Remix in the aesthetics of participatory design.
Threadless and to.be case studies
(This essay was created on April 2014 as part of my MA in Graphic Design at UAL: London College of Communication. Sorry about the language, it was not written for the web, neither by a english native speaker.)
Prior the explosion of the dot.com bubble in March 2000, the internet market lived an euphoria with e-commerce websites: big IPOs, mergers, venture capital and money floating from everywhere. This environment crashed with scandals and bankruptcies living the Silicon Valley in a catastrophic situation. It was the end of the Web 1.0, according to Lovink (2011, p.4).
In 2004, Silicon Valley startups were recovering their global supremacy in the Internet business. To do so, Lovink (2011, p.4) explains, the focus “had to shift from e-commerce and quick and greedy IPOs (…) towards a more ‘participatory culture’ (…) in which users (also called prosumers), and not venture capitalists or bankers, had the final say”. At this year, Google had its IPO, marking the symbolic launch of the Web 2.0. The model adopted by the company (and others) of profiting from user-generated content and delivering free services can be “seen as a direct response to the dot.com crash”.
Lovink (2011, p.5) points three distinguish features of the Web 2.0:
“it is easy to use.”
“it facilitates sociality.”
“it provides users with free publishing and production platforms that allow them to upload content in any form, be it pictures, videos, or texts.”
This historical introduction is important to understand the movement that lead to the rise of participatory design. Armstrong (2011, p.11) explains that participatory design “requires user content for completion”, where the role of the participatory designer is to create an “open-ended generative system”. Independently from the type of project being created, “community, modularity, flexibility and technology are conditions inherent to participatory design.”
The concept of participatory design is not exclusive from the 2000’s years, but as Armstrong (2011, p.13) explains our “new networked millennium has provided fertile ground” to its development. During the development of the Web 2.0, “viewers have become users” powered by the use of websites that ask for contribution, such as YouTube and Facebook. This new user, the felt of production and distribution costs boosted by computer advances, and the development of “online user-driven avenues for creation” were the basis to the rise of the “amateur creative”.
Siegel (2006) calls this phenomenon prosumerism, “simultaneous production and consumption”. A prosumer differs from a DIY customer in the way that the user “provides the parts and the labor,” while in a do-it-yourself approach the consumer would buy his tools and then work on it. According to him, this “’non-market activity’ is changing not just the way people share information but their definition of what a product is.”
This new consumer approaches products with the eager to fill the blanks, customization and data entry being essential part of this new generation of products. Siegel (2006) calls it “the templated mind”. “The templated mind trusts the result of social production more than the crafted messages of designers and copywriters”. “This mentality is changing the design of products”, not only in “form and style”, as “the template mentality spreads, consumers approach all products with the expectation of work. They are looking for the blanks, scanning for fields, checking for customization options, choosing their phone wallpaper, rating movies on Netflix, and uploading pictures of album art to Amazon. The template mentality emphasizes work over style or even clarity.”
It’s not different with my study objects.
The first one, created in the middle of the dot.com crash (2000) Threadless, was a pioneer of crowdsourcing , prosumerism and participatory design, before all these terms exist, creating T-shirts through design contests curated by the user’s community. To.Be (created in 2013), my other study object, is a platform where users create collages that can be printed on T-Shirts. Between their foundations, the web changed a lot and it is natural that new approaches about the market would emerge. In this research, I will not discuss these market differences or measure their success. Instead of that, I will focus on the different approaches to participatory design they use and how it defines the aesthetics of their products.
Almost 1000 designs are submitted to Threadless every week, from these, 10 are printed. Since its creation, the Threadless website states that 314.702 designs were submitted, being 5.831 printed (1,85%).
In 2010, the website celebrated its ten year anniversary with a book. Jake Nickel, one of the creators, tells the history of the business, invited authors talk about the business innovations of the model, profiles from designers of the community are showcased and t-shirts are displayed in a chronological order. While you flip the pages, the aesthetic of Threadless can be easily observed, while design trends emerge: cute and colorful (p.66), food with faces (p.118), gaming (p.170) and watercolor (p.184). A competition (p.204) to find new trends was also promoted by the service in 2010, where they chose 10 designs to shape the forthcoming creations of the community.
Flaherty (2010), analyzed 250 randomly selected T-shirts from Threadless. According to him “the characteristics of the winners are predictable” as the “community has established an emergent design aesthetic as distinct as any driven by a major brand or retailer”. The patterns he found are showcased bellow, probably if a new analysis was made today some new patterns would appear:
57% use humor.
44% use animals.
25% use anthropomorphized objects.
10% reference pop culture.
8% use food.
3% showcase zombies.
15% use one color.
31% use 2 colors.
It is possible to argue that this aesthetic comes from technical limitations from the beginning of the business, as Nickell (2010, p.104) tells: until 2007, Threadless had “strict color limits, design sizes and placement specs”. These limitations created small, simpler, flat color designs. The change of printing methods added new possibilities that soon became homogenized into trends, such as the watercolor trend.
Professionalism is environmental. Amauterism is anti-environmental. Professionalism merges the individual into patterns of total environment. Amauterism seeks the development of the total awareness of the individual and the critical awareness of the groundrules of society. The amateur can afford to lose. The professional tends to classify and to specialize, to accept uncritically the groundrules of the environment. The groundrules provided by the mass response of his colleagues serve as a pervasive environment of which he is contentedly unaware. The “expert” is the man who stays put. (McLuhan, 1967, p.93).
