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Design Essay: Lighting – Car Design’s Latest Battleground

13 December 2018 | by Aidan Walsh

To the casual observer – and most observers invariably are – what is it which most reliably distinguishes a new car from a well-preserved, decade-old model?

Since we exist in a consumption-driven economy, where ‘newest’ is so often conflated with ‘best’, the near-constant drive to create differentiation between current and historical product has come to dictate much, if not the majority, of the industrial designer’s mandate. After all, where’s the fun in having that brand-spanking-new ride if nobody realises it’s new, right?


The 1949 Kaiser-Frazer sedan didn’t need fancy lights to feel new

At certain points in history, one imagines the task of creating this differentiation must have been exponentially easier than it is today. In the earlier days of the automobile – as with most products – technological and visual leaps were necessarily larger and more frequent as designers (who wouldn’t have been known as such in those days) and engineers sunk their teeth into this new and unexplored medium.

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1946 Cisitalia 202 – referred to as “the first modern car”

Take the full-width ‘ponton’ (or ‘pontoon’) styling, which hit the automotive mainstream in the aftermath of the second world war. This visual and aerodynamic sea-change (perhaps for the first time ever) allowed cars look like cars, as opposed to highly-evolved ‘horseless carriages’. One imagines early ‘ponton’ cars like the Cistalia 202 and Kaiser Frazer sedan didn’t need cleverly-orchestrated marketing campaigns to announce their newness; it was obvious.

Fast forward to the present day, however, and the full-width template established by those post-war pioneers has been pulled and poked in every direction, nipped and tucked to the max and rehashed more times than a Twitter tag, from fins ‘n’ chrome to ‘folded paper’, ‘biodesign’ to ‘new-edge’ via ‘flame surfacing’.


Evolving technology and increasing homogeneity made mad lights necessary

Inevitably therefore, given the highly evolved and regulated nature of twenty-first century cars (at least those of the ICE variety), opportunities to create and implement new macro design trends are now scarce. So, what do designers do? They switch focus to details as the new driver of differentiation.

Arguably the first area to benefit from this was wheels. Many a ‘noughties’ car was more-or-less defined by its ‘alloys’ – the bigger and bolder the better. Ultimately though, wheels can only grow so far, and when even long-outmoded vehicles are sporting exquisitely-crafted ‘nineteens’ the ‘wow’ effect is somewhat lessened. So where next?

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2007 Audi R8’s daytime running lights

Well, what better place for designers to lavish their attention than the humble headlight? Not only do they form the ‘eyes’ in every car’s perceived ‘face’, but they actually go and light up too! What a way to literally project one’s brand identity down the road.

Furthermore, since today’s lamps are invariably concealed behind expansive, flush-fitting, clear-glass lenses, designers can play around to their heart’s content, without having their party pooped by mundane practical concerns like airflow and pedestrian safety regulations.

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In the 1980s, all it took was using rectangles instead of circles...

Headlights were long overdue some love too; until the late 1980s or thereabouts, car ‘eyes’ were circular or perhaps rectangular, and that was pretty much it. Were they attached to something ‘a bit special’, they popped up, maybe even turned with the car’s steering… but even then, the light units themselves were utterly conventional.


1962 Ford Thunderbird ‘afterburner’ taillights

Taillights meanwhile, perhaps since their essential function is somewhat less demanding, did display rather more variation in times gone by. American designers of the fifties and sixties certainly appeared to have a field day with rear lights, granting us such exquisite units as those fitted the 1962 Ford Thunderbird, 1959 Cadillac Fleetwood and countless others.

Sadly though, such flourishes largely faded along with the golden age of American motoring.


The E39 introduced BMW’s first lighting ‘brand signature’

Arguably the first manufacturer to take lighting design seriously in the modern era was BMW, with its appropriately enchanting ‘Angel Eye’ running lights (a.k.a. Corona Rings) which debuted on the marque’s refreshed E39 5-Series back in 2000.

Made possible by the use of compact projector units in conjunction with trick fibre optics forming the ‘rings’ themselves, what better way to facelift a shape which barely needed a facelift in the first place?

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Audi’s V10-powered range topper replaced projectors with all-LED units

Not to be outdone, rivals Audi were first to launch partial LED (2004 A8) and full LED headlights (2010 R8 V10) onto the market. However, it’s ‘around the back’ where the Ingolstadt firm has shone brightest, with razor-sharp OLED graphics and the famed scrolling indicators (turn signals) now in place across its range. Gimmicky though the latter may be in concept, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Audi’s typically slick execution.

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2013 Audi R8 facelift, complete with rearranged full-LED lighting

But Bavaria no longer holds a monopoly on stylised luminescence. Spend any amount of time driving after dusk today and it becomes a game to identify each car solely on the basis of lighting. Can you make out ‘Thor’s Hammer’ approaching through the gloom? That’ll be a Volvo. Two triangles? Has to be a SEAT. Big, round doe eyes? A MINI of course!

