I admit it: I’m one of those poor souls who likes to indulge myself in the fiction that there’s something called “the online design community.” And (in what is probably a still greater admission of my own naivete) I believe in both the possibility and the worth of associating with this diverse and international scatter of people on message boards.
I do this because, well, I love design. More to the point, I crave design talk: who’s influenced who, what tools do you use, what trends do you observe, what rocks your world, and so forth.
I get a lot out of this discourse. The signal-to-noise ratio of this particular subset of the Internet has always tilted strongly towards meaning.
Until fairly recently, that is, when I started to notice a new feeling creeping into the sites I frequented. In what were nominally gathering places to discuss and celebrate online design, design seemed to be just about the last thing on anyone’s mind.
This is what you want, this is what you get.
What were people posting on? Let’s just say that, between unchecked misogyny, the impotent fantasies, the retread gangsta speech stylings, and the ruminations on which portal does or does not suck, these places have started to feel more like a junior high school cafeteria than creative communities. (Old Dreamless heads, with their memories of what that good grey place felt like towards the end, will understand just what I mean.)
Finally, someone on one of the sites—unfortunately, someone I’m unable to identify, otherwise I would give credit where it is so richly due—twigged to the single most significant reason why this should be. This wise person pointed out the simple fact that the majority of the people who were posting to this board are not designers, in any strict sense, nor are they interested in design per se.
I think this would come as a shock to most of those in question, who seem to identify more or less strongly with the D-word. But I happen to agree. And that’s just what I’m wanting to talk about here.
The long road to now
I think there’s a common misperception, especially among the younger cohort online, that design is an endeavor that concerns the decoration of a surface in an attempt to achieve aesthetic distinction or beauty.
That the surface in question is a flat-panel screen probably brings its own complications, but I’m not wanting to rock it inna McLuhan stylee at the moment. I’m merely concerned with elucidating a distinction between design and something else, something which I’ll name in a little bit.
Let me see if I can make my point a little more concretely, so that it doesn’t begin to degenerate into mere bitter-old-fart acidity: I believe that success in design strongly implies a satisfying the requirements of a user. This is what distinguishes it from art or self-expression, and in the West, anyway, we went through several centuries of refinement to arrive at this understanding.
Those centuries were characterized by what I can’t help but see as a clear teleology, a gradient one might call “progress” if one was so inclined. Within the meta-field of design—something that to me encompasses graphic design, typography, industrial design, interior design, architecture, fashion, even gardening, maybe even cuisine—you’d have to be pretty thick to miss the broad movement towards utility, simplicity, and clarity.
Clean lines for the Family of Man
Out with the black–letter, in with the sans serif. Say goodbye to the ruffle, the flourish, the filigree, and hello to ferroconcrete and white space: a vast oversimplification, inevitably, but I think it captures something real.
In some cases, this may have been driven by a plain love for the clean line, the spare façade, the frisson of absolutist glee one can derive from submitting to an ideology like “less is more.” But my understanding is that the will towards simplicity was driven—over a very long time, and in a great many places—by a real and increasing concern for the human being using the designed object in question.
The 20th century being a Mass Age, however, human needs were often seen in the mass aggregate. The ideology of the assembly line prevailed, in all its heedless Taylorism. And this explains why there began to be, within High Modernism, and especially in the fields that happen to bear most directly on HTML–era Web design— graphic design and typography—a self-conscious scientism, a sense that “proper” design just might be reducible to something algorithmic, repeatable, predictable.
This is something you can easily enough catch a whiff of from cracking open Josef Muller-Brockmann’s seminal “Grid Systems In Graphic Design,” for example, and it’s undeniably present in such mid–century icons as Le Corbusier’s “modulor,” and Henry Dreyfuss’s The Measure Of Man. It’s there in Charles and Ray Eames’s furniture and visual design. It informs virtually everything Bucky Fuller ever did, crackpot neologisms and all. (I’d even go a step further and venture that it’s there in Michel Foucault was dissecting the less visible workings of power and the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were tearing history a new one.
