Colin (Creative Director) discusses the importance of design in car lights:
One of the upshots of years of driving around the country to see clients is an understanding of the importance of car tail-light and headlight design in the representation of their brand. All brands rely on shapes and colours to make themselves recognizable, but with cars the facial features – especially the eyes – are the key element of instant recognition.
The recent development of light technology, LED and halogen, has created a new opportunity for car manufacturers and their designers to exploit with brand expression on their products.
From surprise to outright anger.
A combination of light density and sculptural punctuation using a mix of LED, tungsten and halogen light sources has presented an Aladdin’s cave of options for the ambitious car designer. Put this with a labyrinth of multi faceted reflector and fluid lens shapes and there is probably the best opportunity in the last 30 years for car brands to create a very visible point of difference for their products and brands-especially the latter.
All great car manufacturers think far ahead and strategically when planning their brands and how they will evolve. This is obviously necessary from a manufacturing cost point of view but as importantly how the defined values of the brand and its products will be expressed visually and endorse this promise to the customer.
The external appearance of a range of car products, plus the tactile qualities of the cockpit experience are as important now as the reliability and performance;
in fact, trouble free running is taken for granted. The aesthetic and tactile relationship (conscious and sub conscious) with the product is more influential on endorsing choice and affirmation of purchase.
All these elements (genes) of the product are the expression of the manufacturer’s philosophy and should be evidence of the brand DNA. Competitive forces and a degree of natural selection keep the brands moving forward in development but they need the DNA values to sense check the particular direction of evolution.
So with the convergent homologous shapes of present mass-market cars the front and rear light clusters present an exciting prospect for brand expression.
Once upon a time, when driving at night you could tell which make of car was behind you and in front, by the relatively simple block shapes of the lenses.
Large acreage of toughened glass up front and mosaic slabs of red and orange on the back – somehow you could probably guess the make, if interested enough.
And during daylight the clusters would slumber until dusk, save for the odd wink from an indicator.
Nowadays there is extrovert bling displayed on the noses and tails on even quite sober northern European brands. Light clusters are becoming the ‘dandy’, the overt ‘you will look at me’ gaudy attire, with their harsh LED strings of costume jewellery known as running lights and different hues of main beam depending on the type of ‘rare gas’ contents, housed in a complicated honeycomb of reflectors.
It used to be the work of the glass lens to help focus the light to a useful beam- this function is almost redundant as the internal multiple reflectors take care of this; the lens has become a shop window to bejeweled composite eyes that stare out and express the car’s character. The rear clusters do the same, housed in unique shapes they are small intense wonderlands of red light with a personal and unique expression.
The use of high impact plastics for the lenses means the lights can take on any shape, both front and back lights can work with the body shape to amplify the character of the car and hence the brand. The metal of the bonnet can be shaped to form a frown over the lights to make the car look purposeful and angry or wide eyed and friendly.
Lights are now bright even when they are not on and the visibility of the silver and red reflectors has replaced the lack of other body brightwork that punctuated the shape of cars up until the mid 1980’s.
In the late eighties, rather than just fiddling with the shape of the headlamp glass and reflector to improve lamp performance of now common halogen mainbeams,
BMW introduced a new concept in headlamps; they introduced a lens in front of the bulb. This was a visible, technological advancement and also a cosmetic leap forward. The headlamp became more eye-like with a glass pupil.
We sit in traffic and stare at these small intense illuminations that have a mesmerizing depth through sculpture of internal silvered reflectors, totally different from the flat light box clusters of the 1970s and 80s.
They have a flair and expression from looking like psychadelic crustacea to red eyes with flairing red LED eyebrows.
The headlights are framed with bright white LED eyebrows and ‘running lights; I think it was Volvo who first introduced 24 hour headlamps. Now many cars have lights that stay on when you are ‘running’. They have become elements of brand distinction just as the shape of the car has homogenized more and more within product groups – saloon, 4×4, hatchback, mini – as demands of aerodynamics create a common denominator shape.
In the last fifty years lights on cars have become more than bling, more than price point accessorizing, more than a way to see the road ahead. They have become the key way to express the brand personality of a car, with distinct facial expressions and recognizable moods. Those of us who design branding for a living can thank the car industry for providing inspiration even when we’re stuck in a traffic jam.