Essays & Articles


Concept Cars


Originally published in InteriorMotives.

Concept cars play an important role in the automobile industry. These exercises are great opportunities to test potential designs. Originally, these were pure explorations in style — an excuse to let the stylists display their creative juices before returning to the mundane world of production models. But over time, the ideas have developed into a combination of exploration and show. Sometimes the original intention to explore design themes has been taken over by the public relations crew, so the result is an attempt to impress the car-buying public, the press, the executive suite, and, just perhaps, rival designers at competitive companies, which especially means designers of different models within the same company.

But good design is a lot more than style. Good design includes substance: function, comfort, pleasure, safety, economy, environmental friendliness, and a lot more besides. A concept car should be an opportunity to explore all of these directions. Alas, few take this opportunity seriously. Pity.

In a recent column (Facing to the rear), I suggested that front-seat passengers be allowed to rotate their seats to face backward, the better to converse with both driver and other passengers. Hey, Ford, you responded! No sooner did I write the column than Ford responded with a concept car, the SYNUS, with comfortable interior and front seats that can face rearward: “facilitating personal interaction between the front and rear occupants,” is how the Ford website puts it. Nice work. I wish I could take credit, but concept cars take months or years to develop, and well, maybe this was simply an idea whose time might someday come.

Problem is, it isn’t clear how seriously to take this concept car. Ford’s own website calls its styling “intimidating and outrageous.” The design is as outrageous as the spelling of the name (with that uppercase, superscripted “US“). But someone gave a lot of thought to the interior, with those rear-facing front seats which “can transform into a mini-home theater with multi-configuration seating… .”

But, uh-oh, they didn’t stop. Hey folks, when you are ahead, stop! Leave well-enough alone! But no, these concept designers caught the high-tech disease. So that sentence continues: “… with multi-configuration seating and multi-media work station, all controlled by a Wi-Fi laptop.” (I won’t even mention the “45-inch flat-screen LCD from Sharp” that substitutes for a rear window.) Controlled by a Wi-Fi Laptop? You mean I can’t adjust the seat until I boot my computer, get my IEEE 802.11 network running properly, properly encrypted and fire-walled, of course, so the car behind me can’t hijack my seat control? What could they have been thinking? That the everyday person is a system administrator? Did they have iDrive envy? Maybe they missed the class when we explained the moral of the iDrive lesson? What ever happened to nice, simple manual controls: easy to use, always available, no rebooting, no configuration required.

It’s difficult to tell whether or not SYNUS should be taken seriously. It looks like an overblown design exercise (If it were done by my students, I’d have them redo it). There have been creative, thoughtful concept cars that explored significant new dimensions of design.

Concept cars can be fertile test grounds. The Volvo YCC car was a wonderful example of bold, courageous thinking about style, safety, comfort, and convenience. I hope Volvo is taking them seriously. GM’s fuel cell concept car, Autonomy, explored the innovative vision where the power train, engine, and control structures could be hidden in a thin shell at floor level, giving unprecedented freedom for the cabin and driving area. So far, neither the cells nor the drive trains are available to support this dream, but this is the exploration we need more of.

In similar fashion, the MIT Media Lab’s concept car project, supervised by Bill Mitchell with GM and Frank Gehry, has reinvented the wheel — literally — putting engine and suspension on the wheels, freeing the designer of traditional constraints and allowing the study of novel configurations and flexible, changeable interior configurations.

Want to design properly? Take concept cars seriously as design prototypes. Explore those constraints. Playfulness is a wonderful design stance that can produce out-of-the box breakthroughs. But there is playful and silly. Ford seems to have confused the two. Too bad — there are excellent ideas hidden away inside the SYNUS armor-plated exterior.

Donald Norman is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, a psychologist/cognitive scientist/design theorist who teaches at Northwestern and Stanford Universities and, in his spare time, writes books, including Emotional Design: why we love (or hate) everyday things. He lives in northern California at Write him at don at