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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Musing on models

Photo: Matt Ward www.iseethelight.com

As someone who’s just turned 35, for some a few years younger than me, and for many many years older, it wasn’t unusual to find models of cars displayed proudly on our shelves or strewn across the floor.

Aside from inviting a collision with an adult foot, they were also an invitation to imagine another world.

I remember well the bedroom races I’d conduct, pitting F40 against 993, C111 against E-Type, A110 against Countach; improbably paired in my adult mind, but impossibly evocative to my child one.

I’d spend hours studying details like NACA ducts. I’d blow through them and imagine what it would feel like to enter at the front as air, and emerge somewhere near the back. Or was it the side? The fogging of the F40’s plastic rear screen was inconclusive.

I’d imagine engine sounds and suspension movement. I’d simulate bumpy roads to the point of destroying delicate plastic hubs. These models -representations of real-world cars- enchanted me.

While I was car mad, even my less car mad friends had these models. Cars, as Chris Bangle has pointed out, were our avatars. They were powerful symbols of other, more exotic lives. The were objects of escape and potential. Together, we invested hours in the alternative worlds to which these cars gave us access.

But things started to change. For while F1, XJ220, 928, 850, 500 E and 600 SEL was the code from which I compiled my fantasies, for some of my friends and many of their younger siblings, virtual worlds coded by programmers became the escape of choice.

Mario, Sonic and their friends became their avatars. They were portable, sharable, and mutable. Younger siblings no longer drove the models on their shelves with the characters of their imagination. The switch of a cartridge, CD-ROM or app and the configuration of a character allowed them to be almost anything they wanted to be, wherever they wanted to be.

Then, with the advent of social networks, opportunities for self-expression and the creation of multiple identities exploded. We could all, adults and children alike, be many versions of ourselves all at once. Before us were the tools to shape new identities, share them with the world and kill them off in the space of an hour.

Model cars, much like their life-sized equivalents, must feel emotionally static and identity-constricting.

Sales figures of Mattel’s “Wheels” category, which includes the Matchbox and Hotwheels brands showed modest growth between 2015 and 2016. But a quick glance at their respective websites show only the slightest nods given to contemporary production brands and cars.

BMW’s collaboration with Hotwheels, for example, has produced 5 models, only one of them current: the M4. Matchbox does better with 6 contemporary models, although why anyone thought a Fiat 500X was worthy of a die cast is beyond me.

Otherwise, Mattel “Wheels” is focussed on collaborations with game, animation, comic and film franchises.

With this in mind, I’d posit that the childhood connection that we once built with car brands through their scale models is on the wane.

If that’s the case, then it surely follows that car brands are losing early access to their future advocates.

And it probably means the end of the era in which, once you’d grown up and made some money, you went and reaffirmed your loyalty and love for a brand by buying one of its products.

If this is all true, it feels like another nail in the coffin of the car as avatar. It also feels like another signal that the industry that fuelled so much imagination is seriously adrift in the face of technology and entertainment companies.

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”).

Read the rest of this entry »

Paris to give SUVs le flick

It seems fairly appropriate, given that I’m passing my New Year in Paris, to catch wind that the City of Light is looking to ban SUVs from the town centre.

In a two-fingered salute to the haute bourgoisie, Dennis Baupin, deputy mayor, said of the SUV

“Sell it and buy a vehicle that’s compatible with city life. I’m sorry, but having a sport utility vehicle in the city makes absolutely no sense”.

Bravo! say I to monsieur, having witnessed one to many inelegantly parked Range Rover in the 16th for one week. But the most laudable aspect of this story (whcih the Detroit Free Press and, by turns, Autoblog failed to link) is the fact that Paris is providing a carrot to go with their 2.5 tonne stick.

Having got to grips with providing velos en masse through the Vélib’ scheme, the city is now rolling out Autolib’, a system of 3,000 Pinifarina deisgned electric cars available from 1,000 stations for a subscription of €12/month. Chic, easy to park and -above all- producing zero emissions, the little Autolib’s should prove immensely attractive to urbanites who are keen to live without the pain of car ownership (Parisian cars spend 95% of the time parked and 16% of Parisians use their cars less than once a month) but maintain the liberty that comes with four wheels and a roof over one’s head.

For me, the take with one hand and give back with the other approach will be the crux of the success of Autolib’. The city of Paris recognises that cars give us enormous personal freedom, a freedom we’re loathe to give up in the name of “better” living for everyone. But if the city can provide us with an alternative that doesn’t cost us in terms of access, usability or -importantly- style and personality, we’ll be far happier to hand over the keys to the tank.

Now Boris, where are our Barclays Beetles?

