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Automotive Design as Semiosis: Signifying the Car as Vector and Topos

2018 / G.D.Liamadis


The car is a vector that leads us from topos A to another topos B. Driving along the road you feel the linear movement intersecting the landscape and zipping it open. The car is a vector moving one-dimensionally to form a route from the starting point to the destination. We enter the second dimension when we turn and the third dimension when we climb or descend a hill. Through the hedonistic act of driving, one explores the elasticity of space (Oosterhuis, 2002: 94) through the forces imposed to his/her body in every change of direction. The perception of the car as a vectorial body that suggests speed and aerodynamics has repeatedly been a predominant trend in design (Liamadis, 2015: 32). Ever since the Silver Arrows of Mercedes and the Phantom Corsair of the midwar, the car has always had a recognizable front and rear end, pointing to a certain direction. However, the car is not only a vector but also a topos. For the modern nomad of our days, the intimate and personal space of the car interior seems to have all the elements of the locus: a living space, a peculiar point of reference, a kind of homeland that always follows us loaded into the vector of our personal auto-mobility. The two concepts of vector and topos, basic elements of the ontological substance of the automobile, are the denotations (Hejlm, 2002: 5) in car design semiotics, while more complex social and cultural connotations define the shape of our cars, either being the voitures à vivre born out of Roland Barthes’ turn from an alchemy of speed to a relish in driving (Barthes, 1957) or the SUVs and crossovers, dominant typologies in our contemporary social imaginary. Car today is about to undergo a radical change in terms of new propulsion systems and autonomous driving technologies. What are the new signifiers explored in order to express the user experience and interface of an electric vehicle? Will autonomous driving lead us all the way to the ultimate goal of a flexible living-room “on wheels”? Shall a driverless capsule following a certain path but not a certain direction take the shape of a pair of opposite vectors (double-arrow) such as in trains? Shall an automobile disengaged from the road network and flying just over the ground abolish the linearity of movement and take a form of a circular disk which better serves the semiology of an object moving on a horizontal plane to any direction? Is a radical change in our perception of motoring about to bring major typological changes, or our limited receptiveness to morphological innovation may lead to conventional forms of semiosis in order to slow down the pace of visual evolution?


Oosterhuis K., Architecture Goes Wild, 010 Publishers, 2002
Λιαμάδης Γ., Το Αυτοκίνητο ως Διάνυσμα και ως Τόπος, στο 4τροχοί, ειδικό τεύχος Το Μέλλον της Αυτοκίνησης, 2015
Λιαμάδης Γ., Πολιτισμός της Αυτοκίνησης: Design & Styling, University Studio Press, 2013
Hjelm S. I., Semiotics in Product Design, Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= (Retrieved 15/5/2004)
Barthes R., Mythologies, Palladin, 1973

* Greek term topos is used as a synonym for “locus” -instead of “place” or “space”- as able to highlight fine qualities of substance associated with personal elements such as ‘homeland, ‘place of origin’ or even ‘place of birth’ (with permanent rather than ephemeral qualities)

Punctum International Journal of Semiotics, volume 4, number 1, accepted for publication