This Is Genius

I had to laugh the first time I saw this TV commercial. I wasn’t really laughing—I was snickering. And shaking my head—marveling at its genius. The name of Nectar’s ad is “Sleep Like a Baby”.

The Nectar Sleep mattress (“Sleep” in the name got me: what other mattress is there?) is a memory foam mattress that, according to the ad promotes you “sleeping like a baby”. Hence the ad whereby we see babies moving on the mattresses, but with adult heads.

This tends to make some viewers feel a little put-off. They look at it and are a little repulsed by it. But I like it. A lot.

From a simple design standpoint, the idea is right on message. The visual idea was probably a whim from the ad agency. They probably kicked it around for maybe a day, thinking and rethinking it, probably wondering if Nectar would be turned off by it.

People are funny about such things. The public gets conditioned by things they see in movies, and although I can’t immediately recall a movie with this kind of baby-adult juxtapositioning, the mere thought of such a vision might bring about nightmare scenarios in some people’s minds.

But none of the antics that the figures do in the TV commercial are devilish or horrific. They’re just as innocuous as a baby squirming and fidgeting on a changing table, because the bodies really are babies and the actors’ facial expressions reflect mere comfort, albeit in a very infantile way.

The fact that Nectar bought the idea was just as genius as the ad agency’s idea itself. It takes two to tango, as they say, but in the ad world it’s entirely essential. I’ve worked in ad agencies where we had great ideas the clients didn’t like, or more to the point, didn’t feel were appropriate to their marketing plan. To have a successful relationship, the arrangement has to be like a marriage, and like in a good marriage, both have to bring something to the party.

If the ad executive with Nectar sees endless possibilities of a promotion presented by the ad agency, good things happen.

A Nectar queen-size mattress, which allows a 365-day trial period, sells for around $795, although I have seen a site that has it for around a hundred less. Its construction is such that the top layer has memory foam stitched into it, plus an additional layer that wicks away the heat retained in most other mattresses of this type. It gets very good reviews.

And for such a simple and engaging idea, this ad probably took weeks to produce, in both pre- and post-production. I can easily imagine the hundreds of videos of babies moving around on the beds, and then finding the right actors whose facial expressions lent just the right emotive movements to marry with the babies’.

And the result is so damned enjoyable to watch. That’s what it is about good design: no matter how often you look at it, it’s always pleasing to see it. And each time you see this ad, a smile will come to your face.

 

 

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Contemporary Design Landscape

I’d been applying for freelance work recently, and one of the sites posted had a reference to an application I hadn’t been familiar with: Sketch.

In my digital career, among the tools I’d become proficient with were Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator; Strata 3D; and a bunch of photo RAW things like and including Capture One. I’d also dabbled with a few photo editors and filters that add effects to bitmapped images. So when I saw Sketch listed in the posting for freelance work as a desired attribute by the agency, I was curious as to what it is.

In searching for it, I found it is just another tool in the current landscape of communicating with other places and “teams” when collaborating on given projects.

There are other well-known applications to use for this kind of communicating. Slack is one. Sketch combines that kind of communication with added things like digital asset management, interface development, website building, and icon tools. But it’s anything other that what its name implies: sketch.

What about creating the art in the first place? It’s fine to come up with all this digital asset management and sharing across teams. Using all that stock imagery. What about the actual artwork creators? Where are those artists these days?

A close friend of mine recently was messaging me through Facebook about where we, as artists and designers—and also educators—coming from a generation before digital was even thought of as the way to do artwork, stand in today’s realm of art and design. She was taken aback by noting that art and design students currently do not know how to draw, and are not required to learn so.

And she’s right. One of the classes we attended as formative students in the discipline was anatomy. It was necessary to know anatomy for proficiency in figure drawing. And although it was not necessary to have that talent to totally succeed at the college, the ability to draw—to sketch—was.

She mentioned that her son in his capacity at a firm which employs several designers was one of a bare handful who could actually draw, even now considered an asset at that place. But it’s largely true that most art schools these days do not teach students to actually draw. And I find that unbelievable.

It’s like that grade schools do not teach students how to do handwriting. Cursive handwriting hasn’t been taught in elementary education for years. Those kids do not know how to do their own signatures.

