Cutting across cultural differences with thoughtful interior design

Peter Els
Posted: 12/13/2016

Humans are tactile by nature; we can’t resist touching an incredible work of art, or a plush velvet sofa. Nor can we resist the feel and smell of cool leather in any one of the offerings from the luxury automotive brands. But is this true for all countries and cultures?

What about India where a considerable number of people belong to the Hindu faith, whose doctrines teach that the cow (the donor of the hide used for upmarket leather trim) is sacred: Would they not find Velour more appealing? And what about the differences between the Western culture and that of arguably the most lucrative motor vehicle market at the moment; China?

When one size doesn’t always fit all!

In Western car-interior design, the center of attention is mostly on the driver, whereas in China, emphasis is placed on the other passengers. So because of this, and other cultural differences, many Western OEMs are choosing to incorporate subtle design changes to better meet the needs of the market in this area.

Audi is a good example of this philosophy: In China Audi is an extremely desirable brand that has attained an almost cult like following. However, in China personal status is not only demonstrated by the brand of vehicle being driven, but also by where the owner sits in the car. 

Furthermore, if a business person can afford a premium saloon, then they have not just worked hard for it; they also have acquired a certain status in the business world. And one way of showing this in Asia is that instead of driving the car themselves, the owner has someone else driving it for them. Not just to confirm their status, but also to enable them to continue working whilst on the move. 

Although this also happens in the West, it’s not nearly as common, so when the engineers at Audi decided they needed to better understand the impact, in terms of ambience and comfort features, on the person travelling in the rear seat, they commissioned a development team from Germany’s EDAG Engineering to offer solutions.

After extensive research and development, EDAG optimiszed the comfort features in the rear seat area. The design however, was not restricted to passive comfort features, such as additional sound deadening in the rear of the cabin; the rear-seat passenger was also given control of almost every comfort system that serves to enhance the vehicle's ambience including a rear seat with an integrated massage system. 

These changes made such an impact, both on Ingolstadt and on the sales in China, that a dedicated project team for seat development was established at EDAG Ingolstadt. This same team is now working on seat development for two further Audi models, so that people all around the world will not just feel the benefit of Audi's slogan "Vorsprung durch Technik", but get to experience it in unparalleled seating comfort, wherever they happen to be in the world.

Another manufacturer to offer a vehicle trimmed to meet the demands of the Chinese market is Ford, where the Kuga also reaped significant benefit from a rear seat redesigned specifically for this market.

In doing so, Ford shortened the rear seat cushion and removed material from the rear of the front seats, says Trevor Worthington, car and SUV vehicle director for Ford's Asia Pacific region at the time. 

Pointing out the upgrades to the Chinese vehicle, Worthington explained: "The leather, and the material we use in the inserts is more expensive; it's plusher; it's more comfortable, and it's got more grain on it because the Chinese customer sitting in the back seat will be extremely discerning.”

Taking these cultural design cues to a whole new level Volvo has shown a vehicle with the front seat replaced by an electrically powered moveable “lounge console” that features a desk, 17-inch TV screen, illuminated mirror and a variety of storage boxes. It also gives the back-seat passenger an uninterrupted view of the road ahead. 

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Unveiled at the 2015 Shanghai Motor Show, the idea highlights how Western manufacturers are reacting to consumer demand from China, which overtook the US several years ago to become the world’s largest car market.

I don’t like that smell!

Even smells that evoke positive sentiment around the ownership of a new vehicle in Western society can be repugnant in certain cultures. For example, Chinese car buyers abhor certain new car smells. And with annual light-duty passenger vehicle sales in China projected to reach 29 million by 2020, according to forecasters IHS Automotive, there are clear financial incentives for eradicating car interiors of objectionable odors associated with certain plasticizers and adhesives.

“The odor goes hand-in-hand with VOC (Volatile Organic Compound) properties, and China to a certain extent is going to lead how VOC limits are set,” Rose Ann Ryntz, Ph.D., Vice President of Advanced Development & Material Development at International Automotive Components (IAC), said in an interview with Automotive Engineering at the 2016 WardsAuto Interiors Conference in Detroit.

