See you later, decorator

I admit it. I have my guilty pleasures. I am a pop culture junky. I watched some Rock Star (more INXS than Supernova, where I was frightened to find myself agreeing with Dave Navarro), and quite a bit of Project Runway. Even Top Chef has some interesting moments. They’re all pop entertainment, but with a (somewhat) redeeming hook; the people in the competition are creative. But there are limits, and I found mine last year watching an episode of “Top Design” on Bravo. I’m not sure what the difference is, but I found it insufferable. But why?

Over the course of the last twenty or so years, I’ve spent quite a lot of time with artists and designers. Despite the differences in their interests, perspective, and approach, there is one feeling that most of them share in common; they don’t want to be known as people who make pretty things. Sure, a lot of them make pretty things, but most artists and designers don’t want that to be their legacy. With whatever respect is due to Jonathan Adler (if any), authentic designers and artists don’t want to be decorators.

This despite the apparent truth that design and art don’t directly engage the world’s problems. If social workers in cities and field workers for NGO’s are directly engaged in helping address social and political issues, designers are at least one level removed, and artists are arguably even further out of the realm of effective action. Of course, many artists and designers work (explicitly or implicitly) for political and social causes, but it’s a stretch to argue that Matthew Barney or Andy Warhol make meaningful improvement to the fabric of society.

So, can art and design go beyond ‘reflecting the world’ to ‘changing the world’? Or should they? In the design world, this argument has come front and center over the past ten or fifteen years. Part of the reason is the emergence of ‘experience design’ (or user-centered design or human-centered design if you prefer); though experience design became common parlance through designing interactions on computers and the web, product designers (or at least good product designers) have been doing it for as long as there have been products.

Good designers, whether graphic or interaction or product or architecture or interior design, have to understand their audience. Which is not to say that the product shouldn’t be fun, or even whimsical. But there should be an awareness of the cultural context in which the work is being produced. Somewhere, somehow, there has to be a purpose for design. In a vacuum, what we create is just decoration. See you later, decorator.

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