The Thread

Commercial mass production steers design in a certain direction. A hundred years ago we’ve moved away from elaborately crafted items to the more minimal styles of industrial design that are more conducive to the mass production of goods. Today we’re entering a world of software, and here too, certain forces push design in their chosen direction.

It’s not up to the designer to pick a color they like best for that button, it must be a color that converts. If the site’s function is to sell goods, then the design must be optimized for that purpose. It must play on basic human instincts to pull the visitor to the sales page, and then, when they’re there, to get them to take out their credit card and close the sale. The same with other sorts of sites, whether it’s to get people to click on an ad, post a message or share something.

The designer’s creative instinct often tries to express itself outside of this frame and just as often gets shot down by project managers and marketers who disregard all aesthetic value apart from that which drives higher conversions. Three things are killed in the process. The first is the satisfaction the designer gets from releasing their creative energies through their work. The second is the pleasure that people receive from coming into contact with beautifully crafted goods, especially works that infect the viewer with an emotion that the maker wanted to communicate. The third is the product of the first two, namely: art.

This commercial force creates the rift between art and design, and relegates art to the domain of uselessness and art galleries. The idea of both things coexisting in the same product – like those ancient Greek myths painted on vases – becomes alien. Art is no longer something that has any utility outside the realm of aesthetics or some other such cerebral domain. Design on the other hand becomes all about utility, and must satisfy its function above all else.

Paintings that we typically find in art galleries were never intended to be displayed there. They are custom made to be displayed in the house of the buyer, oftentimes specifically designed to be placed on a certain wall. Sometimes the background of the painting even matches the surroundings, never mind the paintings that are an irremovable part of the building, like those on the ceilings of grand houses.

This art is not really far from design in the sense of being part of a larger whole, in this case the architecture and decoration of the house. Its utility varies from showcasing the power and wealth of the individual who owns the house, to surrounding the viewers with the ideas of the time and times past, whether religious, philosophical or mythological. The paintings themselves rarely penetrate to the sublime, but they often depict the work that has, and so attempt to surface it before the people who view them. This is seen in paintings that borrow themes from mythology and religion.

This doesn’t happen in modern design. The concept itself has lost all connection to art and focuses merely on problem solving and visual aesthetics. It’s unimaginable today to see kitchenware depicting myths, or tapestries on walls depicting battles or historical events, or paintings depicting scenes from religion and mythology. All those things were not there merely for decorative purposes: they maintained a connection to the past and a connection to the prominent ideas at the time. They were the building blocks of culture, immersing the people in history and myths, maintaining a thread between the present and the past.

The modern artist cut that thread and ushered in a new era of design: clean, minimalist, functional, and most of all, featuring nothing they deemed superfluous. In 1913, Malevich painted a black square and called it the zero of art. With a few strokes he destroyed all that came before him, leaving a single geometric shape on his barren canvas. The new generation wanted to break free from the old constraints and preconceptions. They bravely leaped out to the other extreme, and never looked back in the process. What was lost? It didn’t matter. What mattered was the revolution and a way to establish themselves in history.

Some years later, another invention arrived that would ensure a more thorough destruction of the past. The TV is a medium that broadcasts its little bites of information and culture in one hour segments. What this means is that each hour has to be a self contained packet, never requiring any prerequisites for viewing. Indeed, a prerequisite would almost certainly negatively affect the viewing numbers, and so it can never be used. What we have then is an hour of broadcasting that never requires any prerequisite knowledge and must come to a conclusion at the very end of the hour. Of course it’s worse than that: it’s never a full hour, for it gets broken up several times for advertisements and so only really amounts to 45 minutes with distractions mixed in.

When this medium becomes the predominant means of entertainment and education, the concepts in the heads of the people watching become crunched up into bits as small as those being broadcast. News are fired at you like a machine-gun, never dwelling on any one thing for more than a couple of minutes. Educational programs are compressed into an hour, so the concepts covered are always limited and can never escape their artificial shell. What’s lost is a sense of continuation – a thread that connects all of the concepts and ideas that influence people’s lives. The thread cannot develop because the second it tries to it gets cut – the program ends or switches to the commercial break.

Today media consumption is migrating to the Internet, but the TV culture still rules and is shaping this migration in its own image. This is seen in services like Twitter, which favors tiny, self-contained messages. The idea here isn’t to create or immerse yourself in a larger whole, but to stuff and share things in tiny packets. This sets the theme for the culture of our time and helps us understand the kind of art and design that such culture gravitates toward.

In terms of design it means this: when there is no thread, there is no desire for it, or even any knowledge of its existence. Immersing yourself in history, myths and ideas by weaving the thread into our everyday products can no longer be done, and is no longer wanted. Instead: products become self contained. This design leans toward simplicity, symmetry, minimalism, rhythm, order and function with decoration ruled to be superfluous. When decorations are used, they tend to lean toward the primitive, natural, or exciting, providing aesthetic pleasure but no connection to any overlying ideas or purpose.

Relegating art to the sphere of uselessness drives it away into art galleries, and this very act only works further to reinforce its uselessness. After all, if it was useful, why lock it away and limit your exposure to it for the short duration of a gallery visit? Art, that was once one with design, has been split away and pushed aside. Design on the other hand now lacks all that which was provided by art. And so we have the two separate worlds of art and design, worlds that once shared common ground but are now split apart by an impassable ravine.

January 2012