Why your sneakers and beauty products act like they came from a car factory

By | March 28, 2024

rear window

Car window icons appear in fashion and beautyIllustration by Tim Marrs

Artists and designers have always found inspiration in unexpected places: Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic molded plywood chairs were influenced by the design of World War II leg splints. Frank Lloyd Wright looked to nature, probably nautilus shells, to design the Guggenheim. And Andy Warhol was a fan of the humble Campbell’s Soup can. But the latest place creatives are looking for inspiration might be the most unexpected yet: their car windows. I am of course talking about car glass codes.

You know the one I mean. You’ll find them in the lower corner of your side or windshield, usually flanked by a constellation of small black halftone dots (called the “frit”). They’re usually bundled together in an ordered cluster: a combination of circles, numbers and letters, plus the occasional sentence in a practically sans-serif or monospaced font, the same kind of single-width digital letters you might see on a receipt or in a 1990s film about hackers. In the auto glass industry, this conglomeration of symbols and information is called a ‘bug’.

These bugs aren’t supposed to be noticed, and they’re certainly not intentionally progressive in design (although automakers occasionally incorporate playful elements).Easter eggs‘in window glass). That said, they do communicate important information. Nearly half of the symbols on car windows indicate certain safety certifications, each required by a different regulatory agency or region (think the EU’s organic sector). sheet and the USDA seal). One of the largest symbols, and one of the most imitated, is the circled letter ‘E’, which indicates compliance with European Union regulations, with the number representing the country that granted the approval (Germany gets 1; France , 2; Italy). , 3; and so forth). The oval CCC, on the other hand, stands for ‘China Compulsory Certificate’ and is required on both Chinese-manufactured and foreign-imported goods, from automotive glass to tires to firefighting equipment. Other markings indicate whether a glass is tempered or laminated, when it was made, who manufactured it and sometimes what brand of car it was made for.



Although laminated glass has been used in windshields since the early 20th century, it was not until the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1970, under the auspices of the Department of Transportation, that the United States saw a concerted effort to standardize glass plates. and improve automotive safety standards. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 205, which specifies requirements for automotive glazing materials, is one such regulation that aims to ensure that automotive glass is safe and does not contribute to injuries in the event of an accident.

The overall look of all these combined symbols and text is graphic, streamlined, and a bit opaque; clearly designed by experts for experts. But there is also something unexpectedly playful about it. Although each individual element in the arrangement is practical, orderly and free from decorative excess, the symbols themselves do not really correspond; each follows its own set of visual rules. The UN/ECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) mark contains a thin circular outline, while the CCC text is surrounded by a bold oval. All typography is sans serif, but that’s not all the same sans serif. It is a quirky patchwork of almost matching shapes, combining functional simplicity with eclectic decorations. Karina Yazylyan, a designer in Moscow whose graduation project “The aesthetics of technical information‘ focuses on the aesthetic value of enigmatic labeling such as that found on car windows, and also notes that since most consumers cannot ‘read’ the content of these various symbols and phrases, the text is instead simply viewed as a graphic composition , a set of vibrant shapes.

Contemporary reinterpretations of this by designers normcore for cars, as has become known, vary widely: some faithfully reproduce the exact shapes and layout of the car window, while others use these icons as a springboard to create their own structured collection of geometric symbols, phrases and shapes. The trend has occurred in more sectors than not in recent years: luxury speakers, Gen-Z friendly makeup, South Korean streetwearand pretty much something by Nike. It is visually related to a larger shift in the design world towards utilitarian visual cues, such as the use of visibly legal, UV printer typographyor stylized barcodesalbeit more unclear in origin.

2 hours of skin care2 hours of skin care

2 a.m. Skin care

Mike Smithfounder of the Philadelphia-based design studio Smith & dictionused automotive normcore motifs in a recent AI search startup branding project Bewilderment. He felt the style was an effective choice for the app – which is aimed at more high-tech, code-savvy users than other AI tools like ChatGPT – because it made it clear “that the content was highly technical, not necessarily for the average consumer . simply through its visual language.”

Creative studio from Toronto Specific has drawn even more direct inspiration from car window bugs in its visual identity 2 a.m. Skin care. The brand’s name, 2AM, refers to the time of night when skin best rejuvenates itself, prompting design director Jonathon Yule and his team to reimagine the LCD digits for the brand’s striking logo. Since 2AM’s products are packaged in glass bottles, the designers also decided to look into the world of glass production, which ultimately led to them using the small but compact layouts of car window texts for inspiration. Yule says that “in skin care and beauty, a big part of the work we do is creating an organizational system that is clear, distinctive, easy to expand, and beautiful at the same time. The system we devised for 2AM does all of this.”

But why is something that has been in our driveways for decades only now coming to the fore? Yule believes the trend is practical.



“It makes something feel technical and tested, which in turn gives the viewer a feeling of confidence in a product or brand.”

That certainly fits the evidence, as this car window style is particularly popular among brands that sell products focused on performance, such as AG1a health supplement, or the northern sidetechnical wear. In a world steeped in dopamine dressing and graphic design maximalism, automotive normcore might also be a return to a certain kind of simplicity, but one with more nuance and logic than the cold faint of the past decade. It certainly also has roots in a larger social revival of the 1990s aesthetic, which was dominated by pixelated typedigital artifacts, and DIY grunge that involved collecting images from unexpected sources in a manner similar to these mixed utilitarian symbols.

Smith thinks the growing interest in this aesthetic has more emotional roots. He notes that most millennials grew up without the distractions of social media and smartphones and were therefore more aware of their immediate, everyday environment.

“We spent hours looking at things right in front of us while on the bus to school or on a road trip with family. We had no choice but to take in this kind of information whether we liked it or not.”

He suspects that this generation, now in their late 20s to early 40s, has come of age in the ranks of leadership, taking charge of senior creative teams with a decade or two of career experience under their belts – and they’re using that seniority to leverage their work with the same symbols that once captured their undivided attention. The effect is a meaningful, nostalgic counterpoint to today’s sleek, minimalist gadgets, many of which instead try to hide such visual jargon. As for me, I just know where I’ll look the next time my phone dies during an Uber ride. I’ve learned that you can always find inspiration in unexpected corners.

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