Something happened recently that almost broke the internet: the Tesla Cybertruck reveal. Going in we knew that Tesla’s truck would be unique and stand out. Elon had been warning us that it looked like something from Bladerunner after all, but that didn’t stop the collective freak-out we saw in the media and online. That is … until about 48 hours later when a common refrain started showing up: “It’s kind of growing on me.”
We’ve seen this happen before … and as a designer myself, I’m fascinated when I see this kind of thing play out, so I thought it’d be fun to take a closer look. Why is it that we seem to hate something viscerally at first, and then come to love it a little while later? And is this design really … that … bad?
Regardless of whether you love or hate the look of the Tesla Cybertruck, it’s getting a lot of attention for how different it is. The feedback has been polarizing and swift. With non-stop memes showing up on social media and a lot of “hate it” comments on my Cybertruck video.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to everyone, because it’s been well studied and documented, but humans hate change. We’re hardwired in our DNA to fear new things because those new things might want to harm us. There’s also a societal angle with all of us collectively agreeing what’s pretty, what’s ugly, and what’s normal. Stray too far out from that and you might get shamed or shunned by others.
Tom Vanderbilt wrote a book called, “You May Also Like,” which explores taste and how they came to be. In an interview in The Atlantic1 he said something that gets right to the point:
“There’s no silver bullet theory for explaining anyone’s taste. It’s always a mixture of exposure, of culture, of a person’s personality. And none of these are particularly static or fixed. The nice thing about tastes is that they are subject to change. We can kind of always be reinventing them and reinventing ourselves a little bit.”
The key is exposure. There are plenty of examples that you can look at to see how this has played out before. A good example from just a few years ago would be Apple AirPods. When those were first announced there were so many memes.2 So many reaction articles about how ugly and goofy they were.
I have a friend that mocked me for wanting to get a pair because of how stupid they look … only to have him excited about getting a pair six months later. He still thought they looked silly, but got used to them and loved how they worked. AirPods are the best selling wireless earbud on the market and will sell around 50 million of them this year. That’s an $8 billion revenue stream.3 And now we also have a slew of other truly wireless earbuds to choose from.4 Taste is is subject to change.
You can even see this trend in movies. Tying this back to the Cybertruck directly: Bladerunner. That’s considered a classic sci-fi film, and often regarded as one of the best, but it was a total flop when it was released. The 1982 film cost $28 million to make and only made $6 million in its opening weekend. And while reviews were mixed when it came out, in time the film finally started to catch on and grew a tremendous following in home video. And even more importantly, Bladerunner changed the look of sci-fi movies forever.5 You can see the influences in everything from The Fifth Element to The Matrix films. Taste is subject to change.
So how does this apply directly to the Cybertruck? Well, many of the memes and comments are about how simplistic it looks. A five-year/old could have designed it. Or my personal favorite, comparing it to Homer Simpson’s car.6 As funny as these are, it’s the shock of seeing a truck so different from what we’ve been used to for almost 100 years.
I was shocked too, but as a designer myself, we have to train ourselves to ignore that reaction and evaluate a design as objectively as possible. All designers are looking to make something unique that absolutely nails the desired features of that product. But we’re also balancing how that thing has to be made and maintained along with how it looks and works. When it’s done well, it looks and feels effortless.
So when I looked at the truck, I immediately started to spin my wheels to try and understand why it ended up looking the way it does. To try and understand the full design of the truck … not just the looks. Over my career I’ve learned that when something feels effortless to use, or looks incredibly simple, it wasn’t easy to pull that off. I like to call it deceptive simplicity.
