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Everyone’s the same

March 10, 2012

So I started following people on Twitter and somehow came across this commenter Evgeny Morozov who is smart and cynical (doesn’t hurt that he’s Eastern European) who linked to this post  about Kony/Invisible Children videos/ more broadly, the trend/need for simplifying/simplistic arguments on the internet.

Here’s a choice quote:

“I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions? … If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good?”

Morozov actually critiques the poster as being a little late to the party, but what struck me is that, of course, blogger is right. Popular media requires simplistic narratives.
That’s boring; that’s what everyone knows already, I guess. I think what interesting is where design comes into this. It seems to me that, as a designer, you either accept these premises and do something quite simple/simplistic to reflect the simple narrative. Nothing a priori wrong with that. But it wouldn’t be my approach; and in fact, I notice that actually, it’s really very few smart designers’ approach.
Instead the design fights and questions the simplistic narrative at the heart of it. The design reaffirms the ambivalence and ambiguity and conflict underneath. Images are broken up and type is played with to illegibility and there are lots of rules that are contradictory plunked on to illustrate the true contradictory nature of the narrative, of the designed object, of life, I guess.
There’s nothing wrong with this; or rather, let me amend this: I think it is a thought process that is quite inevitable, a moment in design that I am and maybe thinking about exiting. Actually, my whole thesis was on this moment, from however personal an angle.
It’s just that…. with everyone being about ambiguity and tension, with everyone’s design zigging to question and work against the content, I am beginning to want to zag.
Let me approach my thoughts another way.  My thoughts which are just scraps of observations now.I think there are many nuances in how people approach design, but I guess quite roughly and broadly I think of cutting-edge design as being of two camps: the Yale school and the new modernism. The Yale school is 2×4 and Dutch design. It is process-oriented and self-aware. It is intimately concerned with structuring, awkward design rules, mocking itself, questioning itself and its media. There are many nuances and subtleties within this, but this is how I see it. I am squarely in the Yale tradition, though far from an extreme practitioner; most American designers I know are actually in this camp.
And then there is the new modernists. Or let me call them the new minimalists. I am trying to think of a good example and the one I come to off the top of my head is an amazing Korean studio called workroom. A lot of other great examples can be found at Aisle One.  For me the minimalists create design that is unlike anything we’ve seen before (which part makes it cutting-edge) yet they accept the premise of the grid, of order. More importantly, with this sort of stripped down design, they are accepting the narrative and elucidating it, rather than trying to question it. Probably, the successful minimalist should be working with a finely nuanced narrative to begin with, else it just gets too awful and boring and simple.
Also of course the irony is that I have to simplify narratives quite roughly for myself, to make sense of them, and then to reintroduce subtlety.
Maybe because Yale/Dutch is more prevalent in America, I am more familiar with it, I am getting bored and tired of it. Maybe because Yale/Dutch is also oftentimes cruel to the viewer, with illegible text and so on, that I am growing weary. (Maybe here is my new stance on illegible text as a design conceit:  if the text is not meant to be read, maybe it should just not be there to begin with?) Maybe because it is more me, more familiar, and the grass is always greener, that I tired of it.
I guess what I am trying to say is I’d like to transition to minimalism. Rather than presenting fractured and questioning accounts of simplistic narratives, I’d like to present quiet and confident accounts of subtle and nuanced narratives. Maybe it’s the same thing; who knows. Maybe my Yale/Dutch vs. new minimalist distinction is too rough and broad to be of any use. Probably it will be difficult if not impossible for me to transition: I love playing off media, questioning it, and I think there’s a certain vernacular rawness and wildness that people are starting to like me for and come to me for. But more and more I’m tired of design being clever; I just want it to be sincere, and joyful, and beautiful.
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