By on February 4, 2021


Let me start this out with an auto-writer pet peeve of mine: I hate the phrase “design language.” I have since I started working in automotive media in 2007. I am not sure why — it’s probably just too much PR/corporate speak for me.

I’ve banned that phrase from this site via our internal style guide (although I am sure it slips through sometimes. Please don’t play “gotcha” and @ me with examples), and constantly avoided using it for over 13 years, even if that’s lead to some awkward phrasing in its stead.

Thing is, there’s a reason why just about every OEM uses it.

That’s because they want to convey a brand identity — they want all their cars and trucks, across all class sizes and market segments, to be instantly recognizable as belonging to that brand. That’s true even with vehicles that have standout looks or have a historical trend to follow (Mustang, Wrangler, Corvette, et cetera). Even distinctive cars get some feature — badging, grille shape, lighting design — that reminds you what brand the car is.

In other words, the Mustang has always stood out from other Fords, or the Corvette from other Chevrolets, but there’s usually something that ties the car to the brand. Even if the admittedly unlikely event you didn’t already know Ford sold the Mustang or Chevy the ‘Vette, you’d probably figure it out.

That’s often been the way of the automotive world. OEMs share common styling elements — grilles, lighting, wheels, even the general shape — across lineups so that consumers make the connection between model and make.

This works best with vehicles that aren’t iconic like the Corvette. Non-car people might not know what a Fusion is, but they might know it’s a Ford via the grille, even if the Blue-Oval badge was missing.

Enter the next Nissan Frontier. Unveiled Thursday, its grille reminds me of its big sibling, the Titan. And that doesn’t shock me in the least.

The question is, is it better for brands to strive for consistency across the board, or should brands work to differentiate models of different size/segment/type more than they do?

Obviously, costs/regulation play a factor here, too. But let’s pretend that they didn’t for a second. Just from a purely philosophical point of view — is it better for a brand to have consistency across the line? So that the outside observer who doesn’t know a spark plug from a piston can tell that they’re seeing a Nissan drive by? Or would brands best be served by allowing creativity to flow from segment to segment and model to model?

Answer below, folks.

[Image: Nissan]

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33 Comments on “QOTD: Should Design Be Consistent Across Brands?...”

  • avatar

    I have a weird affinity for the same sausage different lengths philosophy employed by Audi and Mazda, but it’s not necessary as long as the designs themselves are visually appealing. I know style or design is highly subjective and there are cars I like that others don’t and vice versa.

    I’m more interested in designers that can keep the proportions right for the various offerings. Some manufacturers are better than others and there are problematic elements, to my eye, across all brands.

  • avatar

    I will say this. I love Corvettes but if they looked like anything else in Chevy’s line-up I would never buy one.

  • avatar

    There’s something to be said for brand identity, but they can’t all look unidentifiably the same.

    Let’s take the mid 80s BMW lineup. 3/5/6/7s all look VERY similar. But even if they’re all not sitting next to each other, it’s pretty hard to mistake one from another.

    Then take the current Kia TV ad, the one with the snow blowing out of the hangar. The 5 models all look nothing alike. I guess they all have the Tiger Nose?

    On the other end of the spectrum, the end sequence of the current Lincoln TV ad shows the schnozes of the current 4 model lineup, and I couldn’t tell you which one is which. At least they’re not all named the MKA/B/C/D/E anymore.

  • avatar

    As a graphic designer I can say it helps if there is a certain look or style to all vehicles from a single brand. If you remove the badges and can’t tell who makes something then it appears nobody is in charge and managing the big picture. It sounds like silly PR speak but having brand awareness is important. You want customers to recognize your product without putting logos in their face. This goes for exterior and interior design.

    Now on the flip side if you have a special or unique product (like the Mustang or Corvette example) then you need to leverage your customer’s connection with the past as too radical of a change will upset them. If you are introducing a new concept, like an EV, then your free to come up with a new look that departs from the norm to help attract new customers.

    One of the best at this corporate design game is Apple – who every few years switches materials and finishes across all their products to keep them looking fresh yet similar enough that they are obviously related. A bad example was when Infiniti sold that little CUV from Benz… it was clearly a rebadge and sold terrible. I believe the new Supra suffers from this same problem. Outside it looks like… well I have no idea, certainly not a real throwback, but the inside is clearly BMW – a look Toyota owners want nothing to do with.

  • avatar

    Yes there needs to be some design consistency between models from the same brand. Makes it easier for the customers to identify the brand. Look at Hyundai between 2010-2014. Pretty much every model used a variation of the “fluidic sculpture” design. You could tell all were Hyundais, even if you didn’t like the styling. Now look at Hyundai today. Hot mess of different styles.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Family resemblance is helpful; cloning is not.

    Unlike KOKing above, I think Kia’s lineup has gone too far in the cloning direction. As for Audi and BMW – I can’t tell their car models apart.

    Really, though, the product identity should come with the sheet metal, not the badge. Remove the badges from a lot of vehicles today, and they would be very hard to identify.

  • avatar

    The most iconic and enduring designs throughout history have prioritized Model over Make.

    • 0 avatar

      I think I would agree here, but there is still alot of iconic designs that had elements of a “design language”.

      I think the consistent design language matters a lot more if you a paying a premium for a brand…….like Mercedes, BMW, etc. Without the design language, is it really worth the premium if other people cannot recognize that you paid a premium. A good example, I think Apple’s sales would fall off a cliff if every product they made stopped prominently displaying the Apple logo.

