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2018-05-29 08:00:00
by Christopher Butt
(comments: 0)

Post-Factual Design

In an age of excess, form and function become increasingly decoupled.



It is what made the automobile such a special consumer durable in the first place that is rendering it increasingly offensive in this day and age.

An automobile was never simply a device. Even in its early days, when it was little more than a motorised coach, it was as much about carrying people from A to B, as embodying either social status or aspiration.

With traditional automotive engineering and design having reached maturity, the weighting of these functions has changed, certainly in terms of automotive design. Whereas in the past, most stylistic choices were driven by necessity or technological advance, today they are motivated by an altogether different set of motives.

‘Form follows function’, the famous quote by architect, Louis Sullivan, appears increasingly more hollow, the more it is (mis)used. For while cars anno 2018 still possess the capacity of carrying people from one place to another, their design has taken on a life of its own. It is no longer about presenting the function of the automobile in an interesting and/or attractive way, but has recently changed into an act of masquerading. A sideshow, whose undercurrents are rather worrying.

Just as we have recently learned of the existence of ‘fake news’, we are also confronted with design that is not about the art of either presenting or hiding an element of engineering in a pleasing manner, but about deception. It is, for lack of a less drastic term, dishonest design.

Two examples of this phenomenon are particularly aggravating.



Hardly half of the air inlets on current production cars’ front-ends are what they pretend to be, for example. Alongside these proper grilles, we are presented with an onslaught of black plastic panels sporting some kind of mesh pattern print that is so unconvincing, no onlooker would ever be fooled into thinking these are the real deal for a second. In terms of subtlety, execution and context, they are akin to Inspector Clouseau’s hunchback disguise kit being employed by real police, during actual detective work.

Also in the real world, cooling requirements have changed dramatically in recent years, as have aerodynamic functions. Yet car design’s response to this is to pretend neither of these developments has taken place. Instead, the viewer/customer is obviously taken for a fool, who not only does not see through this ridiculous visual smokescreen, but also (supposedly) thinks ‘oh, that car’s engine needs so much cooling, it must be extremely powerful, and that’s cool’. Are customers this stupid? And are designers this cynical?



Another case-in-point can be found at the opposite end of many modern automobiles, namely where its exhaust tip was once found. These days, all too often one is presented with either an exhaust tip that obviously does not correspond with the size of the actual exhaust at all. Or, and even more aggravating, one finds the outline of an exhaust tip printed in some mock-metallic hue on another piece of black plastic. What exactly does the world need fake exhaust tips for? Particularly ones that are, again, offensively unconvincing?

It is obvious that these stylistic choices were driven by the fact that car manufacturers do not take the customer seriously at all. Just as car designers all too often like to refer to their work as being ‘cool’ or ‘sexy’, as though they were an adolescent waxing lyrical about his modified first scooter, the pointless faux air inlets and exhaust tips suggest that the automobile of 2018 is not catering for an adult audience anymore. Seriousness is for old farts.

But is the car customer of 2018 really an impressionable youth? And would a modern car really be unacceptable without the regalia of the past? Does the eye really demand what the mind doesn’t require?

Of course, post-factual components can be found elsewhere in the modern automobile, too. Whether we are talking about fake engine noises being emitted through the stereo system or unnecessary stitching on (fake) leather: What used to be a side effect of an actual requirement is now all smoke and mirrors. It’s as though designers believed the ‘soul’ of an automobile was in overcoming manufacturing processes and engineering solutions.

So it must be constituted that a side effect of the maturity of traditional automotive engineering is that automotive design has truly entered the post-modern stage. Form and function have been de-coupled like never before. For utterly unnecessary air vents and exhaust tips must not be mistaken for tail fins or rear spoilers of our times - those were naïve embellishments, whereas today’s gratuitous décor is of a more obnoxious kind.



Neither tail fins, nor (most) rear spoilers served a real purpose. They were simple fads, like flared trousers or shoulder pads. And their propagation was limited to certain kinds of automobiles only. However, fake exhaust tips and vents are everywhere. And offend through the sheer cack-handedness of their execution - for they suggest that car design, rather than embracing the future, now sees fit to create an illusion of the past instead.

In the context of ominous threats to ban certain types of automobiles, not to mention all the other mounting challenges that will be brought about by changes in environmental legislation, the question needs to be asked whether fake exhaust tips and grilles really are where the energy and creativity of designers is best spent? And whether we dare to accept that the car, as we knew it, shall be no more.


