Imagine a typical car stylist as depicted by the media. Donning a black turtleneck or cravat, the stylist takes a contrapposto stance in front of a clinically-white bar-height drafting table in a brilliantly lit laboratory-like room, their shoulder throwing down rapid arching strokes with a needle-sharp waxy black pencil onto architectural sized sheets of paper. The stylist holds the paper up with pride, and strides into an infinite dark room where a completely finished full-sized clay model with perfectly finished surfaces is lit by a single lightbox.
He presses his cheek against the clay and gently massages the surface, squinting along its rounded form. He then takes a T-shaped metal tool and begins to gouge deep cuts into the pliable clay, thick curls of milk-chocolate falling to the floor in Cinemax slow motion, piling around his black leather Miu-Miu Chelsea boots. In this commercialized vision, there is the surreal vibe of “the bedroom at the end of the universe,” from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The crumpled paper detritus of discarded sketches vanishes in an ethereal grey vapor; man has become the peak stylist, man evolves into a styling god.
Jason Torchinsky sends me this picture of what must be some sort of pick-up truck (after I conclude it isn’t a shoe), and the stylist’s evolution snaps from god back to the reality of a mud-covered amphibian, dragging itself out of Lake Michigan and onto a plebeian chair in front of a cluttered desk from Staples.
A 27 inch LED monitor frames the bluish glow of Photoshop. There in the center sits an awkwardly proportioned engineer’s layout consisting of the driver, wheels, engine, bumpers, hood, centerline of the cab, and cargo volume in a crass but honest direct orthographic side view. Tentative scratches of form — curves, lines, volumes, graphics — on an overlaying image struggle to beautify this ungainly, disjointed collection of hurdles and obstacles. There is no sense of immediate artistic victory in the process, there is no “aha” flourish of decision. It is a struggle, and with the parameters a stylist is given, the struggle is often fruitless all the way to the very end.
At the Autopian, we’d like to replace the fantastic vision of car design with the reality of the process, because while it’s not as simple and photogenic as the media depicts, the amazing achievements of great design should be understood better when one knows how difficult the process is, and how many different talents have to work together seamlessly to create a car.
Explaining the truck in the picture, the Fiat Fullback, is difficult. When I was struck in the face by the gawkish truck, my initial impulse was to outline the variety of factors outside of a stylist’s control that force his or her hand and limit their ability to avert aesthetic disaster. But the more I looked at the Fullback and its step-brother, the Mitsubishi L200/Triton, the more I began to see failings of the styling department that couldn’t be shrugged off.
[Background: As a Mitsubishi, this truck sold well in specific markets: the Middle East, Africa, Malaysia and the Philippines — places where a compact four-door pickup was a useful and logical vehicle. The Mitsubishi model was the brand’s top selling vehicle in 2016 when the company decided to clumsily face lift and rebadge the two-year old design in an attempt to expand the market further into Europe and South America. As the Fiat Fullback, some initial interest from the media in new customer countries was optimistic, but sales were poor, and after a two and a half year run, Fullback production was halted. The Mitsubishi continues life in various markets with another big makeover which used new stampings for the cargo-bed, front fenders, headlights and tail lights. The big refresh helped clarify its truckiness; it’s simply better than before.]
Styling Teardown. Where Did It All Go Wrong?
While many visual issues are driven by the engineering layout, the styling department still has the autonomy to develop as good a design as they can wrap around what they’ve been given. Here are the design missteps and how they could have been executed better.
Overall proportion is the first element that one sees and is therefore critical. The cake itself is much more important than the frosting and filigree that goes over it. The Fullback is built up on a wheelbase that appears to be a platform for a two door extended cab. With the longer dual cab, the rear wheel arch ends up mashed against the rear door, and most of the cargo bed appears strangely cantilevered past the rear axle. One has the visual impression that a heavy load would lift the front off the ground.
The rake of the main horizontal character line over the wheels, fast-angled front glass, and backward leaning join-line between the cargo bed and cab make an impression that the truck is cartoonishly counterbalancing a brake-skid, the weight being thrown backwards to avoid falling forward. Often, with crossover-style pickups, a directive is given by management or marketing that the styling should have car-like properties, but for trucks, vertical load-supporting visual rigidity (i.e. a stout, upright look) is more logical for the vehicle than speedy, sporty and car-like aero flowing forms. Sales figures seem to bear that out, as car-like pickups rarely achieve the volumes of the more utilitarian truck-like designs. Unfortunately, windshield angle and chassis dimensions are not something styling would have had the power to influence after initial body development, so unless these issues were determined early on and reflected back to the chassis development team, then styling had to do their best to work around them.
Sometimes wheels and tire sizing, vital for the overall impression as a valid pickup truck, are design items that fall outside of the control of styling. Likely, mileage targets and ride impression were key factors in the choice of the minimally treaded urban style tires that appear even smaller relative to the gaping wheel openings.
The Rear End…Where To Begin?
Taking a look at the rear portion of the Fullback, there seems to have been some directive to ensure that every line in the back has some angle or movement. Maybe it was done as a desperate attempt to fight the boxiness of the cargo bed, but too many lines, at too many angles create chaos rather than a sporty, car-like appearance. The severe upward angle under the cargo bed rises quickly as it moves rearward to reduce “mass,” but instead makes the overhang look longer, and makes the bumper look detached (poorly integrated). the silver bumper itself has a plastic cap over the real metal substructure, and the angled corner caps add more unnecessary complication.
