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Pioneer of automotive user interface design

Pioniere des Automotive User Interface Design

Somehow the word pioneer seems like a relic of times past. Today everyone is a startup, creator of disruptive product innovations that change entire industries. icon incar can claim to be both. And has redefined itself time and again.

Founded in 1975, Gulden Design opened a design studio that primarily helped Audi get an edge on well-established brands like Mercedes-Benz and leave behind its know-it-all, boy scout image. The slightly ironic part: Florian’s mother – Christine Gulden – was the studio’s driving force and his father was, in fact, a (know-it-all) teacher, the exact stereotype of a frumpy Audi customer. In theory, at least. In reality, Florian grew up somewhere in between a human-sized repro camera, X-ACTO knives, tapes, acetone-dipped markers and a liberally sticker-covered VW Golf GTI, in which his father, in particular, whipped around as many sharp corners on the highway as possible.

The 40 years before the agency became icon incar GmbH were marked by success. Before the term ‘automotive user interface design’ even existed, everything was somehow done under the roof of a residential building north of Ingolstadt. No computer, no internet, but infinite devotion. That’s how entire generations of instrument clusters for various Audio models came into being. Graphics for the so-called yogurt cup (the printed material is identical to one) were drawn by hand.

Letraset letters were rubbed on, signals covered with colorful tape before ultimately being presented as white highlighting on dark cardboard. The new information clusters featured tiny screens that could show all warning messages, set off in a constrasting color. After one or two design iterations, the final draft was done in fourfold scale. Each drawing was done by hand, then scaled down to the final size using a gigantic repro camera in the in-house lab. The result became the template for mass production.

Another big topic was all the product graphics on the interior (pictograms) and exterior. Icons like the quattro typeface – derived from Eurostile – were first sketched, then carefully made into prototypes by hand. Sometime in the late 1980s, the designer here even created her own benchmark. Who else can claim to have designed the longest rear typeface for series production of all times? The ‘Audi 200 turbo quattro 20V’ can’t be beaten: cars haven’t gotten wider since.

On the side, dozens of watches, rims, steering wheels and decals were created over the years. Those of us of a certain age probably recall Audi sport branding on various rally cars and on certain helmets. One highlight will forever be the first digital instrument cluster that appeared in the late 1980s and early 90s in sport quattros. Made of individual segments with solder joints in high voltage format, it was one of the first interactive human-machine interfaces in a car. A spacy on-board computer read warnings aloud and showed all stats relevant to ambitious hobby drivers.

And then the computer came along. Suddenly you only needed five days for a design instead of six weeks. The repro camera became obsolete. Letraset went bankrupt. You could cobble together 25 typefaces in one design and write headlines in Comic Sans.

It was time for Gulden Design to change. While it continued to design pictograms, typefaces and instrument clusters, it did increasingly so for purely digital displays. An evolution that ultimately led to the founding of icon incar GmbH in 2007.

Many might find designing today much more exciting. But we think looking back can be very helpful. Today, fundamental technological relationships are falling more and more into the shadows, leading to exorbitant expectations or a lack of awareness about a problem. Just because something appears perfect on a computer doesn’t mean the product quality is acceptable.

On the one hand, the latest software tools can quickly lead you to get lost in design sprees of epic proportions instead of precisely defining a task and, with a target in mind, arriving at a solution in just a few iterations. This shotgun principle is widespread and their lack of solid foundation leads to unsustainable results.

On the other, we are pleased that »prototyping« is bringing back a handicraft component and that direct experience is once again becoming part of the decision making process.

We strive to design products with the half-life of the quattro typeface. Something that’s only marginally changed in the last 40 years.