Sunday, 30 April 2017

The digital disconnect

A lot of people spend all their life not knowing what they like to do and I guess I got it a little easier as from age 14 I knew I wanted to get into Design—but I was so disconnected from centuries of past design it's a wonder how I knew what I wanted to do at all.

For roughly 90% of it's existance design has been exclusively a subject of print, but for the boy that got hooked on making pixels colourful—it was strange plunge into the depth of pantones, inks and card. It could be argued that Graphic Design has existed since painting on cave walls or soap packaging in the roman era but in my eye, I reckon it started with typography, with the Gutenberg Bible. Though, if you are of greater faith than myself, it could also be argued that the part printed, part handwritten early Quran's beat Gutenberg to it.

Either way, I believe design started with moveable type, with desire and sales through an items design alone—ain't no caveman selling his wall. The Gutenberg Bible was created in 1455 and revolutionised design, so if you weigh those years up, I only became interested in design in 2008. I had 553 years of design behind me, most of which was print. I'd never indulged in anything particularly tangible and thus left with me with a horrible disconnect.

My teenage shelf held perhaps two books, three CDs and little ephemera because I was self-educated in pirating the early internet. I had no money and no desire for a CD because I could get it instantly, freely without any consequences—so that horrid plastic square can stay at the shop. I did think then as I do now, that computers are just about the best thing in the world, so I learnt how to do everything I could through a computer; this too included design, even if it was rubbish and bordering on misogynistic.

Just to clarify, I used to create signatures for in game money and a web-based RPG called Gangsters Paradise and almost everyone on there wanted to display how tough their internet gangster identity was by having rectangles displaying various guns, part-naked women and cars. It was terribly shite work that they requested, but I got recognition, in game money and most importantly creative freedom—as long as it included a bikini sporting lady.

for reference: this is the bikini island nuclear test (I think)
My disconnect didn't really change until university where ironically outside of university I was introduced record collecting. There was something more tactile and desirable about these card envelopes that slowly connected me back the main pipeline of design history—especially when out of any good budget I started to collect almost exclusively early jazz records dating for the late 40's onwards.

I recollect being about 2 months into my current habit, surfing the my local hometown market, picking up what is otherwise a fairly common James Brown record and asking the stall attendant "Is this THE James Brown?". It's not something to be ashamed of as I knew no better, but as someone that would have claimed themselves a Hip-Hop head—you'd have thought that I recognise the world's most sampled man. As I walked home with a couple of records that I now realise were horribly over-priced it struck me how little I knew of design past, the people being designed for or the designers themselves. I knew structure and I knew trends and I avidly read Computer Arts magazine but if it had any date on it that didn't start with 2, I didn't have a flipping clue.

Records were my gateway to reconnect, to pull the plug on my digital cranium and throw it head first and the stinky, half damp sleeves of drug addicts that can play brass instruments really way—jazz artists that is. After I had bought out all the local stock of Mingus and Parker I had to find a new way to engulf the foreign experience of pre-computer design whilst avoiding the ever recurring James Last and 90s Dance promos. The answer was magazines, my favourites, but I wanted the oldest ones I could find. Design magazine from the 60's held the burning torch of post-war modernism that I was hungry for. Even now a year after I've graduated from university, I miss two things; the communal studio that we worked in and the library that hosted said magazines. They are rather delicious.

Finding these two interests of mine threw my design forward thousands of leagues, because I wasn't just referencing what I had seen last week—I was looking at periods of design that spend hours producing simple shapes and layouts, so they had to be of quality.

I find that the current issue with design is that it's being gripped with constant plagiarism and steered by a badly placed confidence in blindly following trends; like a seeing eye mule. The majority of the current designers bursting out of the colleges and universities likely have the problem that I had—everything was served to them, quickly, easily and just like the previous. There isn't any reason to look further because you can be satisfied with that exists on the screen alone if you never need look past it. 

The digital disconnect is exactly what drives everyone to create a faux rustic logo with crossed arrows, or make everything have a heavy drop shadow with a 'flat' vector face. There is an experiment where a script uploads and image to instagram, saves it and uploads it again; over and over until the quality has been reduced to the point where it's completely unrecognisable. This is exactly what's happening with the machine, churning out endless carbon copies of lackluster design called modern design—driven by irrelevant hashtags and valued on likes. It's a facade that's slowly repeating itself until it reaches the centre of the maze and realises it knew not where it started. 


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