Dating Design

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Question of the Week #06

This week’s question comes from Jonathan Davis. He asks, “How do you create relevant design that’s not going to look dated in 10 years?”

I’ll start by answering this question with a question: why do you care that your work might look dated in 10 years?

Design responds in part to the context of the time in which it is created. It addresses itself to need — need that is born out of a confluence of opportunities that include both time and place. In other words, the things we make are part of the here and now.

If we look back at the design of the last century and roughly divide it into decades — the 90s, 80s, 70s, 60s and so on, we can observe that the design of each decade is, to some extent, a reaction to the design of the decade(s) that preceded it. Take for example type design: the International Style begat Modernism, Modernism begat Postmodernism, Postmodernism begat Punk, Punk begat New Wave, New Wave begat Grunge, etc.

It’s not difficult to locate each of the above images into the decade in which it was made. Each may appear “dated” by today’s aesthetic standards, but each was important to its time and to the design that followed it. Imagine if the overriding concern of Carson or Licko or Greiman had been to produce work that wouldn’t appear dated in 10 years.

Of course some work, although expressly a part of its time, does seem to resonate beyond the boundaries of its decade, movement or generation. It’s hard to pinpoint why this is, but I suspect it has to do with a combination of nostalgia, accessibility, and the ongoing relevance of the idea the design embodies. Below are a few examples that (for me) possess a kind of perpetual zeitgeist:

The London Tube Map has similarly endured as a seminal work of information design for decades. Although it is more than 70 years old, as a design it is not at all dated. Why? Because the problem it solves is as relevant today as it was in the 30s; It helps make a complex system clear.

 

 

By contrast, the current glut of infographics — powered by publications like WIRED, GOOD, personal efforts like the Feltron Annual Report, and aped by nearly every designer and organization you can think of — will likely serve more as a marker of design in the late ’00s than anything else. Why? Because so many instances of  infographics these days don’t really require information design.

Infographics are in vogue amongst designers as a means of formal expression the way experimental typography was in the 90s. From a cultural vantage point there is currently a great deal of emphasis on data (not to mention plenty of access to it). From a business perspective, marketers have awakened to the idea that data visualization can make for a compelling storytelling device — ever since the unlikely success of An Inconvenient Truth (thanks to the work of Duarte). These factors have conspired to to make information design the mutual darling of designers and marketing professionals alike. Time will tell if and when a new means of expression will come to dominate.

So it seems that we are both constrained and unbridled by the media in which we work, the trends and demands of culture and business, and a creative impulse to distinguish our work from the work that came before it. Perhaps we are also subconsciously motivated to do work that excels at expressing itself in whatever genre is popular among our peers. But if — as you ask in your question — the work you are doing is relevant, then whether or not it endures is not particularly important.

In most cases your work will and should look dated a decade hence.



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