Sustainable Design

Navigating the Charge: Balancing Aesthetics and Practicality in EV Street Chargers

May 10, 2024

As electric cars gain increasing popularity on the roads, the corresponding infrastructure to support them is also expanding. This progression marks a significant step toward a more sustainable future. This essential infrastructure such as street chargers must be readily available for us to achieve a greener future with reduced emissions from transportation. This is how we ensure electric vehicles can offer the same level of convenience as the traditional combustion engine.

But are we doing it in the right way?

When considering street chargers, while they may contribute positively to reducing car pollution, some may say that they introduce another form of pollution. This includes visual pollution and safety concerns for pedestrians.

As a product design consultancy, we thrive on innovation, especially when it presents more sustainable options. Naturally, we're drawn to the shift towards electric transportation. Being problem solvers is ingrained in us, we tackle challenges for our clients every day. So, when we see problems, we can’t help but talk about them and think of alternative solutions.

Hence the reason for this blog.

We are going to examine EV street chargers, exploring the benefits they bring as well as the issues, and provide our insights on how they may be improved.

Above shows an example of the kind of EV chargers we are seeing on the streets today. It’s fair to say these big bulky chargers look out of place on the street and bring little benefit other than car charging.

Industrial Design and Electric Car charging

As seen in the image above, these chargers are being installed in public spaces, often directly in front of homes, causing a significant visual impact for residents. Currently, it seems that little product design consideration has been given to these chargers. Instead, their bulky design serves primarily as a marketing tool for the companies producing them and their function is solely charging cars.

One might argue that since their sole function is to charge cars, what's the problem?

After all, petrol stations aren't known for their aesthetic appeal, so what sets these street chargers apart?

The key distinction lies in their placement, unlike petrol stations, these chargers are situated in highly visible and residential areas, making them unavoidable.

While there are several issues to consider, here are our primary concerns:

1.     Since they occupy public spaces, why should their benefits be exclusive to those charging a car? There's potential to enhance the experience for pedestrians and nearby residents, even if it simply involves providing something visually pleasing to look at.

2.     They often don't fit in or compliment with the surrounding architecture. In a quaint street filled with lovely old homes, a bulky street charger can stand out like a sore thumb and ruin the visual appeal.

3.     They pose potential safety risks. Creating blind spots and obstructing pedestrians' visibility of oncoming cars when crossing the road and vice versa.

Designing EV Chargers for All

Street chargers offer a convenient solution for EV owners to charge their vehicles without extensive travel. However, they become unavoidable fixtures for everyone in the vicinity, yet benefiting only those seeking to charge their EVs.

As product designers, it's crucial to consider all stakeholders and their interactions with the product. While primary stakeholders may include the direct users, secondary stakeholders, such as those forced to interact with the product just because it’s there, are equally important. In cases like street chargers, design should cater to the needs of all, ensuring both user satisfaction and commercial success.

If you’re a business selling a product, even if your product serves the primary users well and functions as intended, if it causes issues for the secondary set of users (those who have to interact with it just because it’s there) then your company image can be harmed. For businesses, even if a product effectively serves primary users and functions as intended, if it creates issues for secondary users, it can damage the company's reputation.

To address this issue, it's important to incorporate proper design thinking into the creation of these chargers. A visually appealing design that complements the surrounding area's aesthetic would be enough to please not only EV owners but also passers-by and nearby residents.

However, there's potential to go beyond aesthetics. These chargers could offer direct benefits to everyone, not just EV owners. This could involve integrating street furniture, incorporating interactive displays providing local information such as maps or history, or even offering shelter and shade, or USB charging ports for pedestrians.

Above is a concept we sketched here at FLYNN for an EV charger that not only provides visual appeal but provides seating for passers-by. Taking a modern and futuristic design direction we feel this is a concept that would look right at home in a modern city centre between the skyscrapers.

Design Language

Getting the design language right is key.

Electric street chargers might contribute to reducing emissions, but they also introduce another form of pollution: visual pollution. Currently, most EV chargers follow one of two design directions. The first involves a large, bulky black box, while the second consists of a similarly bulky box decorated with company logos and bright, in your face colours. Neither option is particularly appealing, especially to residents living nearby.

