Car design gets edgy and rides the risk

Cars today "all look about the same, cost about the same, [and have] about the same quality. So how are you going to decide which one to buy?"

That's the question posed by Trevor Creed, head of one of the most successful industrial design studios in the world.

The answer, the Chrysler designer suggests, is passion. People buy a car because it strongly appeals to them. And the future of automotive design lies in creating that passion, Mr. Creed says.

But that doesn't mean traditional marketing surveys, he says. Traditional focus-group studies look for consensus. What Creed wants is tension.

To give a car - or any product - emotional impact, it has to alienate some people. "I may not like it," Creed says. But someone else may say: "Gosh, that's the best vehicle I've ever seen! I've just got to have one!"

Even if an equal number of customers loathe the design, such passion sells cars. That's the lesson Chrysler learned with the introduction of the Dodge Ram pickup truck in 1995.

"We discovered that everything we were doing up to then was [scoring sevens on a scale of 10 in focus groups], and it wasn't moving the needle in the marketplace."

The marketing studies designed to make cars sell, were doing nearly the opposite.

Now Creed is judged on the amount of tension -or polarization -his cars generate.

The goal? "That 30 percent of the people absolutely love it; that 30 percent hate it. The remaining 40 percent aren't sure yet, but it's confronted them. Eventually, they'll come around."

Chrysler's success through the 1990s - leading the auto industry in design and influence far beyond its (formerly) modest size - resulted directly from its mastery of this shift from the mass-market consensus approach toward niche products that break out of traditional molds.

Even so, it's a risky strategy that may cost five years and billions of dollars to develop, as some automakers have found all too often.

Take the Pontiac Aztek as the most recent example. The radical design is supposed to appeal to young "echo boomers," and it wraps a particularly useful package. But it's received unanimous boos from the press, and has found few buyers. General Motors assigned excess production to Detroit executives this winter and ordered them to drive the cars to make them seem more popular.

"It's got to be positive tension, as opposed to negative tension," says Creed.

Designers in a wide variety of industries are struggling to identify what the so-called Generation Y wants. Their main agenda seems to be to break out of traditional molds. Like the baggy, low-riding pants Creed's son wears, their style drives a lot of their parents mad. But there's no denying its popularity. And it may be the trend that replaces today's "retro" '50s and '60s styling.

What makes retro cars like Volkswagen's New Beetle, Ford's upcoming Thunderbird, and Chrysler's own PT Cruiser popular is the emotion they create, evoking baby boomers' carefree youth. Still, Creed doesn't expect the retro theme to last forever. He doesn't even like the term "retro."

"We look back at products in our past that evoke emotions, and we say, 'I remember when....' What you want is a product that people can really emote and identify with, have a dialog with. And that's what's important about this new trend."

Chrysler's latest example: a convertible version of its popular PT Cruiser that looks more like a modern VW with radical lines than the 1930s hot rod that inspired the Cruiser.

"Younger generations won't have that connection, and will need newer designs to capture that emotion. We never know how long things are going to go for.

"There is clearly a new generation of consumer coming into the market whose aesthetic sense is different than before. They have never seen a sports car like a Jaguar ... and they're clearly not impressed with a small car that looks like the Neon."

To that end, he predicts sedans are on the decline. "We're going to have to break much further out of that mold, and not necessarily be categorized," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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