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Coffee Time: Plastic leather

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Skeuomorphism in the graphical user interface world has been attacked many times over by designers. My recent project, Toyota Doko was all about removing these unnecessary metaphors that companies like Jaguar have been using. Nevertheless, metaphors do serve a purpose at times. For example, Apple’s passbook application is an example of using skeuomorphs for the better. Through the use of metaphors, the app has become easy to understand and arguably, rather beautiful. We must keep a a careful balance between the function of technology and the preconceptions people have about physical objects. To many users, an OS like Windows Phone quickly becomes too abstract to understand. 

There is an application of skeuomorphism that’s universally annoying though. It’s in automotive interiors.

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This is the interior of a Rolls Royce Phantom. Rolls Royce gets a bad rep for being a symbol of disgusting luxury but I have no hate towards them. Why? Because they’re extremely honest about who they are. They make luxury cars without compromise and that’s exactly what they deliver. Take a look at the interior, it features real leather, real wood, and real metal components of the finest caliber. Honestly, the level of craftsmanship is simply stunning.

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Just like the design of many consumer electronics, the car interior has begun to take shape beyond traditional approaches. Mass produced automobile interiors have become almost entirely made of plastic, and the treatment of these parts increasingly dishonest. Despite the fact that plastics like ABS, PCABS, and others are used for the interior, manufacturers feel that they need to look like leather, wood, metal and other “natural” materials. Since when did a car interior need to be covered with animal skin? It’s a vestigial practice that’s become a part of the culture. I find this phenomena to be fascinating. 

 

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Take a look at the Nissan Sentra’s interior for example. This is an economy car but tries its best to look luxurious by implementing plastic components that imitate metal and wood. Such actions are completely uncalled for. We need to find a new approach to interior design that is genuine and contemporary.

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There are signs of shedding the past though (at least in material use). The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt have nice use of plastics by allowing plastic to be what it really is. Sadly, the Leaf’s interior is ugly and the Volt’s interior is famously frustrating to use. Arguably, the Volt’s center console is skeuomorphic too though. The designers decided to use touch buttons because touch screens have become a sign of being “high-tech”. The result is an array of buttons that reference a touch screen without the benefits of a dynamic display.

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The VW Up is another example of plastic done right (this car really is a rare design leader), though I suspect the matte black plastic features leather texturing.

 

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Textures are mainly added to help reduce wear, make the parts feel better to the touch, and to hide imperfections from the manufacturing processes. My previous car, the Ford Fiesta, showed Ford’s attempt to break away from the standard “fake-leather” look. The almost digital texture is interesting, but not pretty.

 

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Toyota, particularly their Prius models also feature some forward looking treatments to plastic. They feel pretty nice but again, aren’t the best looking. Nevertheless, extra points for effort.

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Despite some advances in the Prius, Toyota takes the bad skeuomorph award with the new Toyota Camry. The center stack has fake leather pattern but also molded stitching. Yes, the photo you see above is a single piece of plastic that has be injection molded. It’s mind blowing.

 

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Car manufacturers are as usual, behind the rest of the consumer goods industry. Just like their laughable navigation systems, their approach to using plastics is completely behind the times. These companies should take a look at what Sony does on their laptops with matte black plastic. They have some great treatments that are honestly plastic but feel/look fantastic. 

Seriously though, I just end up stereotypically saying, “I wish Apple made cars.”