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When aging baby boomers get together, talk often turns to
how 60 is the new 50, and 50 the new 40. But when John
Carlin—president of Funny Garbage, a studio known for
developing animations, websites and TV shows for Gen X, Y and
Z'ers—got together with Steven Heller— editor of VOICE and
a recovering adolescent—the question inevitably came up: is there a
new generation gap? Recent trends in social networking and the
digital revolution have widened the perceived differences between
generations in ways we haven't seen in decades. Or have
Life magazine, May 17, 1968 issue.
Heller: When I was a teenager the term “generation gap”
made it to the cover of Life magazine, and there seemed to
be a truly profound schism between what the pre-World War II adults
believed and practiced and how we baby boomers acted. Our
aesthetics, tastes and styles were totally different and so foreign
to our parents—indeed, downright alien. Now the generations seem to
blend together. Our music is similar to the next generation's
music; our tastes in film, literature, art and design are almost
indistinguishable, save for the personalities behind them. Sure,
there are codes and languages that are unique to this or that age
group, but for the longest time I have not heard the term
“generation gap.” Recently you said we've entered the first such
gap in decades. Please explain.
Carlin: In the late '90s I became disappointed
that there wasn't a gap between the generations older and younger
than mine. All the conditions seemed to be there: the emergence of
a ubiquitous new technology (digital reproduction replacing
mechanical reproduction); an emerging shift in global context; a
rise in social consciousness regarding the environment and human
rights (at least for certain groups); and a robust economy (at
least on the coasts of the United States). I was frustrated for the
reasons you mention; there didn't seem to be a discernible
difference in how people looked or what kinds of music or movies
they enjoyed based upon age. Yikes, they were still playing a lot
of the same music on the radio as when I was in high school!
Heller: Has there been a recent, radical
BusinessWeek, December 12, 2005.
Carlin: Actually, yes. In short, this change is
happening online. But it is more than just emphasizing the “you” in
youth in places like YouTube, MySpace and Flickr, or in the
ubiquity of text messaging. It is a transformation in the way
people think and construct their social identities.
If you look back to the Life magazine generation gap of
the '60s, it was the product of a countercultural movement that
began a few decades earlier, notably in the Beat Generation and its
adoption of the style and spirit of bebop jazz. This produced an
underground that quickly became mainstream style in late
But there is no underground anymore. Everything is on the
surface—America survives by absorbing rather than rejecting. This
is also why the new generation is so hard to see and also why it is
so profound. It takes place in a new social arena that only certain
people, notably those who grew up with computers, are aware of.
It's like that high-pitch
sound that people over a certain age can't hear anymore.
Heller: The divide also seems to happen in unexpected
places—at least compared to the '60s model. For example, there is a
faith-based generation gap that separates not only red from blue,
but in some cases parent from child. The funny thing is, the kids
have appropriated much of the same music, fashion and other
stylistic media. It's kind of like when long hair—a symbol of the
sex, drugs and rock n' roll generation—evolved into mullets. Is the
current generation gap a kind of co-opting of the older rebellions
or a totally new visual and verbal language that is manifest in new
morals and mores?
A Philadelphia church seeks to connect (photo: cass-d).
Carlin: That question reminds me of why it is
so hard to see and understand this new generation gap. I don't
think it cuts into the categories of moral or political values in
the way you suggest. I think that was my point: it is invisible and
involves different kinds of connections between people than those
made in physical space, where we can use the kind of bio-social
perceptions that have guided humans for thousands of years. Or
perhaps another way to look at it is to see the '60s generation gap
from the perspective of the older generation—conditioned by the
Depression, World War and the industrial age. The gap is more about
what an older generation can't see or value than in what a younger
Heller: I'm more comfortable simply accepting that there
is a gap because, frankly, there is always going to be one between
generations, if for no other reason than it is in the best interest
of the marketers and advertisers to perpetuate that gap as a
commodity. Without one, business would lose half its raison d'etre.