From a great Motortrend interview with Tesla’s chief designer, Franz von Holzhausen:
To the unpracticed eye, the lines of a Cybertruck may look basic, like a kid’s Tangram puzzle spilt on the dining room table. But it actually owes more to very complicated modern-era military design—from the F-22 stealth fighter to the Zumwalt-class destroyer. “People will argue that this is overly simplistic. I call it un-design,” Franz said in a recent interview. “Erasing the normalizing of design out of our heads was a long, drawn-out process. We started out with a shape like this, then we had to go all around the world to come back again to this. It’s so foreign from what we’ve done.”7
It’s something that’s been haunting me since the reveal, and that I can’t stop thinking about with the truck’s design. And as a designer, I always find it frustrating that we collectively use the word “design” to mean how something looks … the aesthetics. Design is the whole enchilada. It’s how it works. It’s how it’s meant to be used. It’s the material choices and how it’s put together. And, yes,… it’s also the looks. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some immensely talented UI/UX designers in my career. And while I work in software, not hardware and manufacturing, all great designers understand the whole system. They understand the technologies used to build what they’re designing, so they know the constraints and limitations that computer engineers will need to be working with. They understand what the business requirements are. They understand what the users want and need the product to be able to do. All of these things influence the look of the final product. And this is where the Tesla Cybertruck absolutely blows me away.
Elon has spoken at length in past interviews about how they apply first principles thinking at Tesla, which is about breaking down complicated problems to generate original solutions. If you’re trying to build a truck and using first principles thinking, you’d be asking yourself what features from a truck are important and creating a list of those things to include. Then figuring out the best method to deliver on those features without being constrained by the way things have been done for the past 100 years. You’d also be trying to account for how to keep manufacturing costs down, as well as the overall weight to improve range. Remember, Tesla said the Cybertruck weighs about the same as the Ford F-150, and that’s including the heavy battery pack.8
A friend of the channel, who has a background in aeronautical and structural engineering, gave me some of his insights, which zeroed in on how the design isn’t your typical form over function … it’s function over form.
Since they’re trying to maximize space and strength, as well as keep the total number of parts to a minimum, they went with their 30X Cold Rolled Stainless Steel, which is the same material used in the SpaceX starship. It’s so hard that it would break the stamping presses used in shaping typical truck and car panels. They have to score the material and then bend in straight lines.
Only being able to bend in straight lines leads to the triangular design. Triangles the strongest shape you can use.9 It’s why you see it used in bridges so often because it helps to spread the load throughout the structure. So the Cybertruck’s triangular, truss-like body should give it a lot of strength.
In the end it’s like an oragami truck. The benefit is strength and rigidity from the stainless steel and triangular design. A secondary benefit is that you don’t need large and expensive stamping machinery to build the truck, so it should be cheaper to manufacture.10
It’s pretty clear that by taking this approach, they didn’t need to be constrained by standard body on frame designs, like in the Ford F-150. The YouTube channel, Design Prototype Test, put together a fantastic video detailing the difference between a typical truck frame vs. the Cybertruck. It’s worth checking out. There’s no need for a drive shaft from the front of the truck to the rear wheels, which means no driveshaft tunnel the length of the truck. And since there’s no ladder-like frame that the cabin, truck bed, and engine box are sitting on, the seating can be lowered and the overall height of the truck can be reduced. And the simplified exoskeleton means fewer parts and a weight reduction, which helps to compensate for the weight of the battery pack.
When you look at the truck objectively, it’s pure pragmatic brilliance. Or deceptive simplicity. There’s way more than meets the eye with the truck. Does that mean I think it’s a beautiful truck? No, I’m still getting used to it like everyone else. But I’m also a fan of Halo, Bladerunner, and Back to the Future, so I might get some geeky enjoyment out of it. There’s beauty in pragmatism. There’s beauty in simplicity. And in time, it may become beautiful to all of us. We just have to give it time and let our brains adjust. Taste is subject to change, after all.
8: Elon Musk from the reveal event, “It doesn’t look like anything else. So we’ll start off with the size, the dimensions. And the inspiration. So the functionality I’m going to describe is within a space that is less than the most popular pickup truck in the United States, the F150. So we didn’t cheat in either width, height, or length, and we’re able to achieve much greater capability in the same dimensions, same weight. Yeah. Part of this is the fundamental design change, we moved the mass to the outside. We created an exoskeleton.”