I bet you’ve seen a particular image floating around the internet, and, as someone who more than likely has more than a passing interest in cars, I suspect that you may have even looked at it, and considered its meaning. I don’t blame you for that! Perhaps you even read a caption or an article and nodded your head in agreement, saying, “yes, yes, so very true” aloud, causing the other people in the jury to look at you funny. The image is one of 23 white SUVs on white backgrounds, all seen in profile, facing left. The implication of this image is that all modern cars look alike, and as a result individuality and design in automobiles is, well, dead. It’s a grim thought, and on some level, it may seem like it’s sadly true. Happily, I’m here to remind you that it’s bullshit.
There’s been a ton of very similar and pretty much equally whiny articles lamenting what the author thinks this image shows. Some of these articles are idiotic, but most are just boring and forgettable, much like the SUVs and crossovers they wring their hands over.
Essentially, they’re all saying something like this, just usually without the economy of words:
Design is dead. pic.twitter.com/7gzQH7jkzq
— CarDealershipGuy (@GuyDealership) November 27, 2022
And, sure, on some level, they’re not completely wrong– those vehicles do look a lot alike. But once you start thinking about what’s being shown for any amount of time and actually look at what’s going on in the larger context of automobile design, not only do you realize that what’s going on here isn’t some new phenomenon, what’s being shown isn’t the dire warning these smug-asses think it is. At all.
First, let’s really look at this image:
All the cars are the same color, and, significantly, all of their distinctive wheel designs have been blocked out with gray circles. Color has been de-saturated from all the cars, which makes any graphic design elements from their lighting much less noticeable. They’ve all been scaled to be about the same size. Significantly, this isn’t a random sampling of modern cars: it’s a sampling of cars from one particular type and category: midsize SUVs/crossovers. Also, they misspelled “Volkswagen.”
A lot of work has been done to this image to make cars of the same particular general design (high-riding, wagon-type body) seem like they all look homogenous, but the truth is they really don’t. Considering these are all cars in the same basic class, there’s a hell of a lot of differentiation going on. Here, look at these two:
I even picked two premium-segment cars, so they’d likely compete head-to-head in the market. Their designs are quite different: look at the distinctive C-pillar on the Mercedes, or the more fastback design of the Acura. Their front end treatments are very different, as are the window graphic, lighting design, and more. For two vehicles designed to fill the same market segment, carry the same number of passengers, roughly the same amount of cargo, and perform similarly, there’s a remarkable amount of design difference.
If you’re actually confusing these cars visually while you’re out driving, I don’t want to be driving with you, at least not until you go back to the optometrist.
Let’s look at this same idea in some historical context, too: cars of a given segment, in a given era, have always looked similar to one another, at least in broad strokes. Here, let’s look at big four-door sedans from the 1950s:
These are easily as differentiated from one another as any of those modern SUVs are. They all have the same basic proportions, similar design vocabulary of details (fins, wraparound windshields, lots of chrome, two-tone paint) and yet we don’t see anyone making grids of ’50s cars in grayscale and captioning it “Damn, everything was the same back then LOL,” do we?
Or, consider the 1960s, when compact and smaller car design all over the world was swept up with a desire to re-create the Chevrolet Corvair:
…or let’s look at two-door fastback coupés of the 1970s:
…or full-size sedans of the 1980s:
And, please note that I’m not cheating with any of these images by desaturating all the colors, making them all the same color, and pointing them all the same way, or blocking out their wheel design; you can see in these unedited images that, yes, cars of a similar category of a similar era tend to look generally the same. That’s how it works.
There’s a lot of interlocking reasons for why this is, too: some has to do with technological development; as new techniques of building become available, they spread throughout the industry, and get used by everyone. Think of things like custom-shaped lighting designs or body-colored bumpers, or aerodynamic advances that help make more efficient cars.
