Nobody’s reading this anyway…

…so I might as well say what I’m really thinking, right? I’m changing this blog from a design critique to a more generalized rant about what bugs me – in design and the world in general.

So, first things first. I’m sick of things being done faster, cheaper and “good enough”. I got into this business because it seemed like one of the few places where people still strived for perfection, and now I spend my days trying to crank out design like a sweatshop worker. I’m hoping to end that soon.

My goal is to endorse the “slow work” movement (which evidently exists:, in the spirit of the slow food movement. The idea being that my work, like cooking, is best left to simmer to achieve its best result. Can I design a logo or a set of icons in an afternoon? Yes. Should I? No, and shame on you for asking. Yes, it will be cheap, but it will also look that way. If you can’t tell the difference, then you shouldn’t be making the design decisions.

That said, I need to make a living, so I’m going to be going out of my way to find clients who appreciate things done right, clients with attention to detail, clients who care. If you’re one of them, and you’re looking for someone to create a brandmark, icon or illustration for your next project, drop me an email or a comment and I’d be happy to discuss what you’re looking for – maybe over a coffee or lunch?

The democratization of car buying?

I’ve always said that you can tell a lot about a person by the car they drive. Whether you like it or not, even the blandest car makes a statement about who you are and how you live. Very rarely would you be surprised by a slick salesman in a Honda Civic or a hippy in a BMW M3. But these days, gas prices seem to have changed that, forcing rednecks into Geo Metros and Soccer Moms out of their SUV high-horses and into more practical station wagons (gasp!) and reasonable sedans. But is this a permanent change, or a temporary reaction?

I’m not sure, but it occurred to me this morning that Europe has always been a more democratic car buying environment. Small streets, a near total lack of parking, insane taxes on vehicles, lack of credit, and, of course, high fuel prices have meant that for decades Europeans drove what as practical above what was cool. Only showoffs drove BMWs and SUVs. Only rich people drove Porsches. Everybody else, well, they drove what was cheap and local. The French have been buying Peugeot and Renault hatches, the Germans their Golfs and Opels, and the Italians their crappier than thou FIATs for generations. I’ve seen businessmen in Pandas and well-to-do families piling out of a Renault Scenic and never batted an eye. In the US, it’s so rare, that pulling up to a family picnic can be a nerve-racking experience if you feel like you’re “under-driving” (what will Aunt Jane think of me driving an old Saab? Will Uncle Mark think I’ve lost my job when he see the ’99 Passat wagon?).

But now it’s all changed. I think that these gas prices are likely to stay over $4/gallon, so SUVs will slowly go away in favor of smaller cars permanently. The credit crunch will likely pass though, so as upmarket fuel-efficient cars start filtering in to our protectionist little country (I’m looking at you BMW, where’s my efficient dynamics, huh?), will the level playing field tilt again to towards the wealthy? Will my neighbors put away the Civics in favor of Explorers? Is this just another malaise era that creates a generation of little fuel-efficient cars only to be completely forgotten when things get better again?

One way or another, it’s going to be interesting. I can’t instantly judge people by the car they drive anymore. That’s no fun, but probably not a bad thing. I’ll be keeping an eye out though. Will the market change to fit the cars, or will the cars change to fit the market? Only the automakers can decide that.

Re-inventón coachbuilding?

At first glance it looks like a Murcielago that’s been made-up by NBC to be KITT on the new Knight Rider series (they’re really doing that). But it’s not. So maybe some tacky one-off designed for the Sultan of Brunei? Close. It’s the Reventón, Lamborghini’s newest trick to separate attention seeking rich men from their cash – and lots of it.

Lamborghini Reventón

To be built in only 20 examples (unless, of course, they get greedy), this car is essentially a $1.5 million dollar answer to the question nobody was asking – “What would happen if Lamborghini built a special edition Murcielago based on the design of a 1970s stealth fighter plane?” That answer has been decisive to say the least.

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Has Apple design lost the plot?

