Imagine Michelangelo being forced to paint on a surface many times smaller than the actual square footage of the Sistine Chapel. What if DaVinci’s Mona Lisa was brushed onto a tiny one-foot-square canvas? Or in today’s terms, what would it be like to view the Super Bowl on a small, 9-inch black-and-white television?
In essence, this is the dilemma faced by those who practice the art of sidewall design on automobile tires. Their "canvas" is small and dull, and the first requirement of the sidewall is to be functional, rather than artistic.
Paul Maxwell, principal designer at The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, knows this challenge well. He has been sketching tire designs freehand and electronically since the ‘80s, and has witnessed incredible change in tire technology.
"It’s likely that the average consumer doesn’t understand the degree of sophistication that is engineered into tires," Maxwell said. "Engineers have to create tires that can go faster, last longer, handle more stresses from both higher-powered vehicles and consumer abuse, and deal with extreme ranges in temperature and road surfaces.
"And on the appearance end of things, we must make tires look better at the same time, because the cars to which they’re mounted are becoming increasingly more stylish."
These style challenges for Goodyear’s designers especially come forward at this time of year auto show season.
On the Detroit show floor during this year’s North American International Auto Show, Goodyear’s considerable presence is evident across several automotive manufacturers. Among the show-stopping vehicles outfitted with Goodyear tires are these 2007 concepts: Jeep Trailhawk, Ford Interceptor and Chrysler Nassau.
So how do designers make a black rubber tire visually appealing?
That circle also is getting thinner in appearance as the diameter of wheels a component that tire designers admit is much more stimulating expands, causing some low-profile performance tires to appear as large black rubber bands wrapped around flashy silver wheels.
Goodyear designers use many tricks of the trade to produce appealing sidewalls. This includes the frequent use of serrated textures that provide a contrast between the raised ridges and smooth areas. This element provides an extra level of detail to the sidewall and allows lighting to give such tires a different appearance.
It is a practice that some consumers appreciate, while most probably never notice which is a good thing.
"We admit that most consumers don’t give a second thought to tire sidewalls. It’s a comparison to an umpire in baseball; if no one even notices the umpire during a game, he’s probably doing a good job," explained Maxwell. "Likewise, if we have done our jobs well, people won’t necessarily notice, but if they do, they see value and distinction."
Design engineers know that minor differences such as a stylized sidewall or distinctive tread pattern can separate a tire from the pack and make it unique. Sometimes, the style can be drastic enough that the tire becomes an icon.
In tread design, Goodyear accomplished this with its original Aquatred tire (a deep, distinctive center groove) and its current TripleTred tires (aggressive, sweeping "Aquachutes" that run directionally outward from the center of the tread). In sidewall design, one of the most creative tires is the Goodyear Fortera SL, which features artistic swirl patterns on the tire’s sidewall.
On most vehicles, a tire is virtually the only visible component displaying a manufacturer’s brand name that is separate from the vehicle manufacturer. It becomes, in essence, a rolling billboard for the tire maker.
The tire also must carry extensive detail according to government regulations size, speed rating, load rating, date and place of manufacture, maximum inflation pressure and more. Including this information on the sidewall becomes a challenge as the low-profile trend continues.
Offering assistance to Goodyear designers in the challenging task of tire styling are marketing colleagues, tire retailers and consumer focus groups all providing valuable feedback.
For more tire information on Goodyear tires, go to www.goodyeartires.com.