Photos: Gemballa (1), Daimler AG (1), all rights reserved

Text  ©, all rights reserved

Christopher Butt

car enthusiast, writer, critic

biased, elitist, German 

Comment by Klink |

You are loudly barking up my tree with this rant. I don’t remember who I was talking to, or why we were talking about this subject, but this was a text I sent to somebody on this topic in 2016:

I have really had my fill of fake everything these days.
Vents, ducts, gills and grills, "ground effects" that aren't, spoilers that spoil everything, headlight internals attempting to mimic adjustable objects like camera lenses. Man I hate this crap! And one of the worst offenders in recent years has been my beloved Mercedes-Benz. They are crawling with this kind of garbage now! WTF happened to industrial design? It’s not even “car design” anymore it’s “cartoon design“ A generation raised on Ritalin has taken over all of it, this is what we get now. Endless distracting details propagated by those with a complete inability to see form or express function. All trees, no forest. I hate it all with the fire of ten thousand suns! And don’t even get me started on what has become of road wheels...

Comment by Rafael Braga |

Great post! I've been wondering about the same subject, too.

This showcase of dark, cheap and fragile platics around the body, along with fake exhaust tips, are truly saddening. They remind me of mid 2000's Hot Wheels toys.

Considering that today's designers have probably been raised on that era, like me... well, you might see where we're going with this about taste on automobiles.

Reply by Christopher Butt

If you look at the vocabulary used to market car design (which in itself is a rather silly endeavour), it's either of the pseudo-philosophical variety ('sensual purity'), or based on teenagers' slang ('hot', 'cool', 'sexy'). 

The automotive sector, and by that I mean the industry itself, as well as ancillary elements (media), has considerably dumbed down its communication style over the past decade or so. Anyone who is in any way serious or high-brow about the automobile is considered a spoilsport, 'cause cars are, you know, fun!

Tesla's 'Ludicrous Mode' or the inclusion of a Star Wars spacecraft in the Jaguar F-type's headlight design are other manifestations of this issue. The car is a toy, and the roads are a playground! 

In a way, Jeremy Clarkson is emblematic of this matter. He's an intelligent, well-educated, talented man who feels compelled to play the buffoon, because that's 'what the market wants'. Many elements of the automotive world are behaving in similar fashion. 

Comment by Lucien |

The best car designs have always had a singularity that pervades the whole vehicle. The (rather obvious) E-Type, the DS and the original Mini. More recently the 2001 Range Rover and new Fiat Cinquecento (pastiche being merely the starting point).

One of my favourite, unique designs of today is the Citroen C4 Cactus (original in preference to the facelift). Here’s a car that has been pared back to what we really need. Removing excess, but majoring on style. The grumbling Diesel engines and atrocious air-con aside, this really is functional style.

Comment by RobJ |

That it is expected of young designers to come up with something other than the monstrosities masquerading as cars is laughable.
A twenty-something starting their career is as likely to buck the current trend for overwrought styling as a politician is likely to be truthful.
Whether said twenty-something has a grasp of the history of the automobile is irrelevant. He or she will have their work critiqued by a multitude of managers who in order to obtain and maitain their positions have prosituted original thought and sacrificed dreams upon the altar of corporate identity. And they have reaped the profits to be made by selling souls.
Those managers that possess that rare mixture of vision, intelligence and cojones are rarely lauded in a business that demands only one thing.
They are as likely to be asked to seek employment elsewhere. This is truly sad.
Cars we hail as classics today rarely made the maques that produced them rich. Indeed, many lost money, beautiful sirens that led entire companies closer to a wrecking on the rocks of the balance sheet.
Lancia and Citroen, producers of the ultimate engineering-led products were consumed by purveyors of more prosaic machines as a result of their pursuit of excellence. Many more simply perished.
Today’s mediocrity and vulgarity is to be expected. The car is a mirror of society.
The flamboyance of the chrome and fins of post-war America mirrored the optimism of a country that had been instrumental in ridding the world of the Axis Powers.
In Europe, the elegance of Italian car design over eleven short years starting with the Pinin Farina Cisitalia 202 of 1946 and culminating with the Pininfarina-penned Lancia Flaminia of 1957 was to influence our understanding and perception of automotive beauty forever.
A generation of wind-cheating Citroen’s from the 1955 Godess to the 1974 CX via the SM of 1970, created to speed across La Belle France..
This is what is really lacking in what we as designers are producing today.
The car designer of old was industrial aristocracy. Today the designer is merely another tool in the box. And we have become blunt.

Reply by Christopher Butt

Well put, Rob. 

Any branch of the automotive industry is no better or worse than the rest of the society it stems from, so yes, the root of the problem isn't just a handful of chief designers holding an office far beyond their capabilities. But we've got to start somewhere, which is why I try and call a spade a spade. 

Comment by Allan Lacki |

I own a 2019 Toyota Corolla XSE hatchback. It is a nice car and I enjoy driving it, but it has those fake exhaust outlets at the rear. In Canada, you can buy a Corolla hatchback that is not "equipped" with them, but not so here in the USA. And there is no way to adapt the Canadian version's plain back panel without buying the entire rear bumper clip, which is basically the entire rear end of the car (minus the hatch).

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