It didn’t help that all that stability and consistency were, well, stable and consistent, i.e. something that’s bound to read as boring and stagnant to generations raised on the spiky amphetamine geometries of 220-beats-per-minute punk rock, to say nothing of the larger–than–life narratives and chest–thumping swagger of hiphop.
Nor was it a point in Modernism’s favor that its icons, in architecture anyway, degraded with a particular gracelessness. Anyone who knew midtown Manhattan in the 1970s likely remembers it as a profusion of exercises in hollow Miesianism: Cor-Ten steel left to rust in the rain, statutory Calders gathering pigeon shit amid the windswept emptiness of all-but-unvisited plazas.
And it was at just this moment the computing power to make design became available to first the credentialed, affiliated professional—and then quickly thereafter the aspirant, or the dilettante, or the simply curious. Between the DIY ethos of the time and the sudden availability of the technical wherewithal, the field underwent an unprecedented democratization.
Suddenly you didn’t have to have gone through Parsons, or wherever, to call yourself a designer. This is undeniably a great thing. Get rid of offensive, hidebound notions of who may and who may not design? Absolutely! Eliminate preconceptions that the untrained are incapable of finding workable answers? Totally. Babylon must fall.
But I think we largely threw the baby out with the bathwater when we collectively made the leap to hyperspace—the mass exodus to the computer, and computer–mediated creation. There was something good and valuable and honorable and real in that tradition, and I think, in our fuck-you-heroes craving for self-definition and our desire to violate the various grids that contained us, we left that something behind.
Think David Carson and Raygun, think grunge fonts, think Neil Denari and Art Chantry. There are only two things wrong with this, really: one, that after all it’s sort of an adolescent way to cast the world, and two, it’s really pretty solipsistic. A good way to understand this would be by contrasting a work of the immediate predigital era with something that’s acquired currency since.
Who’s your daddy?
For example. I’m holding in my hands (insert flailing, Joe McCarthyesque gestures here) a book I picked up not too long ago at Aoyama Book Center here in Tokyo, called British Rail Design. This is a neat little volume published in 1986 by the Danish Design Council, of all things, so I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if you had never heard of it.
Nevertheless, if you have any slightest interest in corporate identity design, or more broadly, in how to work out a consistent visual communication program across multiple channels, you would do well to acquire this book. This is a story about the work of capital–D Designers, from saint Jock Kinneir of the U.K.’s Road Research Laboratory (he who co-devised Transport Medium as well as the British Rail typeface and signage standards) to the Design Research Unit, who penned the inspired, damn–near–timeless British Rail logomark.
For a brief volume, it gets into a pleasing amount of detail about how factors like the density of foot traffic in a railway station or the speed of a passing train affected decisions relating to line weight, color, positioning and size. One gets a real sense of the discipline these designers brought to thinking about the conditions under which their work would be perceived, encountered, decoded.
And all of this discipline manifests clearly in the work, right down to “petty” details: the paper stock used for schedules, the layout of a maintenance shop, the angle of an armrest. Taken as a whole, the sense one gets from perusing British Rail Design is one of seriously humanist thought about the difficulties of life in the modern world.
For me, it was a reminder that good (i.e., deep) design is not merely “good business,” as the book’s introduction makes it clear British Rail understood, but potentially a lubricant and a cushion to smooth, simplify and mitigate all the inevitable daily hassles we’re presented with by having the temerity to live in an era of complexity.
The bathing ape has no clothes
By contrast, across the room I see a purple-camouflaged Pepsi can decorated by Nigo, the driving force behind the Japanese fashion label A Bathing Ape. Now, Nigo is regularly cited as one of Japan’s top young designers, and his Bathing Ape products (or knockoffs of same) adorn roughly every fourth kid in Harajuku on a Saturday.
