Interventions, Type, and the Hegemony of the Designer
Yesterday was spent moving between a variety of creative spaces, and the gaps in between (literally and figuratively) gave me some much needed thinking space. First up was the assessment presentations for the Interventions task I set last week for my Expressive Use of Graphic Design students. My relationship with graphic design as a discipline is ambivalent at best (those who know me might find dysfunctional a better term), and the task was intended to be a spanner in the creative works of a world that, for me, too often deals only in surfaces (where application forever means applied, and interface resolutely occupies middle ground, a cultural translator that eschews truth and beauty in favour of expedience and the tragedy of the commons). For the most part the students (as they often do) rose to the challenge without necessarily getting it (the whole notion of intervention is pretty alien within the client-led world of design, and the EGD module is already out on a limb in terms of the usual practice-led GD fare that education typically serves up). There was certainly some good work, and I think a few preconceptions were dented, if not shattered. My concern is that the new things we offer up tend to become absorbed into a culture of ego that dominates creative design, and that even disrupting the systems of the ego-boosting creative industries becomes an arch comment on how clever we are as creative individuals. In this way Banksy inevitably becomes the feted media artist, rather than a disruption to the processes of big media hegemony. I'm not sure I know what the solution is - perhaps if we just ignore the Star Designers then they'll all eventually go away. Equally problematic, though in different ways, was the Plus+ Design exhibition as part of the Fast Type Slow Type conference in Birmingham. As a strange mix of trade show, chill-out zone, and art show it both worked and didn't work simultaneously, with the latter mostly because the staff of the exhibiting design outfits were conspicuously absent from their stands yesterday afternoon (probably all at one of the talks by some Star Designer), lending the whole thing an uninhabited, all surface, no feeling ambiance. Inevitably such shows are parades of the usual suspects in the regional design scene (in quality terms the equal of their counterparts in any major city), and here and there are flashes of inspiration (David Osbaldestin's loose collective Fresh Punk comprising mostly new graduates bored with their day jobs, Karoline's Miss Pussy cartoons, and some lovely Beat 13 cushions). Perhaps the best, and certainly the least obvious response to the trade show/exhibition format was from 3form who took the typography theme to heart, covering the walls of their booth with a variety of assertions placing 'usability' and 'the user' at the heart of their philosophy. It's respectable, even admirable stuff – few visually-led companies would have the self-confidence to use a Mac Pro and TFT screen to show merely an emphatically and deliberately useless 'loading' screen. Nevertheless there's an undeniable safeness in usability as manifesto which says more about the industry's clients (and the design landscape) than it does about the designers (3form, and fellow exhibitors like Fluid, Clusta, and Made Media are all run and staffed by some of the smartest people I know): When manifestos on usability are still considered edgy then those of us who are supposed to be educating the next generation of designers and clients should be ashamed of ourselves. Ironically, it's the industry's new-found celebration of 'the user' as ultimate audience and development focus which most clearly shines a light on the over-amplification of the ego within the Creative Industries as a whole (and consequently within this show too). In the post-Neilsen era the anonymous end-user is becoming the new Star Designer, a generalisation reified as the ultimate ego to which even the creative impulse is subjugated, in an industry which values the creative impulse above all others. In this world even the parodic, useless, and ostensibly vilified loading screen is beautifully designed, partly because we've all seen that employed without irony, but also because, well, this is a design show, and we all appreciate great, useless design, even when we simultaneously reject it. The antithesis of useless beautiful design is still subject to the aesthetic values which dominate its enemy! Of course we shouldn't be surprised by any of this, and companies like 3form are still the good guys, canny enough to position themselves just at the point on the curve where they win customers (and lots of them) rather than alienating Joe Corporate with antidesign manifestos. That's the job of educators, who can well afford to blaze trails, because the public purse is footing the bill. It's when we're failing in that task that we need to be worried, because then we're all going to hell in a beautifully designed, and thoroughly user-tested hand basket.