P.S. Apologies for bowing to the cliché of dropping some Francais into this post. Paris tends to have that effect…

Images:
Range Rover in Paris SamismagiC
Pininfarina Blue Car Pininfarina

Imitation, flattery, Peugeot


T’was pointed in the vague direction of this yesterday and I thought it so… cute, so right that I couldn’t not pass it on.

The Peugeot RCZ is the French manufacturer’s first entry into the small sports coupe market since Pompidou was building edifices to himself. Sadly, unlike many of Pompidou’s delectations, the RCZ has been ribbed for lacking in design originality (delightful double-bubble glass roof notwithstanding).

Portrayed alternatively as the hairdresser’s hairdresser’s Audi TT or the pleb’s Porsche Cayman, one could easily expect Peugeot – a brand not known for marketing brilliance – to storm off in a fit of French pique at the reactions of the motoring press.

Happily, Peugeot’s Swiss agency, Euuro RSCG Switzerland, decided to turn the problem on its head, putting a smile on my dial in the process.

Can’t fix the problem? Change the conversation. Well done Peugeot!

(hat tip to @joesimpson)

Core77 on Greenwashing at the Chicago Motor Show

I see so much of this stuff, time after time at the motor shows that I couldn’t help but giggle.

Still, the cartoon highlights the disconnect between a manufacturer’s reality (our cars are still made from oil and stuff dug out of the ground and run on same) and their marketing (our cars are BFFs with pandas, run on sun and happiness and blow green leaves out of their exhausts).

You can see more of the Coretoons here.

P.S Whatever your take on the exterior of the Toyota FT-EV II, the interior is an absolute cracker, cracker enough to make Citroen designers weep. Sadly Toyota only published one press shot of it so you’ll have to take my word on just how great it is… @EricGallina from Car Design News kindly provided some far better images for your enjoyment. Hat tip to Eric!

Toyota sees the light (and it’s on the front of your PS3)

gt_1080_5

I’m not doubting that Chris Bangle was right when, in his speech at TED in 2002, he referred to the car as an avatar, or a representation of the self. I’m certainly aware of the efficacy with which my personality was reflected and communicated through the various vehicles I’ve owned over the years.

For a while now, however, the thought that cars no longer connect to a new generation of consumers on the visceral level that they once did has fascinated me. There’s even a video of me somewhere talking about the difficulties of designing cars for people who now see more value in networks and the devices that plug us in to them than they do in the objects that were the symbols of success of generations past.

On the few occasions I’ve dared broach this issue with the old-school of my industry, I’ve been looked upon with suspicion. Because wrapped up in all this is the notion that cars will cease to pull at the emotional heart strings that make us want to consume more cars (for the record, my heart strings are pulled daily. At the moment, Ferrari 400is are playing a sweet rendition of a Haydn cello concerto).  The thing is, when you analyse trends you may not like what you see on a personal level but you’re duty bound to report them. As a design strategist you then need to try and find a way to work them.

Anyway, on to todays bombshell. It seems that someone at Toyota is thinking along the same lines, albeit in a rather fatalistic manner. In an article from the Mainichi Newspaper, quoted on Kotaku, an unnamed Toyota exec came right out and said

“Home game machines are no good. Playing something that realistic makes the need for cars disappear.”

Putting my 2 cents in, I don’t think he’s referring to disappearance of the need for basic mobility per se as we still need to get around. It’s more likely he’s talking about the impending inability of brands to sell on the basis of high performance, noise, luxury, pedigree or any other emotionally based attribute that has previously been used to get someone out of their Toyota Corolla and into a Lexus IS250.

Not only are these aspirational attributes-made-real, otherwise known as cars, increasingly irrelevant in a nation as ill-suited to the car as Japan, but you can enjoy them for the price of a PS3/Gran Turismo bundle in the luxury of your lounge room. Do I long for a day when I strap on my driving gloves, sit down with a cup of tea and bang around a London street circuit in suburban Sydney? No, but anecdotally at the very least, I’m a member of a club whose membership is shrinking. And returning to the notion of car-as-avatar, we have at our disposal devices like the iPhone and services like Facebook that allow us to communicate our personalities in a much more media-rich, not to mention cheaper, way than a car ever could in it’s current form.

The challenge is there for all to see and there are murmurings of recognition within the broader industry, as the Toyota exec demonstrates. An automotive future where I can satisfy my inner geek and petrol head? Yes please.

P.S. That photo 135i above? It’s a screen shot from Gran Turismo 5…

Citroen turns 90 with nary a Xantia or Xsara in sight (thank god)

I thought I’d get back into the swing of things with something light weight but nonetheless enjoyable.