In one of his media study articles, Manovich (2006) writes about the workflow of design softwares creating aesthetics, highlighting the role of import/export tools in this process. These tools enabled designers to remix design shapes as “Lego blocks”, creating a “hybrid, intricate, complex, and rich media language — or rather, numerous languages that share the basic logic of remixabilty”.
While Manovich explains how different areas of design (moving images, photography, illustration) are using the same process to produce a remixed, hybridity of media language. I see a different kind of remix in the Threadless community.
Observing the T-Shirt examples from Threadless in this essay it is possible to note a remix of winning styles. New designs were created following existing ones. The idea of producing something similar to an already tested taste from the community. This taste itself being another remix: vectorial illustrations of pop culture elements rearranged with nonsense. Despite being created by different amateur creatives, they appear to be made by the same person.
The low percentage of design being printed gives the Threadless staff power to curate the visual language of their products. It’s illusory to look at this website as a fair conquest since the designs with the highest scores are not always printed (more likely, but not always). The community says what is good, but in an old authoritative way, the final word is from the gatekeepers of the platform.
According to the official website “to.be is the studio space where you can collage the Internet. Create, share and collaborate in open spaces called fields. Turn your favorites into one-of-a-kind t-shirts.” Medina (2013), in an article to the Fast Company Design website, explains that self-expression “is one of the founding tenets of the Internet” however the main social media channels have limited features using primitive sharing features and clunky interfaces. In this context, to the writer, the website To.be could be an alternative to fill this gap of self-expression.
The voting system doesn’t exist in to.be. At least not in the same way from Threadless. There are two social buttons that can be used in a scoring way: stars and add to your collection. The fields with more stars go to a trending list. The staff from the website also chooses feature fields to display in top of the others but that’s all, there is no judgment about what should be printed or not. Here if you create an art, you can instantly print it, and if someone likes it he/she can do the same.
This approach frees the to.be member from the challenge pressure that exists in Threadless. No trends need to be followed in order to maximize your score potential. Someone could argue that the prosumer here creates at total freedom, detached from any design trend and limitation. But that would be an affirmation not completely real.
This essay already mentioned the influence of software workflow in aesthetics. That’s one of the forms information shapes design, the “method through which the forms are designed”, according to Manovich (2008). In to.be it can be easily perceived by the impact that its limited set of tools have in compositions: people duplicate things because it’s one of the buttons available when you click an image. They use popular culture characters because that’s what they have on their Tumblr dashboards, or in the featured libraries. They remix previous works because with just one click you can do so. They don’t rotate images or add custom type over it because it is not easy to do so without the one-click tools. The user can add text or put some image upside down, for example, but to do so an image will need to be uploaded. In other words, technology limitation doesn’t make the appearance of something impossible; it just makes easier produced things, or that use less friction workflows, to appear more.
The other influence that everyone is exposed, according to Manovich (2008), is in “the centrality of dealing with information in our daily lives” and how it affects “aesthetic preferences as manifested in trends in architecture, industrial design, graphic design, media design, cinema, music, fashion, theater, dance, exhibition design, and other cultural fields”. So here the to.be community gets influenced not because of a conquest, but because the own fact that they started creating in this tool may be because they appreciated the aesthetic of previous produced works.
The blank canvas the to.be prosumer receives is an invitation to be as much filled as possible. The created objects are collages of everything the users can find. In general, they don’t make sense, at least not in the traditional way of being embed with a message. The nonsense here is different from the Threadless nonsense. The sense doesn’t matter at all. It’s about creating and showing, having it a communicational purpose or not.
Remixes happen within a community of remixers. In the digital age, that community can be spread around the world. Members of that community create in part for one another. They are showing one another how they can create, as kids on a skateboard are showing their friends how they can create. That showing is important, even when the stuff produced is not. (Lessig, 2008, p.77)
Lessig (2008, p.76) defines remix as collage, “whether text or beyond text (…) it comes from combining elements of RO culture.” To him (p.82) “remixed media succeed when they show others something new; they fail when they are trite or derivative. Like a great essay or a funny joke, a remix draws upon the work of others in order to do new work. It is great writing without words. It is creativity supported by a new technology.”
It’s pointless to judge these emerging amateur-fuelled aesthetics as being good, bad or “crap”. As Lessig (2008, p.96) adverts “Every generation has had the experience of an older generation insisting that the new is degraded, that only the old is great.” Also an originality evaluation should be made with care. Inside these two communities it’s possible to observe clear patterns, however that doesn’t mean works inside these patterns aren’t original. As I explained, every design creation is shaped by trends, tastes, technologies and communities. What could be considered original?
Lupton (2009) says a “new Universal design is emerging now, after postmodernism” powered by the widespread of design software. And that “the challenge for designers — a group that increasingly access to includes thoughtful users as well as professional typographers — is to disable the stylistic limitations of templates without forgoing the expanded access to the tools of communications”.
While the world moves to the participatory age (Armstrong, 2011, p.11), I propose a new challenge to the participatory designer: the development of communities also must disable stylistic limitations and that can be possible if the curatorial mentality is avoided. The participatory age has potential to multi/exponential creativity, but it only can flourish with true empowerment to the amateur creative. Otherwise, there will only be homogenized creativity.
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