While on a family vacation over the summer, we took the kids to Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, CA. I was unloading our kids from my trusty Honda Odyssey minivan and noticed a strange sighting: 6 white SUVs parked on the same street. 3 on one side, 3 on the other.
At quick glance, I thought that maybe a car company was loaded up, ready for a “look we’re at the beach!” commercial with their new SUV. On second glance, I noticed that these were actually 6 different SUV car companies: Subaru, Lexus, Acura, Lincoln, Mercedes, and Nissan. (Real photo below, snapped with my iPhone.)
☝️ Take a good look at the photos above. Aside from a few swooshes in body panels, these SUVs are the same. Those are pretty much the same wheels on 5 of the 6, the rebel Subaru being the only one to stand out here. Look closer, and you’ll see differences, for sure. But those differences are hardly anything to get excited about.
How could this be? When I was young, I used to dream about what cars of the future would look like. Probably the mind blowing image came from Back to the Future II, when Marty McFly left 1985 and traveled to the year 2015. The cars of the future hovered over the city streets. Then they went air born and took the skyway to get you wherever you wanted.
2015 came and went. Now I’m 40 years old, standing next to my minivan, staring at the cars of the future, and I’m completely disappointed.
How We Got Here
Aside from a handful of supercars, everything else looks the same. How have we arrived at this point? There are three answers to this question:
- Fuel Efficiency – The government expects good gas mileage, and they’ll punish you if you don’t get the high MPG. Only sleek cars/SUVs can get reasonable gas mileage. So what we are looking at in the photos above are sleek, high-riding station wagons. Gone are the days of fist-in-the-face boxy SUVs. (e.g. Mercedes G-Wagon, Isuzu Trooper, early Toyota Landcruiser)
- Safety – The government wants safe vehicles. That long hood helps with front-impact collisions. Those snub-nosed VW Buses and Jeep’s FC series are both so vintage and so cool. But they were basically death traps. There is about a half-inch of steel to protect you in a head-on collision.
- Practicality – Buyers expect more from a vehicle than style. Will they feel cramped, or is it roomy inside? Before people make the big purchase, they get real. Apparently most people want the same thing: space and comfort.
These are 4 very real restraints placed on every young, ambitious automotive designer. Of course, every car designer wants to create a new classic. A car like the 1957 Chevy Bel Air will be appreciated by the masses, preserved by collectors, and eventually, end up in a car museum.
That’s what designers want to do. But maybe that era is over. It was fun while it lasted, but it’s over.
Restraints in Design
Automotive designers are not alone. Every kind of designer faces limitations and restraints.
- Very few architects get to go crazy wild like Frank Gehry. (Also, many neighbors to his iconic buildings kinda hate them for good reasons.)
- Very few product designers will be as blessed as Jony Ive was at Apple. He had billions of R&D dollars and infinite manufacturing wizardry to bring his sleek designs into reality.
- Very few logo designers have the privilege of branding Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. That designer was a once-in-a-generation candidate, and a geometric and mathematical advantage over every other candidate. ☝️ Click that link and tell me I’m wrong.
Here at Smith House, I would love to design nothing but mind-blowing, next generation websites. But guess what restraints we deal with? A website has to adjust to every imaginable screen size. It has to look amazing, but load quickly before people lose interest. On top of that, our clients have limited time and limited money.
Designing a perfect website probably feels awesome. But guess what else feels awesome? Designing a website for a client that is 10X better than anything they thought that they could afford.
One more. On every project, we would love to design mind-blowing logos like the world has never seen. But what are our restraints? Just like the automotive world, the timeline here is working against us—people have been designing modern logos for 100+ years. Do you know how hard it is to design a cool logo that looks nothing like anything else? 😐
And for most of our clients, we most often have a single restraint: LEGACY. They have momentum with their company, sometimes a decade of success before they engage us to upgrade their brand. Translated: They have an old logo that we cannot completely delete.
With every design project, some restraints are immovable, other times they are circumstantial. But with every project, you have to make a decision to do great work. This is what makes you a great designer.
They may not put your design portfolio in the Smithsonian, but you will have helped a client get closer to their dream.