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Some thesis thought… which turn into a rant against overdesign.

June 18, 2010

Was reading Alison Barnes’s blogpost about Richard Long
( What can I say. Maybe just as quickly my romance with the thought of a PhD in design and whatever else I’d care to do dissipated? I am an old crank, secretly, and I also, secretly, hate design. I’ve written about this before; I don’t feel comfortable in overdesigned spaces; I don’t feel comfortable in overdesigned cities; I get confused reading overdesigned books. So when Barnes starts talking about Long–lets ignore whether a walk can be art or not–and his textworks
( and criticizing them for the fact that he only uses Gill Sans and all caps: “The walks and the experiences on them are clearly different, so why is the type so systematic? It seems to bear no relation to the content.” — I get sad, so so sad.

This isn’t about Alison Barnes, necessarily; this is about design in general. There is this hunger in anyone who makes anything–graphic design, architecture, deluxe toys, sweaters–to always insist all things of that genre must be high art. I think it’s a dirty hunger. It’s a hunger based on the need to create more work for oneself. And so, it’s understandable–I, too, love designing and designing and designing more! But it gets dirty at a point. Because at some point you are insisting on “good design” not so much for good design’s sake or for the audience’s sake or for the public experience’s sake. At some point you are just insisting on this high credo of “good design” just to create work for yourself. And it’s tough to know where that point is, so for me–I’d rather not be dirty; I’d rather insist a bit less.

The thing is about overdesign–sometimes people need a rest. Sometimes your child needs a plastic toy to be able to leave in the park and sometimes your sweater can be cheap and sometimes graphic design can be plain. I’ll come back to design in a minute, but first about architecture–I remember a line from the Lieberskind talk (which I liked, if you remember) who was also praising this idea of every piece of architecture singing, telling a story, being emotional and expressive, etc. I agree that architecture speaks, inevitably, even if you don’t want it to. But sometimes, it’s ok for architecture to say, here is time for a rest, and I am no longer telling you a story, and why don’t you pass by and notice the lovely difference between the expressive architecture of Gehry on the left and the Liebeskind thing on the right of me, and notice what a nice juxtapostion we all form. Imagine a city full of Gehrys and Liebeskinds only. I would want to visit that city, and be drenched in that architectural intensity and storytelling (I am going to declare a mortatorium on that term after today; I really hate myself for using it now) but I would not want to live there. For one thing I’d never be able to afford anything next to any of them and I’d live next to the highway at the outskirts somewhere.

Oh wait. Am I talking about my NYC experience?

Anyways the good and the bad thing about architecture, the horrible challenge of it, is that it’s so public; so when Daniel Lieberskind does a TED talk about these philosophies, the comments he receives are OVERWHELMINGLY negative. This alone is amazing! He is somehow held responsible.

But when designers advocate for a world of overdrenched type, it’s not as public; no one protests.

I think I’m not alone here in craving to eschew overdesign. I know I’m not, actually, in graphic design, because a lot of my favorite favorite designers and studios don’t have overdrenched websites; instead they’re plain, with a plain menu on the top left. And it’s so nice and peaceful and simple. And anyone could do it. And what’s wonderful with design is that I can 100 percent say that by being confident enough to say “this design doesn’t need to tell a story”, it’s the content that becomes the story.

That’s what I feel Alison Barnes doesn’t get about Richard Long and the Gill Sans and the all caps. He knows what he’s doing and he’s chosen Gill Sans quite deliberately, I’m sure, and the all caps too. Because he wants the content to speak.

I just can’t stress it enough. It’s so hard for us designers, right? Letting the content speak?

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