The ad above, found via Autoblog, is a celebration of the chevroned one’s first 90 years, a small portion of which I’ve taken great delight (and sometimes enormous despair) in sharing. My great aunt had a metallic sky blue DS that enchanted me as a small child while, in a moment of temporary insanity, I purchased a CX2400 Pallas for AU$1. You can perhaps imagine how that story ended…

Hitting it’s stride with the mass-production of front-wheel drive in the 15, Citroen went on to produce some of the most  sensual, seductive (and sometimes ruinous) cars in the form of the DS, CX, XM, C6 and, long may she reign, the seminal SM.

Beyond these hydropneumatically suspended beasts, Citroen also produced some cracking small cars. Think of the iconic 2CV, the plastic-bodied Mehari or the slightly unhinged AX Gti (an example of which nearly prematurely ended my life thanks to the ease with which the car’s 100 Bhp could get it airborn…) and you’ll know what I mean.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some woeful missteps in the company’s storied history.

They’ve produce some of the most challengingly styled cars this side of the Pontiac Aztek (Ami 6, I’m looking at you) and the whole of 90’s and the first few years of the 00’s were, XM aside, unbelievably glum times for Cit lovers. It seemed as though Peugeot, the controlling partner in the PSA conglomerate, wanted to kill off all the remaining fans with sheer boredom while destroying what market credibility they had left with 0% finance deals and discounts that basically wrote brick-off-a-cliff depreciation into the contract of sale.

I owned a car from this era, a Xantia 2.1 TD, whose sole redeeming feature was it’s ability to do one lap of the Nürburgring without expiring. Even the pleasures of the hydropneumatics were subsumed by Peugeot’s efforts to make the car more “Germanic” (read annoyingly stiff and jittery). And don’t even get me started on the wet fart that was the Xsara.

Happily all of this is overlooked in this joyous advertisement. What we get instead is a veritable orgy of what makes Citroen great: floaty suspension, turning headlamps, cyclops eye instruments out of the CX and a feisty woman going nuts on a beach in an SM, all with Eartha Kitt growling in the background. The LHM lover in me really couldn’t ask for anything more.

Post-Frankfurt Daze

Screen shot 2009-09-20 at 20.33.28

I must appologise for things being a little quiet on the DownsideUpDesign front.

At relatively late notice I was fortuitous enough to gain press accreditation (yes, I’m now a fully accredited journalist with the IFJ) for the Frankfurt Motor Show, known in German as the IAA, or Eeeee Ahhh Ahhh (which always sounds vaguely pornographic).

So while you, dear reader, have been wondering weather I’d left the mortal coil to pilot that great big Espada in the sky, I was wandering hither and thither around what is possibly the worlds largest motor show. Sitting on a site 1.2Km long by .5Km wide, if it weren’t for the press cars and their beautiful drivers, I’d have legs like Arnie.

Three 7 am starts and 2 am finishes later I can safely say I conquered it. What have I got to show for it? Well apart from some fabulous discussions with designers, PR types and general good guys that I hope to elaborate on here and elsewhere, I managed to amass around 4,000 photos and my first ever videos. Rather than bore you with all of them (I do get a little carried away at times…) I’ve put together a small selection of 384 piccies on my Flickr page. It’s a bit of a random bunch and the analysts amongst you will be able to tell far to much about me than I care to know. Nevertheless, take a look and let me know how you found the show through my eyes.

Do I detect a movement? Car design gets more social by the week.

Screen shot 2009-08-31 at 08.20.33

I’ve just spent two fantastic days volunteering, presenting and learning at the sensational UXAustralia user experience conference in Canberra, Australia.

It seems appropriate, therefore, that this morning I learnt of another socially-led automotive design project.

Following in the vein of GM’s The Lab, Local Motors and Peugeot, Fiat Brasil has now launched the Mio project. Read the rest of this entry »

Things I hate: Proof positive that Cash For Clunkers is utter lunacy

Need I say more?

About DownSideUp Design

I'm Drew Smith and I'm an ethnographer and strategist. By day I shape culture and strategy at Westpac. By night I sleep (mostly). And once a month, I help teams host an event called Rising Minds in London, New York, Toronto and Sydney.

DownsideUpDesign is a place for me to collect stuff that I like, often love and sometimes hate for safe keeping. All views represented here are mine and mine alone and do not represent those of anyone else.

Get in touch at drewpasmith (at) gmail (dot) com or tweet me (@drewpasmith) to rant, contribute or collaborate!

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© Andrew Philip Artois Smith and DownsideUpDesign, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew/Drew Smith and DownsideUpDesign with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.