A long, long time ago, I made a decision about how I’d approach my job: nothing is too small. As far as I’m concerned, there is no detail too insignificant, too ignorable, too minuscule to look past, because it is in these tiny things that the true soul of something is often revealed. For good or bad. And I think that may be why I want to talk about this particular thing right now. It’s something insignificant, but it’s also kind of fascinating, filling me with the sort of delicious awe one gets when viewing a job done really, really crappily. The subject I want to discuss as part of my “Phoning It In” series is the dashboard and instrument panel design of the third generation of Dodge D-Series trucks, which is so gloriously crappy it makes me genuinely excited. Let’s dig in.
I feel like the biggest defining trait of this era of Dodge truck dashboard design is lots and lots of real estate to work with, but absolutely no idea what to do with it. The planning and layout of the controls seems to be roughly on par with the planning that goes into how crabgrass grows when a fistful of seeds are flung at a patch of wet dirt.
The three main instruments are conventional enough, but the placement of everything else seems like what you would get if you separated everyone involved in this dashboard’s engineering and design and kept them isolated in sensory deprivation tanks until the project was completed, with zero communication between designers and engineers and parts supplier and everyone.
Let’s just walk through some of the juicer, more thrilling elements here. Like this one that my co-Autopian, The Bishop, showed me earlier today. It’s the cargo light switch, used to switch on the lights in the truck bed. Not a vitally important control, but handy, sure. So where to put it, and how to design the switch? Here’s what they came up with:
Oh yeah! Great job, fellas! Really nailed that one! Get the smallest button you can find, and stick it smack dab in the center of a nice, huge, empty plastic plain. And why the hell would you settle for one silver-painted plastic bezel when you can have two? Two silvery frames! That’ll give your fingers something else to feel while they make the long, flat, scrambly journey to find the tiny button in the center!
You know what I respect about these Dodge interior designers, though? They don’t just let things be. They know that when you’re committed to really crap design, there’s always a way to go further, to crap things up just another notch, because it’s worth it. And that’s exactly what they did with the next iteration of the Cargo Light switch:
I can just hear the design meeting pitch for this one:
“What if – and hear me out here – we keep the cargo light button still shoved down there in that awkward spot, and we keep the button nice and tiny, and keep it on the same huge blank plastic rectangle, but we eliminate the silvery paint from the two bezels and we get rid of 50% of the letters on the button! Half the letters! It’s genius!”
I bet that person got a raise for saving the Chrysler so many letters. “Sure, maybe CGO LT is a bit tricky to process – is it a cigarette lighter or a way to select some limited traction mode? (car-go limited ?)– but they’ll figure it out!”
I bet in that picture up there something else caught your eye: that “O/D” overdrive button:
Wow, look at that! It’s positively majestic! That center panel thing there, sized just delightfully too wide for that standard Mopar HVAC panel, and with all that dead real estate up top, it’s a perfect place for what looks like four possible warning lights, maybe, and a small overdrive button, placed haphazardly off-center in a confusingly vertical panel, and with that confusing overdrive on/off conceit where it’s just an off button where the light turns on when overdrive is off. Easy!
That center panel really managed to confound the Dodge truck design team, who came up with a dazzling array of varieties of that panel, all somehow equally shitty:
It’s incredible how much those 20 or so square inches of black plastic really confounded this team. Sometimes they stuck a reminder about what engine you bought, sometimes they just told you that those two to four warning lights were, in an act of wild aggrandizement, a “message center,” which I think may mean you could stick Post-It notes there, or there was the O/D button or, most excitingly, that 2WD or 4WD indicator graphic, which did replace that ribbed panel, so if you wanted to use your thumbnail to make brrrrrrrrrrrrrap sounds, you’d have to find another solution.
Oh, and the little cubbyhole that sometimes took the place of the flat plastic wall is almost useless. What are you really putting in there? I guess you can shove a wallet or small sandwich in there. Maybe sleep a gerbil. That’s not so bad, I guess.
In some ways, I think the instrument designers did the best they could. After all, this was the base dashboard panel they were given to work with:
It’s like whoever designed the mold for this dash had zero idea of what might go on it, so they just cut out some arbitrarily-sized rectangles then knocked off early, to get drunk. And that’s the sort of thinking that gives you incredible instrument panel designs like this:
Look at that shit! Come on! It’s like they were thinking we need a switch for the lights, but is there any way we can make it both look awkward as hell and attract as much dust and crumbs as possible? And then the whole IP design team bellowed, in unison, hold our beer.
This isn’t designed so much as it is a series of events that just sort of happened, and that ended up, somehow, in the truck having an instrument panel. And, for Chrysler in the 1980s, I think that was very much good enough.
Why do I love crap like this so much? There’s no way anything like this would fly today, and I suppose in some ways that confuses me. How and when did we finally get up the gumption to say no to this crap? Or did it just change forms, and now it’s all in shit interfaces and UX for touch screen displays? Maybe.
That said, I kinda miss the days where your new car could have a dash populated with huge acres of black, textured plastic, fencing in a lone, lonely button with a cryptic series of letters on it, hoping to, one day, be pressed.