21 August 2009
Human progress is without a doubt the result of efficient implementation of accumulated knowledge. To educate about what is proven to be effective is relatively simple. We learn in days what took years (or centuries) to figure out. The effective use of accumulated knowledge would be impossible if learning was not so impressively economic. Many people learn easily and fast when given the opportunity.
To bring matters further is an entirely different story. Organising the effective exploitation of the unchartered territories of knowledge (or skills) is pretty tough. Sure, simply pumping lots of money in research projects will enhance the chance of innovation to occur, but it is a bit like shooting with hail. Not a very sophisticated strategy, but it works. Deep pockets will bring you almost anywhere you want.
Much of (scientific) progress seems to happen by coincidence, major discoveries were made when looking for something entirely different. Innovation and serendipity seem to be inseparable twins. Maybe this is understandable, research inevitably starts off with the assumption that we have a clue about what we are looking for. However, more than once this clue turns out to be completely off track. It is like designing; we only really know where we were heading in retrospect. Although during the process of designing we need a strong conviction that we know what we're doing. Creative people must be able to generate very strong opinions based on virtually nothing and have also the flexibility to change these strong opinions for other equally strong ones when needed. Asking the right questions is the solution to any problem. So all research is effectively an attempt to define a viable research project. Studying the characteristics of chance has been the topic of numerous scientific research. High finance attempts to use this knowledge (sometimes with disastrous result), but so do all other branches of learning. So statistics and probability studies are now part of practically all scientific research, mostly used to verify the validity of concepts.
The next indispensable ingredient of progress is talent. Talent is even a more elusive phenomena than chance. We do not know what causes talent and we do not know how it works. All we can see is that talented people can do things seemingly effortlessly when all others can never hope to do in the same way, never mind how hard they try. We seem to do best what needs the least of our efforts, although in order to really excel we must not get bored by what comes so easily, we would have to feel challenged during every step to reach further perfection. Human progress depends on individual qualities that function subconsciously for an essential part. Basically, these are hunches that bring us further. So much for organised progress. Yet, creating opportunities for talented people is still not enough. Talent needs to be combined with a specific personality to become really effective. I still remember vividly the most talented people who were part of my classes in high school and later during the first year of art school. Breathtaking what talented people can do, causing painful envy for the less talented. But in hindsight, most of the highly talented students disappeared in humble careers to my astonishment. The ones that turned out to have the most successful careers were maybe not the most talented ones, but those who had the vital combining qualities, like being quite ambitious, curious, physically strong and effectively compulsive obsessive in their manners. The last bit is not an easy or a very charming character trait, but it seems to be an indispensable condition for all individuals that are likely to make a change.
Nonetheless, all these accumulated conditions - leaving very few who will meet all - are still not enough to create the maximum effect for the combination of talent and chance. The most influential is the final condition of being born in the right time. Progress comes in waves. It is not a linear process. Human cultures have a life cycle just like human beings; they start fresh and unconditioned, have a period of rapid development, then stagnate and die. During the periods of rapid cultural growth the very few strong, obsessive compulsive talents who are incidentally in the same phase of their own development also grow wings.
16 August 2009
Working, or even properly functioning in these societies is almost impossible without being literate. Literacy is the gate to any further education and cultural sophistication, so one would expect the best educated to be also the ones with the broadest cultural interest and the widest knowledge.
Regrettably, that is not the case. Affluent societies value the development of the left hemisphere of the brain far more than the development of the right part. On average, people are paid for having specific formal knowledge about a very limited field of expertise. I have always found it surprising – if not shocking – how poorly the visual quality of the environment is valued by most of the best paid and highest educated. Visual illiteracy is a widespread phenomena in these circles. It is as if higher education is leaving the right hemisphere of our brain in a state of infancy. Or even worse, as if education tend to eradicate the visual talent most children have. Not that visual impressions are starting to play a less important role in our lives, the irony of the matter is that quite the contrary, they are increasingly becoming more important. Somehow, for most, judging these impressions stay at a very primitive level.
It seems that larger societies suffer more from the phenomenon of visual illiteracy than the smaller societies. Stable, small societies seem to develop a sophisticated visual culture over time. Tradition seems to cultivate visual attractiveness. Although, the 'design awareness' of some societies is considerably higher than the awareness of others. Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Switzerland and South Korea, for instance, score relatively high. Visual sensitivity may also change over time. Claude Garamond, Giambattista Bodoni and Aldus Manutius stood for the highest level of typography during their times, but their high professional standards almost entirely disappeared in their countries.
