Tesla Model S front trunk

Challenging Packaging Preconceptions in the Electric Car Age

New vehicle powertrains and technologies offer designers a vast amount of creative freedom. So why is car design packaging stuck in a rut? Nir Kahn takes a look

Twenty-five years ago, a design tutor spoke about the ‘Aspirin Point’ in a lecture he was giving about packaging. The active ingredient in an aspirin (or virtually any tablet) is minuscule; most of the tablet is made up of an inert powder whose sole purpose is to make it possible to package, pick up, and swallow the tablet. Its purpose is purely ergonomic and therefore design-led.

The lecturer had said that eventually many products would reach this point where their size and shape were no longer largely dictated by the internal package of components but purely by the user needs.

Fast forward 10 years to the Ericsson T28 phone that I owned and loved. It was tiny — way smaller than any phone on the market today — and probably signified the turning point in mobile phone design because in many ways it was too small, too light, and too fiddly to operate. But it was very pure — a pocket telephone that did little else.

Ericsson T28 phone

Phones had reached that ‘Aspirin Point’ whereby it was going to be necessary to make them bigger than their electronics were allowing them to be. So what did all phone makers do?

Instead of challenging the basic premise that the phone was a handheld device that goes in your pocket, they started adding features — additional parts inside to fill that space that the user’s hand was going to need to be able to pick it up and use it. Within a few years, all mobile phones had cameras, Bluetooth, Internet, larger screens, more memory, and they started getting bigger again.

The larger size was actually a bit more practical and more ergonomically sound for a handheld device, but the alternative, which was to alter the basic paradigm of what a mobile phone looked like, had fallen by the wayside. Even the revolutionary buttonless iPhone did not change the basic concept that a phone was an object that you held to your ear and carried in your pocket.

Apple Watch Series 3

Apple’s introduction of the Series 3 watch recently marks some movement in the tech sector. It’s a step towards the wristwatch phones that we’ve been promised by generations of Sci-Fi movies and shows that they’re technically possible today, even if there are limitations to its widespread use as a conventional mobile phone replacement.

Perfected wrist-worn communication devices of our childhood dreams are still some ways away, even if customer acceptance for such a device is clear. Yet we’re still locked into a model of what a mobile phone is — a basic form factor that hasn’t fundamentally changed since the brick phones of the 80s. Instead of changing the aesthetic we’ve kept a shape that was designed around an alternative internal package and filled the redundant space with other things.

Tesla Model S grille aperture

Something similar is beginning to happen today with cars.

The basic car shape that any child will draw of a hood, cabin, and trunk, with wheels at each corner, hasn’t changed significantly in 100 years. It is a very obvious and efficient way to design a car that has a big engine at the front with a radiator requiring quite a lot of air. That radiator needs a grille and together with the headlights this graphic forms the recognizable ‘face’ of pretty much every car on the road today.

Most manufacturers put a lot of design effort into creating a familiar brand look heavily based on the car’s grille. We have become so accustomed to seeing this very functional part that a car without one looks strange, like a face with no mouth. The result of this is that nearly every electric car on sale today has a vestigial grille that actually serves no purpose.


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