Design Rockism

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 metaphysical bit).

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 the function.’”

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 arrived.”

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 non-functionalist gun.