Not All Maps are Military

When asked for a financial advise, Warren Buffet replied ‘Only buy something that you’d be perfectly happy to hold if the market shuts down for ten years.’ Here, Buffet is pointing towards his love for knowledge-accumulation which makes him one of the finest investors in the Wall Street. Knowledge and information are these ever-lasting commodity that has retained its value over the centuries devoid of the economic and social conditions, and the civilizations that have understood the importance of it have sustained and thrived till now. In India, the Vedas are the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. They are considered revelations seen by ancient sages after intense meditation, and texts that have been more carefully preserved since ancient times. But with retaining information also comes the passing down of it through generations. Now, with the advent of internet and connectivity, we are seeing this attitude more than ever. Sharing is caring has never been more true. Information yearns for openness. It yearns for growth. As Paul Variety says, creativity springs less from one’s own ideas and originality than from a structure that compels new insights.

One such sharing of information is the trend culture. Trends in design are like the daily horoscopes in newspaper. They make us smile, feel angry and sometimes, just amuse us. They have creeped into our lives like never before — from our mothers to our next door neighbors, everyone knows the latest design trends — be it the color of the month, the upcoming gadgets, fashion style. As soon as Gilmore Girls made it comeback, you can see the plaid shirt that Luke wore in the series, returning back into the streets. We as designers who are responsible for creating the trends and following them judiciously, we have somewhere along the lines forgot our path and started creating and following it aimlessly. We are just running inside that vicious circle with no way out, just recycling. As designers we have started looking at trends like a predicted outcome rather than a possible approach. Decisions are made based on trends instead of intuition and careful study of the product and the audience or the fundamentals of design that we learnt in our first design class. Recently after watching the video launch of Google’s new phone, I couldn’t help but think how eerily similar the typography is to Apple’s ‘Don’t Blink’ video. And few weeks later I see a student work utilizing the same technique in his presentation. Ultimately resulting in a collage of similar looking styles.

Since information has placed itself in such a high role, its demand and its price has reached exponentially, placing it away from the masses. The distancing of the professional from the amateur in part contributed to the cult of the connoisseur: the idea of the professional designer as one who knew what was best for everyone, no matter who they were. The grand narrative of modernist design sought singular perfection and brought an elitist view of ‘good taste’ to the forefront of any design debate. This view held sway and did not even begin to to be dismantled until the realization in the 1960’s that a single solution could not possibly fulfill the requirements of such a wide and heterogenous market, and that the use of any particular design was determined by its user, not its creator.

But this view has again started to take shape in the form of trends. Its the residue of the modernist movement which is slowly percolating into every form of design. This view of ‘good taste’ has led to the stripping down of design to pure aesthetics without any consideration of the cultural, social and economical context. In 1946, Jan Tschichold in reaction to the ’New Typography’ that derived from the removal of dead elements from typography, the acceptance of photography, the modernization of typographical rules which attempted a clean-up by returning to the simplest forms and rules, wrote:

But it seems to me no coincidence that this typography was practiced almost exclusively in Germany and found little acceptance in other countries. Because its intolerant attitude conforms to the German bent for the absolute, and its military will to regulate and its claims to absolute power reflect those fearful components of the German character which set loose Hitler’s power and the Second World War.

Recently, I saw a website that sells shoes that can be customized based on the color or the design you want. What I thought was a bit disturbing the fact that it was trending under open design. Although it does include the consumer in the process by giving them the freedom to chose the design they want instead of having a ready product thrust upon the market, it distances the consumers from the ideation process and values their ability to merely selecting a color. This even undervalues the responsibility of a designer and limits her job’s description.

Aesthetics are as important a part of a design as the idea. But they have to complement each other. The problem arises when aesthetics are put devoid of the context. Malcolm McClaren called this the “karaoke culture”–the act of replicating cultural artifacts devoid of the urgent context that bore them. In his TED talk ‘Authentic Creativity vs Karaoke Culture’, he writes, ‘in a karaoke world, you’re free from responsibility beyond the moment of performance.’ In the music industry, he notes that looking back at a lot of pop music in 2015, we may have very little to show for ourselves. The same might be true for design. Looking back at this time, design has finally received its due share of appreciation but unfortunately very little to show. We are moving laterally, instead of focusing on what lies ahead for design. Today unfortunately, visual aesthetics dominate the trends.

