Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Swoosh! There It Is. What's Up with Car Designs?

I wish I had patented the car swoosh.  It is everywhere these days.

"Swoosh" is the name of Nike's logo, perhaps the most successful logo in advertising history.  The sign became so closely associated with the company, its products, and the ideals it wanted to associate with its products that in some Nike advertising campaigns there was no need to include the company's name.

The swoosh said it all.

Nike Culture: The Sign of the Swoosh is a book by Robert Goldman and Stephen Papson that discusses the evolution of Nike's global marketing strategies.  According to that book, the swoosh's creator was a Portland State University art student who was paid $35 for her design, which the company's founder was not enthusiastic about.  He wanted something more closely resembling the stripes on the sides of shoes from Puma and Adidas.

Goldman and Papson state the swoosh was initially "an empty vessel -- a visual marker that lacked any intrinsic meaning" (17).  The swoosh's meanings came only through its repeated use in Nike messages, where it became associated with the ideals of "athletic excellence, a spirit of determination, hip authenticity, and playful self-awareness (1).

I do not know that they are right about the swoosh not having an intrinsic meaning.  First, can any sign have intrinsic meaning?  The meanings for all signs seem created by consensus, convention, and relationship to other signs.  Second, I think the swoosh conveyed some meaning before it was deployed in Nike ad campaigns -- otherwise, why would Carolyn Davidson have created it?  Nike founder Phil Knight told her that he wanted something to suggest "movement" and "speed,"  so she had some meanings in her mind when she created the swoosh.

Hyundai Elantra
One possible way the swoosh suggests movement and speed could be this: It echoes the wings on the shoes and/or hat of Mercury, the speedy messenger of the Olympian gods.

Also, the swoosh looks like a check mark, which is a sign of approval, fulfillment, accomplishment, or success.  And Nike is the Greek goddess of victory.

I think we can see echoes (conscious or not) of the swoosh in the recent designs of many cars -- cars from different classes and from different manufacturers.  Somehow the inverted swoosh found its way into the automotive world's zeitgeist.
Mercedes Benz CLC

Look at new cars and you can see an inverted swoosh in the panels, starting at the front wheel and extending toward the rear wheel.  When I drive on the freeways of Los Angeles, I see them everywhere on all kinds of cars -- Toyota Pruis, Mercedes Benz CLC, Ford Escape, Hyundai Elantra.  The list is long, and I don't have room to show all of the design variations here.

Ford Escape
Since the swoosh is inverted, it no longer resembles a check mark, so I think those associations are not at work when one views (or reads) the automotive designs.  But I think the auto swoosh does suggest movement and speed.  It resembles the side view of an airplane wing, suggesting flight and successful movement.  Also, think of images from cars in wind tunnels and how the smoke makes visible the movement of air over the car body.

Toyota Prius
The auto swoosh seems to be making visible the otherwise invisible movement of air over the car.  The auto designer would also want to suggest that air movement is smooth and free of turbulence, aiding the speed of the car.

But when you are driving the car you cannot see the auto swoosh.  So how does it work to please the driver?  First, the driver was a buyer.  So the auto swoosh was seen on the road or in ads, and it gave the potential buyer positive associations about the car.  Second, the auto swoosh suggests the smooth movement of air even when the car is parked.  The driver can be reassured of the quality of the car when it rests outside of his/her home or work.

Air foil
Just as the Nike swoosh would have created positive associations of speed, movement, and success for its wearer (even though the swoosh is not very visible when you are wearing the shoe), so too the auto swoosh creates positive associations for the car's owner.

I think the auto swoosh can be decoded in this manner, and I have no larger point to make.  I do not think there are hidden contradictions within this sign -- in semiotics we frequently look for such contradictions.  But I do think it is interesting that so many different auto designers came up with this same decorative element.

I call it decorative because I do not see much aerodynamic benefit from this element on the panels (but then I am not an engineer).  In theory, all cars should look exactly alike, in that there should be one ideal aerodynamic design.  And there was a time when cars were all starting to look alike.  Compare images of a Ford Taurus, a Toyota Camry, and a Honda Civic from 1995, for example.  They all resembled each other, I believe, because their designers were all in pursuit of the same thing: aerodynamic design to improve gas mileage.

Since then, advances in engine and transmission technologies have given much larger fuel efficiencies than were being achieved with body shapes.  So the designers became free to give autos more stylish flare.  Interesting that so many have chosen the same flourish.


  1. I like how "swoosh" is an onomatopoeia. I had forgotten that the designer earned only $35 for it, and I agree with you that the symbol is not without intrinsic meaning. I think you've nailed it with Mercury's foot-wings. I'm also reminded of an aircraft breaking the sound barrier.

  2. Not exactly on the subject. But we officially ran out good car names a couple of years ago. I particularly like Freestyle. Which is a box. All Freestyles should look different. All right, not on the subject at all