The new black and white

Design writing in some sections has become too much of a fashion victim, says Tim Rich. He doesn’t care what’s hot and what’s not and hails the middle ground

There is a school of fashion journalism that has developed its own enjoyably ludicrous language. It’s a blend of theatrical luvvieness and aristocratic hauteur, with a splash of ‘street’ in there for good measure. Everything is absolute. The writer knows best. And ‘brown is the new black’ (until next month, of course, when ‘black is back’).

I call it the in/out school. Something is either in or out – there’s no ground in between.

The prescriptive pretension of the haut monde is entertaining, and I’m sure much is written with tongue approaching cheek. But it’s also highly infectious, and it’s spreading into areas of design less experienced with the innuendoes of critical irony. Take this recent gem from the London Evening Standard’s Life & Style section – the writer is discussing interior design: ‘Minimalism is dead. Go for bold prints from Marimekko, or Piero Lissoni’s Pucci print-covered chairs. Or you can do it on a budget with duvet sets from Habitat (Sophie Ellis-Bextor recently bought some).’

How long before designers, journalists and PRs start to discuss the aesthetics of new graphic design as if they were reporting from a catwalk in Milan? Just imagine: ‘This season annual reports have gone into the red as designers reflect the zeitgeist of debt and shareholder anger. Saddle-stitching is in, perfect binding out, and paper stocks of less than 100gsm are giving documents that chic under-nourished feel. It’s also bye-bye bespoke fonts as classic off-the-peg Helvetica gets the chairman’s vote.’

OK, I’m caricaturing, but I do find that apparently serious articles about what is directional in design often dress subjective impressions up as objective analysis. The critics keep introducing a new reality, yet my reality never matches their’s. Show me an article stating ‘Illustration is the new photography’ and I’m bound to stumble across lots of brilliant new design photography. Declare that designers are eschewing decorative fonts and I’m sure to see a flurry of new work with beautifully florid faces.

Am I out of step with the rest of the world, or is the in/out school’s version of reality fancifully fictitious? Please tell me it’s the latter.

Of course, there are times when certain looks are popular. If our economy collapsed we would probably see an increase in simple annual reports. But that wouldn’t necessarily mean fat reports blazing with energetic photography on wrist-thick glossy stock had disappeared. Or were inappropriate. Or were ‘wrong’ for the client.

The absolutism of the trend-watchers is what throws me. While they’re busy telling us what’s hot and what’s not, the world I see is one of delightful aesthetic pluralism. In terms of graphic design, for example, I find the sheer diversity of styles in use today more interesting than individual micro-trends. You never know what will appear next. Award annuals are less representative of diversity in design than a walk around the streets. Get out and about and you’ll see an extraordinary range of graphica, from re-workings of hardcore Swiss Modernism to playful rococo-style expressiveness, along with approaches so new we haven’t pigeon-holed them yet. If contemporary graphic communication was a place it wouldn’t be a cathedral, town square or department store, it would be a sprawling, heaving bazaar – a centre with no centre.

This diversity excites yet intrigues me. What does it say about us? Has any other society used so many styles to talk to itself? How will design history reflect what we’re producing now? Does this diversity produce ‘better’ work, or is this a chaos of choice producing little of long-term value? I don’t have answers, and I’ve no clear idea how, collectively, we’ve managed to create such visual riches. Our multicultural, multiracial society, maybe? The marriage of British design heritage with a cosmopolitan outlook? A greater sense of visual history among designers? Television? The Internet? The Mac? Capitalism?

What I do know is that today’s visual diversity gives the current generation of designers wonderful opportunities to explore, experiment and enjoy working life. It reminds me of the way meals in this country evolved from the stodgy grey fayre of the 1970s to the eclectic recipes, ingredients, cooking styles and culinary attitudes we have today.

Design is now packed with a wonderful range of subtle flavours, and I think that’s something to celebrate. Or as the in/out crowd might say, fashion is dead; long live style.

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