Automotive Interior Design - Have We Reached Peak-Ornamentation?

Premium materials are a key contributor to high levels of perceived quality. In addition to premium materials, ornamentation and decoration can increase perceived quality even further. But can this principle be taken too far?

Let's take a look at some recent examples.

 BMW X4M. Photo: BMW

BMW X4M. Photo: BMW

 Mercedes-Benz AMG GT. Photo: Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz AMG GT. Photo: Mercedes-Benz

 Lexus LS. Photo: Lexus

Lexus LS. Photo: Lexus

 Lexus LS. Photo: Lexus

Lexus LS. Photo: Lexus

There's a lot going on here. First, some context. These are expensive cars, where the budgetary constraints otherwise applied to lower-end models have been lifted, allowing the design teams to go to town on expensive materials and finishes, and to decorate their designs as much as they see fit: soft materials with quilting, contrast stitching, and perforations; intricate brightwork adornments; wood inlays; chromed plastic bezels etc. There are some advantages to this more-is-more philosophy:

  1. The effect of these eye-popping and highly decorated designs is sudden, giving a big initial showroom impact: "Wow, there's a lot of bang for my buck". Do these interiors look premium? To most eyes: yes. There is no denying the impact of the Magpie Effect. It helps that these are all new designs too; unfamiliar designs tend to have a greater positive initial impact than beautifully executed but familiar designs.
  2. This more-is-more strategy allows manufacturers to easily differentiate their models. The BMW 7-Series will have more ornamentation and jewelry than the 5-Series, which will have more than the 3-Series etc. It makes it straightforward for the consumer to place themselves in the brand hierarchy, resulting in some customers stretching their budget just a little further, so that they can compete with their next door neighbor. (Perhaps I'm being too cynical and some people genuinely love chromed plastic "M" badges.) This is a smart marketing strategy (up-selling) for the automotive companies.

There are some negative consequences to this more-is-more philosophy. Let's try to unpack these:

  1. Busy, complex, overly decorated design is a challenge to interact with. Take a look again at the BMW X4M. Very few surfaces are free from ornamentation or details that demand attention. The shapes and forms are lacking harmony too: a mix of triangles, rectangles, circles, trapezoids etc. It's as if each component is desperate to be the hero of the design, fighting with the chromed bezel or contrast stitch line from another part of the cabin. The result is visually confusing; the abundance of design details can degrade ease of use for the driver. Shouldn't clarity and ease of use trump aesthetic concerns with a system as important as an instrument panel?
  2. This design philosophy can be polarizing. Taste is highly personal and often cultural, but ask yourself: would anyone choose to decorate their living room with the same design philosophy: chromed plastic details on the furniture, a multitude of different finishes and design treatments, soft furnishings adorned with quilting and stitch lines, and purple ambient lighting? Perhaps. Would it look premium? Probably not. 
  3. From a perceived quality perspective, the fewer the part interfaces the better. You get a more harmonious, elegant, solid and premium appearance when there are fewer visible gaps, part interfaces, and design treatments. The result is often more timeless too.

It's worth pausing to understand how we got here. As consumers, we have become accustomed to this more-is-more approach through a lifetime of conditioning. For generations, car interior design has taught us that more buttons equals more features, and more decoration equals more expensive and more premium. This has been the way for many years, so it's no surprise that overt ornamentation sells.

This presents a unique challenge to car designers who want to embrace the ethos of simplicity and elegance: how to reduce the clutter and execute clean functionality, whilst making sure the countless functions are still present and easy to access, and convincing the consumer that what we're looking at is still premium, and ideally better than an overly complex alternative. 

The less-is-more philosophy is one that is widely adopted in the consumer electronics field, especially so by the likes of Apple, Bang and Olufsen, and more recently, Microsoft.

 Microsoft Surface. Simple, clean, great haptics, almost no ornamentation. Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft Surface. Simple, clean, great haptics, almost no ornamentation. Photo: Microsoft

We're seeing some car manufacturers give the less-is-more approach a go too.

 Volvo XC90. Let the wood and leather be the heroes, an aptly Scandinavian approach. Photo: Volvo

Volvo XC90. Let the wood and leather be the heroes, an aptly Scandinavian approach. Photo: Volvo

 Mazda6. Calm, ordered, and premium. Photo: Mazda

Mazda6. Calm, ordered, and premium. Photo: Mazda

I find it interesting that it is the less well established premium brands that are eschewing the highly ornamented approach, instead concentrating on simple, old fashioned design priorities: pleasing proportions, clean surfaces, thoughtful functionality, great detail execution, and the restrained use of ornamentation.

Have we reached the era of peak-ornamentation? I hope so.

Marcus Roffey