Am I just being obtuse or even blind?
Carlin: In this first decade of the 21st
century, my business—building interactive applications, websites
and entertainment for large media companies—has led me to believe
that the older generation truly cannot see what is happening all
around us. My clients want to cling to a 20th-century model of mass
culture and simply see the internet as a format shift, where I
believe it represents a paradigm shift. For example, YouTube is not
cable TV in short chunks—although many people use it to access
content from cable TV, until the copyright owners object. It adds
new categories of search, data and user interaction, not just
submission, to older notions of entertainment. I believe that's why
the founders of YouTube thought Google would make a better
strategic partner than Viacom or Fox.
I don't think social networking is the equivalent of the summer
of love, Woodstock or Altamont. That is precisely the difference.
These are the children of the information age who will gladly form
virtual communities in which their physical beings are not at
stake. The communication is “viral,” but no one's body gets
sick—just their minds.
Heller: I buy that it is not just the change in media
but what the next generation does with the media that contributes
to the “new.” It is also so clear that a profound gap exists
between, say, my parents and my 18-year-old child. As much as they
want to understand the new modes of socialization, they can barely
work email. I'd like to think I'm more in touch—at least after a
bit of tutoring—with what the viral world has to offer. So, other
than being cynical about the benefits of YouTube and Facebook, is
there something I'm missing?
Carlin: I think we are always missing
something. Isn't that what the Greek philosophers, Socrates and the
pre-Socratites, were trying to teach? In fact, that is what I find
so interesting about life—its mystery and apparent newness in the
face of repetition and industrialization. And that is why I see the
gap as more than a marketing tool to get people to buy things in
Heller: Convince me.
Thomas Edison as wizard, The New York Daily Graphic, July
Carlin: One hundred years ago there was also a
paradigm shift in technology where engineers seemed to be in the
forefront of innovation. Thomas Edison, the Bill Gates of his time,
is a great example of someone who perfected things going on around
him from an engineering perspective—but moreover used marketing and
intellectual property law to dominate the early 20th century. I
think it's perfect that the man who developed the recording
industry was mostly deaf (legend has it he had to bite the
phonograph to feel the deep notes) and never understood how content
would eventually change technology.
But of course that is why creative people do more than decorate.
The creativity of early filmmakers such as D.W. Griffith and
Charlie Chaplin formulated a new language for creative expression
by taking advantage of new technology and, to a large degree,
forcing it to change in order to keep up with them. Before Griffith
most film was basically recorded theater. Griffith brought
close-ups, cross cutting, moving cameras and many other innovative
formal devices to the language of film. In his writing he eschewed
theater as his model and cited Dickens as his inspiration.
Today engineering wonders dominate the scene to the degree that
novelty and convenience almost seem enough—but it never is. New
technology always precipitates new forms of content, and that is
what we are just beginning to see. It's not that you can actually
“see” that in Facebook, YouTube or any of a hundred new forms of
expression just starting to sprout. It is in-between the
lines—literally in the code.
Heller: So where is the innovation?
Carlin: Data and search, that's what fascinates
me right now. To me, “search” is a new form of entertainment. New
tools will emerge to make channel surfing seem like an
old-fashioned precursor—as Dickens was to The Birth of
Nation. Data is now something mostly consumed by people
addicted to sports or finance—one is called fantasy and the other
investment. But I believe dataflow will be as important to the 21st
century as electricity was to the 20th.
Heller: Everyone seems to be doing research almost as a
spectator sport now. I still research the old-fashioned way—I go to
primary sources to root out information, or data, that tells a
story or supports a theory. So perhaps the gap we are talking about
is semantic. What I call research you call search; what kids think
is research is just “click, cut 'n' paste.” Standards change with
new technologies—and often for the better. And those of us who are
happy with the old ways are going to either ignore the new or
dismiss it as less effective.
