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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Automotive Wallpaper: Why Porsche’s vinyl wrap competition misses the point


I’ve just had my eye drawn to a cute little competition being run by DesignBoom – in collaboration with Porsche and the Scuola Politecnica di Design – for which entrants have been asked to design a wrap “to enhance the visual appearance of the sports vehicle”.

There’s a clear impetus here, on the part of Porsche, to try and bring some of the visually-oriented expression of self that younger generations engage in online into their brand world.

Where once we projected ourselves into shiny new cars, using them as a representation of how we wanted to be perceived (and how we perceived ourselves), outlets like Facebook enable us to do this far more easily, cheaply and in real-time. These wraps are likely seen, from a marketing perspective, as the bridge between the two.

Yet it seems that until car manufacturers really – properly – get their head around the fact that cars themselves are no longer the social avatars of choice for a growing number of young people, we’ll have to put up with window-dressing like the wraps (or the fraught incorporation of Facebook and Twitter apps into in-car entertainment systems: “Hey guys, I’m sat in traffic! LOLZ”).


I have to declare that actively altering the visual perception of an automotive form is subject close to my heart, having written 22,000-odd words on the topic in 2006. At the time I was interested in allowing manufacturers and consumers to alter how their cars looked at a surface sculpture level; I was still locked into the belief that how the three-dimesional form appeared and appealed at a sculptural or graphical level was the most important factor.


But drawing from a conversation I had with Mark Charmer and Joe Simpson in 2009 via two days spent with Chris Bangle in Sweden last year and lunch with J Mays in Detroit, it’s dawned on me that young people don’t care about how sensuously light caresses the surfaces of a car. What is more likely to turn them on is splashing their lives across the exterior of a vehicle just as openly and with just as much freedom of expression as they do in the online world.

At the time of writing my thesis, wrapping the surfaces of cars with light-generating displays was but a theoretical, nano tech-fuelled pipe dream. Yet the announcement last week that BAE Systems is developing surface displays to provide active camouflage for tanks brings the dream one step closer to reality. It’s just that where I imagined people tweaking highlight and shadow, shoulder line and sill, I now imagine they’ll be displaying laser lights, shoulder pads and the shadows under their eyes from the morning after the night before.

There’s something sad, as a trained automotive designer, in realising that there’s a whole generation coming through that couldn’t give two hoots about automotive design in its historical sense. I’m gutted, naturally, that the appeal conscious or subconscious of a beautifully proportioned, sublimely surfaced piece of industrial sculpture is ceasing to tug at the heartstrings of new consumers.

But it’s a fleeting worry because there’s an immense sense of liberation too in understanding that the dogma of surface, one of the things that makes cars so massively inefficient to produce and slow to design can now be overturned by those brave enough to take the leap. With this sort of opportunity at hand, Porsche wrapping a car in some “cool” wallpaper seems like an exercise in futility.

Category: Car Culture, Design Strategy

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One Response

  1. Bhaven says:

    I find it odd that the Scuola Politecnica di Design sponsored the event, considering the idea of simply applying graphics to a car’s surface to “enhance the visual appeal of the sports vehicle” goes completely against what Chris Bangle taught/encouraged at SPD last year, regarding what he believes needs to be done for the future of car design… It also kind of undermines the work of the guys currently doing their MA in Transportation/Car Design at SPD.

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