Surfacing is a mess, with a stubby pool highlight jammed between the taillight lens and fender arch. Highlights running horizontally along the top edge look like a stamping issue, but are actually poorly executed as intended by the styling team — the rainbow arc bulge of the rear wheel opening contorting and torturing the surfaces around it. In an urban setting, with dark reflective paint, the side panel has the appearance of a waterbed full of molasses.
The taillight has a lazy and aimless outline, the little tab shape pulling forward near the top of the lens is a cue that appears on other vehicles like the Ford Explorer where it integrates with the surfacing better. The radii of the light’s outline shape are inconsistent — doughy near the top, snappy and sharp near the bottom. The imbedded clear lenses are, of course, severely angled to match the character line at the bottom of the light for no reason other than to be contrary to the horizontal.
The hard-shell bed cover that comes with this particular trim version is painful to look at. This is a unique part, exclusive to the Fullback model. It appears as if it were a part that was given to a design studio intern. The thick to thin to thick linework, arbitrary looking chrome trim detail and overall sloppy finish and fit show a distinct lack of attention.
Is It Hopeless Or Can We Save It? Let’s Do A Sketch-Over!
My design strategy here is to simplify and reintroduce the honesty of the function of the cargo box. Pulling the surfaces back off of the wheel opening instead of pulling it down cleans up the area between the taillight graphic and wheel arch piece. Reducing the upward angle of the rear lower corner (the bedside just behind the wheel) and adding mass so that the bumper is more integrated, and bringing a flow — the horizontal break from the bodyside into the bumper — settles the back end and feels less frantic.
Assuming they are not completely functional/necessary, I eliminated the fussy black bumper corner pieces, as they only add visual clutter and cost.
Getting rid of the protruding tab shape on the taillights and bringing the lens further forward slightly reduces the overall graphic volume of the bodyside.
Replacing the strange horizontal step-down on the sides of that tonneau cover with a slight break addresses the largest part of that whole disaster; it isn’t too difficult to ensure that the lines and forms are clean and orderly. The chrome garnish is a tacky bit that most people would not miss, so it was easy to delete. Altogether, while the revisions to the rear are obvious and simple, they are honest to the functionality of the pickup.
The Front…What’s The Problem?
The front end is actually executed pretty well compared to the back, though the overall styling concept is the big issue for me, as it is much too car-like. Given enormous cost of developing the cabin — the doors, cowl, roof and glass — we are going to stick with what we have there and concentrate on the fascia. We can’t go too trucky, too boxy, as we have to make it work with the rounded side profile of the windshield.
The horn-rimmed glasses outline of the headlights are different for the sake of being different but aren’t necessary. Fussy little details are jammed into the foglamp bezel areas but are too small to even matter. Nothing on the front would look out of place on a mid-sized passenger car, apart from the matte silver faux metal lower, a meager suggestion of a bumper. If people are getting a pick-up truck, they’ve bought into the idea of being a pick-up driver–there’s no need to try to pass it off as a commuter car.
There Must Be A Pick-Up Underneath That Car Fascia Somewhere. Let’s Sketch It!
Flattening out the nose a bit and adding snappier corners to the fascia adds a feeling of bulky strength that matches the capable utility of the vehicle. The car-like graphics get a bit choppier and more angular. One can already begin to see a disconnect in the revised front graphics and the bubbly side window profile. A more serious and functional looking lower bumper begins to match the rear of the vehicle more, but will challenge the engineers to manage cooling with reduced open areas. I’ve thrown a bone to the Lira-counter department by making the fog lights an optional item. See, even stylists can care about that sort of thing!
Design Fixed? Not Even Close. It’s Not That Easy!
After this sort of exercise, as a stylist, I’m always conflicted and self-critical. Getting a handle on the success of a design is a very difficult thing. I’ve probably made the design more “boring,” in a lot of eyes, but the overused key words that often get thrown around design studios like “emotional,” “exciting,” and “modern” often aren’t the words you would associate with a mid-sized pickup truck. Simple functionality in truck design is becoming a rare attribute. The 1980s in particular featured lots of truck designs that were so clean and basic, they served as blank canvases for the owners who could easily add personality and customizations. My revised Fiat Fullback design proposal certainly doesn’t begin to approach that sort of simplicity, but maybe it’s a step in that direction.
Reflecting on process, as a design stylist normally one would spend a few weeks sketching out iterations and understanding all of the limitations of budget and feasibility. I attacked this design in half a day, so the solution presented is an idea at the most. Were I working for Fiat, several designers and I would hammer away at several different proposals, or ideas for solving the same problems — some wild and polarizing, others more sedate and safe. The single solution I sketched up solves some problems, but isn’t fresh enough. It would probably need to push further into the future to be a winner.
For a mid-cycle makeover like this, there would be some understanding of the hurdles associated with the engineering set in stone when the vehicle was first developed. In the front, you have a bumper structure to design around; it usually has a very specific height and corner points that can’t change. You have cooling requirements to consider; the open areas in the fascia need to be large enough and at the proper height to allow flow to the radiator. (The upper grill generally is less critical for cooling than the lower open areas). Headlights are expensive to redesign, so mid-cycle makeovers usually use the previous part. Sheetmetal is even more expensive to swap out, so the plastic bumper may change, but usually the hood and front fender will have to be kept. This is a brief snapshot that goes into the thinking behind trying to get to the root of slacking sales, and attack it from the styling department; it’s always a big challenge.
(Images: Fiat, Wikimedia Commons, The Autopian’s Secret Designer)