Get off my lawn.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Design Language

Design Language.

That's an interesting phrase. It describes an overarching style that guides the design of a complement of products, according to Wikipedia.

In practice, it means making one thing like another, and using visual cues to communicate something to the observer of a product. A Rolls-Royce sedan, for example, uses lots of chrome and vertical lines to communicate stateliness. Other luxury car makers use the same theme in order to communicate the same thing. Fast cars typically employ more horizontal lines, along with lots of vents, gills, wings, and front ends that look like the faces of meat-eating fish.

I get interested thinking about the origins of things like this. Who was the first guy to think of using a tall chrome grille to communicate the presence of lots of cash in the vicinity? Who decided that a high-performance car should look like it wants to kill someone? Who decided that an SUV should be big enough to warrant its own area code?

Toyota is said to be busy at work developing a new design language for hybrid cars. The goal is to differentiate a hybrid from a conventional car with distinctive visual cues. This seems kind of frivolous at first, but you have to remember that most people who drive hybrids do so mostly as a fashion statement.

A hybrid car doesn't get much better mileage than a small conventional car, and costs substantially more to buy, maintain, and operate overall. It's mostly a status symbol for people who wish to communicate their love for the environment. Therefore, a car maker who wants to capitalize on the hybrid fetish absolutely has to make a visual statement. If they don't, someone else will, and the greenie flock will fly elsewhere.

Some of the ideas Toyota is mulling over:

Distinctive vents on the car for battery-pack cooling:

How many ways can you make a vent? I don't think it will be distinctive enough. I guess you could make the vent in the shape of a teddy bear hugging a tree...

Blue or green lights on the sides or top of the car which come on when the car is in "hybrid" mode:

That's brilliant. It's going to make the car look like some kind of environmental clown cop car rushing to the scene of an environmental crime (e.g. a tree being cut down). It also begs the question: What's the point in wasting that precious battery power to turn on a "weirdo light" that tells people you're conserving energy? Stupid.

Exposed battery packs:

They've said they're thinking about exposing the battery packs for hybrids, probably in some kind of greenie homage to the exposed valve covers on a Ferrari F430 engine. I like this idea the most of the three, but it also sends a conflicting statement. One thing hybrid fans don't talk much about is what's going to happen to the batteries in their cars after about 80,000 miles. They'll eventually wear out, and need to be pulled out and disposed of. That's going to be an environmental problem, and a big expense for someone. Best to keep those batteries out of sight, and keep the inevitable out of your view (and thoughts) for as long as possible. That way, hybrid owners can at least pretend the problem doesn't exist for a while.

Here are some ideas of my own, which I think would make a nice environmental statement for the poseurs
who drive these cars:

A rotating bullhorn on the top of the car playing a loud voice in a loop: "Your attention please. Love our planet. She loves you. Don't kill trees. Hug a whale. Embrace Diversity." The audio equipment could be powered by the drivers' burning passion for environmental causes.


Make the car a foot taller than normal, and make a foot-deep round impression in the roof. Include a free sapling and 250 pounds of topsoil with the car, so owners can plant a tree on the top of it.


Install a device that injects bubble solution into the exhaust stream. That way the car will emit something pleasant into the atmosphere to offset the smugness emanating from the passenger compartment.


Install a shiny gold ring suspended 10 inches above the roof. A halo. Also include a halo for the driver to wear, so they can broadcast their superior status even when they're not driving their hybrid.

Ford, to their credit, includes a nice little green leaf badge on their hybrid cars, and nothing more. That is all that should be necessary.