Less perfection, more distinction, please

Computers have rendered many professions bland and conformist, and the design industryis no exception, laments Richard Watson

I have a problem with perfection. It’s everywhere and is a particularly pernicious problem within graphic design.

Allow me to explain. What computers are especially good at, what they were invented for, is processing large amounts of information, thereby giving people the time to think deeply, imaginatively and creatively about new ways of doing things.

But we have started to use computers to replace or outsource this kind of thinking. Moreover, the widespread use of a handful of software programs to render images and words means that visual solutions to problems are starting to look the same.

It means that the imperfections that once made something look not only unique, but also human, are either going or have gone.

In short, we have replaced designs that could once be seen to have come from a particular hand – or a particular land – with designs that are the visual equivalent of fast food.

They are easy to make, easy to digest and can be counted on to do the job, but they are of little real value beyond short-term convenience.

No wonder that clients are now buying designs via purchasing departments in the same way that they are buying burger buns.

After all, if it all looks the same (or it looks as though anyone with a computer could do the same) why would you waste time spending money any other way?Design is a commodity. But this is flabby thinking and it is devaluing the role of the designer.

This issue isn’t confined to graphic design. The car industry is another case in point. Once upon a time, cars were designed and made by people called Robert and Colin in places like Coventry. Now robots and computers anywhere in the world make cars.

But the result is that most cars look the same, which is boring. Furthermore, designs have lost their sense of place – even their soul. For example, if you look at a Bentley or a Jaguar from the 1950s or 1960s it could only have come from Britain. Similarly, a Mercedes or a Ferrari from the same period could only be German or Italian.

I’m not saying all these cars were engineering marvels, but at least they looked different. You could see how different people came up with unique solutions to similar problems.

But it needn’t be like this. A trend that’s sweeping interior design is the ’rough and ready’ look, where raw, untamed materials are replacing sleek, manufactured and stylish designs. This may be a reaction to the economic situation – the need for a cheap and cheerful utilitarian look – but I think there’s more substance to it than that.

Raw design evokes notions of the unprocessed, undiluted, authentic and robust. It also evokes craft, which, in turn, taps into traditional skills, many of which are rooted in particular communities. It is precisely what I believe graphic design needs right now.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we all turn into a bunch of neo-Luddites. All I’m saying is that we need some balance.

That we should think carefully about the tools we choose to use for each job and that we fight the convenience of the digital age.

As Jack White (guitar, vocals, piano) from the rock group The White Stripes once said, ’That’s the disease you have to fight in any creative field – ease of use.’

Richard Watson is the author of Future Minds: How the Digital Age is Changing our Minds, Why This Matters and What We Can Do About It (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, priced £12.99)

Latest articles