There’s also things like crash and safety regulations that all cars must follow, and those have a huge impact on design. Then there’s simple taste and fashion, which tends to change, and those changes spread throughout the industry, until preferences and fashion changes again, in a never-ending cycle of capriciousness and whatever the hell else influences why we find some things visually appealing or not.
And then we have market demands, and that tempers design. There are always wonderful outliers, but mainstream automotive design will tend to homogenize a bit, because in large groups, humans tend not to buy things that feel too unexpected. Raymond Loewy, the industrial designer who is credited with the Coke bottle, Exxon logo, and the Studebaker Avanti, among many other things, referred to this principle as MAYA, which stood for “most advanced, yet acceptable” and essentially means that people won’t buy something that feels too weird.
If you look at modern car design and not limit your samples to one particular sub-category, you can see that there’s actually an incredible amount of novel design happening right now. Here, look at these pseudo-randomly-selected cars, all of which are currently available for sale around the world:
Cars don’t all currently look alike. In fact, there’s some really interesting and daring things happening in modern car design. And, cars of the past, when separated by categories, all generally tended to have broadly similar looks, because that’s how the world and human beings tend to work. Modern cars aren’t any better or worse in that regard.
So, if you’re tempted to post that image of those white SUVs and say something snarky about how all modern cars look the same, my advice would be to log off whatever social media app you’re on, delete that stupid JPG, and just go for a damn drive already. Nobody needs to see this stupid bullshit again.
Anyone seriously saying automotive design is dead should take a second and look at old photos or movies. Pay attention to the trains, planes, tractors, motorcycles, etc. They really haven’t changed much. But the cars? They depict the decade instantly.
Every time this image gets posted, I still scream “THE PARSH STILL LOOKS THE BEST, NERDS.”
There is probably a bit of truth with both approaches. Car design has been largely dictated by strict regulations, something which gets worse every year – all the way to headlight hight, spacing, features etc. Now regulations are even dictating software features.
But at the same time, these big shouty statements are often made by people who think they know better and that all of these old greybeards in automotive should step aside. That is indeed arrogant and shows how little they know.
If anything, I’d say the distinctiveness of many of today’s design features is a much higher achievement than in the decades before, see my first paragraph about incredibly restrictive regulations.
The fact I keep confusing modern BMW SUVs in the rear view mirrors with Škoda Kodiaqs at night is down to a choice in design language 🙂
Thank you. I learned that not only do cars look all the same, but historically this has been going on for a long time!
Several years ago, I became convinced by a rental experience that a subcompact crossover was a nearly ideal family car for my family of 3. Lots of usable interior space, small footprint. But like everyone else I found most of them painfully boring. Fortunately, at that time, there was a vehicle offered that stood out. That’s why my beloved bright orange ’15 Jeep Renegade with a six-speed manual, Koni struts and a turbo will remain in my driveway for the foreseeable future.
These sorts of memes, posts or whatever I think are created solely to stoke the fear/rage of (primarily) older white guys with grey goatees. It’s who I received this from multiple times. It provides them their daily dose of outrage to fuel their
“ ‘murica is goin’ to hell “ ethos. It’s followed up by emails lists about how “kids today” don’t know what a rotary phone is, never had to wait for summer reruns, and how it was hotter in the old days.
“hotter in the old days”
What are you talking about?! – when I was a boy, we had to walk uphill to school AND back, in six feet of snow, all year round!
I’m very convinced that the average driver doesn’t know squat about the different makes and models of cars; to people like that, the SUVs in that graphic really do look exactly alike. Heck, I once had a coworker ask me if my Wrangler was the same vehicle that a manager had purchased…they got the make right, but this manager drives a new Cherokee. I think most people just see their car as an expensive applicance that sits outside, and goes from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’. (I’m guessing there’s a substantial overlap between these people and the ones who look at a modern wrecked car with a mangled front end [and intact cabin] and complain that “They just don’t build them like they used to!”)
> I’m very convinced that the average driver doesn’t know squat about the different makes and models of cars;
This week, a set of questions asking the competitors to name the brand for several popular named SUVs came up. The contestants did quite badly.
