Shaping Voices
Steven Devleminck, Inge Gobert, Johan van Looveren (ed.)
Shapeshifters anthology, Leuven, 2010


This essay was written as an introduction to an antology of texts based on lectures in the Shapeshifters program. The notes are quotes from these texts, which served me as inspiration. Mouse-over the numbers will bring out the quotes; mouse-out will hide them again, thus restoring the flow of this text. Thanks Joes for the nifty Javascript.


Shaping Voices
The Poetics of Design

Over the past decades, notwithstanding the fact that most people still have no clue about what designers actually do, the profession has gone through a remarkable increase in social respectability. Design is everywhere, and so are designers. Once considered a subservient requisite for tidying up the formal appearance of branded products, design has become a brand in itself. And it sells. Add the suffix ‘design’ to anything from chairs to food, and you’ve got everyone’s attention.

Design’s success is so great that some designers – and not the least among them – are becoming embarrassed by the term. To call yourself ‘ex-designer’, as Martí Guixé does, is a slap in the face of an all too established trade. [1]

It is also a wake-up call for colleagues to rethink what it is they are doing. Are they in the seduction business, mastering the craft of preventing consumers to look beyond the surface, or are they catalysts facilitating the public’s awareness of the social and cultural processes of which they are part? Whatever the answer to the previous question; why is there so much bad design? [2]

The second question, of course, is principally unanswerable if you don’t take a stand vis-à-vis the first. If it’s just selling the product that drives the design, regardless of why it’s made or for what purpose other than generating revenue, there is no such thing as bad design – only ineffective design. And since effectivity is measurable, design will become a formulaic affair once the mathematicians of marketing and sales are done crunching the data that prove what is or is not effective design. Raymond Loewy’s famous dictum “good design sells” will by then have been reversed into “design that sells is good,” leaving the designer in the position of the copyist who duly replicates what has been passed to him by the invisible hand of the market. [3]

This is what many see as the present state of design: a principally a-moral craft that can make any product, any message effective, whatever its content or meaning. [4]

In contrast to ‘ineffective’, ‘bad’ is a moral category. The problem with morality is that it is hard to measure, which is why businesses don’t consider it an effective parameter. ‘Good’ can mean many things to many people, and not necessarily the same things. And even if there is consensus about the essentials that govern the perception of good and bad within one culture, that doesn’t mean they will do the same in another. [5]

Since design is at root a cultural activity, albeit one that is geared at enhancing the functionality of artifacts, the notions of good/effective and bad/ineffective have become deeply intertwingled in the discipline’s discourses. Thus, effective legibility is a moral obligation for those designers who consider themselves servants of a literary culture through which our very humaneness is channeled, while for others the question of whether a text should be readable or merely viewable is a matter of aesthetics and viewpoint. Or marketing. Global brands have to consider that people in different cultures can read the same word differently, and the same goes for images. In Italian and English the name of the Fiat Croma evokes associations with shiny chrome and color; in the Netherlands Croma is the brand name of a cheap vegetable baking fat. The Fiat Croma sells considerably less in the Netherlands then elsewhere. And an American rice brand once highlighted the exotic character of their product by advertising it with an image of a rice bowl with two chop sticks merrily rising straight up from the grains. They dropped the image when it was pointed out to them that in Asian cultures this is a symbol of death. One can admire the artfulness that goes into devising words and images that won’t offend anyone in any culture, but by the same token one can predict the outcome of such scrutiny – blandness. [6]

Which brings me back to the question why there is so much bad design. It is, as may be clear by now, a matter of policy. [7]

Mass markets, be they global or not, are per se catering to the common denominator, which consists, again by definition, of a severely limited array of shared clichés. Designers who master this level of requisite blandness are very well prepared for entering the arena of effective salesmanship. They are not stupid, nor without talent – their politics are just not mine. My sympathy lies with design that considers the market a public place, inspired by richer and more varied sounds than the tinkle of money. Beyond structuring information or organizing functional parts, design is a conversation between participants in that public place. [8]
Its language is applied to the specific contexts design has to address – functionality, familiarity, clarity of purpose and communication, and yes, economy of means –, but it’s the same language that poets and artists use. In other words, a language that can voice ‘third meanings’, as Roland Barthes termed it – the almost imperceptible meanings beyond the obvious and symbolic, which allow those who can read them to imagine. A language that frees words and images from the all too galling bonds of reality. [9]

I see this as design’s most rewarding task: to imbue the functional products and messages it is commissioned to fashion with a significance that transcends the obvious. [10]

All design, in my view, should be poetic. Design is applied poetics, which enables it to address issues which seem far removed from its core messages at first sight, but which are connected to these messages nonetheless. [11]
Take typography. Beyond making texts readable, its letterforms serve to invoke an atmosphere, a culture, a history. The message shared with the reader is that of the text; plus that which the typographer chooses to impart by his choice of typeface, accentuation and lay-out. If he decides to set a classic text in a modern typeface, we may assume – or hope – that this choice has a reason, a context; that it is meant to stimulate our imagination. [12]
Of course, design is bound to the content that it makes visible and usable, and that content is rarely the design itself. [13]
Design means to interface content with recipients – people – who use it to act, to reflect, to inform or to amuse themselves. The space for a poetics of design may seem marginal in this light, but it is there, between the seams of functionality. It is there that the designer finds the space to author his own messages, which may in fact become a constituent part of the overall meaning of the design, if the commission allows it. [14]

One of the interesting effects of the introduction of digital communication networks and computer-aided manufacture, which revolutionized global production and distribution, is that they also enabled the targeting of micro markets on a scale the world has never seen before. Global mass markets are still thriving, but the "global erosion of cultural identity"
that some fear will result from it is at least in theory balanced by the potential of catering to individual demands on a world spanning scale. [15]

This is a challenge for designers, which at first sight is at odds with their authorial capacity. Technology principally allows for one-on-one communication with end users, but how can a designer make a viable practice from this without becoming an artist producing one-offs or by exclusively catering to individual – and rich – patrons? Design, after all, is about reproduction, preferably in large numbers. Can there arise a practice of design, production and distribution that combines reproduction with mass customization? Raising the question is answering it, for such a practice is indeed taking shape in many sections of society, from open-source movement to remix culture. In all these practices, technology is the binding and enabling tool, but the real resource is a new way of thinking design. [16]

Design can be – and is – at the core of a new economy of ideas, when designers consider themselves as facilitators in collaborative processes rather than authors of discrete products. Of course, such authorial products will be needed probably for ever, if only to temporarily harness the flux, as small, locally manufactured and globally distributed objects for like minds, or as authoritative models. [17]
But I feel the center of gravity in design for mass production will shift towards a kind of modularity that allows the public to fundamentally take part in the formation of the end product. The graphic designer of tomorrow’s newspaper will not lay-out texts and images and what have you on a series of pages, but will design rules for the behavior of content, for any platform available and in any configuration required by the reader. He will have to rethink where in this intricate process, of which he does not control the outcome, is his space for poetic license, his authorship. [18]
And most of all, he will have to continue pondering the question of what it is he’s doing; taming the flow or helping people make sense of it. [19]







max bruinsma