The Value of Timelessness in Design
Frank Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT is a riotous jumble of cones, curves, bricks, metal panels, and glass. It’s a building that could only have come to life in today’s world of modern materials and computer-aided design. The afterword of the official MIT book about the building says that it:
”[…] does not aspire to the classical virtues of unity and timelessness. […] it works, instead, like a giant transponder. You can ping your preoccupations, thoughts, and desires at it on different cultural wavelengths and get surprising and challenging messages back.”
I see this as an analogy for the precarious, ungrounded state of the entire design profession at the start of the century. Ephemeral design, which marked the changing decades and seasons, was secondary to a solid core of more timeless design and a craft tradition. Now, it has upended the entire continuum; it has subsumed it completely. Who cares if a design, a product, or a building lasts longer than a couple of decades — we’re in the business of surprising and challenging, not just “making good things,” now. And that’s potentially a big problem.
Art directors in the 2D world of print, Web, interface design and photography face the same questions as architects. We have at our fingertips the possibility to design anything we can imagine, with the entire gamut of historical styles to draw from — but it seems that designers prefer historicism to history. Thus we have the Fossil watch and half the faux-used T-shirt stock at Urban Outfitters accounted for.
Of course, imitation is how we learn. When I was just starting out, at the dawn of desktop publishing when traditional design schools didn’t cover the subject, I imitated the styles of the moment. In the early 90s, this meant a lot of stretched type, pseudo-Constructivist layouts, contrasting reversed-out fields, and lots of typefaces like Insignia: the look of every C+C Music Factory video. But as I grew older, I grew out of mere emulation and started looking at what made good design good design.
Today’s typographers can reference incised Sumerian tablets, the Latin typography of Trajan’s column, medieval blackletter and illuminated manuscript, Enlightenment-era letterpress, electromechanical Linotype, phototypesetting, PostScript, and pixel fonts. But do they?
Likewise, photographers and illustrators have the entire range of visual depiction from the Lascaux cave paintings to Cindy Sherman’s faux film stills, and yet I see fewer and fewer original voices, at least in the commercial sector. (That’s a topic for a future post.)
We seem trapped in a world of trendy ‘anti-design’ that feeds only on itself: T-shirts inspired by stencil graffiti inspired by Flash animation inspired by T-shirt silkscreens inspired by old childhood TV staples and B-movies — and of course, the entire look is efficiently aped and cleaned up for mainstream culture as corporate identity graphics; witness the similarity between Threadless.com’s flat-art silkscreen aesthetic and recent ads for HP colour printers.
Today, visual trends sweep through the design field, propagated along viral vectors at Internet speed. We get memetic outbreaks every 6 months like “airline safety card style” or “shaky hand-drawn sketch” or “2-color flat art silhouettes.” Designers, always deadline-driven and keen to emulate that which is successful, pick these memes up either consciously or subconsciously and recycle them into their work. I wonder what will be considered “timeless design” from the turn of the 21st century, in 2067. It may not be what we think it is.
More practically speaking, the question for art directors is not what can we do, but what should we do? I feel as if many ADs, even celebrated ones, have abdicated their leadership roles in this debate.
No doubt at least some of that reluctance to take a stand comes from clients who want “something that looks like this cool ad I saw,” but also from an inability for ADs and designers to escape a closed-loop visual ecosystem, either for reasons of time, interest, or money. I worry that, like an aquarium without a filter, it’s going to choke on its own effluvia.
As always, there’s a way out.
If you look closely, all that stuff the David Carson generation tried to smash and burn on the altar of the New has survived – changed perhaps – but still thriving, and likely to for generations to come.
I’m finding it easier to start with the idea of ‘an appropriate container for the content,’ and then letting the rules of classical proportion guide my grids, lines and leading. I’m finding hidden depths in Swiss humanist typography, Mucha and Cassandre posters, fonts with proper sets of small caps, lining and text figures, and photography that could have been taken 40 years ago or this morning — like Yousuf Karsh portraits for instance.
Timeless doesn’t mean “old-looking” either. David LaChapelle’s work is provocative, colourful and powerful, but it also has a quality that transcends any particular moment or place. Timelessness is, in short, above such petty concerns.
The value of timeless design is freeing yourself from the false pressures of the Now and enabling yourself to focus on larger issues — communicating the correct message for the client, in the best possible way. If you are diligent and skilled, you’ll create works that will endure in their own right.
December 13, 2005 12:57 AM