Digital democracy

Designers should stop viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles and embrace the convenience of the digital age, rather than react against it, argues Mike Dempsey

mike dempsey

You would have thought that I had insulted the Queen. But no, I simply critisied that bible of D&AD, ’the book’. I had suggested that a book form was no longer fit for that particular task. A digital format would be better. My thoughts migrated to Creative Review, D&AD, a plethora of designers’ blogs and tweets and became a catalyst for a lively debate on print versus digital.

This got me thinking. There can be few areas of our creative world that have not been profoundly affected by the digital age. The traditional craft-based disciplines have been displaced, jettisoned or revolutionised by digital – artwork, typesetting, retouching, photography, printing, illustration and moving image. The same applies to architecture, engineering, product design and textiles.

Television, radio, phones, music, navigation and, increasingly, books and magazines are all now delivered digitally. Soon, most cinemas will be projecting digitally.

No more vans ferrying reels of celluloid. The old-time projectionist will be let go for space-saving, simple digital projectors. No scratches, sound distortion, colour problems. Perfect every time. The shooting of movies is increasingly on HD digital. Cinematographers, like their stills counterparts, have had to embrace the digital form. Film stock will become a quirky niche item akin to letterpress printing. And the revival of vinyl, brought about by DJs, has now been packed back into their weathered flight boxes. The convenience of digital is biting.

If all this sounds like a lament for the past it is not. Unlike many of my contemporaries, who take pride in the fact that they can’t even turn a computer on, let alone use one, I have embraced the digital world. I find it odd that there is often a reaction against it. At best it is ill-informed and at worst it is just nostalgic claptrap.

Much of what we love from the past is viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. On close inspection, many of those old graphic favourites have a low-tech crudity – they may have charm, but they do not hold up to the exactitudes of today’s digital standards.

But to the new generation of graphic designers, bottle-fed on digital, our analogue past has a fascination and a nostalgia for something they never experienced, hence the increasing popularity of letterpress and screen-printing. Getting your hands dirty in nasty oil-based inks feels like you really are crafting it. My own teenage daughter has resurrected my old Filofax, Pentax SLR and iPod classic (yes, even early digital has a ’cool’ nostalgia), as they all have an eccentric allure.And it has ever been thus. Plundering the past is a way of creating a new today.

Thanks to the digital age, trawling our graphic heritage has never been easier. The proliferation of graphic geeks has seen sharing stuff snowball. With sites like Ffffound, Flickr and the myriad of blogs available, what would have taken months or years to unearth in the analogue age is available at the click of a mouse.

This instant gratification has a more profound affect. National graphic styles, once so distinctive – Swiss, Dutch, British, French, Scandinavian, American and so on – are diminishing. We can now see exactly what everyone is doing as they finish it, wherever they are in the world. This has democratised those old nationalistic trends. But, in turn, it has enriched and given more variety to the 21st-century graphic landscape. However, there is one thing that digital can’t provide, and that is the ’idea’. That is a God-given thing.

Mike Dempsey is the founder of Studio Dempsey

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