view to the outside. They appear on the road like predators, ready to engage in a fight. They are being advertised as the no-compromise choice for people who want to be ready for anything, but in reality spend most of their time in the vehicle slowly commuting.
On a planet that is facing irreversible warming, SUVs are happy to throttle the development further. In the US, for years the best selling car is a war-like pick-up truck by Ford, the very company that started it all. Big-ass, bullying testosterone design is all over our cities. It’s the zeitgeist, it’s the product of the last 15 years – if you look at Trump, the last 50.
What are future cars designed like?
First of all, SUVs won’t go away. As the world gets uglier by the day, the desire to hide in a cave will remain.
Just as horse carriages and pre-war cars stayed around for a few years after the next generation design and technology was already on the market.
But, with the advent of tech breakthroughs like autonomous driving, the necessity of a switch to electric, and the ubiquity of online sharing, a new paradigm is here.
The question is, how will it be designed?
One argument can be made, and has been in this publication, is that when a vehicle drives itself, the design should forget about the legacy of cars and rather look for what the user experience wants: A room big enough to do whatever we want.
So the inspiration should be Rooms. It relaxes you in a way that you can focus on anything but travel. Better fitted for medium- to long-haul commute or sub-/ex-urban travel time that you’d rather spend productive.
The second wave of zeitgeist, however, is ditching the car all together. Micromobility has exploded in use of electric scooters and bikes. The market is bombarded with new services and products, consumers and businesses alike are just beginning to figure out what works and what not.
The design inspiration is basically a minimalist walking stick. It enhances your abilities with the simplest support, just what is necessary. Better fitted to short distance hopping in dense inner cities or compact neighborhoods, which are timespans you don’t mind spending on just going around, maybe taking a call at max.
We don’t know what will win, or whether there needs to be a winner at all. But while the selfdriving car creates a bridge to the current zeitgeist of hiding inside a well-protected shelter (a typical behavior in uncertain times – remember Biedemeier before the wars), the scooter is all about exposing yourself to the outside world, without much of a safety buffer. Two directions, and maybe a place for them both.