Looking Out - The Podcast: Ep. 9

This episode is really visual. To see our line-by-line review of the Toyota Century SUV in real time, watch along on YouTube

Criticism and the automotive industry make for uncomfortable bed fellows.

We put so much heart and soul in to creating a car that when someone points out its flaws, it can be like being told that someone doesn’t like our child.

Except the cars we design are not our children.

They’re manufactured products that have an enormous impact on the world around us.

They influence the way we think and behave.

They shape our understanding of public space and how we share it.

And they consume vast quantities of natural resources in their manufacture and use.

So, as car designers and design strategists, alongside the engineers, product planners, and leadership we work with, we reckon we have a responsibility to question intently the impact that our work has, and to think deeply about what we have to do better.

That the Toyota Century SUV is the object of our critique in this episode is almost neither here nor there. There are any number of new cars that fail to meet the needs of the moment in which we find ourselves.

But as way to understand how design and product planning decisions can have such a remarkable impact on the perception of a brand, the big SUV, and the way it toys with the ethos and mythos of Century, is hard to miss.

We’re not here to denigrate or mindlessly criticise.

We are here to get people to look up from their day-to-day, look out for the shifts and signals that are going to impact their work, and connect the dots that lead to a more sustainable, more equitable future.

With this episode, we’re making our first, messy, and very public attempt to create a template for having critical conversations about the future of the automotive industry, and the role of design within it. We’re not going to get it right first time, but we’ll keep trying.

So whether you yelp in agreement with us, or shake your fist with rage that we dared question the status quo, take this as an invitation to speak up and share your views, not just with us, but with the Looking Out community.

Over the coming months, we’ll be developing a series of Looking Out interviews. Our aim is to present a diverse set of perspectives on where we should be headed. And if you’re reading this newsletter, or listening to or watching the podcast, chances are you’re someone we’d love to hear from, or you know someone we should speak to.

So drop us a line at theautomobilitygroup gmail.com and let’s start a conversation.

Click Read more’ for the transcript


Note: This transcript is machine-generated and may contain some errors.

[00:00:00] Drew Smith: The perfect example of this in, in my sort of slightly twisted automotive vocabulary is like the difference between an E38 BMW 7 Series and the W140 Mercedes S Class that was out at the same time.

[00:00:13] You know, the, the, the 7 Series was ripped and lean. And the S Class was a slightly pudgy bloke, know. Um,

[00:00:26] Joe Simpson: In a very good

[00:00:27] Drew Smith: In an extremely good suit, like beautiful suit. But, you know, if ever there was a term, like a car for which the term jollie laide, like ugly beautiful, could be applied to, I think it’s probably the W140.

[00:00:41] I’m Joe Simpson.

[00:00:43] Drew Smith: And I’m Drew Smith.

[00:00:45] Joe Simpson: And welcome to Looking Out the Podcast, auditory sidekick to the newsletter, in which we connect the dots across mobility, design, and culture.

[00:00:55] Drew Smith: And coming up in this show, our ninth episode, our second on YouTube, uh, we’re gonna do something really dangerous. Like, career endingly dangerous, perhaps, we hope not, but

[00:01:13] Joe Simpson: I hope not.

[00:01:14] Drew Smith: This is, this is the kind of fear that some of us car design folk live with. Um, we’re going to take a look at the new Toyota Century SUV. And we’re going to run through this car line by line from a design perspective to understand what’s great about it and what’s perhaps not so great about it and what it says about Toyota and what it says about Century as a brand.

[00:01:40] And then we’re going to have a conversation about the nature of criticism and why criticism in the world of automotive design is such a dirty and dangerous word.

[00:01:52] So Joe, how does that sound? Apart from terrifying!

[00:01:57] Joe Simpson: I mean, terrifying, um, for those of us gainfully employed. Uh, but also it’s something that I think we’ve both, um, been very much connected to and doing, and I think some people will know us, some people maybe hate us for, um, based on probably the past 15 years of work we’ve been involved in.

[00:02:18] So, I think it’s a very, uh, pertinent and interesting topic, and I hope it’s going to be of interest to listeners and viewers.

[00:02:27] And I would say that, um, with the Century, this is where YouTube comes into its own so if you’re listening on the podcast, hopefully we can give you a good description, but this one really is also with the visuals on YouTube.

The background to the Toyota Century SUV

[00:02:41] Drew Smith: Awesome. So for Anybody who likes to indulge in a bit of automotive onanism, uh, the Toyota Century will need absolutely, uh, no introduction, Joe. Um, but for those who perhaps aren’t familiar with what this car is and what it represents to its manufacturer, Toyota, um, the Century was introduced in 1967 to celebrate, um, the Century of the founding of the company.

[00:03:12] And it really Ever since 67 has represented the absolute best of what Toyota can do. In terms of its market positioning in its home country of Japan, it sits above the highest Lexus product, which is the the LS series. It is manufactured in tiny numbers. It is sold at, for a Japanese product at, at vast expense.

[00:03:37] And to experience riding in a Century is to get an understanding of just the depth of thought and integrity and craftsmanship that is possible at, at Toyota. And they are quite remarkable cars. I’ve had the good fortune to, to ride in a couple of them.

[00:04:03] What happened um, it’s about a month ago now, I guess, maybe a month and a half ago, is that for the first time in the Century’s history, there is now a second body style and, Toyota have seen fit to introduce something called the Century SUV.

[00:04:25] Now, in true Century tradition, this thing is wildly expensive. Uh, Australian dollars, 265, 000, uh, US dollars, 167, euros, 158. So this is a very expensive car. They’re going to be producing around 35 a year, which is a minuscule number. Um, and you know, clearly it’s designed to take the Century brand into a new market. And Toyota talks about wanting to use the SUV to take the Century to a younger market as well.

Why review the Century SUV?

[00:05:05] Drew Smith: But here’s the thing from a design perspective, it’s, it’s quite an odd duck, um, and for us as design strategists, um, it’s really interesting to, I think, A, look at why it is such an odd duck from a design perspective, but then sort of peel back the layers and say, okay, well, what does this mean for, for Century now? And what does it say about where Toyota’s thinking is at?

[00:05:38] So why don’t we get stuck in Joe,

[00:05:42] Joe Simpson: yeah.

[00:05:43] Drew Smith: with that sort of preface out of the way and start having a look at, at the Century SUV from a design perspective?

