The Shape of Performance

What makes a perfect car design?

Unsplash / Daniel McCullough

We all recognize a beautiful car when we see it. The subtle curves intersecting with more aggressive design choices can make heads turn when it glides down a street, but certain decisions evoke stronger responses.

Lars Perner, assistant professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California, describes cars as “an extension of the self,” in this CAA article, evoking a concept outlined by University of Utah’s Russell Belk in a 1988 research paper. We buy things to reflect our identities, and the design of a car projects that.

“The gentler, more continuous curves could both represent an emphasis on the modern and, potentially, also less of a desire to provoke or show aggression,” Perner tells Inverse. “The more aggressive design might signal more of a desire to stand out, and possibly a more aggressive personality. Another possibility is that the more aggressive designs, ironically, might be seen as more classic … Similarly, a continuous design may be associated with modern electrical or hybrid cars.”

Research shows that strong designs influence buyers, whether they realize or not. A 2013 paper by Goethe-University Frankfurt professor of marketing Jan R. Landwehr and others observes that consumers favor two factors: visual complexity, because it keeps the mind active and reduces feelings of boredom; and prototypicality, which means people like looking at cars that look like cars.

Researchers say preference for prototypicality is akin to learning a foreign language and feeling comfortable with well-understood words, or research that shows “average” faces score higher in terms of attractiveness.

The team was able to measure prototypicality in the same way as you would for faces. They took front-facing images of 12 midsize executive cars, chose a series of pixels in the same place for each image, and devised an “average” color for each pixel from all 12 images. Cars closest to the average pixel are deemed more prototypical. Vehicles were judged on complexity based on the disk space of the compressed image, with more complicated images requiring more storage. The paper found that when cars scored highly for both factors, sales were higher by 19 percent.

“The results of the sales forecasting analysis suggest that visual design plays a major role in a product’s success in the market,” the study explained.

This result is also borne out in other studies. A University of California, Riverside study looked at 200 car models from 33 brands, observing factors of prototypicality, brand consistency, and cross-segment mimicry where cheaper cars take cues from more expensive vehicles. The results confirmed a tendency toward prototypicality, but this changes depending on the market segment. Luxury car buyers, for example, tend toward models prototypical of that automaker’s design, showing less interest in cars that look like the broader market average. An economy car that evokes a luxury style can also persuade buyers by suggesting higher levels of quality.

“In contrast to previous research, which has shown that consumers prefer a more prototypical car, our study highlights the advantage of introducing some level of freshness into a new model, particularly if those unique design elements mimic those of a luxury car,” study author Subramanian Balachander said in a statement.

These movements can be tracked across car development history. Author David Gartman theorizes that American economy cars shifted from boxy to curvy in the ‘80s in part due to European luxury automakers exploring such designs. This was spurred by the high price of fuel in Europe, which meant budget-conscious buyers were more inclined to choose cars with better returns on gas. Gartman writes in Auto Opium, his 1994 book, that “American automakers began to copy the European aerodynamic aesthetic in the mid-1980s as a way of courting upscale consumers.” People may favor cars that look like an average, but the average shifts depending on the message it projects.

“Those interested in cars may talk about design and expression admiration or disapproval of a particular one, discussing the message that it appears to send,” Pernar says. “At a more unconscious level, an individual might choose a car that might signal an element of his or her personality that may conflict with his or her outward personality or position in life. For example, a physician — who is supposed to promote healing among patients and ‘do no harm’ — might use a car to express is or her more aggressive side.”

Our love for certain design features may reveal more than we realize.