To the average consumer, all of these DO look the same: 4 wheels, some windows, a couple of bumpers. As a designer, I can appreciate the nuance of a minimized B pillar or particular character line. Most people can’t see that or don’t care to.
I know you appreciate this better than most, but details matter–this meme takes a reductive approach to design that is ultimately true about many things. Everything from phones (is there anything less distinctive?) to appliances, to clothing to airplanes. To some degree, form has to accommodate function, which is why phones are rectangular screens, washing machines are boxes, pants all have two legs and a waist and planes are tubes with wings. And yes, I know there are always oddball outliers (they don’t include a Bronco or Urus for a reason, and nobody is going to confuse the Spaceshiptwo with a 737). Somebody out there is probably rocking a pair of three-legged pants.
but even ignoring these outliers, if you look closer, there absolutely is diversity and poorly and well-designed examples in every category, but it goes unappreciated unless you care or are invested. I’m interested in watches, so I can immediately distinguish a submariner (Rolex) from a seamaster (Omega). Similarly, enthusiasts can quickly distinguish a BMW from a Nissan or even a Honda from an Acura. On the other hand, I am not as interested in fashion (as my daughters constantly remind me), so something like dress shoes all look like brown or black shoes to me.
And of course if you take things further and erase all the details things get harder. It reminds me of the whole blindfolded wine tasting trope–tasters have a hard time distinguishing reds and whites when served at the same temperature blindfolded. Well, OK, but color and temperature are important details with wines. Side profiles of vehicles rescaled and desaturated makes distinguishing between them harder, obviously, since facia design and lighting (hey JT!) are important details, as is relative size.
I agree. I actually think car design has become much more diverse in the last 5-10 years than it was in the recent past. I also am happy to see at least some decent color options being offered in some models, but the fact is, cars and colors are the way they are because that is what people buy. Most bold design choices in vehicles have been complete flops in sales. When people are faced with a choice, more often than not, they choose to do exactly what everyone else is doing.
“my advice would be to log off whatever social media app you’re on … and just go for a damn drive already.”
Torch that is solid advice that we should all take to heart more often. I think we would all be a lot happier if we spent less time on social media and more time on the open road just enjoying a nice drive even if we don’t have a destination in mind.
While some interesting designs are offered and, historically, most cars within a given category look similar, the issue today is that there aren’t as many categories and the vehicles from those alternative categories are bought less often.
When I was a kid in the 80s, I rode my bike around the modest lower middle class towns spotting all kinds of odd balls from a myriad of OEMs that are gone from the US or dead entirely. Even discounting the extinct weirdos, a wide variety of vehicles were commonly all around. Many ordinary models were offered in sedan, coupe, wagon, with some even having a 4th variant. Today, the variants are marketed under different names (eg., SUV/sedan=Highlander/Camry) Normal people of modest means often had fun toy cars. Moreover, different models of cars didn’t look like their other category brethren by being beholden to “corporate identity” design cues shoehorned on regardless of differences in proportion and shape. Today, those people can’t afford toy cars and, for example, among the people who easily can in my 7-figure neighborhood where every neighbor has multiple vehicles, virtually all of them are still luxury SUVs (black or silver, though, instead of white, but not often mixed on a single property). One neighbor has a green Rivian, which is only different-ish. So, while in general your point is correct, the reality of it is that the great majority of what people see daily are SUVs of different sizes, PU trucks, and older sedans yet to be traded in for an SUV (but aren’t less boring, anyway) and most of all of those are white. Comedy tends to exaggerate to make a point and I think that meme is spot on in that sense. It might not speak to the relative state of design when including the outliers that make up an almost insignificant percentage of the total vehicle sales (and year after year, this difference multiplies as older cars are removed from the overall fleet), but it speaks to the state of the market and what is seen on the roads, especially by normal people who aren’t spotting the odd Ferrari (likely in predictable red, which is basically sports car white) passing by quickly on the opposite side of the highway and is very unlikely to be found in the retail or grocery store parking lot people frequent. I have a bright blue GR86 and you’d almost think it was a Countach for the attention it often draws because colors and sports cars have become so unusual—I rarely even see low end old ones anymore.
Blanking out the hubcaps is valid in one way: When you’re searching for your car in a parking lot, the wheels don’t matter. Normally, my forest green JK is easy to pick out as I’m leaving work, but I know that it will take forever to find my wife’s black Q5 this afternoon in a sea of near-identical black crossover blobs.
I remember a day back in the early 90’s when I was driving through the parking lot at the mall. (Remember those places?) I saw three sedans (Remember those?) parked alongside each other, a Camry, an Accord and a Mazda 626. The taillight designs of the three were similar.
The same can be said about the taillight design of the mid/late 80’s Toyota, Mitsubishi and Mazda pickups. Similar basic designs in the same location.
I figure, that would have been the impetus of the proto meme image circa 1991. “They all look the same, hence they all are the same. Unique design is dead!”
For the most part, unique design isn’t dead but the old adage rings true, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
I remember an issue of Automobile Mag around ’98 had a 2 page spread similar to this image. It had all the midsize/family sedans on sale at the time, painted black, with blanks below as a game to guess what cars were what, point being how similar they all were.
Something I did not realize until talking with a body shop painter: White is easier since it often doesn’t need to be blended as much or at all. Not the tri-stage pearl white mind you, just the “rental car white”.
I get why vehicle wraps are more popular now, since cars aren’t offered in any really inspiring colors unless you have a special edition, Jeep, Dodge, etc..
I miss my Mulberry 95 GTI…
I got my Alltrack in Tornado Red. It looks smashing with all the silver brightwork, and I don’t have trouble finding it in the parking lot.
I see it as an indictment of current consumer tastes as much as design trends. Granted, the two are deeply intertwined, which I think is really the problem.
For whatever reason, absolutely everyone right now is buying compact or midsized crossovers, and they are usually buying them in white. Crossovers do all tend to look fairly samey, because of all the factors you mention—vehicular fashion trends, regulatory requirements, manufacturing technology, and the convergent evolution of multiple vehicles all being built to do essentially the same job. Also, crossovers are a segment where consumers just don’t care as much about exterior appearance as, say, sports car buyers do. Yes there are differences, but rarely anything that makes you go, “Wow!”
So, everyone is buying white crossovers. Manufacturers realize this, and start making more white crossovers. They start cutting colors other than white, and vehicles other than crossovers, from their lineups. Consumers see more and more white crossovers on the road, and since most people aren’t looking to stand out with their car purchase, they follow the trend and buy even more of them. Rinse and repeat.
That’s where we’re at now, with entire highways and parking lots seemingly filled with nothing but white crossovers. Sure, there are more interesting-looking options out there, but few people actually buy them, so over time the slate of alternative choices gets smaller and smaller. It is boring. The problem though is at least as much the fact that people, by and large, are trend followers with no particular opinions about car design, as it is that designers have forgotten how to make weird-looking cars.
Related to people only buying cars in boring colours (white or silver usually) because they don’t want to hurt the resale value, even though a lot of them would prefer a more interesting colour.
Most manufacturers don’t sell cars in ‘bad’ colours (except you Fiat, with your ‘hearing-aid beige’), so it’s not like you can pick wrong. Just get the colour you want and even if a few people don’t want to buy it because it’s red (eg), you’ll pick up more potential buyers who specifically want a red car.
Yeah, the “Oh, I don’t actually like white cars I just got it for the resale value” thing is just baffling to me. There seem to be a lot of people driving around who don’t like white cars, but bought them because they think that’s what everyone else wants. Like, do you see anything wrong with that picture? Any little logical inconsistencies jump out at you?
