On this July 4th holiday I’m feeling a bit nostalgic and thinking back to summer picnics growing up in Wisconsin. One of those regular summer picnic events will be near and dear to me always — when our family all went to my dad’s annual company picnic. It was a special event for more reasons than just the hot dogs, ice cream and three-legged races. You see, my father worked for American Motors and at the summer picnic each year, the employees and their families got to see the upcoming new model year cars unveiled before the general public. As you might expect, that made an impressionable young guy like me feel pretty special. But maybe not so much the year the AMC Pacer was unveiled. What does any of this have to do with UX? I’ll come back around to that soon.
The Pacer has been called a lot of things, but beautifully designed is not one of them. In fact Time named it one of the 50 worst cars of all time. The May 1976 issue of Car and Driver dubbed it “The Flying Fishbowl.” But at the time is was introduced, AMC thought they had done an amazing thing — designed and built “the first wide, small car.” Today there are some Pacer fanatics out there who are in love with the oddly-proportioned vehicle. But thinking back to my summer picnic days I was embarrassed to admit that my dad worked at American Motors, because the Pacer quickly became a laughing stock. According to Wikipedia, Anatole Lapine, the designer of the Porsche 928 body was inspired by the Pacer. Well, in my opinion being inspired by something is one thing, but it doesn’t mean that the thing you’re inspired by makes for a good car design in and of itself. The Pacer was just plain odd and ugly because of its proportions.
In retrospect I think it was simply a matter of user experience design gone wrong. What I mean by that is the designers of the Pacer were thinking they knew what people would want — a wide car that gave plenty of passenger room with plenty of glass for visibility, and at the same time a small car that gave economy and maneuverability. Or maybe they were just going for the Jetson’s look.
Without knowing for sure, what I think went wrong were two things that designers continue to get wrong when designing things today — and I’m thinking now mostly of designing “digital stuff.” The first mistake is they decided they know what people should want, or will like, without asking them. Granted, there’s the famous Steve Job’s quote that “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” But the difference between Steve Jobs and the designers at AMC is that Apple’s stuff was (and is) always really well designed not just functionally but also aesthetically, which brings me to the next point.
The second, and probably more relevant mistake in the Pacer’s case, is that sometime designers fail to simply design in a style that pleased the sensibilities of the intended audience. Innovative design still must fit within certain design paradigms or norms and project an aesthetic that pleases, lest designers risk tuning off their audiences. There are simply some truths of design that must not be violated — that’s why people have been exploring things like The Golden Ratio since ancient times. And that’s why a Pacer is ugly and a Porsche 928 is beautiful. Sorry if that offends any Pacer fans out there, but the public already voted with their wallets and after a very short time the Pacer was off the market.
The lesson for user experience designers is that unless you are not only good at UXD but also a great visual designer, it’s best to leave the graphic design to those with the talent, skills and instincts to make something that’s not only functional but beautiful also.
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