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January 2019

“Even if, deep in my heart, I thought we were all blind atoms in a world as limited as a stroke of a pendulum, I and my sort would struggle against tradition; try, at least, to displace old cants with new ones.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, in This Side of Paradise (1920)

Design history, just like any history, strikes a rhythm. Designers fashion a trend and greedy Pinterest boards catalog it as the new avant-garde. But, before you can even set your bleed, the bleeding edge has whooshed past you, slamming into your shoulder along the way. Like a pendulum— the more you try and push it in one direction, the more power you give it to swing in the other, e.g., designers make artifacts void of superfluous decoration and then, springing out fully formed, with Athena-like inevitability, come designs dripping of ornamentation. Designers are always oscillating between two polar schools of thought in their technique, style, and philosophy: always trying to stay ahead of the trend. You may be able to temporarily stop the pendulum or lift it higher than its natural cycle, but there is no stopping its perpetuity.

But what is this relentless rhythm without rhyme. Historians try again and again to rewrite history in an effort to get it just right. Similarly, designers respond to the past in one way or another by remodeling— repeatedly tinkering with its form for the best possible result. This Sisyphean effort goes on, bound and determined, until need and expertise becomes a recycled resource. Experience becomes procedural. Designers face a familiar problem with passive knowledge rather than active investigation until the original framework is entirely degraded. Perhaps this pattern of constant revision is another epochal rhythm: the wax and wane of looking backward. Looking forward. Looking backward. Perhaps it’s time to wash our hands of historical influence to discover new, better means of communicating— a language that more appropriately expresses the meaning of the changing world.

Modernists rejected the concept of looking backward. They believed that art, literature, and design should be rubbed raw of historical influence. Modernism was jumpstarted by the yearning to reject narcissistic, industrialist culture on the basis of its lethargic and corrupted nature. The introduction of new production technology left factory workers to feel alienated in their creation. These men felt isolated from the rest of society but also from themselves— insignificant cogs in the machine. This sentiment is mirrored in our lives today. The rise of computers, the internet, have completely altered our intake of and output within digital media. The production of graphic material has fragmented the current process into unrecognizable silos. It is mere information refraction: taking a stream of information, twisting it, and sending it back out into the void.  The shadow of Modernism left us looking backward.

The French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose”— the more things change, the more they stay the same. This pronouncement remains true today. Despite the drastic progression of culture, especially in the forms that most affect a graphic designer, design is still caught in the minutiae of antiquated conventions. For example, designers could celebrate the death of borders. The principles of communication would endure an obsolescence of artificially confined digital media. Working with the agency of an edgeless canvas may lead to a reincarnation of creative and innovative communication in design. It’s time to look forward again.

In the same vein as showing the grain of the wood and the hammered texture of the metal in furniture, perhaps to become genuinely true to our materials we must acknowledge the fleeting, impromptu, and gregarious nature of the machine we use to produce. The internet has created entire languages understood internationally; a patois of the 21st century. Memes, for example, have become the newest language of the consumer— ad copy is branded with these cultural symbols designed for best viral transmission. The internet’s medium is flexible and submissive. And yet graphic design still harkens back to the rigidity of its precedent. Today, words on screen belong to no-one and owe nothing to the reader. They can be deleted a million times faster than they were made. The words are humbled by the distracted mind of the consumer who prefers unwritten communication anyhow. We are still in an image dominated culture yet the billboard fits in our pocket and calls for instantaneous feedback. Internet killed the subtly star.

Design is a case of conflicting desires. This historically cyclic rhythm is order. Design history is a structure that controls chaos. But the world, consumers of designed artifacts, and designers themselves, have desires beyond the rhythm. We want to disrupt that order through our randomness and “unpredictability.” Designers are humans but we are also design as a whole. We are in constant revision and yet again we try to control the entropy through “rapacious historicity.” But maybe it’s time to let that entropy take us where it may. ︎