One of the main vehicle behind perpetuating this kind of attitude is sites like Pinterest. Pinterest boards are populated with boards where one might experience a visual overload spending hours looking at aesthetically pleasing images. This continuous onslaught of information and images turns into a spectator sport. We create boards,pin them falsely reassuring ourselves that we are part of a larger group, but intact we are getting more and more isolated. We are engaged in a one way relationship with these raining images. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord writes

“the spectacle is simply the common language that bridges this division (between reality and hyperreality). Spectators are linked by a one-way relationship to the very center that maintains their isolation from one another. The spectacle thus unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its seperateness.”

In this process we do succeed in retaining the information but fail to grasp it. I look at the ‘color of the year’ (Rose Quartz and Serenity) and I wonder, how does a designer from India utilize it? Or how does a mother from Russia relate to it? How does the cultural context of an individual play role in selecting the trends. The trend creators, might argue that the world is getting more and more connected and there is nothing global or local anymore. The world has become, and I especially love this word, ‘Glocal’. And to some extent do I agree with the statement. But a color like Rose Quartz might signify the imperial palaces and domination of the masses in some parts of India and the utilization of it without the cultural context might create huge problems. More often than not, these trends create a reality so far detached from the cultural context.

In 1981, Jean Baudrillard famously coined the term “hyperreality” in Simulacra and Simulation, which defines the term as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality”. Trends are misunderstood and are followed blindly like the order from the king. And we the masses, feel accepted into the global community as we apply those trends in our work. And more and more stuff keeps getting added to similar categories of style, ultimately shortening the lifespan of the trend.

When you look at a web service product right now, almost all the landing pages of these services have a full bleed image with a geometric san-serif typeface in the center. When Airbnb launched their new website in 2014 this design sensibility was spotted by designers and upcoming companies. It removed unnecessary embellishments that only served to distract the visitor from their initial objective and bring the product and the design to the forefront. This gave birth to a lot of other such websites. Two Years later this has become a template for any business– e-commerce, portfolio, blogs. etc. What started as a blueprint for clear and marketable web services, has now ended becoming just another imitation. Because of the repeated use of this trend, it ended abruptly, giving it no time to evolve into something better. But becoming a visual trope in itself and giving birth to a reactionary movement. And such movements often don’t last long and usually remain just an anti-thesis without any consideration of the time. It reminds me of an interview by French designer Philippe Starck, who talks about the lifespan of trends and its effect on consumers.

He argues that consumers should be buying products that will last for generations rather than following passing trends. He says timeless design might seem like a cliche, but its not. Starck believes a product must have both an enduring design and be sufficiently well-made to be considered timeless.

Following trends is not so much about being with the time, but its a more fearful act of being an outcast. When product managers in companies that lack a strong creative vision of their own direct their designers to “do that thing that Airbnb did,” they probably view it as a fast and easy way to signal to the public that their product is in the same class as Airbnb. It sells both the product and the user short. In this process, designers shed their responsibilities, rather abilities, and look outside not for answers or inspiration but for acceptance. Book cover designer Peter Mendulsund, recently wrote on twitter,

‘Whenever I hear that someone in my field has been asked (told) to design a book jacket that looks like some other, pre-existing jacket, told to ape a previously successful title, or a “genre look” (and this is increasingly how we are directed), I think to myself there’s a word which describes when a thing is designed to look like those things which surround it, and that word is “camouflage.”

While camouflage means blending in, it can also mean ‘fitting in’. To be a part of a bigger accepted group. As a result of this, there is a disconnect between the idea and the visual language and the product falls through the crack.

To bridge that gap we need an easy access of information rather than ‘providing’ the snippets of it adding to the clickbait culture.

Easy access of information calls for accessibility and easy navigation. Donna Spencer in her essay ‘Modes of Seeking Information’ talks about the cognitive mechanisms that allow people to navigate the physical world, the concept of online and physical navigation:

The most successful design solution will be browse, via navigation of all types. Browsing allows people to take some chances and follow a path, exploring, discovering, and learning as they go. Users may go deeper or broader in a hierarchy, or to related information.

Thinking about the earlier example of the shoe design and giving the freedom to the consumer to make her own shoes. We need to look beyond changing the color and pay heed to the exploring nature of the consumer. What if instead of the color, the form of the shoe itself is put into test. The material which is an important factor while selecting a shoe is upto the consumers hand to select as per their need. Technology has moved the goal posts from a position of co-creation to one where user can have capability to completely design and manufacture products by themselves.

