Essays & Articles


The Personality of Automobiles

Donald A. NormanCopyright © 2004 Donald A. Norman. All rights reserved.

A journalist emailed me, asking my opinion of automobile grills (he was particularly interested in the 1939 Mercury grill). I couldn’t resist the challenge: here is what I responded.

Every car has a unique personality, much like every person, and with cars as with people, we infer the personality from three components: visceral, which is mainly looks; behavioral, which is mainly behavior; and reflective, which is mainly reputation.

The grill is visceral. As with people, it is facial expression that often initiates the impact The grill and headlights are the most dominant parts of the face. The 1939 Mercury grill is especially distinctive, with its pointed front and its sneering smile. Two gleaming sets of stripes that exudes power, confidence, and superiority.

The grill dominates the car’s facial expression, and establishes the car’s personality for all to see — and cower before. Some grills are meek, some timid, others are bold and assertive. The 39 Merc exudes superiority and cockiness. Chrysler’s new 300C may be equally imposing, but it isn’t nearly as cocky. Just a sneer. The Merc had a pointy, v-shaped face. The Chrysler is flatfaced.

Does this matter to the buying public? You bet. A major part of a car’s appeal is its impact upon other people, as well as upon yourself. How does that grill make you feel? Does it convey your secret personality to others? Yeah, the 39 Merc grill is cool.