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In 2011, Séat made taillights that look like seats, just to add further confusion about pronunciation

These ‘brand signatures’ seem particularly effective in terms of product recognition, much like the familiar radiator grilles we’ve long known, they etch themselves very readily into the memory. Unsurprisingly, today’s BMWs still sport the borderline-iconic ‘Angel Eyes’, now more defined than ever thanks to the latest laser technology, in which blue light is passed through yellow phosphorus before being reflected onto the road.

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BMW’s Angel Eyes have evolved, with the help of friggin’ lasers

Around the rear, Bentley’s ellipsoid signature (complete with full-width third brake-light) is certainly not to be forgotten, so too is Dodge’s bold ‘racetrack’ arrangement – sported by Charger and Durango. While Cadillac is seeking to reclaim its one-time position as king of lighting design with bold vertical graphics seen on its Escalade.

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Dodge Charger taillights get an LED perimeter ‘road’

Alternatively, rather than establishing ubiquitous family signatures, manufacturers such as Ford instead seek to create unique identifiers for each model. See the latest Mustang, with its delightful heritage-inspired head and taillight arrangements, or else the stunning GT supercar, whose posterior is punctuated by a perfect pair of glowing red halos.

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Ford even have sub-brand-specific tail light designs

McLaren meanwhile has regularly bent over backwards to obscure its taillight whilst not in use. Their comeback car, the 12C (and the 650S update) smoked them black and hid them within the bars of the rear grille, while the super-slim LED strips of the P1 are practically invisible until called into action to spectacular effect.

This theme is continued now by the Senna and Speedtail amongst others, and perhaps befits the company’s racing heritage.

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This McLaren’s brake lights are on... but see if you can find the indicators

There have been slip-ups of course; Land Rover’s late 2000s LED daytime running lights (DRLs) bore an unfortunate resemblance to cheap Christmas decorations due to their wide-spaced design.

Then there was Maserati, whose delectable ‘boomerang’ lamps might have been established as a brand signature from the 3200GT onwards, had they not been snuffed out at facelift time.


The notorious Maserati ‘boomerangs’ – killed to satisfy US regs

Still, it seems unlikely the sun will set (or should that be rise?) on lighting innovation any time soon. The continued refinement of illumination tech, including LED, OLED and laser systems, looks set to open the door for ever more intricate designs, such as the union flag motif of the current MINI hatch – next to which all else appears ‘old hat’.

What’s more, not content with scrolling turn signals, Audi allowed us a glimpse into the future of ‘dynamic’ lighting in the form of its much-vaunted OLED Swarm concept back in 2013, while Mercedes-Benz’s ‘digital light’ idea imagines legible information projected onto the road surface. Not too far-fetched a concept, seeing as today’s ‘surprise and delight’ ‘puddle lights’ are already projecting brand logos and suchlike.

Taking things a step further, it’s not hard to imagine future autonomous vehicles being required to create ‘eye contact’ with other road users in the manner of JLR’s bizarre ‘eye pod’ concept, might future head and taillights become true ‘eyes’ in this sense? A window into the soul of the machine, if you like?

It’s certainly not unthinkable, since while much of car design has stagnated, even regressed, in recent years, lighting has become the great differentiator of this generation. You know what they say, every cloud has a brilliant OLED lining!

Bright Ideas: Ten of the best lighting graphics right now:


1) BMW – ‘Angel Eyes’

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Now available with laser-enabled graphics so sharp they could slice butter (at least metaphorically) the game-changing Angel Eyes are alive and kicking in 2018. The original and best.

2) Ford Mustang – ‘Vents’

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The Mustang’s use of LEDs to reinterpret ’60s original’s distinctive vents as a DRL signature is inspired, a touch of genius from Ford. The taillights aren’t too shabby either!

3) Mazda 2 – ‘Hawk Eye’

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Taking the metaphor of lights as eyes to its logical next step, Mazda’s DRLs have something of a feline, or perhaps hawkish aura.

4) Renault – ‘Cheekbones’

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Taking pride of place on the Megane, Koleos and Talisman, Renault’s chiselled ‘cheekbones’ create an illuminated ‘frame’ for its DRG. Strong and confident without undue aggression.

5) MINI Hatch – ‘Doe Eyes’

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The simplest ideas are often the best, it’s a maxim which holds true here. MINI headlights are round, so it follows that their DRLs should be too. Now a MINI is a MINI, even after dark.


1) Nissan GT-R – ‘Classic Quad’

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Front or rear, there are few more evocative automotive cues than four circular lights. The GT-R’s iconic arrangement has stood the test of time for good reason.

2) DS 3 – ‘Vortex’

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Citroën has long been a lighting innovator, right back to the original DS ‘goddess’ of the 1950s. This design, created using mirror trickery, is genuinely entrancing.

3) MINI Hatch – ‘Union Flag’

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Whatever your views on Brexit or the empire, MINI’s patriotic LED lights are quite something. Flying the flag in style.

4) Bugatti Chiron – ‘Lightsaber’

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It may not come from a galaxy far far away, but the Chiron does a good impression of warp speed. Its ‘floating’ rear light-bar is suitably sci-fi.

5) Volvo V60 – ‘Brackets’

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There’s something aptly safe, solid and almost comforting about Volvo’s signature tail graphic. Like a protective force-field encircling the car and its occupants.