Governmental institutions appear to be particularly easily contaminated with bad visual taste. Websites, forms and most other means of communication are sent out and used by millions. Nevertheless, its visual quality is often perplexingly poor and therefore particularly difficult to use. Not very helpful when implementing increasingly complex regulations. Conveying visual illiteracy seem to be the overreaching governmental style, next to a rather childish attempt to express authority by visual means. The last often involves the use of ancient style elements. The 'Washington' style favours Greek and Roman columns, capital serif type and vignettes that look as if they were hand produced at the beginning of the last century. The design of the American banknotes is illustrative for this style and even president Obama thought it wise to make one of his crucial speeches while still running for his current job in the vicinity of fake cardboard Greek columns specially produced for the occasion. France favours a fin de siècle 'Elysée' style, involving much gold and ornamentation. Pretty tacky, really. The large French luxury goods industry seem to have successfully established an international visual standard for objects that people conceive as expressing wealth. The rather scary collection of Louis Vuitton bags may be a representative example of this concept. All official French governmental paperwork I receive here in France are masterpieces of visual disorganisation. To my Dutch eyes it looks as if someone is inviting me to have a well prepared dinner in a trash can.
Lawyers still manage to create shockingly poor typography despite the sophistication of their tools. The handwritten text on the old blackboards looked much better.
I have never found a real satisfying answer why visual illiteracy is so persistent, especially in the highest and most wealthy circles. It appears that shrewdness, good health and very, very hard work are necessary to gain wealth, but talent and personality are required to spend it sensibly. Spending money needs far more education than earning it. The well educated French are very precise – not to say prissy – in the way they speak, write, dress, eat and interact (except when standing in a cue or driving a car). And the amount of people receiving a design education keeps on rising all the time, so one would expect that the visual quality of governmental stuff would move at least a bit away from its rock bottom level. Most families must have one or more trained designers in their midst by now, so design expertise is joining daily the dinner table. Yet, France remains in many ways a sort of graphic designers Timbuktu.
I believe that the professionals are responsible for the way their profession is exercised and rewarded in their societies. Designers set the standards, not their clients. It is the designer's responsibility to see these standards generally accepted. This maybe an unfair statement in individual cases, but in principle it is extremely cowardly to blame commissioners for the quality of the end result, never mind the importance of their role. Listening to client's wishes carefully is essential in any business, but it is never an acceptable excuse for exercising bad professional practices. Doctors are responsible for the quality of the medical practice, not their patients. Cooks are responsible for the quality of the meals they serve, not their customers. So, it seems that (graphic) designers still have a long way to go to educate the many designorants still functioning on the decision making level.
10 August 2009
Some need religious icons for instance to give their lives an overreaching purpose and to soften the inevitable sorrows of life. We need simple role models especially in the early phases of our lives. Many ambitious designers cannot progress professionally without having their own heros and icons. An increasing complex society needs more icons to keep it manageable. Luckily for designers, icons are always linked to a specific visual format.
On a global level, individual countries have simple characteristics, like the individual members of a family have. For sure, the family of countries is a rather large family, so some are rather distant relatives, but each have their own specific taste - which like all taste is not the same for everyone. The most dominating and influential member of the global family has - without a doubt - been the US. The United States has functioned for a number of generations as the icon of power and prosperity. The 'American Dream' has had a global cultural influence that is impossible to overestimate. It's influence is still massive, but now it seems that the global power is about to shift to the Asian part of the world (that already possess most of America's gigantic public debt). But so far, Asian countries are using their growing wealth to look more like the US. Their global economic influence is well established but their cultural influence is very weak. At some stage, their economic dominance needs an iconic translation to give it cultural value. I wonder what icon that could be. At the height of the Japanese economic wonder, its culture received a lot of attention. All American management gurus flocked to the country to learn from its perplexing economic success. The Japanese way, was the way forward for the world. Not for long. For a moment the value of the grounds around the imperial palace in Tokyo had the same value as the whole landmass of Canada. Then it all collapsed. The Japanese model disappeared discretely as role model and with it the notion of 'wa' - to preserve social harmony before anything else. Fierce individual competition took its former position back as the best way forward and 'wa' became only an obstacle in this process. If there is one single image that covers the quintessence of the American Dream best it is the image of the lone cowboy. white skinned, Individualistic - maybe having only a few male bonds, masculine, tough and adventurous. A whole empty country to explore and to conquer. In case you fail in one place, you can always move to another. There is always the option to start a new life; to start afresh. Failure is only a temporarily mishap, success is always within reach, all you need is the willpower to grab what can be found everywhere, only waiting for you to pick it up. No need for 'wa'. The American actor/director Clint Eastwood can almost be seen as the personification of the lone cowboy. First reaching fame by acting as a cowboy in the TV series Rawhide and later as an actor and film director portraying over and again the struggle of the individual in the immense American society often settling disputes in an aggressive and violent way.
The new powers India and China are very different countries with very different histories. There is no empty land, no starting from scratch, no founding fathers. Instead, there are long (sometimes extremely violent) histories and rich traditions. The most important aspect of their return to global power and influence coincides with reaching the limits of human expansion on this globe. Whatever the visual icon will be that will stand for the shift in power it will be away from the masculin, white individual in an empty land, it will be more feminine, more socially oriented, less straightforward and tough, more refined, complex and decorative. Hopefully, the perspective of our natural environment will also shift from one that sees it as inherently for free and solely to serve us, to a more Zen-like approach of complete interdependence and equal preciousness.
