Aerodynamic design refers to the science of designing objects in such a way that they experience minimal air resistance, also known as drag, while simultanesously generating either lift or downforce, depending on the application. Engineers achieve this by designing and simulating streamlined shapes that allows air to flow smoothly over the surface of the object, reducing turbulence and drag. This principle is crucial for the design of aircraft, automobiles, and even bicycles. In recent times, the aesthetics of aerodynamic design have become an important consideration in the design of many products, from sports equipment to consumer electronics and this consideration gives these products a distinct look which the general public has become used to. This post is regarding the exploration of this design movement that is going relatively unnoticed while the people are getting used to it at the same time.
While the fundamentals of aerodynamic concepts can be dated back to 2nd and 3rd centuries BC, quantitative theories were developed and used since the 18th century where initially the designs were based on guesswork and unreliable data such as the first aircraft by the Wright brothers. A significant accomplishment in this field came next by Frank Barnwell in his script from 1917 which helped in the design of military aircrafts at the time and this propelled massive developments and progress in the field of aerodynamics relating to shape and materials.
This gives us a nice segue on what factors would aesthetics of aerodynamic design could be described, and that would be the shape, surface texture, materials, and the most important underlying design factor that engineers have to handle, i.e., performance v/s cost.
The most important aspects of aerodynamic design is the shape of the object. A streamlined shape allows air to flow smoothly over the surface, reducing turbulence and drag. This is why many aerodynamically optimized objects have a sleek, angular appearance, with sharp lines and curves that are carefully engineered to direct air flow in a specific direction. Take for example commercial aircrafts, even a small thing like the way the wings of the aircrafts smoothly turn upwards, called a winglet and shown in the image, is an intentional aerodynamic design as it reduces the wingtip drag and improves performance while saving fuel.
This aspect of aerodynamic aesthetic can be noticed significantly when current high performance cars are compared against an old classic car as can be seen in the following two images where one is McLaren Senna 2018 model and the other is Cadillac Eldorado 1959 model.
The next most important consideration in aerodynamic design is the surface texture of the object. A smooth surface allows air to flow more efficiently without separating over the object, reducing turbulence and drag. This is why many aerodynamically optimized objects are finished with a smooth, glossy surface (although not always) which helps to reduce flow separation and improve performance. The texture and shape of the Volvo aerodynamic truck can be seen as a good example of this.
Designing a product to have significant aerodynamic properties usually takes large amount of resources and is thus only carried out in the extreme cases of either high-performance applications, high-efficiency applications, or lightweight applications. This results in these products to use a considerably small set of high-performance engineering materials such as aerospace grade aluminum, titanium, carbon-fiber, and so on. The usage of these materials adds to the aesthetic of aerodynamic design as can be seen in the racing bicycle and accompanying riding helmet, or the Lamborghini Sesto Elemento, all of which are made from carbon-fiber and add to the aesthetic.
But the most significant factor which relates to the aesthetics of aerodynamic design is also the one which all designers and engineers have to stick by at all times, that is performance vs cost. It relates to the aesthetic very strongly because as more and more performance is needed and the lesser and lesser cost restrictions are imposed, it leads to radical aerodynamic designs and thus its aesthetics.
Lets take extreme cases as examples, commercial aircrafts have high cost restrictions while aircrafts made for defense have high performance demands which gives us a Boeing 737 and the radical SR-71 as extreme examples of this while both conforming to the same aesthetic.
Another set of extreme examples considering performance vs cost would be Saab 92 of 1949 which is a pretty old yet very aerodynamic car, and the latest generation 2022 ground-effect F1 cars as shown in the images below.
In conclusion, aerodynamic design plays a crucial role in determining the performance of an object, especially in the case of high-speed vehicles such as aircraft and automobiles. The pursuance of aerodynamic design yields a distinct aesthetic to these products which more often than not is perceived to be pleasing by many.
References and image citations: