Ads that don’t add up

Insights on mystified outlooks

A column by Michael Erlhoff

When trundling through many cities by streetcar nowadays, there is an experience we all have: The temptation of looking out of the window, which makes streetcars so much more appealing than underground subways, a view expected to paint the city in question in prime colors, gets pixelated and is rendered impossible given the various color particles on the windows. The view is trashed, only revealing colored shadows of the city vista. Seen from the outside the phenomenon is quickly explained: The sides and even the windows in many streetcars are completely covered with spray paint of foils – courtesy of the ad men. In each case the specific arrangement of colors is intended to advertise something. After all, public transport has at least partially morphed into being a medium for adverts and this will no doubt will increasingly be the case. For football clubs, detergents, and much more besides.
Quickly, as an aside: There was a time when the colorful impact on buildings and means of transport caused by the use of spray paint was a punishable offense if you were caught, today it’s become decidedly fashionable and the advertisers love it.
But back to the problem of streetcars painted from the outside. One could rightly object here that this public means of transport has as it were always functioned as advertising. Precisely for the respective city through the public space of which it moved. Namely as a substantive part of the corporate design, meaning the very present self-image of the city in question. These vehicles were always colorful, usually painted in the colors of the city in question. For example, in red and white in Cologne. If you arrived there from somewhere else, you knew where you were at the latest on spotting a streetcar.

In this way, the streetcars and their paint jobs functioned as advertising for their respective home, for the city that they represented. It was just that this referred to the city itself and prompted a certain sense of pleasure or the satisfaction that you were home again or at least knew in which city you had landed. – Which strangely enough has even always applied to that city in which the complete use of the streetcar for business advertising was invented, namely Hong Kong. 

Because in Hong Kong Central, meaning the southern part of the large city, for decades now those stubby double-decker streetcars run (always one car only) down the long and largely straight tracks that with no exception have always been completely painted over with ads. But since they are open-air, there are no windows and thus no views out that can disturbed. And they have a quite different feel to them, and is simply a long-standing part of Hong Kong’s identity, because it is so old and was for so long unique world-wide. And is one of the typical themes on touristy photos and in publications by and about Hong Kong.  This was the case for many years and has remained so to this day because of the quirky format of the streetcars themselves.

None of this obviously applies as regards the new municipal ad-streetcars. They may be technically more mature, as the word would have it, in terms of color choices, but probably only because among other things that makes them that much more obtrusive and unsightly. Evidently there has for some time now been a technology that enables the entire vehicle including the windows to be swiftly coated with colored motifs, a fact that has led among those who operate the networks commercially, to a euphoria of colored coverings for streetcars. No part of this seems anything like halfway thought-through in design terms and the result is only that neither can we enjoy an unobstructed view out of the window nor do we know when spotting a streetcar in what city we happen to be.

One could of course argue here that there have been ads on means of public transportation for some time now. Bad enough, since they were ugly, even if they were only banners hung between the windows and the lower edge of the cars advertising some product or service. But they did not destroy the overall impression and distinctive colors of the vehicles. Meaning completely ruined the overall design of public transport systems.

Because in actual fact all means of public transportation include and articulate design to a considerable degree. After all, such vehicles involve highly complex design tasks as regards the interior (the seats, the standing room, sometimes ticket automats and equipment to frank tickets, the lighting, the handles, the entire arrangement of the driver’s cab including the relevant controls, the buttons to press if you want to get off, those that open the doors, the opening mechanism itself that regulates people getting on and off, not to forget the sounds of movement, the announcement of forthcoming stops, and all the invisible driving technology. Then there’s the external presence and technology, meaning the overall appearance, the catenaries, the lights, the comfort provided, and a whole lot more besides. And last but not least the windows and the view they offer.

Now, people in cultures driven by industry have long since had to become accustomed to how ads intervene in public space. Everywhere you look billboards and those vertically or horizontally revolving back-lit images block the view and have long since rendered all manner of architecture confusing. Which is not per se irritating, after all did not an artist such as Andy Warhol start out as a poster painter. Somehow all that is now part and parcel of the visual culture of urban space, albeit with the inconsolable tendency to ensure that as part of globalization in advertising, too, all cities look pretty similar.

However, the thing with the streetcars and the ads that even bar us from looking out, turning the car into a bunker, is simply perfidious. Other than for those who don’t bother looking round anyway, but stare exclusively at their Smartphones.

In this way, advertising is unscrupulously destroying the design of streetcars and of urbanity as a whole. But stop! Who designs the adverts for those places in town? Evidently designers do. Because of course advertising is likewise completely and utterly a matter of design. Which in our case of the streetcar simply means that here designers are so busy occupied with the ads and their colored surfaces on the streetcars that they thoroughly destroy or at least trouble the designs created by other designers. Meaning in design strangely the one side is busy fighting the other. To the detriment of those who have to live with the results. Any amount of introspection won’t give you a view of the outside world.

Michael Erlhoff

He is an author, design theorist, corporate consultant, curator and organizer; he has been, among other things, CEO of the German Design Council, Advisory Council member of documenta 8 and Founding Dean (and until 2013 professor at) of the Köln International School of Design/KISD. Erlhoff was founder of the Raymond Loewy Foundation, is a founding member of the German Society of Design Theory and Research and as a visiting professor heads projects and workshops at universities in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney. Since 2016 he teaches as an honorary professor at the Braunschweig University of Fine Arts.