When It’s Cool to Say Cool (and when it’s not)

It's never cool to begin an article with a dictionary definition of anything. It invariably sounds like the writer is unable to start the article with an original lede. Nonetheless, it is cool to provide the following definition of cool, so we are on the same page (which is a tired expression, and thus uncool).

The American Heritage Dictionary says:

From Black English usage meaning 'excellent, superlative,' first recorded in written English in the early 1930s. Jazz musicians who used the term are responsible for its popularization during the 1940s. As a slang word expressing generally positive sentiment, it has stayed current (and cool) far longer than most such words. In order for slang to stay slangy, it has to have a feeling of novelty.

Wikipedia says:

There is no single concept of cool. One of the essential characteristics of cool is its mutability—what is considered cool changes over time and varies among cultures and generations.

The impetus for this article stems from a terse critical declaration—“that's cool”—I gave in response to a sketch for a book cover by James Victore that he sent to my publisher. This is what he wrote back to me: I had a workshop just recently and was showing some images. One was a GP race bike; very cool and sexy. A student asked why I showed it, and my only answer was that is was “cool.” Of course a client wants a better answer, but how is it that sometimes an emotional response is sometimes the only and best answer? 

Good question. And one that comes up often in both classroom and boardroom. When is it cool (meaning appropriate) to say cool (meaning capital, boss, hot, groovy, hep, crazy, sweet, nervous, far-out, rad)? And when is it, well, cavalier (meaning inappropriate, ignorant, flaky)?

Let's start with the classroom. When I was a kid the use of slang was entirely forbidden in school, with penalties ranging from demerits to trips to the principal (i.e., the language police). Slang was not good English—at worst guttural, at best improper or mongrel. New York City school teachers were charged with turning out right-speaking-melting-pot-Americans void of any ethnic quirks whatsoever (there was even a class called “remedial speech”), and that meant none of those flagrant linguistic abuses so common among us first and second generation citizens. Of course, slang is vernacular language that distinguishes or defines groups and individuals—social, cultural, economic, etc.—which today is usually a good thing. Every culture has slang in some form, and the most common indicate approval and disapproval and are comprehensible by all who subscribe to the language—dig it?

Slang is to language as handwriting is to type; it is unofficial. Yet it often becomes embedded into everyday speech. Cool is certainly part of our shared Esperanto. It covers a multitude of concepts and emotions, the most common of which is high praise if indeed one is called “cool.” Unlike groovy, fab or gear, which sound positively antediluvian, cool never seems to go out of style. And still, cool does not convey the specificity necessary for making a viable crit in the classroom.

When Victore abruptly responded with “cool” in response to a curious student's legitimate query, he broke the first rule of teaching. Rather than explain his rationale he relied on linguistic shorthand. Rather than examine motives that would prompt greater understanding, he used a code that, while imbued with common meaning, had no specific meaning. There had to be more to the image of that motorcycle than just its cool aesthetics, even though it was, for some, totally cool.

Or maybe not. Had Victore's class been in motorcycle maintenance, then a more-detailed deconstruction of the vehicle and its infrastructure would have been necessary. But he was showing a class of graphic design students how common objects can be made to look uncommon through visual additives. Maybe calling it cool was sufficient for what he was attempting to do—or, again, maybe not. The fact is the classroom is a place where even the most insignificant thing should be viewed as significant. While it is okay to use cool in the street (“Hey, that's cool, but I gotta go before the iPhone line gets too long”), it is wrong to rest on cool when deeper meaning is demanded. It's cool to show cool things in class, but its useful to explain their coolness. Too often students will interpret a throwaway response as getting the cold shoulder, which is never cool.

Slang in business meetings is routinely problematic. Although a client—particularly a cool one—may understand and even use the code in private, when it comes to efficient client/designer communications, clarity, straightforwardness and seriousness are imperative. Slang can easily ring the wrong chime. Too many uses of “dude,” “def” or “dope” suggest an informal, devil-may-care attitude that could easily trigger insecurity in the receiver. Or stated another way, if you don't want to sound immature, stick to the King's English.

Nonetheless, cool can be an icebreaker. In business situations, if the client initiates the talk, then the designer should jump right in. However, that does not mean cool becomes the substitute for smart. Language—conversation—should be designed or fashioned with just as much care and forethought as type and image; knowing when and where to use cool shows wisdom that only truly cool designers possess.

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com