Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Musing on models

Photo: Matt Ward

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.

BMW i: a vision of premium urban mobility

Today sees the launch of perhaps one of the most important developments in the automotive sector in its 100 year-plus history. After much speculation, fuelled by a drip feed of information from BMW, the Munich-based company has pulled the wraps off BMW i.

Much more than a new car launch, i represents a new way of thinking, not just about personal transport but also urban mobility.

There had been clues all along that BMW wasn’t interested in simply producing a smaller car. The project codename -MegaCity- hinted that the company was well aware that there were some much bigger issues that it would have to deal with to stay relevant long into the future. Read the rest of this entry »

Paola Antonelli on the future of design

I’ve just flicked through the latest issue of The Economist and found cause for pause when I saw the headline quote “Design takes over…” buried on page 109.

It’s attributed to Paola Antonelli, senior curator of Architecture and Design at MOMA. She goes on to say:
Theoretical designers will be exquisite generalists – a bit like French philosophers, but ready to roll up their sleeves. Applied designers will visualise complex infrastructures and systems so that scientists, policymakers and the general public can influence them…
“This grand new era has already begun. Design is moving centre-stage in the eternal human quest to make beauty out of necessity.”

Heady stuff indeed and, of course, she has a somewhat vested interest in pushing the cause. Still, made me feel all warm and gooey inside about where Sense is sitting on the theoretical/applied continuum.

(image: Drew Smith)

Update: An unconventional review: Lexus RX 450 h

The RX at Portishead

It was with genuine surprise that I received a Twitter dm (direct message for the uninitiated) from the ever-friendly @Valvo at Toyota PR asking if I wanted to have a Lexus RX 450 h for a week. Having never experienced a hybrid and having not experienced a Lexus on the road since a mate’s father’s LS400 back in – ooooh – 1990, I leapt at the opportunity. Here was a chance to trial the luxury brand that, to some eyes, changed everything and the drivetrain technology that some believe still will. Read the rest of this entry »

Quick Thoughts: The Bertone Pandion “Why Bother?” Edition

Never have two great automotive names been so resolutely underserved by their colaboration.

When I was a kid I was given a book packed to the rafters with images and descriptions of the output of the Italian styling houses up to the mid-80s. Apart from a couple of Pininfarina jobbies like the Ferrari Modulo and Pinin (don’t ask, I love barges hmmmkay?) it was always the sheer audacity and other-worldlieness of the Bertone cars that made me keep turning those pages until the book fell apart.

From BAT to Marzal (stylishly accessorised above) to Carabo to Camargue to Sibilo… the list goes on and on… Bertone was largely responsible for me wanting to become a car designer.

It’s only natural, therefore, that I expect a great deal of Bertone, and while they’ve wavered in the last couple of years, the news that they would be teaming up with Alfa Romeo for Geneva had my heart a-flutter.

Consider that heart shot out of the sky and in the mouth of a rabid dog. I’m hurt and I’m mad. Read the rest of this entry »

Quick Thoughts: Death of the Plunging Shoulder

About 7 years ago, if my recollection is correct, we saw the beginnings of a design trend that would take the automotive industry by storm. The progenitor was the Mercedes Vision CLS Concept and the feature was a dramatic, plunging shoulder line that caused some to comment, unfairly in my opinion, that the car looked like a pressed steel banana.

Despite the common name that would be ascribed to the feature, it was actually an ascending shoulder that whipped from the from wheel arch and arced gracefully rearwards. Did it have it’s genesis in the Triumph TR-7? Thankfully, we’ll probably never know and in any case only the most ardent – and odd – automotive design watchers would ever try to make the link…

Read the rest of this entry »

Quick Thoughts: Watch Out, the Koreans are Coming Edition

Third time’s clearly the charm with Kia’s baby SUV, the Sportage.

The first generation of the Sportage impressed with it’s cheapness, off-road prowess and… well that’s about it*.  The second one, if we’re honest, had even less to recommend it: in a nod to changing market expectations of small SUVs, it dropped any semblance of off-roadability and was simply cheap.

1st and 2nd Generation Kia Sportage (click to enlarge)

Yet given the strides Kia’s been making in the design department of late (the conservative but nicely resolved Koup, Soul and Sorento all come to mind), the new Sportage was always going to represent a significant stylistic departure from its dowdy predecessors. In fact, having looked over the press shots, I’d go do far as to say that the new Sportage is the best resolved Kia to date and another indicator of just how serious the brand is about conquering the middle of the market. Read the rest of this entry »

Quote of the day: Of Apples and Peugeots

“The [Peugeot] 505 is a saloon with quite a pleasant appearance, quite efficient engines, quite comfortable seating, quite nice steering and a quite reasonable price. And it is quite well constructed. So, you might say it was merely average. But can it really be that simple? Have Peugeot in fact, played a very clever game where, instead of dazzling us with technology or breathtaking styling, they have decided to woo us with understatement of the profoundest kind?”

Archie Vicar, Automotive Journalist, writing in The Monthly Car Review in October, 1979

The iPad is a tablet computer with quite a pleasant appearance, a quite efficient processor, quite comfortable physical dimensions, a quite nice user experience and a quite reasonable price. And it is quite well constructed. So, you might say it was merely average. But can it really be that simple? Have Apple in fact, played a very clever game where, instead of dazzling us with technology or breathtaking styling, they have decided to woo us with understatement of the profoundest kind?

Given how often I talk about the intersection of automotive design strategy and a generation of kids more interested in their iPhones and iPads than cars, how could I not repurpose the wonderful Mr. Vicar?

