When someone mentions automotive design, sleek, aerodynamic car models debuting at national car shows often come to mind. But the world of automotive design goes far beyond a car's exterior and in some cases, it's the interior features and interactive options that ultimately steal the show and wow auto enthusiasts. Through a combination of inventive design and technology, Smart Design works with manufacturers to deliver new, relevant automobile experiences that meet ever-changing consumer needs and preferences.
Every automotive design begins with a broad question or hypothesis, narrowed down by constraints—of the market, human factors and context. The collaborative teams at Smart Design start with rough sketches on paper or often on whiteboards to create and visualize concepts. As digital prototypes begin to take shape, supporting documentation follows that reflects the thinking behind the design.
"What's important to us is having an underlying structure, which can be a metaphor, a way of thinking about a product, or insight from user research," explains Dan Saffer, a creative director with Smart Design specializing in interaction design. "There's always an underlying 'why' that drives our product concept."
Contextual design factors heavily into to the automotive design process. Rather than staying in front of a computer screen, the team sets up circumstances simulating to how a product or feature will be used. Sketching and then building in physical form, with foam, cardboard, and clay, allows the team explore ideas and clarify designs.
For its work on the New York City Taxi of Tomorrow project, Smart Design had to completely rethink the experience of being in a taxi, particularly in New York. Taxis are a standard mode of transport for city residents and visitors, and the team wanted to capitalize on existing behaviors, as well as add new capabilities that make the experience more enjoyable.
One of the first observations was that visitors who take taxis like to look up at the city's impressive buildings, so the consultancy designed a glass ceiling to enable people to admire New York's unique architectural offerings.
Images courtesy of Nissan North America, Inc.
Seats were also designed with an antimicrobial material to minimize odors, and colors were added to touchpoints such as seatbelts and door handles to create stronger visual cues. To address the constant complaint people had about losing items in taxis, interiors were designed to be lighter in color so objects such as umbrellas and mobile phones would stand out against the lighter backgrounds.
In addition to improving the physical experience, Smart Design's experience guidelines suggested that Nissan add airplane-style lights to facilitate reading items such as maps, USB power plugs for charging devices, and passenger rearview mirrors to improve the safety of passengers when exiting the vehicles.
"A lot of cool ideas came from passenger and driver interviews and our own reflections on what we want in our taxi rides," says John Kiechel, a creative director who has been with Smart Design for nine years focusing on product design. "By taking a contextual approach, we incorporated little things that make big differences."
Smart Design also designed the Ford Fusion SmartGauge, one of the features that helped the car win Motor Trend Car of the Year in 2010. Ford came to Smart Design with the challenge of designing a use case for two LCD screens next to the speedometer. Rather than thinking of how much could be communicated through the screens, the team went the opposite direction. "We made the screens easy, so drivers could get useful information in just a glance," says Saffer.
Using the image of tree leaves as a visual cue to indicate if people are driving in an eco-friendly way, Smart Design sought to change driving habits with subtle, peripheral cues that reward drivers in a casual, friendly manner. Designing the SmartGauge involved extensive testing as the team made sure to abide by specific rules about how much time someone can glance at something while driving.
Whether designing physical or digital elements, Smart Design teams use Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to create production-ready visuals, graphics and icons, as well as Adobe InDesign for most documentation. Prototypes created in Adobe After Effects help designers understand designs in virtual context, enabling the Smart Design team to tell a story or create a vision of what something will look like and how they will work.
"We have many digital natives on our team, and they like to jump in and start sketching in Illustrator rather than starting on paper," says Saffer. "Many of them have been using it for years and for them it is almost as fluid as drawing on paper."
Looking to the future, Smart Design is exploring how experiences change when people bring external devices into a car. In addition, the firm is exploring the impact of automated driving and what happens if everyone becomes a passenger. As automotive design trends evolve, Smart Design will look to technology to empower teams to design even more innovative concepts, create prototypes, and communicate and collaborate more efficiently within teams and among offices.
"I communicate better in pictures than in words, so I've started using my tablet to quickly sketch over screenshots or draw new images," says Kiechel. "No matter how much things change, the impact of a picture is still unrivaled."