Auto makers use the design of headlights and front grill to speak to customers
Some may see a cat, a cartoon bat or a determined caped crusader. I see the face of a kid as drawn by a graffiti artist, with a frowning grin more innocent than insouciant.
The headlights and front grill of all models of Infinitis are variations on this same visage, tapping into what the company sees as the psychology of Infiniti buyers.
With Hyundai, the frowning headlamps are more owlish; with Mazda, subtly Pokemon-ish. There’s an obvious trend here. Furrowed brows are everywhere, the Volkswagen Beetle being the outlier, trying to look like Goldie Hawn.
These determined faces are designed, of course, to appeal to buyers, so what do they say about car companies’ perception of us? Infiniti might picture a parent behind the wheel of its QX60 crossover utility vehicle, with two kids in the back seat. But the front face suggests a lot about what it thinks is going on in mom or dad’s head.
Infiniti sees its drivers as “progressive challengers,” the company’s in-house term. The driver “is somebody that is looking for something different, is typically independent thinking, often entrepreneurial or has an aptitude toward entrepreneurial thinking,” said Stephen Lester, managing director of Infiniti Canada.
With the QX60, there are two types of customers attracted to the model: “Those who need the large vehicle or the SUV for space and utility, and you have those who see it as an expression of success,” Lester said.
The company knows QX60 drivers aren’t looking just for extra space. “We don’t see through our research that that is really the reason for buying for consumers,” Lester said. Instead, it’s about the design and the vehicle’s “presence.”
The front face ties into designer Alfonso Albaisa’s motif of all Infiniti models being in perpetual motion, even when standing still. How that evolves under new lead designer Karim Habib, formerly of BMW and Mercedes, will be seen after he starts this summer, but for now, perpetual motion starts with the eyes.
“The terminology we use is human-eye-inspired headlamps,” to convey “a pointed and precise direction, and that consistency throughout the whole lineup is really critical, both on the front and rear of the car,” Lester said.
At Hyundai, its Genesis G90 flagship luxury sedan has eyes with its own particular customer in mind: older and more established.
“What they’re looking for is something that exudes that luxury product. It looks powerful, it looks imposing, it looks confident on the road,” said Chad Heard, senior manager of public relations at Hyundai Canada. So, with the G90, confidence means gimlet eyes on either side of Hyundai’s characteristic hexagonal grill. (Or is it my imagination that the eye-grill combination suggest an assured, puckered-up kiss?)
Given Hyundai’s range from subcompacts to luxury models, there is less sense of one common personality of driver throughout. The brows ease with the different prices and sportiness of Hyundai models.
Adding to this are the varied origins of their designs from around the world. The company’s different studios are in competition to design new models. “Effectively, those studios compete to design the car that you see on the road,” Heard said.
“So, if we’re going to launch a compact SUV, every studio gets some basic dimensions and engineering guidelines … and then the designers take that brief and say, ‘Okay, what do we want this car to stand for in the market?’ ” he said. “You end up with significant variations in how the car will look. It could end up being a Korean, European or North American design.”
BMW gives another glimpse inside this process. “Dynamic” and “sporty” are words it generally uses for what its customers want. To get there, the company creates a similar competition between its in-house designers and the BMW-owned design consulting company Designworks, with studios in Newbury Park, Calif. (north of LosAngeles); Munich, and Shanghai.
Laurenz Schaffer, head of division management, design identity and context BMW Group Design (and former president of Designworks), noted that despite car companies’ heavy customer research, there is an element of intuition that goes into the design.
BMW designers, marketers, engineers and others collectively form an understanding of a model’s “character,” “basically the briefing that is signed off by the joint-interest groups within the company,” Schaffer said. The designers are given some freedom to gel together the brief with outside influences. The company then judges how well the design matches the original concept.
Yet with all the similar influences and frowning headlamps, a loss of distinction from one company to the next occurs. “But this is what happens …Our job is to figure out how we make an authentic BMW look,” Schaffer said.