Polarise, disturb, or please. Stand out or blend in? Modern mountain bikes are full of new technologies and innovations, yet many of them look very similar, or are even hard to distinguish at first glance. The design plays a decisive role in this in many respects. What’s going on here?
We’ve all seen the endless “looks like a Session” comments underneath new bike launches. Of course, these comments and jokes are not entirely unfounded, seeing as lots of modern bikes look almost indistinguishable at first glance, both in-house and compared to other brands. Why is that? Why do our bikes look the way they do? Why can you recognise a Santa Cruz from a mile away, and why does the colour turquoise bring a specific bike brand to mind?
Why bike design is so important
Considering the sheer mass of bikes and over 100 different brands, it’s hard to stand out and stick in people’s minds. A distinctive design decides whether a brand gets seen or overlooked, triggering emotional reactions. It doesn’t matter whether the design polarises, disturbs or is quite pleasing to the eye – an easily recognisable design promotes sales.
In the best case, the bike’s look doesn’t just increase brand awareness, but also to some extent reflects the values and image of the company, often doing so subconsciously. Spanish bike brand UNNO, whose bikes have caused quite a stir and garnered lots of attention in recent years, clearly demonstrate the level of importance they attach to modern and polarising design with a futuristic and striking look. SCOTT’S developers are increasingly hiding the shocks and cables inside the bike, making the bike look like one integrated unit. Integration is at the top of the Swiss brand’s list of priorities. In contrast, bikes like the RAAW Madonna place full emphasis on functionality and handling, with a simple, industrial look and no bling-bling or frills. That’s just to name three examples of modern bike companies whose credo is manifested in the design language of their bikes.
How much (if at all) attention a brand pays to its design, and what it wants to achieve by doing so, depends on its philosophy and its means, of course, because there are a lot of other ways to shape a brand’s image. For example, bikes from CUBE and Canyon are known for their affordability and sales concept, which is how they manage to stay in our heads.
Why do so many bikes look so similar?
Unlike many other products, bike frames aren’t just incredibly functional and form the basis of every bike, but also determine the bike’s look. This comes with unique challenges, though it also offers the bike companies certain opportunities since it allows them to place much greater and more obvious emphasis on their technology. Whereas with a car, the technical innovation is hidden under the body panels, quite independent of the exterior design, a bike’s shape and structure are interlinked.
If you look at the design of a bike, the rear suspension concept plays a massive role. In other words: the linkage, kinematics, and position of the shock. The options are far more limited than the number of bikes out there – at least at first glance. So, you’ll obviously see single-pivots, Horst links, or four-bar linkages on many different bikes from different brands. Then, of course, there is the frame material, which has a decisive influence on the shape and look of the frame. Again, the possibilities are limited, and most of the bikes we ride today are made of either aluminium or carbon.
Of course, both the rear suspension concept and the choice and finish of the frame material offer ways to stand out from the crowd or develop something entirely new that no one has ever dared to try. But what is much more exciting is that manufacturers usually don’t just choose the look of a single bike, but of their entire product range, incorporating all their expertise while also trying to minimise costs, of course. So, a concept and the technology it relies on doesn’t just have to work for one model, but for the entire product portfolio – otherwise, the brand recognition factor would suffer. This overarching design aspect gives brands the opportunity to really stand out from the crowd. As such, you’ll often find the same head tube or seat stay proportions and shapes on the whole range, giving a series of models their true recognition value in combination with the rear suspension concept and choice of frame material. This uniformity has the practical side effect for the manufacturers: since all or at least a large part of the bikes of a brand are developed and produced in a similar way, they can cut their design and procurement costs. It also simplifies the procurement of spare parts for consumers, as the same applies to the technical solutions, like the cable clamps, frame protectors, and bearings.
Bike design and brands through the ages
Bike designs inevitably have to move with the times and thus undergo change. It’s crucial to not fall behind technologically, implement improvements, and shape the current brand image. New design aspects allow current models to be set apart from their predecessors and thereby create further selling points.
One of the most striking examples here are SCOTT. Through step-by-step development, the shock on the Spark moved from a vertical to a horizontal position, and then ultimately became fully integrated into the frame. One year after the introduction of the new, fully integrated design of the Spark, the Swiss brand adopted it for their trail bike, the Genius ST, and we can expect that their enduro bike, the Ransom, will follow suit, thereby continuing SCOTT’s new line-up and strengthening the brand’s recognition value.
The same goes for Santa Cruz, which all tend to look pretty similar from a distance. One bike after the other, almost the entire portfolio adopted the striking VPP rear end concept with its low-lying shock. The Nomad 4 was the first bike with this look in 2017, inspired by the rear end of the V10 downhill bike, and just 6 years later, 9 of the 11 full-suspension MTBs in their line-up feature this design, making them almost indistinguishable from each other.
In contrast, Trek have taken a completely different approach despite inspiring the “looks like a Session” movement. Their new Fuel EX – which was launched last year – seems to have little in common with the newly introduced Slash and its high-pivot rear end. Of course, you’ll find subtle similarities in the shape of the stays, the head tube, and other details, but the recognition factor of the various model ranges is a lot less striking compared to SCOTT or Santa Cruz.
However, certain designs like a high-pivot rear end don’t make sense for every discipline, making it difficult to transfer to a light trail bike, for example. That’s because the supposed advantages of certain rear-end concepts – like the rearward axle path making a high-pivot rear more capable in the rough – may make sense on an enduro or downhill bike, but not on a cross-country or trail bike where other riding characteristics are more important.
So, to what extent do the designs of a bike influence its performance and is this still being prioritised during the development of modern bikes? What compromises are brands willing to make just to achieve a certain recognition value or to align models with their product range? There are different ways that brands approach this: for example, Santa Cruz develop their bikes specifically with one wheel size in mind, so they’re not convertible like you’ll find with some other brands, which offers clear advantages in terms of handling and for a specific use case. On the other hand, all of their bikes rely on the same VPP rear end, whether it’s a 120mm XC bike, a heavy eMTB, or a 170mm bikepark bike.
It’s up to you as the customer to decide how important the look and design of a bike is, since there are many other criteria on which to ultimately base your decision, such as the general brand image, service network, community projects such as get-togethers, or just the availability of a bike.
What will the bike design of the future look like?
What does the future hold? The massive increase in sales in recent years has led to rapid development on the market, of course. The steadily increasing demand for sustainable products also means that more and more companies are relying on recyclable materials, new production methods, and changed production processes, like moving production from Asia closer to the actual market, for example. Of course, this regionalisation and its associated adjustments also have an influence on bike design, though it’s usually difficult to recognise.
The use of new materials, and small-batch friendly manufacturing processes such as lugged carbon frame construction open up new technical possibilities, and significantly improve the speed, and cost of prototyping and small-scale production. If you’d like to learn more about this aspect, you should definitely check out our dedicated article on alternative production methods.
On the other hand, we’re seeing more and more platform approaches for increased cost-efficiency and speed. This is something that has been borrowed from the automotive sector and is primarily relevant for bike brands with large investors and huge product ranges. By transferring existing technologies, such as the VPP rear linkage or MERIDA’s FAST suspension, developing new bikes is much easier, faster, and more cost-effective. Smaller details and design aspects can also be carried over, including small parts such as bearings, which can be ordered in bigger quantities and thus offer economies of scale. Of course, end users also benefit from easier procurement of spares and reduced development costs, insofar as the savings are passed on to the customers.
The standardisation that we’ve hoped for and seen in recent years regarding the dimensions of certain components such as hub widths is now increasingly spreading to the development of frames or entire frame platforms, and will hopefully save us a lot of money, resources, and nerves in the future. Will this make the bike designs of the future boring and uniform? That remains to be seen. However, it’s clear that the bike industry is full of innovative and creative minds and there’s no stopping development. But the tinkerers and individualists will also play their part, and if you want an entirely unique bike that stands out from the crowd, you will always find custom options if you’re willing to pay for them, though you will usually have to resort to smaller brands who are able to produce small batches or one-offs.
Design can and must go with the times, because the values and philosophy on which a brand are based are constantly evolving too. In doing so, it’s up to every brand to strike the right balance between functionality, design, and recognition value. The crux of it all is integrating innovations and coming up with fresh new looks, without rocking the boat or changing the customers’ perception of the brand too much or in the wrong way.
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Words & Photos: Peter Walker