I’m going with :
Disagree with you.SUVs really are too same-y, and in a bad way.
Agree with you.We really do have some cool designs these days.
They just all follow a design that you don’t like, there is way more variety in crossovers than say, 80s sedans. It’s just the crossovers default to ugly
Pardon me while I spew my theory that automotive design is driven by macro-economic factors.
1930s: Huge-ass depression. Yearly model changes introduced, art deco/streamlined styling, technical advances. Those who could afford to had to buy a new car to keep up, but generally chose drab colors.
Late 40s-early 50s: Postwar boom, they could sell anything. Korean Chrome became a thing, briefly. Not much in the way of yearly changes, because they could sell everything they built. Even Crosleys.
Late 50s: Recession. Tailfins exploded. Two- and three-tone paint jobs. Acres of chrome, and a yearly changes stepped up. Keep up with them Joneses!
1960s: Boom times, Kennedy optimism. Relatively calm styling, yearly changes were toned back down, cars sold as soon as they hit the dealer lots.
1970s: Malaise! Personal luxury replaced performance, and every year brought a more-fully-padded vinyl roof or richer Corinthian leather. Automakers figured out how to make front and rear end caps that could be changed yearly while leaving the expensive sheetmetal alone. More yearly changes, more pressure to buy.
1980s: Greed is good, everyone wanted a BMW, or a car that looked enough like one. Eurosport models abounded. Good times for everybody. Minimal year to year changes, but those were usually driven by tech. New EFI! New digital dash!
1990s: Like the 80s, but with more aero. Still good times, minimal changes, usually limited to a grille or wheel-cover change.
So fill in the blanks to present day. What do you see, and what does that say? Discuss.
I agree that they did have to do some work on those pictures to emphasize the sameness. But not a lot of work. And there really is a lot of color sameness going around. Cars are almost all grayscale these days. There are a few that are approximately the same shade of blue or red, but they’re mostly gray.
I feel like I keep up with automotive design pretty well, but these days I frequently can’t even tell the make of a vehicle until I’m close enough to see the badges. There are standouts, but I’d say I have to see the badge on at least 70% of current cars to be able to identify them. That wasn’t true for me in the 80’s or 90’s
The last two cars we bought were purchased because they had the features/size we needed at a great price. The first was silver and the most recent dark grey. I would have loved something with more color but that’s what the best deals were.
I’m also with you on design sameness. Our newest car is a Mazda CX-9. Ever since we got it I’ve been surprised by how many other cars look so much like it.
“DeSiGn Is DeAd”
Okay, let’s do the same thing with 4-door sedans from 100 years ago from all the major manufacturers in the US at the time. Side profile, all in black. I’ll bet you anything they will all more or less look like boxes with 4 wooden-spoked wheels. This has been happening forever.
Sorry, Torch. I’m with the meme. And your article backs it up. Look at your pictures.
Now look at this picture:
How many Tri-5 Chevys left the factory white, beige, or gray? Only 6% of ’55s were single tone!
In 2020, 56% of all cars sold were either white, gray, or silver.
This is on the manufacturers. Most cars are painted on spec, not custom ordered.
once again though, that just comes down to the fashions of the time.
look at house interior design in the 50s, everything was an horrendous eye-prolapsing shade of kitsch, just like the exteriors and interiors of cars.
now though? everyone has delusions of being “classy” as an excuse for their lack of taste, and short of the occasional bit of timber, everything is some shade of grey.
and this tracks for all eras.
1930s? austere muted dark colours.
1970s? VIOLENTLY BROWN.
There’s data in there for the ’70s. 3% of cars were brown!
We think of the ’70s that way because it was perceived relative to the era before it.
But much like millenials are boomers++, our current color styles are more extremely dull than ’70s colors by a LOT!
I agree. I think the dealer model is the reason we have drab colors, the death of average two door cars, single cab trucks and the death of the manual transmission.
But the meme is not about colors – they just chose white to help underline how similar the shapes are.