FRANKFURT -- Sometimes car designers whisper among themselves: "It's a shame we have to put people inside cars."
A few expressed that sentiment last month at the Frankfurt auto show as they looked over the displays and thought about styling trends and the factors that affect their work. Designers are dealing with a host of real-world concerns as they are being called upon more than ever to create new brand identities.
Increasingly, government safety regulations impinge on their whimsy, restricting swoop, curvature, rake and line. And conflicting rules of different countries or continents make "global design" that much more challenging.
But stylists are making the best of new technology in an effort to adapt to regulations and give their brands a design identity.
Julian Thomson, Jaguar Cars' advanced design director, says unbelted-occupant and pedestrian-protection regulations have a big impact on creativity.
"You can see who has good rapport between design and engineering in the final design," Thomson said at the auto show here. "It's not like we have engineering conferences saying, "You can't do this.' But it's not a clean sheet."
Some automakers smoothly incorporate new regulations into their designs; others do it more awkwardly.
"It will be no different than when the 5-mph bumpers were required" in the 1970s, Thomson says.
"At first we had those hideous, gigantic rubber bumpers. But with the second generation, people got used to it and designers were more ready for it."
At a time when the improved quality of all automakers' products threatens to make cars more of a commodity, differentiated design is one way a brand can stand out.
"Carmakers are trying to become more individualistic," says Henrik Fisker, who penned the current generation of Aston Martin coupes before starting his own car company.
"In the past, designers were trying to be all the same because they were nervous and didn't want to take the risk to be different," Fisker says.
He credits Kia for creating "good designs for an affordable car, showing that you can have a cheap car that can still be good."
But Fisker is bothered by a trend toward fascias that are squinting and scowling.
"Designers are being overly aggressive with angry faces and mouths that look super scary," Fisker says. "It's not something that's sustainable because the discussion is of the car industry being socially responsible, and aggression doesn't fit with that."
J Mays, Ford Motor Co.'s group vice president of design, wants the Ford brand's design to be more calm -- even if the Evos concept car that debuted here portrays an aggressive look.
"If we are going to have a brand that wants to be visually premium, I don't think premium screams," Mays says. "I think premium talks in a normal voice. That means downsizing the belt buckle-sized blue oval on the hood and using it more like jewelry."
But Audi exterior designer Cesar Muntada says the faces of cars reveal a brand's iconography.
"The lights, the grille -- it's all identity," Muntada says. "The face is very important for customers. It tells the manufacturer's message for the brand. The eyes of the car can look aggressive, like a cat, which has a purity in how it is focused on what it sees."
Derek Jenkins, chief of design for Mazda North America Operations, believes grille design will become more important. He credits Audi and Citroen for leading the charge.
"The grille is no longer just a hole," he says. "It's got treatment to the grille blades; the logo is more three-dimensional, and it creates depth. Just when you think they can't make the front any more expressive or aggressive or bejeweled, they do."
Jenkins says automakers are experimenting with how to incorporate the smallest details into the brand character.
"You have fine blades tying into air intakes or tying into exhaust elements or around mirrors and window trim," he says.