Volvo Records The Brain’s Response To Car Design

First of its kind experiment aimed to quantify a reaction to beauty.

Dave Pinter
Dave Pinter on December 5, 2013. @DavePinter

Volvo cars are supposed to be safe, we’ve seen the claims in tons of advertisements from the brand. It is recognition well deserved as they continue to innovate in the areas of not only driver and passenger safety but also pedestrian and even cyclist protection. With this dedication to safety engineering, it is understandable that Volvo design aesthetics tend toward a stricter translation of form following function, a broader quality of Scandinavian design.


Volvo’s parent company, Geely Automobile based in China appear to want jazzier looking cars from the brand in the future. The Volvo Concept Coupe which was unveiled this year at the Frankfurt Auto Show hints at a possible future styling direction the brand could adopt. To be sure the design resonated with people, Volvo conducted an experiment in collaboration with EEG specialists Myndplay, that analyzed how the brain reacts emotionally to car design and how design aesthetics actually make people feel.

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The process involved participants going through a program similar to many other focus groups. They were shown some images of babies crying and beautiful people to get a base-line response. Following this were images of the Volvo Concept Coupe paired with images of dated and perceived ‘bad’ car designs. Each of the participants wore a dry sensor EEG headset that measured the changes in ebrainwave activity in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain.

As for the results, Men experienced more emotion whilst looking at images of beautiful car design than they did whilst looking at an image of a crying child. While only 1/3 of women surveyed rated a beautiful looking car above that of an attractive looking man. While the outcome is fairly predictable and doesn’t seem to be substantial enough to influence a design direction, there’s more to the story.

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Volvo has also created a 3D model of the Concept Coupe viewable online that shows heat mapped reactions to the car’s styling from focus group experiment and visitors online. While the presentation method is new, the results are once again predictable. People are responding to what they know. They recognize wheels, lights and door handles. But the subtleties like surface changes and character lines aren’t registering with the same intensity. The importance of the styling on the Concept Coupe is that it is subtly executed.

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Part of design is subjective and good design can be polarizing. The trap with experiments like this is that transposes emotions into data. And data is devoid of emotion. I doubt Ferrari would ever resort to hooking their customers up to a machine to see if their cars are exciting. That’s why Ferrari has customers, they are expected to be exciting and fun. At a certain point, Volvo will have to trust their designers and go for it. Here’s a few examples from Volvo’s past when they seemed to do just that:

Volvo PV445 Duett

Volvo 123 GT

Volvo 1800

Source: Volvo


TOPICS: Automotive
Dave Pinter

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Dave Pinter is a senior editor at PSFK and focuses on automotive, design and retail news plus NYC culture. Dave is also a New York based concept designer.