The Century SUV Design Review

[00:05:52] Drew Smith: Now, one of the things that I absolutely love about this car is that when you look at it in side profile and you compare it to the sedan, they’ve done this really wonderful job of translating sort of this, this teardrop shape through the character lines of the car.

[00:06:12] And. What’s also interesting, and we’ll, we’ll show a comparison with the sedan is that these lines on the SUV have just a little bit more acceleration to them, which tends to suggest from a design perspective, okay, this is a slightly racier proposition. It’s perhaps a little bit more youth oriented than the sedan where those lines are just a little bit slower

But why make a Century SUV?

[00:06:37] Joe Simpson: Which in its, it, in its own right, if you think about this in pure logical terms is quite odd. Um, and I say that not as a kind of criticism of Toyota, but in terms of what sedans and SUVs represent.

[00:06:56] And I think here’s kind of the first important point. Why is Toyota made an SUV of this car? What is happening in the wider market? Traditionally, sedans are seen as more racy, more sporty, um, sort of more driver orientated because they have a lower center of gravity

[00:07:19] Because you sit lower you sit in the car, the vehicle, you know, fundamentally moves down the road and round a corner more easily um whereas an SUV doesn’t. And I think what’s quite interesting about this is that we are at, or in, unusual times where that opinion that I’ve just articulated is very European.

[00:07:44] Drew Smith: right,

[00:07:45] Joe Simpson: And it’s not necessarily the case in parts of Asia where an SUV Literally can be a sports car in terms of the sort of mentality of what the type represents

[00:08:00] and I think it’s very interesting in. Looking through European eyes to just consider the meaning of SUVs versus sedans And the fact that whether you take it at face value or in marketing speak, that Toyota says it’s trying to access a younger market with a product that is fundamentally, um, somehow inherently not sort of the more kind of sporting and dynamic kind of type of car.

[00:08:31] Drew Smith: And yet, Toyota is offering a GR version of this car. So you will be able to buy a Gazoo Racing, uh, Century SUV.

[00:08:43] Joe Simpson: And And I also, I mean, we’re supposed to be critiquing the design line by line but I think it’s also worth highlighting here Drew, that not just that, it will also allow customers of the Century SUV to purchase it in convertible form. It will also allow customers to purchase it, we’re showing a side view of the car with conventional hinge doors at the rear, but with a sliding rear door version. So the level of a sort of personalization that has implications in terms of the platform and the architecture of the car is kind of mind blowing for those of us who know how you kind of go through and develop a car and sort of what that means and the kind of complexity involved given the tiny numbers they’re talking about

The good stuff and a glaring omission

[00:09:33] Drew Smith: Yeah, absolutely. I think the other thing to, to notice about this, this side view is there’s a really lovely sort of referencing of… the sort of the stacked rear surfaces that you find at the back of the Toyota Century Sedan. And I really like the way Toyota has managed those surfaces kind of coming around the side of the car and into the, into the trunk at the back on the SUV.

[00:10:03] But what’s super, super interesting is that on the sedan, the badge that we can see on the, uh, the D pillar there. is absolutely iconic, right? It is, um, handcrafted. Um, it has on the previous model Century sedan denoted that it has a V12 engine.

[00:10:27] Um, This surface on the sedan is talked about as being finished to such a high degree that when you get out of the car you can use it as a mirror to check your appearance, right, before you turn around and face the crowds.

[00:10:44] So the D pillar on the sedan and and the fact that there’s this badge placed on it is elevated to just a phenomenal degree of importance. And what’s really interesting about the SUV is there’s no badge.

[00:10:59] Joe Simpson: It’s not there.

[00:11:00] Drew Smith: It’s not

[00:11:01] Joe Simpson: Why is

[00:11:02] Drew Smith: Why is that? And, you know, again, it’s just kind of like these interesting, subtle little messages that this car is sending that we’ll we’ll kind of get to in the wrap up. But yeah, it’s something interesting to note.

Feel the thiccness, but look at those lovely character lines!

[00:11:19] Drew Smith: If we move on to the. Next image of the side view, um, one of the things that I think it’s probably worth pointing out is this car is super, super thick: T H I C C, as the kids like to say these days.

[00:11:40] You know, it’s, it’s, it’s very, very tall and there is an enormous amount of trickery going on here to try and disguise that height.

[00:11:52] Obviously in the previous image, we, we saw the the sort of beautiful teardrop shape and those character lines that, that run and accelerate from front to back. That helps draw the eye along the vehicle very effectively.

[00:12:06] In this side view, if we look at those character lines and and where they sort of end on the side of the car, we can see that the radii, so if we’re looking at the back of the glass, uh, where the window frame curves down, if we’re looking at the back of the roof where the roof starts to rotate down into the trunk or the character line in the body side where it starts to rotate down, all those radii are very gentle.

[00:12:30] And what that, that means is that the eye is encouraged to run along them and just keep going. Because what they’re trying to do, is avoid at any cost your eye looking up and down the car. Because as soon as your eye looks up and down the car you think, Ooh…

[00:12:50] Joe Simpson: ooh.

[00:12:50] Drew Smith: that’s a hefty thing!

[00:12:53] That’s a hefty thing!

[00:12:54] Joe Simpson: I think there’s a, so I guess what you’re talking about really here is what I, you know, this is kind of the way the radii are treated, but fundamentally it’s the kind of graphical buildup of the car, but this is kind of trying to trick us against the proportions and the poor Century SUV is, um, I would say maybe saddled with not the kindest set of proportions. Specifically, relative to what you’re talking about, it’s got what appears to be quite a short wheelbase its overall size. Um, the front wheel is kind of quite a long way back. It feels like it’s got sort of a relatively long front overhang. If that front wheel was positioned, uh, you know, much sort of, if, if the hood was longer or that wheel was positioned sort of in the center of the hood relative to the front of the car to the door, that would help it quite a lot.

Raise the roof! Actually, please lower it…

[00:13:57] Joe Simpson: The other thing that’s really working against it here, is the the way that the cabin sits on top of the body, where because, and many listeners who know the Century will know, This car is all about the rear seat and the rear seat experience. There is very little roof drop going on. The roof stays very, very high over the rear passenger’s heads and doesn’t fall away. And it’s kind of fighting slightly with that kind of teardrop of the, sort of the main body side section. So you end up with a car that feels, um, If I was using unkind language, I would say it looks slightly dumpy.

[00:14:46] Drew Smith: Well, and, and what’s also interesting, um, and particularly if you compare this car, as many people have done, to something like the Rolls Royce Cullinan. Um, you know, that that seems to be the natural connection that people make. With the Cullinan, the apex of the, the, the roof, right? So the highest point of the roof line actually sits above the driver’s head.

[00:15:13] Joe Simpson: Driver. And that’s what you’d typically, I guess, in car design try to do. You try to kind of, it falls from there.

[00:15:21] Drew Smith: Whereas with the Century, and this actually also mirrors the sedan, the apex of the roof is actually much further Back. Um, and, and on this car, it’s, it’s, actually right above the rear seat, right? Which, as, as you’ve sort of alluded to, has the effect of pushing the visual weight of the car back into the midsection. Um. which again just emphasises the height of the vehicle.

Don’t look down! Or how to disguise depth.

[00:15:54] Drew Smith: The other thing that I want to draw attention to here is something. It’s another visual trick that Toyota is playing with us. And it’s this incredibly heavy side moulding that’s running along

[00:16:09] Joe Simpson: the rocker area. Yeah.

[00:16:10] Drew Smith: rocker area and the bottom of the doors. And also the, the visually at least enormous chamfer that runs along that, that cladding.

[00:16:24] Now, we’ve seen this trick played before. Um, most effectively, um, on the Sacco era Mercedes. So, think about the E Class, the S Class, and the SL, and the, the, the 190E, from the late 80s and early 90s, all used this trick to, sort of, extremely beautiful effect. I would argue being a massive fan of that era of cars.

[00:16:54] But here it feels like it’s, it’s working just a little bit too hard and there’s just an enormous expanse of lighter, toned plastic at the bottom of the car, basically screaming: Don’t look down! Don’t look down!” That chamfer running along there reflecting light up is trying to keep your eye high.

[00:17:18] Joe Simpson: It’s, it’s trying to your eye up. Yeah. And, and I think one of the things for people who aren’t car designers, maybe a lot of people listening, watching are but people who aren’t, one of the things to do here is to imagine this car without that. So when you, if you’re looking at the image Drew has on the screen. Imagine that that’s not there. Imagine that the body side above it is just running all the way down, and try to imagine how it would look.

[00:17:43] Now you’re like, oh god, right, that that is a very deep… Body side section. That sort of plays in terms of your perception of this car being a bit, um, stocky. Um, even more.

[00:17:56] So this is a kind of visual trick to slim the car down, as Drew says kind of lift your eye line up. Where’s the visual centre of the gravity of the car? You’re trying to kind of pull it up from the ground.

How not to dress your size

[00:18:08] Drew Smith: Now, to be fair, it’s not just the Toyota Century that suffers from this problem. Um, actually, the, vast majority, I think actually every modern Range Rover, uh, from, from, from Velar up also has this challenge. Um, but it’s particularly acute on the Velar. You know, if ever there was a car that was designed to have color break in the body side,

[00:18:34] Joe Simpson: Yeah.

[00:18:35] Drew Smith: it’s the Velar because you need that, that color break to disguise the, the depth of the body side.

[00:18:43] And the cruel irony is that the vast majority of people who order a Velar order it in, order it in, black on black. And so again, it looks like this very heavy bar of soap, rather than, um, rather than kind of this, this much more dynamic take on the Range Rover theme that, that the designers were, were aiming for.

[00:19:09] Joe Simpson: It’s very true. If you see, like, the difference in read of a velar that’s black on black on relatively small wheels, compared to one that’s on quite large, Non black wheels and maybe with a kind of silver or there’s a kind of like a satin gold kind of coloured body side then with the black that looks really kind of striking, really kind of like elongates the car looks, I hate the word dynamic, but looks quite, you know, it’s sort of visually kind of moving. It feels quite live.

[00:19:42] Um, and when you render it all in black, you lose all that definition, and it starts to kind of take your eye to kind of tell you that that car is something quite different in terms of its character and its definition.

What the roof pillars reveal

[00:19:54] Drew Smith: Why don’t we, why don’t we move on to the next image? Because I think it

[00:19:57] starts to reveal a little bit more about what’s going on with this car. Joe, we’ve already talked about the visual weight and how awkwardly it sits on its wheelbase.

[00:20:18] One of the things that we love to look at as car designers is okay, like how are the pillars of this thing constructed and what is the, what is the, what does the geometry of how the pillars are constructed suggest about the underlying nature of the vehicle?

[00:20:33] And I think one of the things to pick up on and, and you’ve already alluded to it, but this image actually makes it very, very clear is how far forward the base of the windscreen is, right?

[00:20:47] And what, what this, I guess gives away is the fact that this car is actually built on fundamentally what is a front wheel drive platform.

[00:21:00] Joe Simpson: Yeah.

The challenges of building a luxury car on a FWD platform

[00:21:01] Drew Smith: That is interesting in itself because front wheel drive platforms have never been associated with the height of luxury. They’re associated with, uh, economy and efficiency. And…

[00:21:16] Joe Simpson: and packaging,

[00:21:18] Drew Smith: packaging, and no doubt in this case, it’s, it’s, it’s allowed Toyota to endow the Century SUV with an enormous amount of interior space, but it’s come at the cost of any sense of Luxury proportion.

[00:21:34] So we don’t have that long hood. We don’t have that short front overhang. Um, and crucially we don’t have an, and this is one of the things that sort of design geeks will talk about ad infinitum is sort of the, the, the dash to axle ratio. So what is the amount of distance between the base of the windscreen and the center line of the front wheel.

[00:21:59] The longer that space, the, the, the greater the suggestion of power, the size of the engine that sits within, and therefore the greater the cost,

[00:22:10] Joe Simpson: Exactly. I think this is a critical point, like design creates meaning. and I think and it often, when it comes to, or historically in cars, it has related to how things were, technically. And what this says to someone like us straight away is there ain’t no V12 under that hood.

[00:22:32] Um, because, you know, if there was, it wouldn’t look like that quite simply.

[00:22:39] Drew Smith: And, it’s important to point out here that the, the second generation Century, which ran from 1997 to 2017, was the only domestically -produced V12 engine car that Japan has ever manufactured. And, and so, although the, the, the first generation of Century was, was V8, the second generation, which is the one that sort of defined the west’s understanding of Century has a V12, which put it on a par with the Mercedes 600s, um, the BMW 750s and 760s and, and, and Rolls Royce even.

[00:23:21] Joe Simpson: Yeah,

[00:23:22] Drew Smith: And this car just does not have a proportion that reflects that kind of extravagance under the hood. And, and actually what it does have under the hood is a V6 hybrid powertrain that is also shared with a Toyota Highlander or Kluger. The Camry and even the Crown are all built off the same platform. And, and actually the Alphard, the Alphard MPV is built on this platform as well, right?

What makes a car special?

[00:23:51] Joe Simpson: And I think I think this is again, important. Again, maybe this is my sort of pet interest, but a bit of geekery I think premium has historically been related to, um, sort of almost like bloodlines and you might call it like, uh, you know, sort of genes. And, you know, uh, it, it, there was this is over the past 20 years, kind of almost become something that you could question.

[00:24:21] And for brands like Toyota and Lexus, how much could they get away with sharing uh, in terms of their underpinnings and still make Lexus kind of credited, credibly premium? It’s like when, uh, you know, BMW moves to front wheel drive. Does that fundamentally undermine the sort of meaning of a BMW?

[00:24:42] Some people would argue it does, and it has, it doesn’t seem to have really hurt them in terms of sales and profitability. Um, but I think here, there’s a key question of, like, does this undermine the fundamental, sort of, uh, meaning and specialness of Century?

[00:24:59] The fact that the proportions, what it’s built on, the architecture that’s there, and the, sort of, the powertrain. Um, are fundamentally from something that is much, much more mundane.

[00:25:12] Drew Smith: Yeah, absolutely. And, and, and although, you know, Toyota talks about producing only 35 of these a year, um, which is an insanely low number um, and, uh, by, by missing out on that, Yeah, just restricting the number of something doesn’t necessarily make it special. I guess is the point that I’m wanting to make. You know, it, it, it just sounds like you’re artificially restricting supply. And to, to, to, to genuinely produce a, um, a luxury SUV, in my mind, demands more of… Of, uh, it it demands more specialness.

[00:26:08] Joe Simpson: Mm hmm. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:26:11] And and what we’re fundamentally talking about here is like, where does that specialness come from? And I think there’s an important thing, which we probably won’t go into here. We’re trying to dissect the design, but this then culminates in this question of: does the customer care?

[00:26:27] Drew Smith: Right.

[00:26:28] Joe Simpson: I think that relates to then, does the customer see and believe that they’re getting value? Um, who is the customer and kind of how discerning? You know, are they? Um, and I think when it comes to design quite a lot of people who are non designers will say yeah, I don’t like that or I don’t think it looks good, but they don’t know necessarily why. They can’t articulate why. And one of the things we’re doing here is trying to help I suppose unpack that a bit. Um, demystify it, decode it. I think we’re trying to say that actually within design, you can decode things. There is a meaning there is that you can infer from this. There’s sometimes a reason that’s technical or architectural or kind of powertrain related for it looking like this, and then that sort of loops back to, you know, is it sort of something that’s special or actually truly kind of premium or luxury?

Where did the wheelbase go?

[00:27:22] Drew Smith: Totally. I mean, if this this image, I think lays bare, um, sort of what we’re really, what we’re really talking about as, as the fundamental challenge that this vehicle faces. And it does, as you’ve said previously, Joe, come down to the wheelbase.

[00:27:39] Now for a vehicle of this size, normally you’d be saying kind of three, perhaps even a little bit more than three wheels within the wheel base. Now, We have to be careful because we don’t know quite how much, um, perspective there is in this image, but as a rule of thumb, Um, doing this kind of analysis where you take the wheel size and you, you overlay how many wheels you can get inside the wheel base is a pretty, gives you a pretty good idea of, of how well the proportions of the vehicle are working.

[00:28:13] Now with the Century, rather than having three or three plus wheels in the wheelbase, it’s got like two and three quarters. So, so it’s at least a quarter of a wheel short, uh, in, in the wheelbase. Height wise… It’s, it’s pretty bang on for this type of car. Two and a half wheels in, in height is, is pretty normal.

Stuck in the middle: overhangs balanced front ant back

[00:28:35] Drew Smith: But the other thing that this image shows and, and, and, and the next image we’ll show as well, if I, if I switch onto that is just how balanced the front and rear overhangs are. And again, if you look at any sort of traditional, um, front engined rear wheel drive luxury car, the front overhang will tend to be much shorter, and the rear overhang will tend to be longer.

[00:29:05] And perhaps one of the most extreme examples that you can see of this is something like a Rolls Royce Phantom, you know, which has that real boat tailed look to it. Here with the Century SUV, it’s like… Almost equal kind of overhangs front to back, which once again robs it of the dynamism uh, and especially that dynamism that, that I think Toyota was probably aiming for in, in, in presenting this car to a younger market.

[00:29:35] Joe Simpson: Yeah. Absolutely. Because this relates to, you know things like there are other factors that affect it, but ultimately the kind of, the stance of the car, And as you say, it feels, because there isn’t that imbalance, it feels very static.

[00:29:53] That’s where, or what this fundamentally creates, this sense of staticness.

[00:29:58] And that staticness combined with the, um, sort of, the thickness of the body and what we talked about with the sort of the roof line does unfortunately contribute to that sense that it’s a bit, um, yeah, it’s very sort of static and it’s very, um, trying to choose my words specifically, but um, I would say stocky, it looks like a thick set car and I think we do this thing with car design where we anthropomorphize stuff.

[00:30:33] So we relate cars to people or animals. Often that’s done through the face, but it also relates to how we see the body side in the sense of movement. And in general, a more athletic, lithe, muscular sort of form is something that is preferred and Seen as a better design because that relates to animals or people that have that sort of

[00:31:05] Drew Smith: Well it also relates to how we’d like to see ourselves. right? We, we’d like, and, and, and, you know, like the, the perfect example of this in, in my sort of slightly twisted automotive vocabulary is like the difference between an E38 BMW 7 Series and the W140 Mercedes S Class that was out at the same time.

[00:31:26] You know, the, the, the 7 Series was ripped and lean. And the S Class was a slightly pudgy bloke, know. Um,

[00:31:39] Joe Simpson: In a very good

[00:31:40] Drew Smith: In an extremely good suit, like beautiful suit. But, you know, if ever there was a term, like a car for which the term jollie laide, like ugly beautiful, could be applied to, I think it’s probably the W140.

[00:31:54] But, but, but, I think this gets to the nub of it, right? And, and, and, and, you know, we can call upon, uh, the, God of Chris Bangle here. You know, we want to see our characters reflected in the cars that we drive. And this is one of the great skills, I think, of the automotive designer, is being able to conjure a character. And… have that expressed in metal and plastic and, you know, the question that we come down to when we look at the Century SUV is what kind of character does this car suggest? And, and is that a character that reflects who I want to be? Is it, is it, a, is it a character that’s desirable?

Cars as avatars

[00:32:48] Joe Simpson: Uh, Bangle uh, said, you know, cars are great avatars.

[00:32:53] I think it’s the, it’s the point of, you wear a car. Um, almost like clothing. perhaps more than you, you don’t wear a building. You, You, inhabit a building. But you don’t infer some, you know, things about who someone is. Or wants to be based on what house they, well maybe you do, but you know, generally, I think the point I’m trying to make is just based on a building that they’re in at a time.

[00:33:24] When you see someone in a car, and when someone gets out on a car, we, and particularly by we I mean the kind of people listening to this or watching this show and us, we make both conscious and subconscious judgements about that person based on that

[00:33:41] Drew Smith: Audi, right? Uh, oh, I’ve got a thumbs up. Um, Audi, you know, we, now make similar inferences about Audi drivers that we did about BMW drivers in the 1980s, right? Aggressive yuppies. In Australia, we make, um, historically have made inferences about Volvo drivers. Right? Um, based on their, their, the stolidness and the staidness of things like the 240s and the 740s and the 940s. um, you know, there were so many jokes when I was a child, when my mum bought a Volvo 850, about what that said about us as a family, what that said about my mother as a woman. Right?

[00:34:24] Joe Simpson: and I think it’s interesting to then think about that in the context of culture and different places because I think it does then change slightly from place to place. But nonetheless, I think when we when we go back to a specific car and a specific person. We all would like, or most people, even if it’s subconscious, would like a car to say things about them that are, uh, broadly positive. Most people want to say, I am successful, I have good taste, I am not a… asshole. You know maybe some people do want to be that, but, you know, think most people don’t. Certainly some contemporary car designs appear to say that there are lots of people who

[00:35:13] Drew Smith: They, they wanna be assholes, And shout about it. Very loudly.

[00:35:18] Joe Simpson: And then when they’re driven, and to your point about Audi, they almost then take on a body language. I don’t think that there’s a feeling about people who drive Audis necessarily. That’s I think, this interesting point in its own right relates to both the design, but also then the behavior. And I think a lot of what you’re saying about how Audi drivers have maybe generally kind of become perceived by certain people is related to the way that we started to see Audis being driven in places like the UK, and Germany, and the US, which, which was interesting because it mapped to a previous perception of BMW, which was generally a bit aggressive, generally kind of like trying to push you a bit out of the way and being too close to your rear bumper.

[00:36:00] Drew Smith: And, and in an Australian context, so once upon a time, you know, um, that might’ve been the young man in a, in a Holden V8 Ute or, or, or a Ford V8 Ute. Um, what I’ve noticed since I’ve, I’ve been back in the country is that the Ford Ranger Raptor, right, has now become, I mean, anecdotally, the most aggressively driven car on the road.

[00:36:28] And, and, when you look at it, it’s a thing that suggests that it should be driven very aggressively. You know, that’s its stance, that’s its posture, that’s its character.

[00:36:39] So, you know, we, we are influenced very heavily by the objects that we surround ourselves with.

[00:36:46] And, you know, if you surround yourself with this like mega, mega macho, like aggressive pickup, if you actually start to wear that thing, um, it’s kind of understandable that you might start to adopt some of the characteristics of that vehicle in terms of the way you think about yourself in relation to other people on the road.

Criticism and the car industry

[00:37:09] Drew Smith: I I think this is a good time to move on to sort of the second part of our conversation, which is an exploration of why what we’ve just done is so dangerous, right? So risky and why, you know, before coming on to, to record this, we, we, we did have a conversation which was like, are we actually going to do this?

[00:37:39] Joe Simpson: Mm. Yeah.

[00:37:40] Drew Smith: Because, because history, history, Personal history actually has not been kind to people who try to sit down and look objectively using sort of the, the, the rules of proportion and an understanding of, of, of design to dissect why a piece of design does or does not work.

[00:38:06] Um, and Joe, I’d, I’d, I’d love you to pick up at this point.

[00:38:10] Thank you.

[00:38:11] Joe Simpson: Yeah, So I, I’ve been sort of musing on this topic, um, over the past couple of weeks. And it’s what I wanted to talk about a little more tonight and I think it’s great as a kind of, uh, you know, sort of, um, little sort of, uh, sort of thing to dance with against what we’ve just done with the segway. And that it’s this question of why uh, does criticism and debate in the world of design and car design, um, seemed to be so tricky and let’s be honest about this. I’ve just not actually said quite so smart that In design, there is a very, um, rich, very healthy, uh, sort of world and history of criticism and debate and intellect that sits around a subject, such as architecture in particular.

[00:39:12] Drew Smith: Yep.

[00:39:13] Joe Simpson: And in car design, to be very honest, there is not. And the reason that we’re saying what we’ve just done with the Century is so risky is because Drew and I now are sitting perhaps concerned that we will be shot down, criticized, and um, sort of, maybe, maybe there’ll be people in Toyota who’ll be like, well they will never work for us.

[00:39:39] Drew Smith: Sure.

Addressing the elephant in the room

[00:39:40] Joe Simpson: Um, and, uh, let’s put something out on the table, the elephant in the room, particularly for me here, this is tricky. I work for a car brand, and people have said to me based on what we’re doing, Is that, is what you’re doing okay?

[00:39:59] Drew Smith: Mm.

[00:40:00] Joe Simpson: Like, how, how can you sort of go on and with your face and on sort of a YouTube video, when people know you work for another car brand, slag off Mercedes and BMW?

[00:40:15] And…

[00:40:15] Drew Smith: Mm.

[00:40:17] Joe Simpson: a few things we should put on the table here. First of all, I do not represent the brand that I work for on this show. My views are not theirs. And me saying what I say is not inferring that other people who work with me or the brand I work for thinks that. It’s my personal view.

[00:40:37] Drew Smith: Totally.

[00:40:38] Joe Simpson: However… I think it’s important that we as designers, we as people, like with a voice and given the sort of importance of the car culture in the world can have this kind of debate and that we’re not at this quite basic level of, I like this, I don’t like that, or, oh, well, it’s just, uh, you know, it’s sort of a matter of kind of personal opinion, but that we’re able to, um, you know, healthily critique, and understand why it is that we think something maybe hasn’t turned out as it should be, to explain why we’re disappointed, to understand why we don’t think it’s right for that brand.

[00:41:23] Um, because cars are such cultural objects, they have such meaning, and they are, as we’ve just articulated, kind of characters. and, Drew, maybe you can talk about, because we have quite a lot of Personal history here, um, at various times and, uh, you know, in between. And when we weren’t actually working for brands, we have worked and written for other, um, you know, establishments, Car Design News being perhaps the most, the one we’re most known for. And let’s say it was interesting, Right.

Looking Out’s mission

[00:41:56] Drew Smith: it, it, it was, and, and before I get into that, the other thing that I wanna, I wanna put on the table is that when, when you and I originally thought of Looking Out as an idea way back in 2019, I think it was. The whole reason we wanted to do this is is inherent in the name. You know, it’s all about getting people within the automotive industry in particular to look up, look out and start connecting the dots across mobility, design and culture, because the industry is at a critical juncture in its history. And what has got us here will not get us where we need to go. And a big part of that has been the lack of… critical thought applied to the product that we are producing as an industry and the impact that that has on, um, both the environment, but also the culture in, into which we are kind of selling, selling these products. So where we come from is not from a place of sort of mindless criticism, but from a position of wanting to draw attention to where we think as an industry we can be doing better,

[00:43:32] Joe Simpson: Yeah.

[00:43:32] Drew Smith: It comes from a place of deep passion and respect and love for the craft of, of helping people get from A to B, right?

[00:43:45] But also with an awareness that things have to change. Um, So, so we speak, as I say, like we speak from a place of love, not from a place of like, like wanting to denigrate.

The danger of criticism

[00:43:59] Drew Smith: And I think to to speak to sort of the personal history side of this thing, I think that is very, very easily misunderstood and misconstrued.

[00:44:13] Um, if I think back to, um, the Paris Motor Show, and I think it might’ve been 2011 or 2010, I was writing for Car Design News at the time. And at that point, um, we would manically, on each day of the show, sit down to write reviews of… What we had seen and and what we

[00:44:42] Joe Simpson: And they were like, they were, they were, snap takes. They were like 200 word, like, bang, this is immediate reaction, talk to a few other designers and friends, get a perspective, like, right, this is a take on what this car is, what it means, how well we think it’s been executed.

[00:45:00] Drew Smith: and and I think there’s a there’s a critical point in what you said there, Joe, which is it was yes, our informed take as as as automotive designers and design strategists, but it was also a take that was informed by taking the temperature of other professionals on the on the show floor now. Um, uh, in, in one instance, I wrote a review of the Audi Sport Quattro.

[00:45:26] Um, which to this day, I still think didn’t do a great job of, of, re imagining what the Quattro could be. And, uh, that got published. And, uh, as legend happened, has it, uh, the next day, um, uh, a design chief at Audi was on the phone to Eric Galena, who was the editor of, of Car Design News at the time, demanding that he take the piece down.

[00:45:56] And Eric, to his eternal credit, did not. He, he stood by me, he stood by the words that I’d written, and stood up for critique. But, but, but it stands that the design chief responsible for that car demanded that the piece was taken down.

The immense challenges of designing a car

[00:46:21] Joe Simpson: And I think it’s really important Drew to focus here a bit on like the reasons why that might be. And I want to ask you what your take is, but I have a couple of key ones. The first is that in that context, you’re always under pressure as a designer and as a design chief, you’re always expected to deliver. And… management, read, see, hear on grapevine what’s being said. And because design is not so understood, even by very senior people in automotive companies, if a car which the design chief has kind of, through a lot of, hard work, convinced you to spend a couple of million euros on, in this case, a concept car making, then you see in the media, or the specific media which is purports to know about design saying it’s not very good. um, as the kind of, as the kind of chief or the person who signed that off in the company that’s not a design, you’re like well, what’s going on well, hang on, they’re saying it’s rubbish.

[00:47:29] But the other thing, and I think this is probably the more important one, is that. car design is so personal and we know, and we do ourselves, you invest so much of yourself, your energy into a product that when someone comes along and holds up a different lens or says, actually, I don’t like it, or I disagree, or I don’t think it’s good because of this, it’s, it’s it’s very personal to the point of it almost being like someone telling you they don’t like your children.

[00:48:03] And, you know, Chris, Chris Bangle had, you know, to mention him again, I think it was a throwaway mark. Remark, and I will badly misquote him, but he said you know, when you go into a clay studio a, of a, automotive design firm, it’s like those clays, it’s like the designers almost, They’re, they’re like, they’re like pregnant bellies. They’re like, they go, they’re being massaged and growing into real living things that then pop out into the world. It’s unseen and there’s so much kind of like work and love and, and sort of, you know, uh, fear and, you know, sort of those tense moments and fundamentally fighting to get something that you believe in to come out of the door, out of a factory. But it’s done often in such a sort of isolated, sort of, environment that you can convince yourself that it’s the right thing and then when the world goes, no, that’s, that’s deeply personal and it’s very easy to take offence, and I understand that, and I want to echo your thoughts that none of this, ever, from me and Drew, is personal.

[00:49:14] It’s not intended to throw people under the bus, to kind of be personal. It’s never like that. It’s because we come from a point of care, wanting this industry to kind of flourish and go forward and have good, positive impact in the world, when, let’s face it, we’re at a point in time where, some to some people, the car industry is a bit like the tobacco industry was you know. It’s like, we’re a bunch of people who do bad things you know.

Challenging the desinger’s perspective

[00:49:41] Drew Smith: I want I, I I want to come back on, on that point around the isolation. And the sensitivity that it, that it breeds because I had an experience, um, working for an OEM, um, where I was brought in to help establish essentially a human centered design and innovation capability, uh, within a design studio. And during the year that I worked on that project. What was remarkable to me was the allergic reaction that many designers had, including, and I think specifically design leadership had, to the idea that anybody other than them could really know what the consumer wanted from a car. Right? And so any proposal to go out into the world of the customer and try to understand things from their point of view, not just from a functional perspective, but sort of from an emotional and cultural perspective was battered away with, actually, we, we know what we’re doing, like, we don’t need that kind of input. now that stands in pretty stark contrast to… almost any other contemporary school of design. Right.

[00:51:20] Joe Simpson: and I think it’s, I think it’s worth holding up that that’s one experience.

[00:51:25] Drew Smith: Oh, absolutely.

[00:51:26] Joe Simpson: of many other designers that are crying out for that kind of insight and are as frustrated as, you know,

[00:51:34] Drew Smith: There were designers, there were designers crying out

[00:51:36] Joe Simpson: that not getting it.

[00:51:37] Drew Smith: there were designers crying out for it. but it was the design leadership specifically that didn’t want to have, have that point of view challenged.

Chris Bangle on the challnges of an outside perspective

[00:51:46] Drew Smith: And in 2019, I, I interviewed Chris Bangle for another podcast that I do called The Next Billion Cars, which I do with Mark Pesci and Sally Dominguez. And I actually put this experience to Chris. And I said, why is this, why is this happening? Right? Why is it that I can’t effectively suggest to design leadership, that there could potentially be another point of view, a complimentary point of view that is just as valuable as as theirs. And unfortunately, I don’t have the audio recording anymore, but. I, I have the transcript and it’s probably worth just reading out what, what Chris said, right? He said

[00:52:39] Very interesting. I’m sure you’re confronting that. I have a lot of discussions with people about this. My son brought up a point to me. My son, Derek, is actually doing his doctorate studies in, uh, in car design as it relates to design history and design criticism.

[00:52:53] He told me something very interesting. He said that this entire culture of car design is very tacit knowledge based. It’s only passed on by working next to someone who is a working car designer and absorbing how it’s done. There’s no real literature on it. there are no textbooks, there’s no licensing groups, there’s no board of approvals, there’s no professional culture per se.

[00:53:15] Because of that, it’s a culture that can very easily say, you don’t belong to us, because there’s nothing to demonstrate. I don’t have a piece of paper that says I am one, like a doctor. I don’t hang up my medical license on the wall. You’re either part of the group, or you’re not part of the group.

[00:53:33] When the group has a fear to change anything that puts itself into question, for sure, anybody who wants to belong to that group is not gonna bring in any challenges. You are going to do your best just to try and conform.

[00:53:47] I think the idea that one of the problems of car design is it’s being taught by car guys who people who want to be car guys. How on earth are you expected to bring in a new idea? This is a fundamental challenge within the system itself.”

[00:54:00] I don’t

[00:54:01] Joe Simpson: think Right I mean, wow I kind of, I don’t think we to say anything else

[00:54:07] Drew Smith: was a Chris bangle mic drop by proxy. Everybody.

[00:54:11] Joe Simpson: I, mean I I, I wanted to, this is sad, but… some people will know, before I went into… car design strategy, I was training to be an architect, did five years of training and time in kind of practices. and I was going to hold up here’s, you know, Architectural Theory and Criticism. Here’s Modern Architecture Critical history by Kenneth Frampton, here’s Building Ideas by Jonathan Hale. Here’s Theory and Design in The First Machine Age by Rainer Bannum. This is just three books I randomly hocked off the shelf tonight before we kind of decided to speak.

[00:54:49] That doesn’t exist in car design. And I think what’s fascinating about what Chris said is how two, two, two, things. One is when it’s imperative to change And there are existential threats in the form of, you know, from new startup brands who’ve taken a completely different approach to, um, you know, legislation and things that mean you, you, you need to change. How do you go about, um, sort of stepping your way through that because really design and designers should be the, uh, driving force at the forefront of that change. They, they make it real. They visualize it and bring it to life for the rest of the organization.

The car designer as industrial sculptor

[00:55:45] Drew Smith: Can I, there’s, there’s a distinction that emerged to me during my time with that OEM as I was grappling with this challenge and, and, I’m going to be frank with you. It, it, It, it kind of killed me trying to grapple with this challenge to the extent that I ended up walking away from it because I just, I couldn’t see a way through.

[00:56:08] But the distinction was this, Yeah. Um, I think automotive design as a practice is much more akin to, um, sort of the traditional creative arts, i. e. The automotive designer is a sculptor that just so happens to produce sculpture at industrial scale. As opposed to, um, the designer as problem solver and, And, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll, that’s not to say that automotive designers aren’t solving problems, but the starting points are quite different.

[00:56:55] My read on this is that as a, as an industrial sculptor, as automotive designers, we have a creative vision, right? And this creative vision has been informed by our personal experience of the world, um, and the influences that we choose to surround ourself with and our job is to corral the resources of the organization to, and this is where Chris’s language is very apt, give birth to our creative vision.

[00:57:34] This sits in contrast to designer as, um, sort of problem solver, which you know, is most familiar to many people from the world of user experience design or user centered design or human centered design of going out into a world other than your own, identifying what are the gaps, the pain points, the unmet needs of people different to yourself

[00:58:08] Joe Simpson: Right

[00:58:08] Drew Smith: And then designing a a solution in response to that, that is sensitive to that, that is much more widely informed

The car industry’s dirty diversity problem

[00:58:21] Joe Simpson: I think I think that talks to the second thing, that I was going to highlight, which is when majority of majority of people in companies companies who are car designers and Drew, we’re part of the problem, here are middle aged, white, Western men. Yep. If if what Chris says is true, and I think it broadly is, how, if you’re if you’re not from a privileged background, if you’re not male, if you don’t conform to a bunch of stereotypes of being interested in cars and sort of the brum brum toot toot world yep. Um, then that creates a huge, huge barrier to entry to create any kind of diversity. And this then sort of butts up against the reality in the world of, well, 50 percent of car buyers or thereabouts are women. And the biggest car market in the world is china. And, um, you’re in a studio in Europe or the US, how do you uh, cater for and meet that when it would seem that maybe in China And we can’t even use China as one big catch up because it’s such a vast country. think differently and seem

[00:59:43] and seem to and appear to, and given the way the market’s evolving, want different things. That’s sort of the problem we face. And here again, I reiterate, not trying to slag off or criticize anybody who is, you know, a white male car designer in a Western studio per se, but to sort of just try to open minds to how are we going to go forward.