But speaking of dataflow (which makes me think of lava
flow), I worry that this mass of unedited data is going to numb our
senses and intellects. Would you say this statement is endemic to
Carlin: The semantic term I have used to
describe this particular shift is from vertical to horizontal
knowledge. In the pre-digital information age, research tended to
dig deep into particular topics, which is what libraries and book
are best for. You hone in on a subject and find all the details to
tell the story or support the theory, as you said. In the digital
information age it is actually very hard to dig deep, but amazingly
easy to spread wide. Horizontal knowledge has exploded in a way
never seen before. And this is something just at its infancy.
Ever-improving search tools along with the rapid digitization of
text, pictures, video, audio, etc., have made it shockingly easy to
find something, but also to fall into the trap of thinking that
something is true just because it is repeated in many places.
On the other hand, it is even harder to find “the long tail.” Less than 10
percent of people using Google ever go past the first page, much
less use the advanced search features. It's harder to find nuggets
of particular knowledge online than in a good library—not just
using search engines, but also trying to harness all the great
knowledge buried in blogs and various Wiki-like entries. For the
moment it is one of the great frustrations of the online world.
Heller: And this is old news now, but what's presented
online cannot be entirely trusted (even though it can be
continually revised). Moreover, the links that take you along the
horizontal path may be skewed. I recently went looking for an
article to prove a point I was trying to make and ended up with
exactly what I was looking for, but it was on a “hate site.” Still,
there is also a lot of valuable information that is more easily
accessible than at any other time in history.
Could the iPod be a Trojan horse?
Carlin: The idea of dataflow remains a powerful
and accelerating notion, even if the tools to harness it are in
their infancy. Imagine discussing electricity a hundred years ago.
It would clearly be something important and integral to both
everyday life and how it would change in the 20th century. But in
1907 it would be very hard to see exactly where and how it would
lead to the electronic age. I think we are in a similar position
with data; it seems like information mushed around in novel,
sometimes useful, ways, but it doesn't seem as radical as it might
Here, in the beginning of the 21st century, we are using new
technology mostly to market and distribute old forms of
content—mechanical reproduction. Aren't MP3s just old wine in new
bottles? We use our computers mostly as music and video players or
sophisticated typewriters. Yet we know there is something else
there and participate in it through email and browsing or searching
the Web. This is where I would speculate that Steve Jobs is up to
something, and the iPod is the Trojan horse of the digital age. It
seems to me that he is not just interested in turning the computer
into a tape deck, but in habituating a generation of people into
gradually thinking of media as files in a processing environment
rather than as fixed objects that record a performance or transpose
performance into the means of production—the recording studio.
Heller: I guess this is the definition of visionary—one
who fills in the “gap.” Let's get back to this generation gap. We
are both baby boomers. We speak basically in the same language,
although you run a design and communications firm that creates
products that cross generations. If you're not creative enough to
figure out how this will be done, who is? And what's more, is it a
gap of generations or a gap of vision?
Carlin: I do think it's a generation gap,
similar in meaning to the term used almost a half-century ago. It
gets back to what I said earlier about looking for what's missing.
You know how everybody these days says they have attention deficit
disorder? Maybe that's the norm rather than some form of cognitive
dysfunction. In the pre-electronic world, people lived in
communities in which events, relationships and information
transformed very slowly. Now we live in “society,” where things are
so abstracted and permanently accelerated that the blur has become
the landscape. So our perceptions are shifting to pattern
recognition, the bias toward horizontal knowledge, which I
I think this is why it's important to bandy around terms like
“generation gap.” Not as a marketing tool but as a demarcation of
how things are changing in the lives around us. It is hard for us
freaky geezers to feel healthy and adjusted in the imperfectly
fabricated world we live in. It is hard to find equilibrium in a
constantly changing, perpetually accelerating environment made up
more of information than feelings. So, if the younger generation
sees patterns rather than things, hopefully they will use this new
sense of reality to fashion new and exciting forms of expression. I
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