The conflict between Right and Fact goes back to the dawn of human society. To bring it to an end, uniting the pure thought with human reality, peacefully causing Right to pervade Fact and Fact to be embedded in Right, this is the task of wise men.

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

For a long time I felt uneasy about modern commercial design, not in the particular, but in general, in the prevailing direction of the winds that move the waters rather than the characteristics of a specific wave, but I could not form a clear idea of what it is exactly that I disliked. It was like an unpleasant patch of fog that is both so formless that it cannot be grasped yet thick enough to obscure vision and get in the way. I think now I am starting to better understand the nature of this fog, what brought it about and what effects it might have.

Look around at the commercial offerings around us. They’re all permeated by a spirit of being designed to sell. These products have all been “positioned” in the marketplace. A certain type of consumer has been selected as the target – young/old, rich/poor, man/woman, and so on… The target has been profiled and a brand created to fit the mould – fun/serious, exclusive/common, showy/understated, etc. The brand itself is seen as a sort of living person, with its own character and personality, but unlike a living person it is a mere shell, a marketer’s superficial idea of what their target wants to have in their life. They theme the brand, pick the colors, set the style and create yet another silly mascot to serve as the embodiment of the brand. The whole thing is then pushed down our throats through the marketer’s “content strategy” – a process of organizing these fragments of the brand and figuring out the best way of getting us to consume them. We’ve been segmented, researched, profiled. A hole in our lives has been identified, and to fill it in a product has been designed specifically for us. Yet that hole exists solely in the mind of the marketer, it exists on the superficial, shallow surface of what the marketer considers to be our life, and more ridiculously, the purpose of that life, and so the end result is just as inane as the process used to reach it.

No longer are we designing products as products in themselves. Something as simple as a shovel is no longer just a shovel. We’ve got the store’s own brand, the cheap ones competing with it and a set of higher-end alternatives for the “pro” customer, or more likely just somebody with a large wallet who buys by the price. A marketer’s job isn’t to satisfy consumer demand, their job is to figure out how to sell as many products as possible. The idea isn’t to create the best widget possible, it’s to figure out how we can segment the widget and design brands to fit into all those segments so we can extract the maximum amount of money from the marketplace. Some people will go for the cheap version because they cannot afford the premium ones, yet others will go for the premium ones because they are put off by the cheap. Product prices are anchored, differences highlighted, and brands are created to embody those differences in order to speed up our buying decisions.

All good designers are idealists who are able to bring their visions into reality through their skill, effort and dedication. Their visions are fragments of a better world, fragments of the ideal, and by bringing those fragments to life in the form of the design of their products they materialize that world one piece at a time. While mediocre designers build to a set of marketer’s specifications, the true designer takes control of the process by setting their own direction for the work1. Their worth lies not in their execution of a thing, but in their imagination, their creativity, and their energy that pushes them to realize their vision.

The above is impossible in the context of much of modern commercial design. Design that is built to fill a market segment, permeated by the characteristics of the brand that reflects its positioning cannot ever be the realization of a better world taken the imagination of the designer. It is design built to sell, not design built to enrich. It is design by marketers and salesmen, not design by artists and inventors. This sort of design is never truly bad, but in being so it is actually making things worse. By being flooded with work that is sufficiently mediocre we lose sight of what greatness is possible. We are content with what we have because it works, and so we never try to press forward. The fog of mediocrity has settled around us, pushing our gaze downwards, blocking our view of the unexplored heights above us and leaving us in that ever so reasonable gray haze of good enough.

This was not always so. As the schemes of the marketer permeate design of our century, design of centuries past was filled with the spirit of the times. Romanesque, Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque. Each cultural period before us is reflected in the work of the craftsmen of the times, from the carvings in the bas-relief of the buildings that housed us and the cutting of designs on the wooden surface of our furniture that served us to the metal that was moulded into the tools that fed us and the thread that was woven through the fabric that clothed us. The spirit of the time was embodied in the manner of its art and the style of its design.

Our work no longer carries with it the spirit of the times because that spirit is ill defined and because other matters are deemed more important, such as the optimization of means of extraction of money2. Where the designer of centuries past would shape their work to symbolize and express the Idea of the time, the average designer of the day spends their time concretizing the schemes of the marketer, all based on a shallow and superficial perception of their “target market”.

And here we have at odds two opposing forces: the designer as an Idealist, and the designer as a Pragmatist. One strives to carve an opening into the perfect world of their imagination, the other is content to work within the constraints of what they consider to be the “real world”. The former is a dreamer, the latter a realist. What the pragmatist forgets however is that it is the idealist who is always responsible for reshaping the world around us because it is only he who is able to give us something from a higher plane, from a higher vision which they materialize into this world. Progress never occurs when you are content with your surroundings, it happens when there is a discrepancy between where you are and where you want to be, and when you take action to close that distance.

The idealist assembles principles upon values, and standards upon principles; he sets a direction and paints a path upon that vast, boundless plane of possibility. The pragmatist prides himself on being in tune with reality, of having a deep understanding and strong grasp of the forces of necessity; but instead of breaking through them in a direction set by his own conception, he reflects those forces, diving into a state of perpetual metamorphosis, always adapting to the ever changing conditions around him. Where the idealist chooses to reshape the world around him, the pragmatist concedes to reshaping himself.

  1. I am not implying that the designer ignores specifications, rather that they are the driving force shaping those specifications in the first place.

  2. I say this as a proponent of capitalism, for there is no contradiction in supporting an economic model and at the same time pointing out the shortcomings of its produce. Capitalism is not the issue here, and other models are not the solution. You don’t need to take people’s freedom in order to change their beliefs and their behavior, you need to educate them. Capitalism gives people the freedom to realize their dreams, philosophy shapes them.

February 2013