Car designers are, in a very real way, working cultural anthropologists, watching, digging, interpreting and also predicting societal behaviours as they work to create designs that are not only pleasing to the senses but also useful, noted speakers at the fifth annual World Design Forum held at the 2005 Canadian International Auto Show in February.

“The buying public is fracturing into many, many different groups and we are responding to that,” said General Motors advanced vehicle design chief Anne Asensio, in an address at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

Ken Okuyama, design director for the independent design house Pininfarina S.p.A, noted that manufacturers have clearly seen the cost-saving benefits of platform sharing – where many different models use the same basic mechanical structure and assembly process – and that reality is putting tremendous pressure on designers.

"Design is more important because so much under the skin is shared," he said. "So we now need to think about design as a whole because we're getting much more clever with sharing platforms, using modules."

French-born Asensio, who joined GM after a long stint at Renault, pointed to the Hummer H2 SUV as an example of a business case meeting a cultural reality. Much of what is under that hulking, militaristic body is shared with the Chevy Suburban and Cadillac Escalade. All three share a platform, although the H2 does benefit from a more robust four-wheel-drive system.

The H2 is a very American vehicle that "reflects a culture of fear...and a fascination with guns," she said, adding that the American hero mythos is reflected in the H2, which itself is driven by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former Hollywood action hero.

Bill Coleman, director of global marketing for Alias, a leading computer aided design (CAD) supplier, said the cars we see coming to showrooms today and will see coming in the future represent a kind of convergence of entertainment and design that is affecting not just the automotive industry, but all businesses.

"Look at Gran Turismo (video game). The cars you are driving are the real models from the manufacturers based on the real math. You direct those very cars in the game," he said.

Nissan's European design director Stephane Schwarz used his studio's London headquarters as an example of a complex and constantly evolving urban environment marked by diversity, creativity, openness and modernity. His experience living and working in London has impressed upon him the fact that, more than ever, modern society is searching for answers to extremely puzzling questions.

"As a people we are becoming more complex, more eclectic in our needs and dreams," he said, adding that companies who produce mass market products must somehow find a way to treat their customers not like consumers, but as individuals - a seemingly contradictory challenge.

"We seek brands that offer more intimate experiences," he said, pointing out that good car design should reflect this.

Hans-Dieter Futschik, large car design centre director for Mercedes-Benz, added that while designers can never know the future with certainty, they develop theories and from those series flow new car designs. One of the biggest challenges, however, is that the new vehicle arriving in your local showroom today should remain current and attractive for a four- to seven-year product cycle and then perhaps another 10 years beyond that as the vehicle remains in service. Given it can take three or more years to design a new model, designers must look 20 years down the road for the vehicle they are creating today.

"We work in the present, imagining a future 20 years off," he said.

At Mercedes, a core strength and one on which the designers rely, is the company's long and storied history. "To know about the future, you have to know where you come from," Futschik said, pointing to the steady evolution of design at his company.

Interestingly, he added, evolutionary design does not need to be timid or conservative. The new Mercedes CLS sedan is a good example of a car that clearly draws on the company's heritage, yet also stretches the boundaries in terms of beauty and taste. "We have our identity and we want to keep it," he said. "But to keep it we must change. We don't want to be stuck in an historical corner."

Marek Reichman, the senior designer working on interiors of Ford's Lincoln brand, added that while the first thing customers see -- the thing that hooks them into the showroom -- is the exterior design of a vehicle, it is the interior that seals the deal. And with new models coming with so many high-tech gizmos and gadgets, the designers must somehow find a way to create functional and luxurious interiors.

"You should not need a degree to drive a car or to operate a stereo. It should be obvious," he said.

Echoing many of the comments made by his designer colleagues, Reichman pointed to several trends now influencing car designs of the future:

  • New seniors: by 2050, 50 per cent of the population will be more than 50 years old. The over-50 buyer of the 21st century is active, healthy and demanding, and vehicles must reflect that reality.

  • Earth-friendly: Designers are searching for ways to "help customers feel good about spending time in their vehicles."
  • Creative use of materials and colours: 60 per cent of a customer's impression or perception about a product is based on colour. Look for designers to push the creative boundaries with colour and with all the other materials you see, feel and smell.

"Interiors are the new battleground on which customers are won or lost," Reichman said.

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