The Seattle Times Company

Jobs | Autos | Real Estate | Rentals | Classifieds |

November 13, 2009

News & Features

To bring the love to their cars, auto designers put on a happy face

Associated Press


Peapod electric vehicle designer Peter Arnell says he wanted the car to smile. (Peapod)

NEW YORK -- Even with all the bad news that has pounded the auto industry, carmakers are trying to put on happy faces. Literally: They are incorporating smiles and other cheerful characteristics into their designs.

The hope is that consumers will warm to vehicles that might reflect their own personalities and feelings.

" 'Charm' -- I thought this was very important," says Peter Arnell, inventor and chief designer of the electric Peapod vehicle. " 'Happiness' -- this was part of the conversation, too. I wanted to convey that the car was happy to be a car, to say transportation can be happy."

He adds, "It's smiling at you, and you smile back."

That goes along with the cheery Honda Fit, Suzuki SX4 and Toyota Prius. The Smart ForTwo seems to have pursed lips, like it's ready to start a conversation. And is that a little smirk coming from the Mini Cooper that's ready to take on the growling SUVs on the road?

Researchers at Austria's Vienna University have determined that the shape of the Volkswagen Beetle mimics the face of a smiling woman or child.

Happy's target customer
  • In addition to creating a persona for the vehicles, Ford also has developed personalities for its target customers. The code name for a likely purchaser of the Fiesta, for example, is Antonella.
  • "Antonella wants something distinguishable, something that stands out in the crowd, something she feels she'll have fun in and be proud to show her friends," says Moray Callum, executive director of Ford Americas Design.
  • That translates into a car with a teardrop shape that comes in fun colors such as fuchsia and neon apple green, with interior switches that mimic those on a cellphone.
  • It's not for everyone -- and that's the point, Callum says. "We at Ford are trying to expand our range of vehicles not only for Antonella, but [also for] all her friends."

"It's very purposeful to give our cars personality," says Moray Callum, executive director of Ford Americas Design. "It's something we're learning a lot about and doing a lot of ... and the front of the car, we call it the 'face' of the car."

The Mustang has its "eyebrows" lowered to appear menacing, and its dark grille is intended to be aggressive and powerful, while the Fiesta is supposed to look bright-eyed and youthful, he explains.

The movement toward happy-looking cars is probably a wise marketing decision, says consumer behaviorist Kit Yarrow, chair of Golden Gate University's psychology department, because women, as well as Gen Xers and Gen Yers, are more receptive to friendly and positive imagery.

"[Automakers] are starting to cater toward a demographic that doesn't always want the stern beast. They want a friendlier, more approachable vehicle," she says.

When Arnell -- whose branding background also includes work for Dodge and non-auto companies Donna Karan, Banana Republic and Samsung -- took on the Peapod project, he wanted to change the typical auto design that enhanced an image of performance and masculinity, he explains.

"My decision was to have this vehicle make a statement and clear perspective of its feelings. I wanted it to say how it feels to be a battery vehicle, and I wanted you to know that it was smiling at the planet," Arnell says.

Arnell says designing a car is "extraordinary" because even though there is a long list of non-aesthetic needs -- geometry, functionality, safety, and legal and financial requirements -- it's still largely judged on appearance.

It's actually surprising, he says, that so many cars look so different.


Partner video