07/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nissan Cubism

Flipping through my wife's Shape magazine this morning I stumble upon the ad for Nissan's Cube whose misshapen-by-design back door is highlighted by a vanity plate that reads asymtry. Having glimpsed Nissan's daring statement of asymmetry as a concept car a while back in one of the issues of Automobile magazine (a subscription of mine that my wife never flips through, which is, by the way, an asymmetry in our relationship towards each others' mail), I have been on the lookout for a good street peek of the Cube for a while now. And even though on my way to my office I drive past a Nissan dealership, so far I've been able to catch a side view. So, here I am, staring at the ad for Cube in Shape magazine, pondering its unorthodox path to vanity through asymmetry.

"The possibilities are as big as your curiosity," entices the ad. Yes, they certainly are. And one of the possibilities my psychologist-noggin is stuck on is the implications of car design asymmetry on other drivers' attention levels. Sure, new in car sales is like new in any sales. New - whether it's a new shape or just the word "new" on the package - draws attention and provokes curiosity that leads to consumption. As a guy subscribing to Automobile magazine for years now, I check out the pictures of concept cars and take the essentially unread issues to the waiting room of my practice office. So, there's nothing new about new in car design: new cars are designed to get a second look. Cube's different: in its blatant asymmetry it - I hypothesize - arrests the attention.

You see, visual asymmetry is a curious thing. Living in a bio-world of almost universal left-right visual asymmetry (with the exception of, say, the fiddler crab with one huge claw and one small claw), asymmetry - in its suggestion of possible lack of fitness - stands out. Let's face it: we associate a certain degree of facial symmetry with beauty. Furthermore, a case could be made, we expect symmetry. Thus, asymmetry - as a deficit of the expected - is a kind of pattern interruption and, as such, a provocation of mindfulness.

This pattern-interruption effect of asymmetry can be understood in terms of the so-called Zeigarnik effect. Back in the 1920s Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik made the observation that waiters in restaurants only remembered the orders while they were serving them and forgot the information as soon as the order was processed. He concluded that we remember incomplete (or unfinished) information better. Incompletion is asymmetry. If I started a story and didn't finish it, you, as a listener, are more likely to remember the beginning because the beginning without an end is asymmetrical. Beginnings and endings - like bookends - complete the exchange of information.

This kind of informational asymmetry isn't new to advertising. A graduate school professor of mine swore that Winston cigarettes - back in the day - had a jingle on TV that went something like this: "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." The line would be repeated a couple of times but the ad would be suddenly interrupted without completing the verse "Winston tastes good like a (full stop)." According to my professor, this informational asymmetry - this Zeigarnik effect - made viewers obsess on the jingle which was supposed to facilitate cigarette sales. Now, I haven't confirmed any of this. After all it's a blog, not an article for a peer reviewed journal.

No question: the Cube's asymmetry - design-wise - will evoke attention and intrigue. But here's the question that prompted me to type all this up this morning while staring at Cube's asymmetry: will this visual pattern interruption mean more or less safety for the drivers behind the Cube? What is the effect of automobile asymmetry on other drivers' attention levels? Has Nissan explored this? Will car insurance companies see an increase or decrease in rear-end fender-benders for Cube in comparison to other vehicles?

In search for a quick additional perspective on asymmetry, I opened one of the books by Edward De Bono, a visionary psychologist in my opinion. And I find this: "humor arises directly from the asymmetry of patterns." So De Bono links asymmetry to humor. That makes sense. The Cube's kind of comical, cute-comical. Indeed, visual asymmetry ("if you wear one black shoe and one brown shoe," to use De Bono's example) is one of the basic tricks of clowning around. What does this asymmetry-humor connection mean for drivers behind the Cube? That they'll crack up or break out into laughter? Probably not. But will there be an incremental loss of seriousness? And will this added attention be good for drivers' attention or not? Are we better off when we drive on autopilot or off the autopilot? Who knows. The mindlessness of driving on autopilot is useful. But going off the autopilot and becoming mindful - whether its due to a piece of red cloth attached to a piece of lumber sticking out of the truck bed in front of us or to the asymmetry of the Cube - can be a good thing too.

Questions, as you see, abound including the question of whether Cube's asymmetry has been tested through the mind-tunnel equivalent of the wind-tunnel to see if Cube has a differential attentional drag coefficient (to coin a term) in comparison to other cars.

As for the Cube's target demographic - you know, for that partying crowd that is up for tracking down a three-cheese pizza at 2 a.m. inside a personalized interior - I am sure the extra attention won't hurt. Cube is punk. 20 years ago when I was 20, I'd buy this "mobile device" exactly because Cube looks so out-of-the-box. My guess, so would have Edward De Bono, the thinker behind the out-of-the-box (lateral) thinking movement. And, I bet, so would have Picasso.

Pavel Somov, Ph.D., author of "Eating the Moment: 141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeating One Meal at a Time" (New Harbinger, 2008)
Copyright, 2008


I am Right, You are Wrong: from This to the New Renaissance: from Rock Logic to Water Logic, Edward De Bono, 1990.
Nissan Cube ad
Zeigarnik, B.V. (1967). On finished and unfinished tasks. In W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A sourcebook of Gestalt psychology, New York: Humanities Press