Why Your Sneakers and Beauty Products Are Pretending They Came Out of an Auto Factory

rear window
Car Window Icons Show Up in Fashion and BeautyIllustration By Tim Marrs

Artists and designers have always found inspiration in unexpected places: Charles and Ray Eames’s iconic molded plywood chairs were influenced by the design of World War II leg splints. Frank Lloyd Wright looked to nature, presumably nautilus shells, for the design of the Guggenheim. And Andy Warhol was a fanatic for the humble Campbell’s Soup can. But the newest place that creatives are looking for inspiration might be the most unexpected yet: their car windows. I’m talking, of course, about auto-glass codes.

You know the ones I mean. You find them in the bottom corner of your side or front window, usually flanked by a constellation of small black halftone dots (called the “frit”). They’re typically bunched together in an orderly cluster: a combination of circles, numbers, and letters, plus the occasional phrase set in a utilitarian sans serif or monospaced font—the same kind of single-width digital letters you might see on a receipt or in a Nineties movie about hackers. In the auto-glass industry, this conglomerate of symbols and information is called a “bug.”

These bugs aren’t meant to be noticed, and they definitely aren’t deliberately design-forward (though automakers do occasionally embed playful ‘Easter eggs’ into window glass). That said, they do communicate significant information. Almost half of the symbols on auto glass signify certain safety certifications, each required by a different regulatory body or region (think of the E.U. organic leaf and the USDA seal). One of the largest symbols, and one of the most frequently mimicked, is the circled letter “E,” which signifies compliance with European Union regulations, where the number represents the country that granted the approval (Germany gets 1; France, 2; Italy, 3; and so on). The oval CCC, on the other hand, stands for “China Compulsory Certificate” and is mandatory on both Chinese-manufactured and foreign-imported goods from auto glass to tires to fire-fighting equipment. Other marks note whether a glass is tempered or laminated, when it was made, who manufactured it, and, sometimes, what car brand it’s been made for.


While laminated glass has been used in windshields since the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the formation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1970, under the auspices of the Department of Transportation, that the United States saw a concerted effort to standardize and enhance automotive safety standards. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 205, which specifies the requirements for automotive glazing materials, is one such regulation aimed at ensuring that auto glass is safe and does not contribute to injuries in the event of a crash.


The overall look of all these combined symbols and text is graphic, streamlined, and a bit opaque; clearly designed by experts for experts. But there’s also something unexpectedly playful about it. While each individual component included in the arrangement is practical, orderly, and free of decorative excess, the symbols themselves don’t actually match; each follows its own set of visual rules. The UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) regulation mark includes a thin circular outline, while the CCC text is surrounded by a bold oval. All the typography is sans serif, but it’s not all the same sans serif. It’s a quirky patchwork of almost matching forms, a juxtaposition of functional simplicity with eclectic ornamentation. Karina Yazylyan, a designer in Moscow whose thesis project “The Aesthetics of Technical Information” focuses on the aesthetic value of enigmatic labeling like that found on auto glass, also notes that since most consumers are unable to “read” the content of these various symbols and phrases, the text is instead perceived simply as a graphic composition, a set of vibey shapes.

Designers’ contemporary reinterpretations of this automotive normcore, as it’s come to be known, vary widely—some faithfully replicate the exact forms and layout of the car window, while others use these icons as a springboard to make their own structured lockups of geometric symbols, phrases, and shapes. The trend has shown up in more industries than not in the last few years: luxury speakers, Gen-Z-friendly makeup, South Korean streetwear, and just about anything from Nike. It’s visually related to a larger shift in the design world toward utilitarian visual cues, like the use of visible legalese, UV printer typography, or stylized barcodes, albeit more obscure in provenance.

2am skincare
2AM Skincare

Mike Smith, founder of Philadelphia-based design studio Smith & Diction, used automotive normcore motifs in a recent branding project for AI-search startup Perplexity. He felt the style was an effective choice for the app—which is targeted at more high-tech, code-savvy users than other AI tools like ChatGPT—as it conveyed “that the content was highly technical, not necessarily for the average consumer, simply through its visual vernacular.”