Opinion: Why honest design matters

19 June 2018 | by Aidan Walsh

Oh look, some fake vents...

Honesty is the best policy. It’s an age-old cliché drummed into all of us as children and one that’s often been applied to design. “Good design is honest” proclaimed product maestro Dieter Rams, a mantra discernible throughout his own influential career as well as in so many of the car industry’s finest works – the 2CV, Mini, Golf and so on.

Unfortunately, however, this handy little snippet seems to have been somewhat forgotten amid the bustling melée of modern car design. Of course visual disingenuousness is nothing new, myriad examples lurk in the automotive archives (the cringeworthy Austin Allegro Vanden Plas for instance, whose incongruently oversized radiator grille attempted to bestow an undeserved sense of grandeur and prestige upon a deeply mundane car), but fakery as the norm rather than the exception seems to be a more modern phenomenon.

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That Allegro grille isn’t fooling anybody

It’s a trend which seems to have gained in momentum as the clean, crisp minimalism with which designers greeted the new millennium gave way to the more-is-more visual shouting match we’ve been treated to over the past decade. This shouldn’t come as a surprise – so often a culture of boasting also begets a culture of lying, hence we now see everything from non-functional exhaust outlets, gaping grilles which on closer inspection are mostly blanked off, the trend for front-wheel drive family hatchbacks posing as rough, tough SUVs or crossovers, and common or garden ‘repmobiles’ dressed up in the sporting attire of genuine performance heroes (see AMG line, S-Line, etc.).

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Are those vents really functional..?

So what exactly do we mean by the phrase ‘honest design’? According to the aforementioned Herr Rams, honest design is that which “does not make a product appear more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is” or “does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.” A definition which would include everything from a power bulge on an entry-level supermini to a ‘knock-off’ Rolex watch with a cheap quartz movement.

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A power bulge? Really?

All very well, you might say, but this stuff is hardly life or death is it? Who really cares if the exhaust outlets on the Mercedes-Benz C-Class are blanked off, or the Honda Civic has false vents in its rear bumper, or even if most of today’s crossovers couldn’t traverse a muddy field?

While it is true that lives are unlikely to be lost over a little ‘artistic licence’ exercised on the part of designers (or marketeers) and small details on specific vehicles are really neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things, the importance of honesty in all human relationships certainly should not be underestimated, and this includes the relationship between designers, manufacturers and end users.

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Not a rough, tough SUV. It’s a front-wheel-drive hatchback

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of an honest approach is simplification. It’s usually the case that, the more we can take things at face value, the easier and more enjoyable our everyday lives become.  Honesty is the oil that prevents our society from grinding to a halt under the dead weight of red tape, regulation and paranoia. But if we cannot hope to discern the function and relative value of a product from its outward appearance (and many products deliberately attempt to deceive in this regard) making a choice between competing products and ultimately finding that which best serves our needs becomes a laborious chore, fraught with pitfalls.

One great irony of the SUV phenomenon in recent times is that amongst the deluge of trendy crossovers with a thin veneer of ruggedness, there is perhaps less choice than ever when it comes to genuinely capable off-road vehicles, and what’s more, picking these out amongst a sea of imposters must represent a daunting task for those without an intricate knowledge of the car market.

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The original unpretentious off-roader

Perhaps this is one reason why Land Rover’s iconic Defender has been so widely mourned; it was an honest product which did what it said on the tin, free of bluster and pretence. The same might be said of Dacia’s recent success – the company’s simple, no-nonsense vehicles stand out in a world of souped-up superminis pretending to be what they are not.

People learn from experience, and widespread deception leads to widespread mistrust and cynicism, which can have dire consequences for society. It has been widely hypothesised that mistrust of ‘metropolitan elites’ has been a major contributing factor to  and is often emphasised.

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Yes, fake windows are now a thing

Clearly car designers are not running countries, but it is important to bear in mind that cars are a major part of the built environment within within which most of us exist. Even if we don’t own or use one it has to be said that they’re difficult to avoid. Might being surrounded by dishonest design make us bitter and cynical in the same way as being let down by our leaders? It’s certainly worth pondering.

But it’s not just for altruistic reasons that car designers should endeavour to be truthful. The car industry itself, already rocked by revelations of engineering dishonesty in the form of ‘Dieselgate’, looks set to face the closest thing to an existential crisis it has ever known as we’re increasingly assured that the future of personal transportation lies with electrified, autonomous Uber-pods hailed from smartphones, threatening to make private car ownership a thing of the past.

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Spot the fake vents...

If this indeed comes to pass and the rational case for cars as we now know them is eroded, then the car industry will be forced to fall back on the thing which has always separated its products from those of other industries – the emotional attachment, even love, they engender. Something to which deception is certainly not conducive.

False grilles, non-functional diffusers and hollow power bulges may seem like small fry in the grand scheme of life, but not only do little lies lead to big ones if left unchecked, such things are symbolic of an unhealthy contempt for the consumer which the car industry can no longer afford. And that’s something every designer should bear in mind.

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A boxy classic – so honest it hurts