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.