The release of the latest Mercedes C-Class design got me thinking. It got me thinking ‘that looks like a BMW’. The knee-jerk reaction would be to scream ‘rip-off’. To wade in and lambast these lazy designers. Being a designer myself I simply don’t believe that these highly trained, highly skilled teams of professionals, working for extremely focused car brands, would do this. I think something more complex is happening here, something I’m calling ‘convergence’.
To explain what I mean by convergence in my experience every good designer I’ve worked with is like a sponge. I don’t mean soft and lifeless. Far from it. I mean a sponge in the sense of being able to absorb information. In fact designers are pure input-output devices. Not quite a photocopier (they live at Audi) but something close. Everything that goes in, and I mean everything, comes out through their pencils, or touch-screens or magic markers or whatever else it is they have at hand. Everything they see, smell, touch, dream, hear or are told influences what they create, and they don’t even realise it. At the most corporate level designers are like sausage making machines. Pour decent enough meat in (please avoid horse meat) and you get lines of perfectly formed, decent, sausages. At the high end, catwalk fashion say, designers are like a Michelin starred chef. Select only the finest ingredients, hang out at the coolest restaurants and shops, be-friend supermodels and mix all this together with the utmost care and attention and what do you get? Beautiful, innovative, crazy catwalk designs of extreme expense and extravagence.
So what happens when the same things are ‘put in’ to completely independent teams of designers? The same market research, of the same market. The same focus on the same consumer. The same requirements for the performance and functionality of the product. Well you get convergence of ideas. I believe this is what we are seeing, and always have seen, with the design of the small executive saloon. Brands try hard to be different but in the end the market speaks. The market, the consumer, draws them to the same conclusion.
You can see it happening in phones.
It’s happened before with cars.
And not just recently.
I work in footwear design and it happens in my world all the time. We all look at the same trend predictors. The same websites, the same boutique stores in London, the same ‘street trends’ in Tokyo, the same catwalk designers, even speak to the same ‘trend agencies’ (yes they exist) or colour agencies (yes they exist). We all research and target the same guy, the same consumer. So we all draw the same conclusions. Which is why, put very simply, Top Man end up having the same desert boot as River Island, at the same time.
Now rewind and put yourself in that meeting, the one where the design director briefs his team on what is needed for the new C-Class. Which incidentally happened way way before the new 3-series was released. What goes in? The market research (BMW is outselling you by a long shot), the consumer’s taste (people like the M Sport BMWs), motorshow visits (where your pal from BMW is also wandering around looking for ideas for the new 3), walking the streets of Stuttgart (BMWs parked everywhere), driving your car to work (possibly, if you can get away with it, a BMW). Can you see where this is going? It’s inevitable. It’s convergence.