If you talk long enough about how bad things are, talk eventually turns to the upside of down times. What good things will come out of this darkest of dark spells? How do we cope, and how do we emerge better marketers, better creatives, better people?
That line of thought derailed early this year in a New York Times article on how design might be compressed under the weight of a downturn. The piece, titled "Design Loves a Depression," kicks off with the line, "Few of the arts benefited from the late economic boom more than design" and continues in that vein with a scolding of design's ostensible excesses. The author, Michael Cannell (who is editor in chief of Homefront L.A.), makes examples of bold and boldface design names such as Hella Jongerius and Marcel Wanders. The tone and content of the piece is summed up with "the design world could stand to come down a notch or two -- and might actually find a new sense of relevance in the process."
This in turn caused Murray Moss, owner of design/art store Moss, to remove a stunning, butter-soft glove and administer a smart slap to Cannell's smugness (in the form of a rejoinder to the NYT piece on Design Observer).
Though this contretemps centered on home furnishings, I'll take the liberty of applying the core question it raises across the design world, from product to identity, and to the wider brand arena. Has there been some sort of design bubble that needs to burst, ushering in some new more sensible era? It's true that periods of economic contraction typically yield innovations. Ad Age explored recession-driven marketing advances in detail in its recent White Paper on the topic, and Cannell points to the connections between the Depression and wartime and the evolution of modern design.
Maybe a recession will weed out design wankery -- pointless feature-mongering and contempt for function. Great. But one shudders to hear the wishing of a "coming down a notch" on any creative discipline during these times, least of all design. "Everyone I've talked with has been thinking about materials, efficiency and sustainability for years," says Gary Hustwit, a filmmaker whose latest documentary, "Objectified," explores the world of industrial design (the film opens next month). "But I think they're probably more focused on making things insanely great (therefore indispensable), rather than cheap."
And that's what anyone who's making or selling a product needs to be worried about -- being insanely great and indispensable, especially now as those making marketing decisions are already likely in risk-aversion mode.
As for relevance? Design's relevance has only grown in the past several years, and will continue to do so -- and not based on a newfound austerity, but based on the growing questions about why people love or ignore brands. "In challenging economic times, businesses must consider the fundamental value of their offering and brand," says designer Yves Behar. The dialogue now centers more on strategy, consumer connection and real-world relevance, he says. "Designers are now, more than ever, a part of this fundamental discussion, as consumers see through marketing and advertising, and evaluate a product or service based on whether or not it really matters in their lives."
On the depression debate, "I don't have anything to add," says Pentagram's Michael Bierut (a boldface name included in Hustwit's earlier feature, "Helvetica"), "except that clarity, wit, intelligence and beauty -- the stuff I like to shoot for in our design work -- shouldn't be perceived as luxuries, and good clients don't look at them that way. While bullshit has never been recession-proof, real value is."
~ ~ ~
Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and Creativity-Online.com.