Paul Atkinson in the book Open design notes :

It is a return, if you will, to a cottage industry model of production and consumption that has not been since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution.

This brings forward the question of role of a designer and the factor of curiosity that fuels the creative thinking. Designer, in this role should not abandon her activities as a designer, rather, the designer should redesign the activities themselves. As Jos De Mul points out,

“the designer has to become a meta-designer, not designing objects, but shaping a design space, in which users can access user-friendly environments in which they can design objects.”

The designer has to be responsible for easy navigation which facilitates for easy accessibility. We long for the fast and the furious, but design is becoming more and more about the curiosity. But the curiosity has reduced itself into the phenomenon of clickbait creating a barrier between the information and the audience. Since information has placed itself in such a high role, its demand and its price has reached exponentially, placing it away from the masses. And as soon as the information becomes out of reach, there are always such organizations who strive to make information available to everyone through the varied backchannels. As Marleen Stikker writes,

‘When academic knowledge started to disappear behind the paywalls of large publishers, the open access movement created new ways to make it accessible for everybody’.

We have seen this attitude emerge in the past with the advent of pirate radios which were responsible for broadcasting of entertainment and political content. Recently, we have seen it in the music industry as well. The way music is created and distributed has largely been affected by the new terms. In the 1990, blogging was a world-class phenomenon with a high engagement rate and which now is giving the large media organizations a run for its money. It was only a matter of time, the concept of openness would reach design.

After the industrialization in the 19th century, it saw the change in the attitude of consumers. Articulated simple design products gained more prominence. Consumers were at the very end of the chain, leaving full autonomy to the designers knowing that they fully understand the audiences needs. But full autonomy created a sense of distrust amongst the consumers and some designers started looking for more openness in their field trying to include the audience in their process. One such instance is, Gerrit Rietveld, a furniture designer, during the 1900’s who started making blueprints that people could make, but due to the lack of technology it didn’t get much notice.

Freedom movement in India during the 40’s is an interesting example of Open Design. Because of the active participation of people and laying down of guidelines by Gandhi, such as boycott of products that were made in Britain and the use of only Indian-made products which resulted in the flourishing of Indian industry and ultimately self-reliance, ultimately resulted to the Indian Independence. The same can be said about the Black Lives Matter, the international activist movement originated in the African-American community that campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people. The use of hashtag Black Lives Matter and later its execution with Bold White type on black background solidified and brought people from all over the world towards attaining the same goal. Just like these movements open design has a set of guidelines which are continuously evolving over the period of time as the challenges emerge.

The authoritative nature of design and the placement of the consumers at the very end of the supply chain made way for Open design. It aims to bridge the gap between the designer and the consumer by bringing them closer in the design process. Some might argue that they already include the audience in their process by conducting surveys and research and designing solutions as per their needs. But even here, the consumers are merely a crutch. Just a means to an end. Open design promotes the involvement of consumers at the level of creation. It aims to change the tag of consumers to co-creators.

The trend culture has a lot to gain from the concept of Open Design. Learning from Open Design, trends need to do away with a concept of definition and a territory to follow. Rather trends should set itself up to grow organically by creating a more open set of guidelines. This will not only create a more robust approach towards looking at the design sensibilities that are widely prevalent, but it will help these sensibilities give enough space to grow. Trends no longer have to be final outcome but a set of ideas. Instead of having, ‘Rose Quartz as the color of the year’, we see trends directing us towards what drives us towards this color. Creating a set of navigation that calls for high threshold of participation from the user in the process instead at the output level.

We are seeing this concept emerge in fashion. Sara Rutson, the Vice President of Global Buying Co., while presenting the trends to come this fall, showed a slide featuring off the top shoulder tops. She justifies, shoulders are the only part of our body that does not age. One doesn’t need to be high-waisted, beanpole thin or curvy to wear on off-the-shoulder shirt. It doesn’t discriminate.

While reading Speculative Everything, by Dune and Raby, they propose kind of design that is used as a tool not only to create things but new ideas. The trend culture calls for this introspection. Instead of feeding ourselves, we need to create blueprints for future endeavors. They (Dune and Raby) write, this is not the usual sort of predicting or forecasting, spotting trends and extrapolating; instead pose ‘what if’ questions that are intended to open debate and discussion.