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An article appeared in the New York Times
recently on an issue I’ve long found fascinating: Rockism. The word
comes from the British music press in the early ’80s. It demonizes a
conservative and Romantic ideology of authenticity often encountered in
rock and pop music. Here are some of the core tenets of the “rockist”:
* Rock music should be bass, drums, guitars.
* It's about artists and songs, not about production.
* A good artist “keeps it real.”
* Some artists are more “real” than others.
* Good songs are timeless.
* At some point in the past they “got music right.”
* Music has value to the extent that it's one person emoting sincerely.
* Although the real is very important, the real is today absent (metaphysics).
Now, other artforms have their own forms of rockism. In art, in
Britain, the Stuckists believe that painting is more “real” than video,
for instance. Their manifesto begins “Stuckism is the quest for
authenticity” and continues through “artists who don’t paint aren’t
artists” to “painting creates worlds within worlds, giving access to the
unseen psychological realities that we inhabit” (that’s the
So, is there a form of “rockism” in design? Is there an appeal to
authenticity? I think there is. How many times have you heard designers
say they design with pencil and paper rather than a computer? Isn’t that
just like those 1980s rock bands who wouldn’t use synthesizers, or
painters who think that video artists aren’t “real” artists?
Rick Poynor recently described, at the Design Observer blog, a “difficult month” at London’s Design Museum:
“At the end of September, James Dyson, design entrepreneur
and inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner, accused the museum of
‘ruining its reputation’ and ‘neglecting its purpose’ and resigned as
chairman of the board of trustees. He claimed the place was ‘no longer
true to its original vision’ and lambasted it for becoming a ‘style
showcase’. His company website spells out his own engineering-led
conception of the design process in no uncertain terms: ‘design’ means
how something works, not how it looks – the design should evolve from
But the form-follows-function argument is a Modernist one, not a Postmodernist one. It fails to take account of the following:
1. We live in an increasingly post-industrial consumer
society, a “society of spectacle.” It’s not enough for things just to be
functional; they have to be funky too. Sure, a vacuum cleaner must suck
up dust efficiently—must “function”—but it must also look funky.
Dyson’s did, and that’s a big part of why it became a consumer success
story. In cultural terms, you could say that Dyson is listening enough
to the Bauhaus, but not enough to the Surrealists.
2. Functionality, in a post-protestant culture, is a moral value in
itself, and makes a covert appeal to authenticity. What’s functional is
good to the extent that we value the utilitarian, the empirical, the
pragmatic. These are core metaphysical values in protestant and
post-protestant cultures. The value of things working is all tied up
with the value of work, the “work ethic.” Values like decoration and
aestheticism are seen as “Catholic,” indulgent, feminine, subjective.
Post-protestants desire functionality in ways that go beyond the
merely pragmatic, and stray into the areas of the ethical, the cultural,
the aesthetic, the psychological, the irrational. Jerry Seinfeld has a
sketch about how men go and just watch other men when they’re doing DIY,
because they have a magnetic attraction to the machismo of tools. Sure,
it looks functional, but it’s also an aesthetic attraction, an
irrational impulse deep within a certain kind of man. The rockists in
the Dyson affair are incensed that the Design Museum should stage a
flower arrangement show, but they don’t consider that their own
attachment to functionality may be just as subjective, as aesthetic and
as irrational as any response to Constance Spry’s flower arrangement
show, the one that triggered Dyson’s (highly emotional) resignation.
If the rockist designer believes that form should follow function
rather than desire, it’s easy to see him setting up a hierarchy in which
graphic design is necessarily lower in the pecking order than
industrial design because it’s less “functional.” All too often, graphic
design fights back using the very functionalist language that puts it
in second place, asserting functionalist qualities like legibility and
internal systematic coherence. Amazon’s editorial review of Josef
Muller-Brockmann’s Grid Systems in Graphic Design, for
instance, tells us firmly that “with examples on how to work correctly
at a conceptual level and exact instructions for using all of the
systems (8 to 32 fields), this guidebook provides a crystal-clear
framework for problem-solving.” The protestant severity is echoed in a
reader review below:
“Josef Muller-Brockmann has established an iron clad
undergirding for graphic designers to base all of their layouts on... In
communications graphics it is essential that a design be based upon an
objective process that centers on functionality and a logical
progression of reasoning. Many designers embark on a project with no
rational justification for what they are doing, only that what they are
doing looks good to them. Such uninformed progress often leads to a
composition that is incongruent and cannot provide the visual stability
and functionality that must be the foundation of any graphical piece
whether it is in print or web.” The same reader adds, incongruously but
tellingly, “I was jumping around like a kid at Christmas when it
Brockmann would no doubt be spinning in his gridded grave if he knew
that his name is now being used by Japanese design collective
Groovisions for a range of dolls inspired by the look of his cutely
stern Swiss system. But the Groovisions Brockmann dolls remind us that,
whether it proves really to be more “efficient,” more legible, than
other layouts or not, Swiss graphics is finally a “look.” Functionality
is also an aesthetic value.
When people say design is about “what works,” we should ask “What
works where?” and remind them that one of the locations where design has
to do its work is the human soul, a place we need Blake, Freud and
Dali, not Newton, Brunel and Brockmann, to explain. And if that’s a
somewhat “rockist” argument for expanding the definition of
functionality into non-rockist areas, well, shoot me. Preferably with a
“They just don’t get it.” If you find yourself saying this, you have a communication problem. Kim Erwin, a professor and innovation consultant, offers a three-step process for designers to communicate better.
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