For years Apple has been leading the consumer electronics industry around by its design nose. When Apple unveiled the original iMac, immediately our digital accessories started turning transparent teal. When they unveiled the Titanium PowerBooks, all of our hard drives and DVD players were encased in brushed metal (although even at Apple the titanium didn’t last long, replaced after one generation by aluminum). And, of course, there’s the iPod. From the second the first generation (1G) was shown, everything in our lives having to do with hand-held technology turned white with rounded beautifully rounded edges. So for the recent “Showtime” announcements by Steve Jobs, I was holding on to my chair reading real-time bloggers describe the new product innovations, excepting to be blown away by the new groundbreaking designs. But I wasn’t.

Steve announced the new 2G iPod nano and it looks, well, just like the iPod Mini that the 1G replaced. The new MacPro looks just like the PowerMac G5 it replaces, and the name is stupid. And then there’s the new “iTV set-top box for your digital lifestyle”. It looks just like, and I mean just like, a Mac Mini. So what’s going on out there in Cupertino?

I have a theory. OK, two actually. The first one is kind of sad really, and signals the demise of Apple as the global leader in industrial design. It goes like this:

Apple is spending so much time and money on new products and transitioning to Intel and negotiating with Hollywood studios over movie download rights that it has just plain pushed design to the back seat. Content to be cutting edge two years ago, they are resting on their laurels, hoping that their (small) technological advances and overhyped product introductions will keep people buying their products. This is clearly a dangerous philososophy to have, as most people are tired of everyone having the same MP3 player and the same white earbuds and quite honestly, a brighter screen on the video iPod nobody really watches video on for a modest $350 isn’t going to get anybody to upgrade. Nor is the Nano that looks like the Mini that your sister got for Christmas in 2004. Sure it doesn’t scratch, but it isn’t really cool either, even in black. With this thinking, Apple will soon be going in reverse (like it did with the new old-look Nano) and start a trend of evolutionary, rather than revolutionary design. Other than the tidy looking keyboard on the new MacBooks, I can’t think of anything special coming out of their design department since the first generation Nano.

But all hope is not lost, I have a second theory.

Theory number two is distinctly happier. Apple needed to get all of their “current” models updated in a short timeline in order to satisfy the MacIntel doubters. They’ve done that. But the design department has been working around the clock for the last two years on truly revolutionizing the design of everything Apple makes. Starting with the iPhone in December or January (yeah, you know it’s coming), Apple will redesign all of its products in the next year in a way that will stun everyone. The new designs will feature shapes you’d never expect and colors you’ve never seen and textures you won’t believe. They’ve been making everything on the cheap for a couple of years, cutting corners on design to save money, so they can blow up the entire market and invade your living room with designs that will define cool until the end of the decade.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

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I want my Ghia Focus.

Ok, I know, I should get over it. It’s been almost 15 years since Ford showed the Ghia Focus concept car at the Turin auto show and stunned the auto design world (at least us students). The question is, for all of its kudos and popularity, why did we never see its design style translate into a production car?

I’ve heard cost as a reason, and I’m sure in 1992 that was a good one, especially at Ford, but I know that in the years that I was studying auto design (mid-nineties), the “bio” style that the Focus encapsulated was, at best, discouraged. I never got it, and still don’t. Look back at the photo below and tell me that this car isn’t still terrifically modern today. The Taurus was a half-assed attempt to apply Taru Lahti’s stunning shapes onto a production vehicle. But the Taurus was soft and mushy looking where the Focus was taut and solid. And the details, oh those details, have just never been seen since, despite huge advances in lighting and trim technology since 1992.

Ghia Focus

Ghia Focus

1996 Ford Taurus
In a world of rip-off retro (Ford with its T-bird and GT being the ironic worst offenders of this, despite Chrysler trying hard to compete for the “Lack of Imagination” prize), the Ghia Focus represents what could have been the future direction at Ford, or anywhere for that matter. Unfortunately, because soft shapes and organic style was considered “old-fashioned”, New Edge and “Flame-surfacing” (which evidently doesn’t have anything to do with Chris Bangle’s sexuality) took flight, giving us the groundbreaking…um…Ka and 7 series?. Yeah, ok, well, that’s all I could think of, and that’s the point.

Imagine if Ford had used the design language from the Ghia Focus on a production sportscar though. The world would have been awed, and buyers would’ve lined up. Imagine if Chris Bangle had embraced the simple sharp-edged lines and sensual surfaces of the Focus over the busy, overwrought, criss-crossing lines and forms he chose to reshape our beloved Bimmers? He’d be loved by one and all, and he could spout his peculiar form of artistic wisdom all day long without anyone telling him to shut his gob.

Sort of like I do.

So I’m still waiting. Anybody up for the challenge? Any designers brave enough to do something organic in todays slab-sided retro industry?

I sure hope so. I still want one.

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Why Cadillac just doesn’t get it.

Ok, so it’s more marketing than design, but I think someone needs to put it out there – the reason GM is hemoraging money is that they simply don’t understand the market, and in my mind, it all starts with Cadillac.

In the past few years Cadillac has been on a push to compete with European and Japanese luxury car makers such as BMW and Lexus by putting out cars that are big, blocky, heavy and unsophisticated. I know, I know, they’re only unsophisticated in relation to those cars, being relatively modern and technological machines in their own right. But starting with the names – BTS, CTS, VTX, VHS, whatever they are, they’re trying to be something they’re not. What Cadillac really needs is a return to some old-style names, in the style of DeVille, Seville, Fleetwood, Eldorado (and maybe a few new ones to update the whole deal). People around the world have a soft spot for these names, especially a name like Eldorado, and the car that was associated with it – big, beautiful and brash. But not “don’t mess with Texas” brashness, more like “Marilyn Monroe”. In your face, definitely, but so over-the-top stunning that you can’t resist it, even against your better judgement, which, let’s face it, is the only way a BMW owner is going to buy a Caddy.

I heard that they were going to stop using Led Zepplin in their commercials. Well, that’s a start. If you think a Lexus driver is going to jump ship because your luxury car is more “Rock & Roll”, you seriously don’t understand why someone buys a Lexus – performance, quality and understated luxury. That person is not going to go out and buy a car that’s twice the size of their Lexus, looks like a tank that just drove through a chrome gate and has the interior quality of a Police cruiser.

Cadillac, get with the program. We all loved you as the eccentric, over-the-top Hollywood star of luxury carmakers, but you’re just embarassing yourself right now.

Oh those terrible lights…

Inga Saffron, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic loves the Cira Centre’s new lights. I couldn’t disagree more. Although the LEDs on the Cira Centre might be better than some of the recent lighting projects in the city – that’s not saying much. Boathouse Row has set a horrible precedent for lighting in Philadelphia for years.

Lighting up this jewel-like skyscraper like a Roxborough rowhome at Christmas time doesn’t do it justice and looks completely amateur when compared to what’s being done with other significant buildings around the world (have you seen the Swiss Re building or the Eiffel Tower at night recently?).

What this lighting has done is take a building that positively glows and intrigues by day and turns it into a novelty by night. For me, the lighting on the Cira Centre keeps Philly in a second tier of architecture and design, when it had a chance to stand up and show that it’s truly world-class.

And don’t even get me started on the catwalk to 30th St. Station…

Where have all the details gone?

I will admit to being split over the merits of modern architecture. I am a lover of art deco, Frank Furness and Norman Foster, but I think that most buildings from the 1950s and ’60s (think Philly’s Penn Center) would contribute more to society as raw steel and asbestos – reinforced oven mitts maybe. I can appreciate the stark simple forms and designs that modernists aspire to, but I can’t help but think that these architects have forgotten something important – people. Last I checked, buildings are built to be inhabited or occupied by people, but I’m not sure Cesar Pelli remembers this.

My bus (yes, I save the world in my own little way) takes me by the new Cira Centre in Philadelphia. It is a beautiful building, rising like a giant quartz crystal over the Amtrak railroad yards and 30th Street Station. At street level though, the building practically disappears. It’s simply a series of glass panels. Big. Square. Blueish. Boring. There’s absolutely nothing to suggest the striking form jutting toward the sky above you. None of the contrasting starkness of shape and sky. Nothing interesting at all. Were the blueprints for the details misplaced? Did Cesar forget to do them? I don’t get it. There is a silly diamond-shaped entrance structure that appears like an afterthought, but nothing that would suggest anyone bothered to consider the human interaction with the outside of the building.

Hopefully the story will be different inside the building.