The rationale behind these designs is understandable, the black box is cost-effective and quick to design and implement, while the logo-covered box serves as a marketing tool for the company.

However, we believe that beautiful design doesn't have to come at a high cost. In fact, designing and manufacturing an aesthetically pleasing product often costs about the same as creating a simpler, unattractive one. Moreover, brand recognition can be achieved through a distinctive design language and user satisfaction, rather than relying solely on bright colours and logos.

Design is all about considering the broader context and solving problems in a way that offers intuitive solutions seamlessly integrated into their intended environment. It's a delicate balance between aesthetics and functionality. While there may be cases where one aspect outweighs the other, more often than not, both are essential, and achieving balance is key. A product may excel in terms of performance, but if it's inconvenient to use and lacks visual appeal, user satisfaction will be low.

How Do You Design an EV Charger So It Doesn’t Look Out of Place?

This is an example of some street chargers near us and whilst there are definitely worse looking chargers out there, these still lookout of place, their boxy design with huge colourful logos quickly gets tiresome to look at for the surrounding residents.

The most important thing is to consider the environment in which its going and draw inspiration for the design from that.

For instance, if the product is intended for installation near a park, taking inspiration from nature would be fitting. Incorporating flowing lines inspired by tree branches or patterns reminiscent of a spider's web or ripples on water could be effective.

(See another of our blogs, "Harnessing Nature's Brilliance: How Biomimicry Inspires Innovative Design", to delve deeper into utilizing nature's solutions in design.)

On the other hand, if the product will be situated in a city environment, using straight lines and angular shapes like to those found in modern skyscrapers would be more appropriate. Utilizing materials such as concrete, glass, and steel, which are commonly seen in the surrounding infrastructure, can help integrate the product seamlessly into its urban surroundings.

Considering the intended environment and purpose, and allowing these factors to inspire the design language, enables the creation of an aesthetically pleasing design that captures attention without appearing out of place.

This is an alternative concept we created at FLYNN, considering the surrounding environment we used forms that complement the nearby buildings, and it uses materials and textures such as artificial grass to tie in with the local greenery. It’s a solution we feel is much more appealing, fits in with the street well, and even has seats incorporated for passers-by who need a break.

EV Chargers and Pedestrian Safety

This image shows the potential danger these EV chargers pose to pedestrians, especially children. A car passing by may not see a child step out to cross the road until it is too late. This a big safety hazard that must be considered in the design of the chargers.

When these chargers are placed in areas with heavy pedestrian traffic or near junctions, they can potentially create blind spots, increasing the likelihood of accidents involving pedestrians, especially children. Many EV chargers come in the form of large boxes, notably bigger than a child. This could lead to a situation where a child preparing to cross a road might remain unnoticed by an oncoming driver until it is too late.

To address these safety concerns, it's crucial to prioritize thoughtful design and placement of public EV chargers. Here are some strategies:

Strategic Placement: Public electric car chargers should be strategically placed to ensure that they do not obstruct drivers' sightlines at pedestrian crossings, junctions, or other high-pedestrian-traffic areas. This requires collaboration between urban planners, transportation departments, and charging infrastructure providers.

Height and Form: Charger designs that are slim and unobtrusive are less likely to create visibility issues. Tall and thinner or smaller charging stations can lead to improved visibility around the charger, reducing the risk of accidents. A key factor to think about while shaping the external form of the charger is whether a child stood behind it could be seen or not.

Clear Signage: Proper signage indicating the presence of charging stations can help both drivers and pedestrians remain alert to potential hazards, fostering a safer environment for everyone.

Now its worth mentioning all these improvements we have mentioned throughout the blog should not come at a cost to the primary function of these chargers, which is a convenient way of charging electric cars. This avital requirement if we want a greener future through low emission transport. Every thing we have spoken about should be in addition to this.

We feel with a little extra thought and effort this is easily achievable. Offering green solutions that benefits all can improve people’s perception of sustainability increasing their likely hood to make more environmentally friendly decisions. Its design decisions like the ones spoken about in this blog that will help us create a sustainable future for the generations to come.

So, if you work in the EV industry and feel you need a fresh set of eyes to assist with creating a new kind of charging solution, why not reach out. We’d love to hear from you and see how we could use our expertise to help.

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