Quirks and causes

Of course, no design will ever be agreeable to all; however, some can be almost universally liked or disliked. Of the latter group, there’s usually a heaping dose of compromise added to an otherwise great recipe. That compromise might include styling impediments such as financial constraints or maybe over-involvement by artistically-challenged members of upper management. I probed Manoogian’s thoughts with regard to the sorts of conditions that have led skilled designers to produce various… faux pas.

“A lot of the times it’s a combination of the things that you mention [above],” Manoogian told me. “Sometimes the rest of the organization says: ‘This is the cost target, this is what you have to do;’ or, ‘You have to utilize this particular package and you can’t change it’—that’s what killed the APVs.” He continued, driving home his point, “Every car looks the way it does because somebody wanted it to look that way. They don’t fall out of the ceiling at night or show up mysteriously in the morning. They look the way they do because someone or some team said, ‘Yeah, this is pretty cool, let’s do this.'”

Despite any justifications in a “the engineers or marketing guys beat us up” defense, he says he doesn’t deflect all the blame. “If something doesn’t look right, then it was my responsibility. Yes, there are a million reasons why, but the customer doesn’t care about that. All the customer sees is what’s on the road. They don’t care if the engineers were beating you over the head every day or if the cost people were taking money out; they don’t care that the marketing team had cockamamie ideas. All they know is what they see. At the end of the day you’ve got to stand by your product and say, ‘It is what it is, and if you don’t like it… I’m sorry. If I’m not proud of what I’m doing, then shame on me.”

But Manoogian kept things in perspective, “Certainly every design chief, every design director has to answer to a higher power. What often times happens… particularly with the Aztek—there were too many horses that drove that cart over the edge. And as controversial as the design was, that team was one of the most talented teams put together. But, the end product was the result of too many people with too many different ideas… too many agendas.”

To illustrate his point, Manoogian referred back to Buick’s Rendezvous, an Aztek cousin that avoided ridicule. “It may not have been a groundbreaking design but it was acceptable to a much larger audience,” he said. “The Aztek was just a combination of too much input from too many different directions.”

Aztek vs Rendezvous

Manoogian, unfortunately, had a ringside seat for the spectacle. “I was running the studio right next door to where all that happened, watching the whole thing unfold. It broke my heart watching all that talent wind up with, in my opinion, such a compromised design.”

In contrast to the production version, I thought the visual components of the 1999 Aztek concept were better orchestrated. I mentioned how I actually found it to be a somewhat attractive design. “Yes, yes it was,” Manoogian chimed in agreement.

1999 Pontiac Aztek concept

But despite general fondness for the one-off concept, the more important production version of GM’s first crossover would ultimately be doomed to failure, largely by what Manoogian described as internal struggles, packaging constraints, and an unclear mission statement.

Improbable concepts, compromised products or unrealistic expectations?

1991 Pontiac Protosport4I’ve often wondered if any concepts have indirectly inflicted harm to the very product they were intended to herald. The 1980s and ’90s offered some of my favorite concepts as style and technology seemed to advance at an exponential rate, particularly relative to their production counterparts.

A side effect, at least perceived by me, was under-delivering on the showroom floor.

Especially aggravating was a diluted final product with forced references to a concept that most people never saw. Harmonious design seems somewhat irreducible, by definition. So, a characteristic that contributes to well-balanced success on one form can amount to a disjointed reference struggling for relevance on another.

Bolero vs Skylark comparison

The 1990 Buick Bolero concept might not be the best example of harmonious design, but its elements are proportioned, especially up front. On the 1992 production Skylark, not so much. The skirted fenders and tailored front were no longer a cohesive part of the overall form. Bolero’s rounded theme is accented by its sharp features. To my eye, those same sharp features look exaggerated, even awkward, on Skylark’s more rigid design.

Though the same “over-promising” risks exist today, the concept-to-production gap seems to be substantially narrower. Contemporary production cars can be downright difficult to tell from their concept counterparts and, in some cases, even better looking.

I expressed all of that to Manoogian, curious to hear his thoughts.

Continue to page 7, below.

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