      The flip side of that coin is that a beautiful design could be ruined by trying to shoehorn a corporate grill in or special lighting or, or. Cadillac design for example looks great on sedans, not so much on crossovers. Lexus design looks aggressive (maybe over the top) on sedans/coups, but ridiculous on crossovers and SUVS. Its not always a good idea.

  • avatar

    Are there brands other than Huyndai and Kia you guys are aware about?

  • avatar

    “Non-car people might not know what a Fusion is, but they might know it’s a Ford via the grille, even if the Blue-Oval badge was missing.”

    Well they may also think that Aston Martin is a Ford. Which s partially true.

  • avatar

    “hat’s because they want to convey a brand identity — they want all their cars and trucks, across all class sizes and market segments, to be instantly recognizable as belonging to that brand.”

    Not just recognizable. Consistent.

    It is a marketing truism that it is much cheaper to retain an existing customer, than to acquire a new one. The last people you want to risk offending with a new model, are those who obviously liked one of your existing ones.

  • avatar

    I know you hate it, but it’s what all brands should strive for… consistency within a brand language. Each model should reinforce the other. Each time you see a vehicle, it should convey the brand.

    I agree that this can become a crutch and stifle design innovations – case in point, I love Mazda’s design language, but I think some of their vehicles are too similar looking.

    Like with anything, it’s all about moderation.

  • avatar
    A Scientist

    “Design language” irks me just as much as “price point”. Both terms do have specific meanings when used in the proper context, but people don’t use them that way. They use them as a way to try to sound smarter than they are.

    Ok, pedantic ranting aside, I do think that it’s to a manufacturer’s benefit that their lineup be recognizable. I don’t work in marketing, but it’s pretty obvious that in a world of nearly constant distraction, “brand identity” is really important.

  • avatar

    But yet you’re strangely OK with using “@ me”.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      Blame it on me being a Gen Xennial.

      • 0 avatar

        I hate that “Xennial” stuff, after a certain point you’re with the Millennial malevolence or not.–gen-x-are-you

        FWIW Masnick still argues 1965-1984. Pew Research can bite my shiny metal a$$.

        “In keeping with my recommendations, the Joint Center has long identified the cohort born between 1945 and 1964 as baby boomers. Those born between 1965 and 1984 are Generation X, and the cohort born between 1985 and 2004 are millennials”

  • avatar

    This is an interesting topic considering the rear ends of the vast majority SUVs and CUVs now look alike or have one prominent design element. Take a look and you’ll see the vast majority of them use a trapezoid shape with the short side up around the license plate. It’s everywhere, and it’s so hideous and out of place. I now look at the rear view of all new SUVs and CUVs when they are introduced to see if it’s there. It almost always is. Say yea, they may make the front fit the brand but in the rear they all look the same. Check it out.

  • avatar

    I think Dodge does well in this. You can tell they are from the same family even though they look different. Well, they do have the Millenium Falcon taillights that are the same design I guess.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    I don’t think so. People buying different models are often very different customers.

    I always kind of felt BMW should just make the 2 series look lioke an E30 and call it a day. That customer has no desire for a car that follows the design language of their SUV’s.

  • avatar

    When BMW did brand language well, it supported the entire BMW Ultimate Driving Machine thing because the designs were so good. Ford putting those taillights and grille on the Mach-E and calling it a Mustang is travesty. I’d say design language now bleeds across brands, rather than within it. Unless you see the badges, who can tell one SUV from the other anymore? I attribute this to the likely much higher job mobility of designers than in the distant past. I’m sure back in the day, the designers at Ford looked across town at Chevy and wanted to beat those guys with a white hot fury. Now it’s like they all eat in the same cafeteria.

  • avatar

    I think the whole design language answer depends on if you like the original car/truck/SUV’s look in the first place. As an old guy who considers late 60’s to early ’70’s as the peak look in car styling, I know I’m “out of touch”, but some newer vehicles….I just don’t get it. Chevy/GM is probably the one that puzzles me the most. The first “Holy shit, that’s ugly” vehicle of recent vintage was the 2010 Camaro, followed up with the latest Silverado and Sierra, and now with the C8. They repulse me and I’m bewildered as to how they got approved in the first place.

    I’m beyond tired of some of the most common design occurances:

    1. The Lexus “Spindle”. It should have been put down at birth and never allowed to see the outside of the design studio. Please kill it.
    2. The “Angry Bug” look of the front end of so many vehicles.
    3. Giant Grills. Enough. Please.

  • avatar

    The “What NOT to do” example on this is 1990s Infiniti. The Q45, J30, I30, QX4 and G20 may as well have all come from different manufacturers.

    Genesis seems to have escaped a similar trap of “THIS shall be our grille look for this new brand…. oh wait, we meant THIS instead.” by doing just one switch.

  • avatar

    As others have said, from the side and rear, most CUVs/SUVs look very similar, so brands are going out of their way to have a brand-style grille/light treatment. I guess there is only so much that can be done with maintaining a tall boxy 2 box shape. Though I’d say the same about cars from a century ago, before the 30s/aero era I find them difficult to tell apart (and indeed later in the century, 50s Americana sedans were all similar with fins and chrome)

    In Europe, arguably Ford’s most street-cred era was the 70s when they didn’t even use their logo on their cars, and the likes of the mk1 Escort, Capri and (euro) Granada were distinct.
    BMW sedans were traditionally small-medium-large of a similar style. Even Skoda about 8 years ago had a similar range with Rapid-Octavia-Superb being similar in different sizes.

    It seems increasingly important for brands, not just cars. You can tell a phone or a computer is an Apple product, you can tell a vacuum is a Dyson by the design language.

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