Are we totally that different from baby-boomers to millennials? Apparently. We can easily see the way small children have learned how to manipulate gaming devices and smart phones. It’s part of their early learning now. And that kind of instant interactivity has become the norm.

It does not matter to them what they are missing in the process of getting from point A (or zero) to point B (winning the game); or the process of getting from point C (having a blank canvas) to point D (having a piece of art). They never learned the value of actually making the art, seeing the picture developing from their own hands.

Years ago when I was an illustrator, I was visiting a photographer friend of mine and admiring his work. After listening that I was interested in developing a skill for it, he looked at me and said, “I don’t know why you as an illustrator find this so fascinating. I admire your ability because you make something from nothing.”

That insight stayed with me for a long time. It made me value the talent I had more.

Maybe drawing and sketching is not valued any longer. I certainly have not seen it used in any form in the last twenty years on the job, in the last four positions I had in the design industry.

I remember learning the digital way back in the early 90s, learning how to “draw” in Adobe Illustrator. Even then I felt the name of that application was a misnomer.

To this day, I feel more akin to Leonardo DaVinci than I do to any digital artist. I still draw and sketch my ideas on paper. I will visit this subject again.

 

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The Real Dodge Brothers

Advertising is seldom what it seems. If you’re looking for reality, commercials are not only not real, but sometimes not to be taken seriously at all. And I’m not talking about funny commercials.

Take the Dodge Brothers ads for Fiat/Chrysler (visual, top left). The ads looking to immortalize the Dodge brothers would have you believe those young bucks were hell-raisers, racing up and down semi-rural roads looking for speed, possibly drag racing their buddies for money. But that’s not exactly what happened.

Horace and John (left and right, respectively at top right) grew up in Niles, Michigan, with John being the older of the two. John was born in 1864 while Horace was born in 1868, which by anyone’s math made them both well into their 40s by the time they started developing their own first automobile in 1914.

John and Horace were not interested in speed. The family had moved to Detroit by the mid-1880s and the mechanically minded brothers were working at places like a marine boiler factory and later a machine shop across the river in Windsor, Ontario. John was an inventor, and having built and patented a dust-shielded bicycle hub bearing in 1896, they paired up to build their first bicycles the next year for the E & D Bicycle Company. Three years later, with their shares of the business netting them $10,000, they quit the bicycle business to open their own machine shop back home in Detroit.

One of their first contracts was designing and building engines for Oldsmobile. It was not at all long before they became one of the largest auto parts makers in Detroit.

Henry Ford’s company had already gone bankrupt more than twice before looking to the Dodges for help. They’d already started building engines for him; now they’d be partners. They would own 10% of Ford—and all of it—if Ford went broke again. They were smarter than anyone gave them credit: they borrowed 75Gs for new tooling and built Ford a totally new car. The Dodges designed and built the entire Model T drivetrain (engine, transmission, differential, etc.), and by the end of 1914 had churned out 650 cars for Ford, now their only customer.

But Ford’s ego was not going to let him continue to have someone else build his cars. He bought out the Dodges the next year for $25 million, and that gave the brothers enough to start making their own line. In 1915, they had sold 45,000 units, making them the 3rd largest automobile producer in the country.

The thing about the brothers was that they were innovators. They pioneered features in cars that later became standard: all-steel body construction (while others continued with wood frames), 12-volt ignition systems (6-volt systems were the norm until 1950), and sliding-gear transmissions. Their first cars had 35 horsepower (compared to Ford’s 20).

This kind of upscale quality gave them a great reputation in the industry. The lower left visual is their 1915 touring car, a definite step up for most customers, and at right, their line of trucks gave them an industry pat on the back. Their 1916 touring cars were used by Lt. George Patton to capture the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa because the US Army trusted the durability of Dodge.

But in 1920, with Dodge now the second-leading seller of cars, tragedy struck the family. John, now 55, died of pneumonia in January and Horace, 52, in December. The family eventually sold the company to an investment group, which by 1928 sold it to Chrysler.

That’s the real story of the Dodges. Their automotive input was short in time but long on legacy.

______

Look for the next column on December 1. I’m taking next week off for the Thanksgiving holiday.

 

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The Latest Trend in Asian Automobiles

       

I’ve written before about Lexus’ designs and how their front-end grille contours are not reflected in the lines of the rest of the body styling. With the possible exception of the LC500, this remains so into the coming 2018 model year. And regarding Lexus in particular, their fleet of vehicles does exhibit the front grille motif throughout, the SUV looking the most ridiculous.

I’ve collected a few pics here. Although Lexus’ designers have augmented the grille’s contours and have added an attractive texture to the grille itself, the lines around the headlamp area make for an even more aggressive, squinted look (see my previous article entitled “Let’s Talk Visual Sensitivities” from April 7 of this year).

What I find strange is that this design trend is getting traction elsewhere. Toyota, the parent of Lexus, is getting its grille enlarged in a similar fashion, its contour like that of Lexus with that modified hourglass shape.

Having mentioned Toyota and Lexus, Mitsubishi (lower left photo above) has also adopted the look, although to a slightly less obvious degree.

Moving to South Korea, although the Hyundai Veloster Turbo has had this open-mouthed look for a while, the Sonata is about to show it (lower right photo) in the coming year.

Notice that none of these automobiles has a grille that is light in overall tone or color. They’re all dark if not black. The designers have all decided, as if they’d arranged a meeting and reached a consensus, that black equals a macho, no-nonsense, don’t-mess-with-me look. Add that to the deep-throated contour that goes all the way to the bottom extremities of the front-end and you have the appearance that these cars can eat highway.

I wonder just how the design world will regard this goofy trend ten years from now.

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Lexus Doesn’t Get It, Unless It Goes All-Out

LC-500 Front LC-500 Rear

Lexus. A name that’s been around since the early 80s, at least in Eiji Toyoda’s mind, the head of Toyota. He wanted to build the world’s best car. And not long afterward, Japan’s competition came out with theirs: Acura from Honda and the Infiniti from Nissan.

Lexus, like most of the marques from that period, played it safe with its outward appearance, instead making its mark with fine interior appointments, smooth finishing and materials, and close-fitting body panels. In short, they didn’t push the styling envelope. Sales were crisp enough from sound advertising, promoting quality over flash.

The focus remained on that conservative approach, keeping in line with its European counterparts, that of Mercedes, Audi, and BMW. And in that club, Lexus remains the fourth best-selling luxury brand. But in 2012, the models offered by Lexus began to change when the automotive stylists made a template which eventually led to a more aggressive look.

A trend had developed among designers at Ford, Mazda, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Audi showing a deep-throated open-faced grille, with some contours taking the grille all the way down the front of the vehicle. Lexus was to echo that trend, first to a limited extent, then in a more exaggerated way. Lexus recently took it to its extreme hourglass shape in all its cars this current model year. But all the manufacturers did not take that design motif past the A-pillar, meaning the contours stop at practically the windshield, with some cars reflecting the design lines along the hood. And if you look at Lexus, its modified hourglass grille—that kind of angularity—is not echoed on the rest of their vehicles’ body lines. That grille makes a bold statement on the front of the vehicle, however loud it looks, but the back of that Lexus is any manufacturer’s car in comparison to that bold message.

But now Lexus recently showed a concept car at the Detroit Auto Show, the LF-Lc, that took the design to a great uniformity. True, Lexus’ designs of late have been more angular, making the offerings more aggressive looking. But this concept vehicle takes that angularity to a new level, scoring Lexus a near touchdown in its complete provocative styling.

Hopefully, Lexus will not short-change itself going forward. How much it moves that design thinking to its other cars remains to be seen. The concept car will never be built (concept cars never are), but the LC-500 comes really close.

It has just one small caveat. The stretched hourglass contours of that grille may not be regarded high on the design scales of history. It has elements of ultra-comic book styling with alien skin thinking from futuristic movies. And that’s alright, but it may not be timeless.

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Are Sports Cars Dead?

