Tenets of Good Design, a Primer—Part 1

Design by definition is—according to Merriam-Webster—“the way something has been made [or] the way the parts of something are formed and arranged for a particular use, effect, etc.” And that’s fine for dictionary purposes. But design is much more than that. It’s bigger and more important, it’s larger. By that I mean it’s everything.

From time to time, I’ll post entries for understanding the aims and foundations of this blog. This entry will serve as the first in a series that explains what design is and what is not design. Because design encompasses many things, I’ll break down this discussion into four parts.

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Let me first explain that, in math, we have a symbol representing no items in a certain category. That symbol is “0”, a zero. The fact that we have the zero is an example of an organizational factor that came about centuries ago when it was discovered that there had to be a difference between “no items in a category” and “nothing”. A good example of organizational thinking.

  

Design is organization. And without organization, we have no plan. We have noise, a cacophony. Let’s cite some examples.

Let’s pick music, for one. When you listen to a tune you like, it’s pleasant to your ears. The blending of instruments and the sounds they make produce something you find easy to listen to. Ever think of music as design? Well, it is. It’s organization of the notes on the sheet of music and the instruments to play that music—musicians call it “orchestration”. But it’s still design.

How about automobiles? There are cars people think of as great looking, others not so much. Why is that? A Chevrolet Corvette is a car most people would agree is a pretty sharp piece of work. A Pontiac Aztec, not so much. This is not comparing apples and oranges here: it’s merely an example of good v. bad design. One is pleasing to the eye, the other not.

How about this one: Let’s say we have a neighbor named Doris who has a bunch of framed pictures on her living room wall that have no purposeful arrangement. There are various gaps among the items, and upon asking Doris how she arranged them on the wall, she might’ve said,”Oh I just put them up in no apparent way. I just hung them wherever.” This is not design. Now we have our neighbor Gina, who has a similar arrangement in her living room. But this arrangement has maybe a close-quarter arrangement or grid pattern to it that makes it a much more pleasing thing to look at. She has a design.

One of the first things you learn in design school is how to compose an arrangement. There are terms like “dominant” and “subordinate” pertaining to shapes in that arrangement; but for the purposes of this article, let’s say you have a bedroom in which to arrange the furniture. You naturally place the bed first (because it’s the largest piece), then the dressers and nightstands follow. That’s pretty much how you design any arrangement. The placement of the most dominant first: that theme that flows throughout the music, the curving contours of that car, etc.

These are examples of cohesion. Good design has cohesion. Cohesive design is something you see, something you hear, even something you feel.

Most people (non-designers) can sense where and when they experience good design. But most people don’t know why they know it. But they feel it.

My cousin is a home builder. He has a good design sense, but he can’t define it. He just knows what “feels” right. And he’ll explain that in his homes that one thing “flows” from another or that the proximity—nearness—of one room or item to the next makes things easier for the prospective owner. To him, this feels like an organized plan. And he’s right. He’s a planner, an organizer.

Design is intentional.

In the coming weeks, I’ll discuss design in many areas—practically everything. In magazines, in cars—even in television commercials.

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.

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?

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.