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Under the rocks and stones, same as it ever was

A few days ago Erik Spiekermann offered some perspective on a mobile-first article, relating its situation-based process to print design: “I always start with the smallest element and work up from it. In a book that may be the footnotes, in a timetable that would be the numbers, in a magazine the main text.” He goes on to say:

“You do the same for screens. So what’s new? The present generation of UI/UX designers may think that they invented a new way of designing, but we’ve had these issues forever.”

Excusing the generalization, admonishing “UI/UX designers (or whatever the flavour of the month)” for neglecting their cultural heritage is not wholly unfair. Web and print sensibilities have approached a common center in the last few years, and I’ve wondered whether (or rather, when) print and its richer and more diverse visual language, older and wiser, will wash up on our shores; evict us, so to speak. Because we are an island, doing what groups in isolation do—subdividing and over-specializing—and with the same bred-in vulnerabilities. I don’t think I’m stretching the metaphor: we work in tech, but the patterns of human behavior and organization, including business, have their best corollaries in the same forests and oceans we knuckled and finned our ways through. Point is, our house can be divided only so many ways—into so many flavors—before it falls.

But the risk here is pretty remote … right? In any case, what I really want to talk about are three little words:

“So what’s new?”

I will not argue for originality. We can write a thousand and one blog posts about the banality wrought on web design by responsive web design, mobile-first thinking, atomic design—blame the tools—but no amount of banner-waving stands a chance to interrupt the tireless, formless forces that drive the cycles governing taste and style any more than a pebble can dam a river. I considered writing about this, the lack of wonder—newness—in web design, but there’s no reason I see in writing when my head and heart and hands are not swelling with full-blooded conviction, and anyway—fully allowing for the Fallacy of Relative Privation (the dismissal of anything based on its importance relative to legitimate crises)—it hardly seems worth getting into an Adolf Loos-like fuss over. Things will play out their natural course.

The first design book I ever purchased with money earned in my profession was an anthology of graphic design essays collated between the years 1984 and 1995. In the absence of a mentor or teacher—though in 2000 my career was jolted into life by a dot-com venture capitalist who dug me out from under school and loans, I was still ashamed, despite the validation of my talent, at my aborted education—Design Culture became my textbook on how to think about design. What I came to understand from these essays, some now 30+ years old, is that no amount of history laid bare can save us (designers-us, but I’d consider the whole human envelope in this as well) from repeating our mistakes and re-learning our lessons.

Here are a few quotes I’ve pulled from selected essays:

“Of course, nothing is new,” wrote Paul Saffo. “Eventually we will look back on the closing half of this century and realize that we suffered from a cult of originality.” (“The Place of Originality in the Information Age,” 1994.)

Richard Saul Wurman: “We are drowning in data.” (“Design for Understanding,” 1988.)

Milton Glaser, on the homogeny of design (replace “magazines” with “websites”): “There’s always a lot of bad work around because excellence is a rare quality. There’s a lot of camp following, copying, and plagiarism. It makes magazines tribally unified.” (From the interview “Magazine Design: The Rationalist’s Dream?,” 1985.)

From Dugald Stormer, whose chastisement of self-effacing designers I wish I could reproduce in its entirety: “Most people in the communicative arts have what literary critics are pleased to call an ‘authentic voice.’ Composers write scores for films on a variety of subjects with differing moods and themes, and manage to stay true to the spirit of each new project, as well as to themselves. Designers might well adopt that stance, because it is the only one that makes any sense, given our natures.” (“Generic Designers,” 1986.)

I could go on. Cut a cross-section from design history and you’ll find fossilized in its substrate the same old arguments stretching back forever, because every generation, either by imperative or in ignorance, rebels, tunes out—learns the hard way. There’d be no real sense in having to do all that growing up, banging our funny bones and scraping our knees, if we had any say in it otherwise; if we could spring from the collective conscious fully formed and ready-minded, armed with all the bright knowledge of the universe. Knowledge doesn’t care about its provenance—and this is where the idea that “nothing is new” shows its nearsighted ageism—knowledge, like our selfish genes, only cares that it lives on.

The point I’m try to make, is that it’s precisely the youthful, exuberant, (a little annoying,) naive discoveries (in the Christopher-Columbian sense) that immortalize our inherent truths and secure them in our professional DNA for the next generation and the next, forever.

Plato said true knowledge is timeless, that we are born programmed with the immutable truths of the universe, that our lives are arcs of rediscovery. I don’t know about all that, but it certainly cozies up to this cold pang of déjà vu I’ve been feeling lately. So I’ll leave you with the eternal design wisdom of Sharon Helmer Poggenbohl, who ends her 1984 essay, “On Design Education: The Case for Professionalism” telling our present: “When you have ideas that run counter to prevailing thoughts, you always wonder if you see a pattern that is just emerging, if you need new glasses, if you labor under some peculiar delusion, or if you genuinely have a relevant grasp of a problem and a glimmering of its solution.”

See you in the substrate.

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