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I remember in 1974 seeing a brand new Toyota Celica. It was yellow and belonged to a guy I was working with at an ad agency in Cincinnati. It caught the eye of almost everyone who worked there. That was then, and now more than 40 years later, Toyota makes no Celicas. Hasn’t for over nine years now. Supposedly because of the shrinking sports coupe market brought on by a 1997 Asian financial crisis and a Japanese price bubble collapse. The Celica (and Supra, following, along with the MR2) were the sportiest offerings from Toyota, at least to the general public.

In fact, other cars were discontinued like that. The Honda Prelude was a victim of the same circumstance. And that was also the sportiest Honda, aside from the S2000. Both, however, died a death attributed to economies on either Asian or global stages, the latter because of the 2008–2009 recession.

This is not to ignore the European sports roadsters of the 60s, such as the Fiat Spyders and the British two-seaters such as the Austin Healeys and the Triumphs, but many of the cars of that era were not durable. But they could’ve been made better into the 80s.

Then there’s the Mazda RX-8. This car failed to meet increasingly stringent emission regulations in Europe in 2010, one of its better markets. So Mazda yanked the model altogether, citing it could not justify the production on a smaller scale. But at least Mazda is coming out with a model known as “ND”, which will replace the Miata, a car that may hit the skids next summer.

VW is of course a German automaker, not beset by the same issues as the Asian automakers. The thing about VW, though, is that it never came out with a sports car. If the GTI is what VW calls its sports model, it does not fit into the same mold as the two above. The same can be said of the Subaru WRX. If a rally car is what some manufacturers call a sports car, then the category needs to be redefined.

VW has what I would call just a plain old-fashioned design stodginess going for it (apart from the MPG snafu), but Honda and now Toyota are suffering from the same disease.

It seems the sportiness of automotive design has left the stage, excepting of course the Corvette (Ford’s Mustang and Chevy’s Camaro are not sports cars but muscle cars). What is going on?

The price of a gallon of gasoline is now close to $2 nationwide with OPEC telling us it has no plans to cut production, even in the face of ramped up domestic turnout. SUVs are known for using more gasoline than the average family car/minivan, and the oil glut keeping gas prices down will encourage more sales of that beast.

But the sports/roadster makes for much more fun driving.

Think things will ever rebound for the sports car market?

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The Nissan Murano

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Design encompasses many things, not all of them visual. Most ergonomics are felt, a product of the experience of using an object or handling it. Sometimes ergonomics can be discerned only by comparison with another of similar use and construction.

But most design is seen, and being that kind of experience, all things visual come into play.

In the case of the Nissan Murano, the premier SUV from Japan, a coherent display was formed in its first incarnation. The overall shape was good, the flow from panel to panel was nice, and the elements inside those panels matched that flow.

It looked like one person had designed it.

The initial Murano, coded “Z50”, was drawn in 2002 for the 2003 model year. As an SUV it was a medium-size vehicle, and it felt like a well-balanced model of design and engineering. It sat well on the road. Looking at the vehicle, it feels—visually—aerodynamic. Nothing sticks out from the contour. That unified design is a hallmark of initial offerings from many manufacturers. But as with many succeeding offerings along a model’s course, this particular manufacturer’s design of its best SUV lost its way and became ordinary.

And that’s unfortunate, given the clean lines it started out with. If I had to guess, I’d say Nissan literally disposed of the original designer or his/her authority or integrity, or someone at Nissan decided that design by committee was a better strategy.

Let’s see:

From the front, the Z50s grill follows the contours well and is generally uncomplicated. It has the built-in design geometry that echoes the lines of the hood and quarter panels. And the back is pure design: the lines of the hatchback determine the overall lines of the elements that follow, the taillights being held inside the quarter panels and following the lines of the curve. These things make for a unified design. Nothing feels forced, which adds to the elegance.

Along the way, Nissan added a few things and changed others in minor ways through the 2007 model year. Nothing overboard here, but they kept fiddling with it. This is what a lot of vehicle manufacturer’s design studios do (and in fact many other design studios who do other packaged designs): once a sound design is reached, it deteriorates through a compelled need to mess with it.

In this particular case, with the introduction of the Z51 in the 2009 model year, the Murano no longer had its classic lines and contours. The design become somewhat muscular and had taken on elements from its brother, the Rogue. Whether this was for economic reasons or not, the Murano now looks like many other SUVs, undistinguished and as bland as the next.

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