The appeal of these products, which consist in their entirety of the phrase A BATHING APE (or alternately APE SHALL NEVER KILL APE) run across them in a variety of typefaces and colors, escapes me entirely, but that’s not the issue. Nor is his success. To me, if he can ship giga product and make the owners of said product happy, he’s entitled to all the accolades the world has offered him, right down to the favor of luminaries like Futura 2000 and the tie-ins with Pepsi—except those that accrue to him as a designer.
Call me cranky, but contrast Nigo’s t-shirts and posters to the painstakingly worked-out, user-need-driven work of one of the creators featured in British Rail Design, say Jock Kinneir himself. Is this an unfair comparison, a sterling example of apples v. oranges? Absolutely. Because only one of the two works in the field of design.
The other is best described as a stylist.
A seat on the style council
Ah, there, I’ve said it the loaded word. Let me say it again: stylist. I think it’s high time to restore this important term to wide currency, and not to disparage the validity of styling as a mode of expression, or as a career path. (I’m not one of those who would slag a young talent off with a dismissive “Oh, her? She’s just a stylist.” Styling is as crucial to good branding work as design, and maybe more so, but it’s not a replacement for it.) Not at all: it’s a term that is useful in the world because it observes—preserves—an important distinction.
For, as my mentor Jon Olson always reminds me, the practice of design necessarily involves solving problems. Further, these problems present constraints; whether these originate in the client’s budget, the target audience’s availability, or in the technical limitations of the medium is immaterial.
The important part of this idea is that the task of the designer is to present the client with a solution within an ambit circumscribed by factors beyond his or her control, factors that limit the ability to unrestrainedly impose personal taste. When a designer—a Paul Rand, a Saul Bass, a Neville Brody—can consistently succeed at this and still develop a recognizable personal style, well, that (by my lights, anyway) is where all the artistry resides.
Exercises in pure styling like A Bathing Ape, or to a significantly lesser but still important extent, the work of people like Shepard Fairey, fail this test. A Bathing Ape addresses no issue, solves no problem, admits no constraints. It’s about nothing but itself, a blank screen onto which the customer can project any desired attribute: all of which makes it the ultimate antibrand for a headlong-rushing, amnesiac culture like Japan, but a piss-poor example of design.
And, coming full circle now, kids who mistake this kind of work for design are the same ones most likely to feel that the price of admission to the ongoing discussion consists of little more than throwing one Photoshop layer over another, slapping some freeware fonts over the thing, and braying about “reprazenting.”
That they’re clearly not operating in the same tradition as Josef Muller-Brockmann, or Henry Dreyfuss, or even Joshua Davis seems to escape them. I’m not even sure why they’d bother to call themselves designers, except that it has a vaguely contemporary sexiness to it, whereas stylist sounds like someone named Marcel you might find working at a hair salon.
And where do we go from here?
My guess is that the great majority of the people on the designer boards doing the most to drive the signal-to-noise ratio towards zero have no actual desire or ambition to be designers in the sense outlined above. The question then becomes, do we let go of what may at first blush appear to be an aging definition in the name of a greater inclusivity? Or do we attempt to hold the line with respect to the values of a proud and meaningful tradition, and risk becoming brittle, irrelevant, maybe even risible?
I’d argue that the risk is worth taking, that the latter is a better course. Far from being past its sell-by date, I think the notion of design as a conscious attempt to articulate solutions to real human situations is more meaningful than ever—in Flash and Photoshop every bit as much as in titanium and aerogel and carbon fiber.
The world, as one cannot help but notice lately, is a challenging place, and occasionally even a dangerous one. There are things that design can do to address these challenges and mitigate at least some of the dangers, things that are not within the reach of even the best stylists.
I believe these two figures, designer and stylist, constitute two poles of an as-yet largely unacknowledged debate in the online community. I’m looking forward to seeing how this debate will play out over the years to come. Generating more light than heat, though, will ask some things that have often seemed in short supply in online discussions: mutual respect, for starters. Maybe an acknowledgement of the difficulty of what it is that we’re attempting, and the corresponding, nontrivial degree of talent and discipline demonstrated by those who have achieved success in this attempt.
I don’t think that’s too much to ask, but I guess we’ll see.