“We’re moving away from VOC-laden PVC slush programs at IAC, and we’re looking to do more with polymeric plasticizers for slush PVC as well as slush TPE-type projects. We’re also looking at how the construction of vacuum formed bi-laminates are put together with adhesives, since the adhesives can be a significant source of VOC and odor,” she said.

Although there’s no doubt that Western and Asian cultures may differ quite radically; even in what would appear to be a homogenous Western culture there are differences in what the markets require.

Cultural differences needn’t be radical to drive interior design

All this activity around the backseat in certain cultures doesn’t mean that the driver’s seat has been forgotten: In North America, where wellness and creature comfort are rated very highly the 2017 Lincoln Continental features 30-way power adjustable front seats.

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According to Johnathan Line, advanced seat-innovation supervisor and global technical expert for seating at Ford Motor Company:, “Many people take the car seat for granted. But there’s more you can do with seats than just sit in them. We’re trying to create a seat that you feel happy to sit in; that supports and hugs you so that you get a sense of well-being and safety.”

“We’re trying to create a seating experience,” he adds, noting that the seat also offers massage functions in the seat back and cushion, not to mention cooling vents and heating capability. 

The new seat reflects a thorough study of basic human biomechanics. Thus designers created better support systems in key areas and eliminated so-called “hard points” that restrict blood flow and create stress and fatigue in the neck, shoulder and thighs.

Some of the innovations are less visible, such as the use of composites for seat frames. Such materials not only decrease weight, they also give designers the freedom to push the design envelope. “They allow you to shape and support things in ways that other materials can’t – or they can, but only with great difficulty,” Line explains. As an example, he cites the Continental’s upper-back support, shaped like a pair of shoulders and featuring a cantilevered design with a pivot on the bottom. When it articulates, it creates a “hugging” effect on the upper back and more evenly distributes weight. “That would be difficult to do with traditional steel,” he says.

And to complicate matters even further engineers nowadays need to cater for increasing divergent body types: From the American male in the 95th percentile, to the 5th-percentile French woman, or the slighter statured Asians. 

These seemingly trivial cultural differences, when viewed against the backdrop of the competitive automotive industry, are becoming increasingly important in satisfying rapidly expanding markets.

So much so, that many OEMs are setting up design studious in important markets where cultures are significantly different from the manufacturers’ traditional ‘home’ markets.

Another approach is to theoretically identify cultural traits and include these in the design brief.

National Culture is about the value differences between groups of nations and/or regions

Professor Geert Hofstede conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of how values in the workplace are influenced by culture. He defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from others”.

The six dimensions of national culture are based on extensive research done by Professor Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, Michael Minkov and their research teams.

Using research data from a multinational company (IBM) with subsidiaries in more than 60 countries, he formulated a model of national culture consisting of six dimensions. 

These cultural dimensions represent independent preferences for one state of affairs over another that distinguish countries (rather than individuals) from each other. 

The country scores on the dimensions are relative, as we are all human and simultaneously we are all unique. In other words, culture can be only used meaningfully by comparison. The model consists of the following dimensions:

  • Power Distance Index (PDI) 
  • Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV) 
  • Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS) 
  • Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI) 
  • Long Term Orientation versus Short Term Normative Orientation (LTO)
  • Indulgence versus Restraint (IND) 

Although intended as a study of cultural differences in the workplace the identifiers are increasingly being applied to automotive design where cultural preferences may have an impact: Such as the study “Cross-Cultural Differences in Automotive HMI Design: A Comparative Study Between UK and Indian Users’ by Tawhid Khan, Mark A. Williams and Matthew Pitts, where Hofstede’s postulation was used to predict how different cultural groups would respond to various HMIs.

Irrespective of how manufacturers determine what differentiates markets, cultures or societies, the trend toward unique interior and seat design to satisfy specific markets is set to take on added importance as OEMs wrestle for market share.

Peter Els
Posted: 12/13/2016



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