1,000 Word 21st Century Design Manifesto

Notes on the mystification of design culture and technology as its enabler.

Illustration by Leon Brown

In Ways of Seeing, Berger first stated that images were created to represent something not directly seen by the viewer — the portrait a snapshot, and the landscape a viewpoint. Throughout history, paintings have been created depicting events that were either staged or framed, and seen only from a single perspective; and in realisation of the power of a single viewpoint, the image soon began to outlast the subject it first represented — the relationship between what we see, and what we know to be real, now forever inseparable from entanglement.

Berger’s exploration was important as it came at a time of new post-modernist thinking around the ubiquity of the image in society, and how it manifested itself around us — in advertising, television, film, and commercial objects.

Together with Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Guy Debord, they created new schools of thought around the effects of emerging images — particularly of advertising — and offered a critique on the commercialisation of the image. Debord in 1967 published The Society of The Spectacle, describing the indistinguishable and constant flow of images that made up our perceptions of society; — our “fragmented views of reality” — views re-organised through mass media in a way that can only be observed and never experienced — and later on, the commodification of this reality, in a fraudulence of satisfactions.

The image after its creation, Berger went on to argue, shows us a perspective on the subject as it was once seen by the creator, rather than appearing as an objective truth. As images began assuming authority in society, so did their content — and as they outlasted time, came to be the only evidence of their subject. Viewers would draw conclusions on history from images, their meaning becoming obscured by assumptions on the part of the viewer, in the form of interpretation.

Unintentionally, we may alter the meaning of the image with the context that it is displayed in — a film house may be more appropriate for a film, but less so for a casting tape. But intentionally, and historically, the artist has produced images with deliberate false realities — contemporary cinema can rely heavily on computer effects, blurring the barriers between the reality presented, and our known reality. Berger refers to this process as mystification — the mystification of an image, object, process, or fact, allowing us to inevitably draw fewer concrete conclusions about the past.

Writing in 1972, Berger still sat squarely in a design culture oriented toward physical consumer products — makeup, fast cars, and holiday homes — with a method of making that reflected the output — packaging die, typeset lead, and xerox. The images he studied were conceived to reflect in some capacity an original, authentic object of desire. But in the proceeding fifty years, in a way that very few could have predicted, the digital revolution has slowly but meaningfully eroded any connections between the authentic original and the image, resulting in a design culture formed almost entirely of mystified images.

Design didn’t gain a new ability to mystify overnight because of the digital revolution, but instead encouraged this slow replacement of physical design patterns — dials and switches, textured surfaces, and multi-sensory interactions — with digital counterparts devoid of heritage.

With the poor practice of early digital designers validated through the commercial successes of “digital design” applications, a race to the bottom on cheap, commodified, and templated design has ruined the designers’ ability to impress and delight without market hands forcing them into a pre-existing look and feel. A multitude of exciting digital and physical interactions are now replaced with standardised UI libraries, flat and accessible color palettes, and the concocted “science” of UX design. Every social media platform endlessly copies one another with their latest product releases like several billion-dollar ouroboros. Fiverr and creative "marketplaces" mint design "systems" like currency. And yet despite leaps of advancement in technology, the interfaces through which we actually access that technology as a result remains stagnant and uninspired.

Instead of celebrating the magic and complexity of modern technology, and in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience, commercial design has pushed for more mystification and worked to hide the inner workings of everything. Product managers get want they want, and the terrifying reality of our devices and the technology that makes them work remains locked away and further out of mind.

So as much as the mechanisation of work separated most individuals from the experience of witnessing its creation, new digital media from the internet to instant communication and film-making have worked harder than ever before to separate us from direct contact with the information and services we consume. Modernity worked to push apart the hands of the creator and consumer in every possible way — the writer became detached from the printing press, and the printing press became detached from the reader. Digitisation as a consequence of post-modernity only served to compound this shift.

Many companies now sell invisible and untraceable products — the form of which, are never touched or felt, and only experienced digitally. So naturally with both the required output of design shifting from the physical to the digital, as well as the tools required to create it — mystification became a natural assailant of the design process. The challenge of visual communicators is obvious — and the right direction is as much an exercise in philosophy and truth-seeking as it is in mark-making.

While the superstructures of our digital and physical world continue to arrange themselves in increasingly complex ways, designers must work to simplify and rationalise this information and decipher it into a digestible and truthful reality. The speed at which design culture evolves — and its closeness to every revolution in technology — places a natural urgency on this mission. Scrutinize your brief. Consider your audience, and the impact of the design patterns you choose to reinforce. Are they truthful? Do they further design culture meaningfully? Or do they copy and mystify?

Barthes, R. (1981) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

Benjamin, W. (2008) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. London: Penguin Books.

Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books.

Debord, G. (1992) Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press.

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