A Moment Is Enough

On the Pursuit of Timeless Design

What Tyler had created was the shadow of a giant hand. Only now the fingers were Nosferatu-long and the thumb was too short, but he said how at exactly four-thirty the hand was perfect. The giant shadow hand was perfect for one minute, and for one perfect minute Tyler had sat in the palm of a perfection he’d created himself. […] One minute was enough, Tyler said, a person had to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort. A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

In a post a while back I touched on how a desire to get away from an extreme can drive you too far the opposite direction. Designers fighting complexity are in danger of making their designs too simple, just as others overcomplicate plain layouts by adding elements simply to fill space or styling elements for no good reason.

I think a lot about timeless design, about what it takes to create a design that will last, but I think in doing so I am also falling prey to an error much like the one above in that I am seeking escape from something that may not be undesirable at all, or perhaps going about it in the wrong way.

Where does the value of timelessness lie? What is the value of value retention itself? For most things, durability is a sought after quality. We don’t want our things to break or become unusable. If things break, they lose their original functionality, and thus, their value. Durability thus acts as a quality that retains value. This effect of retaining value makes it possible to view durability itself as an intrinsic good, something that is desirable in every situation. Timelessness of design is a form of conceptual durability, a quality that ensures the work is valued in the future as much as it is today.

But durability is not itself valuable if there is no other value to retain. Something that lasts forever but has no other good or useful qualities is not itself valuable. A pursuit of timeless design puts you in danger of chasing the wrong thing, especially when you begin to subordinate design decisions to your perception of what makes a thing timeless. For example, you may make your work more and more minimalist for the sake of disconnecting it from transient styles, but the effect may be that you simply make the work plain and uninteresting. The fear of embracing trends may lead you towards a dull conservatism that avoids visual interest for the sake of resisting fashion rather than for the sake of pleasing the people who will interact with your work. In seeking to make your work timeless you substitute real – if transient – value for the illusive idea of an everlasting design.

Instead of looking at the value of a work as something fixed and unchanging, see its value as a variable at a moment in time, something that gains or loses based on the context of our interaction with it and the state of the environment in which it exists. This is what fashion is, it’s what trends are. Some particular characteristic is valued because it is tied to some transient thing or event, and this bond imbues it with temporary value, temporary allure. As time passes, the object of value passes too and the value bond is no more. As the trend loses its sustaining core it falls out of fashion.

But the fact that the value is transient does not make it any less valuable, since the thing that does the valuing – i.e. you – is itself an ever changing observer. Nothing will last forever, no work will remain the greatest for eternity, if only because the minds that are to value the work will themselves perish. But even though the worth of a work is destined to change, some works will remain more valued than others for a longer period of time, just as others will pass our gaze as quickly as they enter it.

What separates designs that last and those that don’t is not some eternal algorithm that you can derive and implement in your work. Timelessness is not acquired by implementing a set of design principles. Timelessness is a mark made on history. Timeless works are not everlasting, they are works that enter public consciousness, works that are talked about, praised and remembered, works that win the honour of entering history books.

Timeless design lies at the intersection of beauty, meaning and luck. Timeless design is not just good, it is meaningful, it solves real problems in an elegant way that people can appreciate and enjoy. An element of luck is involved, for not all good design will be talked about and remembered, not all design will make a mark on history, but only great design has that chance. Timeless design isn’t an absence of style, but rather, it is the presence of meaningful style, the value of which is created through the value of the problem a design solves or the content the design presents. As such, timelessness itself should never be the designer’s objective. The objective is great design – great not only in its implementation, but in the choice of the problem it solves and the ideas it represents.

March 2014