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Learning from John Maeda

On March 20th, 2000, Time Magazine ran a cover story on the rebirth of design:”function is out”, it read, “Form is in. America is bowled over by style”. Now, apart from the fact that, like many others, Time magazine confused style with design the insight was that we were entering an age of Design. The designer, Jonny Ive being the Alpha Variant in this story, became king pin. Designers were the new gurus and “Design Thinking” would solve the problems of consumer businesses. Design thinking, so the design thinking went, could be applied to all manner of problems and solve them.

Now along comes John Maeda with a critical observation: “But what people want today goes well beyond technology and design. They don’t just want four wheels and a means to steer, or to be surrounded by music and information wherever their eyes and ears may roam. What people are looking for now is a way to reconnect with their values: to ground how they can, will, and should live in the world.” John is President of RISD, that would be The Rhode Island School of Design, and his observation throws down the gauntlet to the thousands of “design thinkers” who have confused design’s original remit to solve problems with the latest trend in graphic reductionism or use of aluminum and glass.

In his observations of the next generation of creative thinkers both at MIT, where he used to work, and RISD where he now is, he sees significant change. “Design is no longer the killer differentiator”. Art is.

In a capitalist and consumer society the commercial manifestation of aesthetics is design. In this world the fashion industry becomes a surrogate for fine art and Jeff Koons can recast commercial iconography as fine art. Our view is similar: Independent Coffee House culture is counter to design culture, the art of craft in the DIY community eschews sophisticated “design” for the roughness of hand made, a new generation has a deep distrust of the concept of “brands” and a general complaint that our techno-consumer culture is alienating and inhuman. What young people are bringing back into consumer life is art.

In the twelve years since Time’s iconic cover we have come a long way. The design of code is as influential as the design of clothes with code becoming part of #pop culture thanks to Twitter. But there has been an alienation. The consumerism of manufacturing society is being replaced by the consumerism of digital life. In this new version of consumerism the emotional connection, previously to a manufacturer (a group of people making stuff in a factory) is now with something ephemeral. No wonder people want substance.Design may no longer be the killer differentiator but we still need to solve the problem that design was designed to solve: human connection. We agree with John: Art.

 

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