07 August 2009
They are routinely cut from budgets when profits are under stress. Design is regrettably still mostly seen as a luxury, something you don't need when the going gets tough. The interest in design teaching positions must have had a noticeable lift of late.
There is little designers can do to keep their business afloat, other than cutting costs themselves, working harder on acquisitions and doing more work for less money, but there is little room to maneuver. Productivity has risen already quite dramatically in the design business. Overal design budgets for websites, posters, illustrations, books, magazines or corporate design work have hardly risen in the past twenty years, while the cost of living did dramatically so during this period. Designers working in countries where government plays an important role - directly or indirectly - in the economy of design are for a part still kept out of the violent storms. However, this will only be a temporarily relief, government budgets will come under severe stress pretty soon. In the Low Lands, the government even went as far as to create a special large architectural research protect to 'save a generation of young architects'. Sometimes, the Dutch take their infatuation with design slightly over the top.
So far, the rather dramatic global economic crises has not resulted in social unrest, even when the economic rescue operation has been mostly concentrated on bailing out banks, related financial institutions and a few big corporations, leaving tax payers taking a hit two times. One time by lesser income and/or value of their possessions caused by the downturn and the second time by being forced into a higher tax liability caused by the rescue bailouts. General dissatisfaction with the uneven way the economic rescue operation is handled is only slowly building up. Central Bankers are now even turning to the media to launch pr popularity campaigns. This is extremely unusual and likely ineffective.
In the meantime, some recently saved banks seem to have found their way back to making again billions in profits. So the bizarrely large stream of unspeakable bonuses for bankers seem to be able to continue without almost any interruption. I believe society shouldn't allow this to happen, because it will be another financial H-bomb in the making. The latest financial crisis left us perplexed because of its speed, its tremendous force and it revealed a basic failure of insight, understanding and control on every conceivable level. We thought that the people in charge knew what they were talking about and did what they were supposed to do. Well, it turned out they didn't. The financial industry is as vital as any other infrastructure, but its value for society needs a profound evaluation. The balance is evidently lost, the financial industry seem to benefit unfairly and a few even up to an absurd level, while the benefits for society have become very questionable under the current circumstances. No other industry has taken so much advantage from the digitisation of our societies, but 'innovations' are very badly controlled, often economically undesirable and potentially devastating. The relationships between the controllers and the controlled seem to be a bit too cozy. The computer has become an essential instrument, taking over the human decision making process. There is nothing new in this development but the consequences can be rather dire in this industry. All the latest financial crisis were in some way or other computer related.
The latest billions generator is based on an algorithm and super-fast computer combination that is capable of making more than a thousand trades per second, leaving all other market players aghast behind their screens. It is very questionable what society could possibly benefit from these bizarre gadgets. The authorities have taken the matter in study now. Not particularly a preemptive attitude where it would finally be very sensible to exercise one.
Designers can only look in envy to a productivity rate of 1000 deals per second, and to getting so much warm attention from the government as well.
03 August 2009
It can easily become a social networking obesity. New social network softwares or sites are reaching the market at a metastatic level. And people keep on using them. Why? I'm sure social networks can enhance personal well being as well as commercial success, there is much evidence around to that effect, but the current situation looks more like a social network addiction. And as with any addiction it leaves the addicts extremely isolated and feeling lonely.
Designers in education are already part of a complicated social network. They maintain their own internet site, a blog, dump their student projects on YouTube and Flickr or issue them as books, have a page on mySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn. And of course some of them start to Twitter. But these are only a few examples of the most used sites. The amount available (and also used) is much bigger. Typically, design students now start their career with more paraphernalia, formal work documentation and media coverage than only a few well known designers who have concluded their lifelong careers not so long ago.Working on your digital identity may start already pretty early in life. In fact, it can start before you are actually born. The unborn scan image of yourself may lay the foundation of what will gradually become a gigantic digital database of all texts, images and videos that can be related to you never mind how insignificantly. Every sigh, blurb, cough, laugh and hello will be recorded in every conceivable media and stored into perpetuity. We have all become 'stars' of some sort in our digital universe; our recorded image has become much more important than the real one.
Someone sent me a sort of business card belonging to one of the myriad types of consultants our economy can no longer do without. I had to laugh when I saw it. It looked a bit like a general printing all his coloured ribbons on his business card or more like a boy showing all the toys he has. The card is from a Dutch consultant so it all looks rather organised and neat. Room is even given for the typical Dutch need to educate, the data are divided in two sections: one in 1998 style (remember the poor time when we interacted only on level 1.0) containing mostly alphanumerical codes and one large 2008 section when we had entered the real 2.0 interactive era. Perpetual beta, he calls it. The card could not fit all the relevant links that is why it ends with an invitation to visit his website to find the rest. I was wondering who would take all this seriously and thought that one must be in panic before deciding that this consultant could be of any help to develop your business.
Apparently, I'm not the only one starting to diagnose a type 2.0 Media Diabetes here and there. See the NYT link underneath. I quote from the article: 'We are fighting against this whole idea that everything people do has to be constantly chronicled. People think that every thought they have, every experience — if it is not captured it is lost.'
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