The controversy of Helvetica’s infamy within the design community that is described in the documentary film, “Helvetica,” is closely linked with the uneasy relationship between design and commercialism. Helvetica’s functionalist form, which was propagated by the Swiss school of design, is based on an objectivity that is ultimately devoid of content. This aligns perfectly with corporate culture’s ideals of formal purity, which is resistant to notions of individual voice, choosing instead for its priorities accessibility, reproduction and recognition over authenticity in the name of maximizing profits.
Somewhat paradoxically, however, successful corporations design brands that also serve to support mainstream cultures’ demand of social status indicators for the sake of reputation and…. self-expression, which is largely oriented with popular fashion and trends. This relationship between big business and mainstream culture is one that does not sit very well with many creatively-motivated designers because of its tendency to reduce cultural expressions into what can reasonably be called stereotypes through a process referred to as popular degradation. The result is products that are expressed within the confines of what already exists and which has “incubated” and burgeoned within subculture and fringe groups, as well as externally within other distinct cultures.
The take away is not that the aesthetic that Helvetica represents is illegitimate in some fundamental way as some designers vehemently proclaim in the documentary. In fact, what they refuse to acknowledge is that Helvetica perfectly symbolizes western societies puritan work ethic and high esteem for cleanliness, which actually reinforces its capacity to remain timeless. This aesthetic also serves, in the case of Apple’s iPhone for instance, as a strategy that shifts the physical product into the background and allows the interface to become the medium, so it will continue to serve as a vital function in design for the foreseeable future.
However, we have not reached the end of history, culture continues to evolve and creative expression is still one of humanities most time honored endeavors but, as Gil Scott-Heron sang, “the revolution will not be televised.” Instead, mainstream culture will only feel the reverberations of its aftermath, and then only after it has gone through the machine of popular degradation.
Concept & Context
So where do you find the cutting edge of creativity and cultural expression? Apart from the raw intermingling between diverse groups and concepts that occurs within the cultural melting pot, historical context is also imperative as Paul Rand stated, “he who understands history knows how to find continuity between that which was, that which is, and that which will be.” These conditions are necessary for innovation for two reasons: blind imitation is a willful ignorance that can only result in a formulaic pseudoism – what Otto and Smith describe as “the contraction of the time horizon to the immediate future and a shallow past” – but, despite the genius that we bestow on revolutionary thinkers, new paradigms do not happen in a vacuum either, they are found opportunities of new associations and unique ideas within and between ideas that already exist.
"The Greeks knew of this relationship and conveyed it through the myth of the birth of the nine muses, who were born by Zeus, the god of power, and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory.
To explain, Peter Dormer in, “The Art of the Maker,” describes craft as two interrelated forms of knowledge: theoretical knowledge and tacit knowledge. Theoretical knowledge is the conceptual basis of understanding that is required to begin the creative process, while tacit knowledge refers to practical experience. Theoretical knowledge is fundamental to the process, but is inherently limited and can hamper creative expression if taken to its logical extreme, while tacit knowledge can lead to mastery of the craft. As Lorraine Wild explains in her essay, “That Was Then: Corrections & Amplifications,” the capstone of craft is “tactical rather than conceptual, seeking opportunities in the gaps of what is known, rather than trying to organize everything in the matrix of a universal framework.”
Craft as making. Craft as ideation.
While craft is commonly defined as the materials and process of making things, it can also apply to the cultivation of ideas as well. The cultivation of ideas, to put it another way, is the process of amalgamating ideas that are personally or collectively inspiring (or relevant at the project level) and experiencing them firsthand. However, the creative thinker doesn’t simply imitate those ideas, but utilizes the concepts and context: their greater socio-cultural meaning and history, behind those ideas (conception as theoretical knowledge) in an informed and skilled kind of improvisation that expands the realities and uncovers new possibilities (conception as tacit knowledge).
Therefore, while an understanding of the concepts behind ideas is important to the process of cultivation, by definition, creative thinkers must also interpret that experience by finding unique associations and innovative ideas within and between previously conceived ideas in order to develop new forms of creative expression. Interestingly, the Greeks knew of this relationship and conveyed it through the myth of the birth of the nine muses, who were born by Zeus, the god of power, and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory.
Complexity: Design Holism
Along with behaviors, beliefs, and traditions, design is simply another cultural artifact that exists within the framework of larger cultural institutions. These various parts are intimately interconnected and act in concert to compose and define the culture and society as a whole. While fine art is free to be primarily symbolic, within this context design cannot be limited to aesthetics of beauty and appeal but must in addition, respond strategically to its function within larger systems.
Design Methodologist J. Christopher Jones deconstructs the interconnected systems that design exists in or influences as components and parts in the lower echelons followed by the institution-level layers (including related products and activities), and finally the community-level layers (related systems). Much of design is conceived at the lowest echelons of the larger system as individual products (logo, poster, website). All one has to do to see evidence of this is to look at the fracturous and context-free development of pervasive technologies that are raising serious issues concerning information overload, privacy, and identity.
Today, design institutions are starting to understand and address designs impact on social, political, and environmental issues. The challenge for designers is to look at design not as isolated pieces or merely within institutional contexts, but to define and assess the impact of their design process and outcomes in the face of larger issues concerning audience, business, and society at large.
Conclusion: The 4 Epistemological Principles of An Informed Design
While craft is at the center of the creative process, it must harness both theoretical knowledge and tacit knowledge, with a greater emphasis placed on tacit knowledge without devaluing the importance of theoretical knowledge. This is because predictable design is never considered to be a characteristic of good design. However it is not necessarily a complete divergence from existing, and familiar, realities. For instance, existing metaphors are often utilized in order to ensure widespread adoption and to lessen discomfort in the transition. Therefore, both forms of knowledge are utilized in the effective crafting of creative things and ideas. Furthermore, design must take into consideration the context in order to inform the concept if it is to accomplish its stated objectives. Yet in those objectives one must consider their relationship with interconnected systems, the complexity. That is, testing and examining their compatibility with existing realities to facilitate the safe and graceful integration in the evolution towards future realities. I believe these 4 epistemological principles, what I call the 4 C’s of design: Concept, Context, Craft, and Complexity, in combination with dedication and passion, are required in order to create good design of enduring value and quality: