Visual identity is an essential component of modern car design. In short, it consists of creating styling guidelines to apply to every car of a company’s lineup. In general, the lineup features from small hatchbacks to large pick-ups, so the key to get at least a chance of success is to make the visual identity easy to adapt to car models of several body styles, sizes, purposes and price ranges.
Why does such a complex operation only have a chance of success? Because it works with a highly subjective topic. Design is directly influenced by people’s cultural, historical and social background so, if you present a given product to a hundred people, you’ll probably get a hundred different opinions. However, there are cases where their opinions align and not necessarily in a good way.
Let’s give you some context
The 1990s were very prolific for car design. Companies would let computers into their design centers to make simulations more freely and precisely and it paid off: the trend of smooth sheetmetal, big windows and aerodynamic body made even entry-level cars look futuristic compared to the boxy ones from the 1980s they replaced. Many complete revamps were performed in that decade.
The thing is, having so many options makes things go out of hand more easily. Fiat, for instance, tried to expand its lineup but many of the new models failed to sell as they should; Chevrolet updated its entire Brazilian lineup using Opel cars to make it simpler, but it set a standard it couldn’t fulfill later; and there’s Ford’s case, which resulted peculiar enough to deserve a Chronicle of its own.
Now, what did Ford do?
In theory, it simply developed a new design language and applied it to its cars. Inspiration would come from the oval shape of Ford’s logo; by making several components remind of such an iconic badge, people would naturally identify a Ford from the others. While such idea is interesting and still used nowadays — Cadillac’s grilles are based on its logo — things went wrong at Ford’s execution.
Before discussing the details, though, let’s do an exercise. Take a look at every photo of this article (you may click on each one to view it in high resolution); all the featured models were designed in this oval phase. Rather than finding them beautiful or not, how could you describe them? What interpretation can you make of each Ford of the 1990s and how would you put them in words?
Beauty is in the eye…
We can say the real problem here is the excess. By shaping such different parts after only one reference, Ford had to work around in ways that made many of them go against the industry’s standard, like headlights that made the Fiesta’s front fascia resemble a frowny face and a rear windshield whose bubble shape would be too playful even for a low-cost hatchback, let alone a midsize sedan.
In cases when Ford had to take a conservative approach, respecting that visual identity made the cars just too bland. The ’94 Mustang wasn’t nearly as sporty as its predecessors and literally applied a plastic cover to create the traditional three lines on its tail lights. The ’93 Mondeo, in turn, could be easily mistaken for several Asian cars, which isn’t exactly a compliment considering that time.
What consequences did that have?
If the design was the single problem, things would already be too bad because people would simply not want the cars; they’d be made fun of by anyone from their social circle who understands a little about cars. Now, when you add the huge tire/rollover issue which plagued the oval-shaped Explorer in the 1990s, you get too many signs that it would be wise to invest in a whole new design.
Then again, one must keep in mind that any changes in a car demand a lot of time and money. Even though designer Fritz Mayhew had several compelling arguments to defend its concoction, it’s easy to think the only reason why the second-generation Scorpio went all the way to the streets was that it would be too expensive to scrap it and create another one. What do you think about it?
How did this phase end?
When a visual identity gets acclaimed by press and buyers, the company often chooses to evolve it over the next years; make it sportier or more imposing like what Volkswagen has done to the Tiguan from 2016 to now. Now, speaking of the ’90s Ford again, it’s easy to understand why it chose to completely recreate its lineup for the next decade — seriously, it went beyond redesigning models.
The New Edge identity introduced angular shapes and an aggressive look that gave Fords more character than ever. In order to undoubtedly send a message of new times, it came along with all-new models like the Ka and imposed very strong replacements like the Escort for the Focus. The few models to only have a facelift were carefully planned to make things go well, like the ’98 Mondeo.
Visual identities are tricky, huh?
To be honest, they will be only if the automaker chooses to gamble with them. While Ford struggled, Volkswagen sailed through the same 1990s with nary a problem because it focused on improving its build quality; most of the models of that time are only considered beautiful by the brand’s fans. Peugeot, on the other hand, toned down the stylistic revolution and had much more success.
Ford’s case signaled the importance of planning the scope of a visual identity; it’s very easy that a given guideline works very well on one or two models but results in weird proportions and/or downright unappealing design on others. Appearance is the very first aspect people observe in a car and one of the most influential at the time of purchase, so its implications must not be neglected.