Design less

Today, the revolution is digital and the age is informational, but design confronts a similar crisis. We have amazing electronic tools at our disposal; culture has modernized at staggering, computer processed speeds. But the tools are abused and cultural change is stupefying. We embrace technology because it is there and embrace change for change’s sake. Our buildings, objects, and graphics suffer as a result. Things are over-designed because new tools must be exploited; here, design says “look what I can do!” Things are poorly-designed because new tools provide templates and shortcuts that are mistakenly substituted for design itself; here, design says “look how easy it is!”

To rectify this situation we must Design Less!

I couldn’t agree more. But Gabrielle Esperdy leaves her essay, Less Is More Again — A Manifesto, much more ambiguous then any manifesto I’ve read before. Here’s the ending:

Whether we are sitting at our computers, shopping at Target or Ikea, or walking down the street with our handheld devices, we are effortlessly, endlessly, unavoidably, inevitably, and mindlessly consuming design. Or to put it another way, we are consuming a thing — a website, a font, a screen, an icon, a t-shirt, a store, a sidewalk, a car, the list goes on and on — that someone, somewhere, sometime designed. If this is the designless world we welcome it and, with apologies to William Shakespeare, first thing we do, let’s kill all the designers.

The best way for me to make sense of this is that she’s saying a whole bunch of things at the same time. First, we’re obviously living in an age of a lot of folk design, especially folk digital design. Ze Frank brilliantly explored this issue with the this episode of the show. After a goofy song about a contest to find the ugliest MySpace page, he dives right in the philosophical deep end, suggesting that giving design tools to the masses brings into question the very essence of how aesthetic judgments will be made by the next generation.

In light of this, the reaction of many “serious” designers is to retreat into minimalism. (This has certainly been my instinct.) Note, just as a ferinstance, Pitchfork Media, which has just recently shed its grunge-n-small-fonts look for a sleek suit of light grays. Then again, is there really such a benefit to looking like every other site on the internet? And anyway, if the ubiquitization of design tools tends to make our environment more visually cluttered, over time this might desensitize us to said clutter, which would tend to make designers un-minimalize their work again.