Image by Mitch Goldstein and Anne Jordan from walking.designcrit.com

Formally Concerned

Lately I have seen something I find worrisome: form. Or more accurately, the conversation we are having with form.

I see a lot of superficial form — form that has a limited conversation about itself. Form that is ornamental without a deeper meaning. Take Tumblr for example. This web publishing platform is often used by many people as a kind of visual scrapbook, and is frequently populated by reblogging of other people’s postings of images, videos and other digital ephemera. I would hesitate to call this curation, as I think it tends to be more of a gut-level reaction on the part of the blogger as to what he or she likes and therefore reposts on their Tumblr blog. I think it often comes down to “hey, that looks cool/funny/witty/amusing/unusual/aesthetically similar to the kind of stuff I think I should be posting!”

The result of this are blogs full of nothing but other people’s stuff. Pages and pages of other peoples photographs, designs, videos, etc. This is not inherently bad, but what I get curious about is how this affects how people go about making their own work — is there room to think about something new if your mind is filled with everything else? Probably, but I would not discount the distraction of seeing an endless stream of externalized, decontextualized imagery. I imagine the natural reaction to my opinion of this is that these Tumblr blogs act as inspiration, as a scrapbook of ideas. I question this as well, since I think true inspiration comes from the questions you ask yourself, not from constantly looking at how other people answered their own questions. I hope that the reblogging and reposting of other peoples’ work — and reblogging other peoples’ rebloggings, ad infinitum — does not take the place of actual creativity. I mean, finding cool stuff and posting it sort of feels like you are making something, right? Tumblr can provide an illusion of creation — I wonder what people would make if they were not busy making this illusion?

There is also a tendency towards making form that is not interesting, or enticing to look at or experience. There is a lot of work out there — especially in many graduate programs in design — that appears much more interested in a conceptual explanation of itself than it is about the form of the thing made to explain the concept. It seems as if this kind of work is in denial of the importance of form, as if making something look beautiful and exciting undermines its relevance or intelligence. What I am interested in seeing (and making) is a synthesis of concept and form, of meaning and realization, of the syntactic and the semantic. I want to see work where the meaning is reinforced by the form, and the form is reinforced by the meaning.

I am worried that designers as a group are starting to have the wrong conversations with form. Instead of deep processes of discovery, we make minimalistic versions of movie posters. Instead of comprehensively researching a method of creating something, we Google for tutorials. Rather than thinking as much about how something looks as we do what it means, we make it starkly designed, with an oversize flush-left sans-serif typeface on top of a stark image or line drawing. Why does this seem to happen more and more? I naturally wonder how we are teaching design to students. Is design hyper-intellectualized because of academia? Is it superficial for the same reason?

This writing is much less about what everyone else is doing (and of course, not everyone is doing what I mention above — but many are), it is more about how I talk to form, and my conversation with what I am making. As a maker and a teacher, these are questions I think I need to try and answer for myself and my students.