And on a similar but different tack: having comprehensively lost their way stylistically, Peugeot would do well to revisit Archie’s observation because it neatly sums up what made the brand so loveable.

Apple, on the other hand, clearly needs no such advice…

The Life Aquatic: the trend in fish-faced cars

Is it just me or are we starting to see more and more of Nemo’s mates find their way onto dry land?

First, there was Nissan’s Grouper/Leaf:

Then there was Lexus’ Fangtooth/LF-A:

Now Mazda’s in on the game with the Devil Ray/Mazda5:

Who have we got to thank for this? Probably Mercedes-Benz and their Box Fish/Bionic Concept from 2005, which broadcast the idea that aquadynamic shapes were better for aerodynamics than… ah… aerodynamic ones.

If our current delight in eking out aerodynamic efficiencies continues, I wouldn’t be surprised if more fish faces start appearing on our roads. Sadly, however, on the aesthetic front the idiom like a fish out of water has never rung truer.

Luxury is out and Premium is in: a riff on Audi lamp graphics

Living in Germany, I became increasingly perturbed by the proliferation of LED daylight running lamps on Audis of all shapes and sizes. Always on, always glaring – sometimes painfully so – and always screaming “look at me, look at me!” like the cleaning lady in TittyTittyBangBang, I would pray that I was driving slow enough to force an overtaking maneuver (not too challenging given the 90 asthmatic horsepower I was – sometimes literally –  pedaling back then).


From the luminous slashes on the A3 and Q5, which simultaneously manage to make the cars appear cross-eyed, centre-heavy and like an automotive tribute to Dame Edna Everage to the baseball-player warpaint on the R8, these glaring light signatures made me long for the Audi of years gone by when the brand stood for discretion and quiet sophistication.

The same devolution of Audi’s trademark understatement has also become evident in their tail lamps. Bare-bulbed LEDs now blink in their psychotically digital way, forming shapes that would make Edward Scissorhands feel completely à l’aise. To sit behind an LED besmirched Q5 is an exercise in keeping my blood to a low simmer.


I’ve wondered wheather I’m alone in my fall-out with Audi on the basis of it’s new found crassitude, yet given some recent consumer research that was presented at BMW’s university day at their US headquarters, I wonder if some prospective customers might soon recoil in much the same way I have.

The key takeaway from a presentation, given by Madeleine Hochstein of DYG Inc., is that luxury, at least by that name, is dead. Would luxury by any other name smell as sweet? If we start talking in terms of premium, then yes. There’s clearly a battle of semantics going on here but the research behind it, conducted since the financial shit/fan interface that was late 2008, holds some fascinating insights, particularly for the design teams of premium brands.

Take in the fact that 49% of U.S. adults earning $100-$150,000 are now describing themselves as thrifty, up 12% from 2005. Or that the proportion of people earning over $150,000 who would describe themselves as humble has grown from 31% in 2006 to 50% in 2009. Those same people are now increasingly shopping with social, political or environmental concerns as drivers for their purchases, the percentage swelling from 44% to 63% from 2008 to 2009. Surely these figures represent a pretty substantial shift away from the me-ism of the last decade.

Stepping away from the numbers for a minute, Hochstein talks about the emergence of a responsibility revolution which will see some significant, and permanent, shifts in consumer self perception. No longer will premium consumers galavant through life with a sense of entitlement. They are learning that rewards must be worked for and when those rewards come around, excess is passé. Premium consumers are now looking to brands and products that speak of ethical values.

Then comes the kicker, the single point, hammered home in terms we automotive designers can easily get our heads around: Luxury is being recast. Gone will be the preponderance of price, size or brand name as we transition to “to muted, almost secret signals to others “in the know” – about design, engineering, sustainability and fuel breakthroughs, ethical company behavior.” We’re now dealing with premium, a taste world where products have to clearly demonstrate their worth and communicate what Hochstein calls “…dog whistle taste”.


Which brings me neatly back to Audi’s LED eyeware. Is it the embodiment of Hochstein’s dog whistle taste? What about that dramatic, double-decker grille? Does it communicate ultrasonic signals about the fuel-sipping technology sited just behind? Come on, together they’re about as subtle as a Russian hooker at an Oxfordshire church tea. And if recent Audi concepts like the A7 Sportback and the truly ghoulish eTron are anything to go by, there’s plenty more of this particular brand of Bavarian bling to come.

Which means BMW must be feeling rather smug right now.


After the visual orgy that was the original Z4, X3, X5, 5er, 6er and 7er, the crowd in Munich have toned things right back to the point where some members of the automotive press have bemoaned the lack of drama in the newest 3s and 7s. Fear not, the drama is still there, you just have to know where to look, surely the very definition of dog whistle taste. I now get the same feeling of awe with the new 7 that I used to get with Audi A8s and while it’s not a reaction of the jaw dropping variety, there’s a deep satisfaction gained from the quiet, internal realisation that I’m looking upon something seriously… well… cool. One look at a 7er tail lamp will let you know that BMW has subtlety down for, despite being LED powered, they emit a warm glow through a set of beautifully resolved light pipes.


As I finish this piece, I wonder what the future holds for Audi’s increasingly expressive design language. And then I remember the VW Phaeton, the car that replaced the A8 in the under-the-radar cool stakes, and the fact that it’s due for rebirth in the next couple of years. I’ve no doubt that the Volkswagen group will be able to nail the impending premium bandwagon, just probably not with Audi as it stands today.

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.