DEARBORN, MI – Video games such as Grand Theft Auto draw criticism in some circles for sexual and violent content, but the head of a design school says their overall visual style will influence future vehicle designs.

Young car designers are taking cues from outré designers of video games, says College for Creative Studies President Richard Rogers, speaking at a J.D. Power and Associates roundtable here.

“The aesthetics of video games will have an impact on car designs,” he says. “We’ll start seeing that five to 10 years from now with edgy and futuristic auto designs.”

Among pressures auto stylists face is the need to come up with distinctive designs that can be brought to market quickly in today’s highly competitive market, says Rogers. His Detroit college is one of only a few in the U.S. that specifically teaches auto design.

Aspects of the Grand Theft Auto video game’s design may find their way into future auto styling.

“The mantra is to get into the consumers’ minds, and figure out their needs and wants when, perhaps in some cases, they don’t know those needs and wants,” he says.

Besides expressing creativity, auto designers must address customer emotions, cultural trends and business strategies.

“It is not just about making things look good,” says Rogers. “At its best, it’s about making form and function work together. That is hard to do.”

Rogers comments on five automotive design trends that are prevalent today:

  • Muscular and athletic. Examples: Ford F-150 pickup truck and Cadillac CTS. “They express speed, emotion, brawniness and the movements of an athlete.”
  • Aggressive and intimidating. Examples: Hummer, Dodge Magnum; even the Audi A6, with its bold front end. “I don’t know to what extreme this will go.”
  • Blocks. Examples: Honda Element and Scion xB. “They reflect simplicity, functionality and are almost anti-style.”
  • Nature. Examples: Toyota Prius and Mercedes-Benz CLS. “Swooping curves and concave shapes interplay with each other.”
  • Cultural. Example: Ford Mustang. “These are vehicles with a sense of place. The Mustang is very American and looks it.”

Despite the virtues of artistic freedom, designers sometimes need to restrain their creativity, says Rogers. “It is not just about freedom, but about understanding limits as well.”

That is tricky to teach, he says. So is the need to verbally communicate what a particular design is about.

“We’re trying to teach our auto design students to verbalize more,” he says. “They are good at designing but not necessarily expressing the ideas behind their designs.

“The toughest decision – what design will go to market – is not one designers make. So they need to be able to explain their work to the people who do make those decisions.”

Important as it is, auto styling is relatively inexpensive, notes Csaba Csere, editor of Car and Driver magazine, a mechanical engineer and a roundtable participant.

Dodge Magnum: Aggressive.

“When you think about it, you can stamp one car body just as easily as another,” says Csere. “But boy, is it critical.”

Chris Denove, a J.D. Power and Associates partner, agrees.

“Styling is the most emotional aspect of a car,” he says. “It is the single-most important physical attribute determining if someone is going to shop that car.”

Based on J.D. Power polling, the following are the top 10 vehicles purchased strictly for appearance sake or, according to Denove, because their buyers said, “I like the way that looks and don’t care about anything else.”

1. Chevrolet SSR

2. Chrysler Crossfire

3. Dodge Magnum

4. Chrysler PT Cruiser

5. Mini Cooper

6. Chrysler 300

7. Volkswagen Beetle

8. Ford Thunderbird

9. Mitsubishi Eclipse

10. Cadillac XLR

“More than half of those are retro designs,” notes Denove. “When retro is done right, it sells.”

Adds Rogers: “Design is always built on what’s before. It is an evolutionary process, but a messy one that is not linear. It never follows a straight line.”

Making that top-10 list doesn’t necessarily reflect sales success, only that consumers who did buy were most motivated by styling.

Conversely, what follows are 10 vehicles that polled consumers deemed the ugliest, saying, according to Denove, “That thing is not getting near my driveway.”

1. Honda Element

2. Infiniti Q45

3. Pontiac Aztek

4. Mazda RX-8

5. Chevrolet Avalanche

6. Scion xB

7. Toyota Celica

8. Lexus LS 430

9. Infiniti QX56

10. Mitsubishi Diamante

A vehicle that almost made the ugly list ironically was at the top of the list of vehicles most bought for their looks: the Chevy SSR, a combination pickup-roadster-convertible. There’s a fine line between love and hate.

Scion xB: Anti-style.

Although many consumers call the poor-selling Aztek homely, its buyers love its looks, says Denove. “It’s just that there are not enough of those people.”

Rogers says a senior designer at General Motors Corp., said of the Aztek: “Good idea, bad execution.”

Styling takes a back seat if a vehicle has other attributes that are stronger.

Denove cites the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. “They are top sellers, but styling for both is a non-starter because people buy them for reliability.”

He says Chrysler Group – unable to beat Toyota and Honda in perceived reliability – is wisely designing eye-catching vehicles.

“You can’t overnight change perceptions of reliability, but you can quickly change perceptions about styling,” says Denove. “That’s what Chrysler is doing with the Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum and Dodge Charger. “Blandness is fine for Camry and Accord, not for Chrysler and Ford.”