[01:00:09] Drew Smith: and, and, and and I think we only need to look at the recent Munich Motor Show. And the forum that was hosted by, You know, the oracle for car design as a practice, Car Design News Out of, and I’m doing some very rough maths here out of I think it was about 40 speakers, less than 20 percent were women, Right? And, and, uh, an even smaller percentage of those people were people of color And we’ve called it out numerous times in the newsletter. Um, but, you know, let’s call it out here in the, in The podcast as well. The industry suffers from a real diversity issue.

[01:01:00] Joe Simpson: Massively.

[01:01:01] Massively.

[01:01:05] Drew Smith: Where do we go from here, Joe?

[01:01:08] Joe Simpson: Yeah, I I think that’s a, that’s a, you know, and you and you know, that’s it for tonight.

A vision of hope and a call to arms

[01:01:16] Drew Smith: I’m not I’m not sure we want to leave people hanging on that point because because it sounds kind of hopeless. I’m, I’m, I’m, not hopeless. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t be turning up and, and, and having these conversations with you if I was, um, because I do believe genuinely that, as I’ve said before, coming from a place of, of love and care when, it comes to discussing these issues, to my mind, gives us the greatest opportunity to, to, to, uh, not, not drive change. I’m not here to suggest that we have anywhere near that kind of power, but to at least suggest that change might be possible, and and and one of the ways that we can go about that is shining a light on what we can be doing better, whether that is looking at the execution of a piece of design or what we need to be doing from, from, from a point of view of changing the culture of the industry, making it more inclusive to. you know, people of color to people of diverse genders, um, diverse sexual orientations. Like I can count on two hands the number of times that as a gay man, I copped shit in the car industry, right? It’s, that, that’s mind blowing to me that that happens in kind of the 2010s and the 2020s. but but, but there it is. Um, yeah.

[01:02:50] Joe Simpson: I I I think it’s about, You said it brilliantly, It’s what Looking Out what we’re trying to do with it. We want people to, I think any good designer should try to challenge and question and question your own biases and perspectives. You should if you’re in a position of privilege, speak up.

[01:03:17] Drew Smith: yeah,

[01:03:17] Joe Simpson: I understand that there’s a that there’s a real fear and a real issue in some companies where people feel they can’t do that because they’re worried for their jobs. And I’m, I’m privileged in being in a position where I don’t or at least I’m, Bolshie and northern and old and hardened enough that I’m not in that sort of situation and maybe it’ll, you

[01:03:38] Drew Smith: well, I mean,

[01:03:39] at least not, not, not right. not right. now. That might change next week. Yeah.

[01:03:45] Joe Simpson: but, yeah. um but But if, if, if, you know, if it gets people to at least least think and consider this and start debates internally, or feel that they might In the next project or the next stop, do something differently or go out and do some user research or get outside of the studio walls or talk to other people, or, you know, sort of think that with the next hire, we really sort of actively try to recruit for diversity, then I think all of those things are sort of positive albeit small impacts that you know, we can all sort of try to.

[01:04:30] And, and, I think, bear in mind, you know, it’s like we, we are part of the problem. How do we be part of the, the solution?

[01:04:37] Drew Smith: And, also, like, let, let’s put this on the table, Joe, like this isn’t a one sided conversation, Like if, if, if, if you as a listener have a point of view on this stuff, um, or if you’re watching this and you have a point of view and you’re either in violent agreement or you’re shaking your fist at the screen or shaking the fist, you know, at your phone, because what you’re hearing so enrages you, like, let’s have a conversation about it. Like come, come, come, come on, come, on the podcast and, and let’s talk about it because we want to put our money where our mouth is. We want to open up this debate. We want to invite in different perspectives. Um, because fundamentally, I mean, this is my belief and I think it is yours too, Joe, that the only way to move forward is to start opening up a dialogue about this kind of stuff.

[01:05:30] Joe Simpson: Exactly. Exactly. And I think that’s, it’s a it’s a, really nice, uh, sort of way to say that one of the ways we want to evolve this platform is to speak to people. You might be listening now. It might be someone, you know, you think it’s got a different point of view, has something important to say, we want to kind of bring on quite a diverse cross section of people, not just car designers people from across the industry, outside of the car industry, in the mobility space, you know, that are kind of affecting the future of mobility design and culture. Um, and to kind of really hear what they have to say and to kind of debate all the kind of things we talk about on this show. So that’s really the next step and if if that’s you or if that’s someone you know, please get in touch, please reach out.

[01:06:23] Drew Smith: Yep. And we’ll, we’ll, we’ll put our contact details in, in the show notes. So if you’re watching on youTube, um, it’ll be kind of in the, in, in the show description.

[01:06:34] Um, I think that’s a really good point for us to wrap up, uh, this ninth episode of Looking Out. I think it’s probably, um one of the most uncomfortable, richest conversations I’ve, one of the richest conversations I’ve, I’ve, I’ve, I’ve, had. And, um, Joe, I want to thank you for just kind of like showing up and, and, and having it with me. Um. Think, Rachel,

[01:07:02] Joe Simpson: The feeling’s mutual.


[01:07:03] Drew Smith: And, and, you know, for everybody who’s listening and, watching, as always, it’s a huge pleasure to have you with us.

[01:07:09] And, um, I hope you start to get a sense of, of, of where we’re really wanting to go with this.

[01:07:16] If you liked this show, uh, please leave us a review. us a review. Uh, if you didn’t like this show, You can leave us a review too. We’ll, we’ll take that on the chin. Um, if you’re watching on YouTube, um, please subscribe to the channel. We’ll have more content like this coming your way.

[01:07:34] And if you know somebody who would like this show, who would be interested in it, if you know somebody who might be interested in coming on the show, even if it’s, if that’s you, um, go on, share it with them, get in touch as Joe said.

[01:07:48] For more about the topics of this show, uh, visit our website at lookingout. io where you can also sign up for our newsletter, um, which is also called Looking Out.

[01:07:57] Uh, but for now, Looking Out, the podcast was written and presented by Drew Smith.

[01:08:03] I’m Joe

[01:08:04] Joe Simpson: I’m Joe Simpson

[01:08:06] Drew Smith: And this is Drew Smith and thank you for listening.

[01:08:13] Joe Simpson: Phew. Well I still have a job next week?

[01:08:17] Yeah.

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November 23, 2023