Design as Religion

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice , international


Showing a graphic design student around my hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland this Christmas I happened to choose a route that led from one of the city’s oldest and most sacred interiors, St. Giles Cathedral, consecrated in 1243, to one of its newest, a design and contemporary culture store called Analogue, opened in 2001.

Analogue strikes me as a sacred space; calm flagstones and pebbles surround low minimalist tables, lecterns bear beautiful, illuminated books, CDs, DVDs and magazines. Whereas the St Giles gift shop betrays a syncretistic and somewhat confused hodge podge of beliefs—pots of honey jostle for shelf-space with Russian icons, aromatherapy scents, and books of Scottish ghost stories—Analogue has an admirable clarity of purpose, a spiritual focus, even a whiff of severity about it. Ghost stories and other tourist trinkets would not be tolerated here. A Zen Modernist atmosphere prevails. People speak in whispers.

I leaf through some Gasbook creators’ specials then pluck up the courage to speak to Analogue's bearded “high priest,” founder Russell Ferguson. He tells me he was inspired to open the place by reading about Colette, the curated “select shop” in Paris. He’s still never been to Colette, but he’s made pilgrimages to Magma in London and Zakka in New York. Inspired by them, he intends to transform his back room into an art gallery soon.

I’m impressed. Edinburgh never had a store like this when I lived there. If it had, it might have changed my life. I ask Russell (who didn’t go to art college, but opened Analogue after managing from Edinburgh’s arthouse cinema The Filmhouse) whether he thinks the design bookshop boom is a product of the ’90s. He tells me that it probably is; Colette was founded in 1997, Magma in 2000. Russell chose the name Analogue because, in a post-digital culture, analogue is exactly what books are; they’re objects, but made special by our immersion in electrons. The analogue and the digital complement each other.

Right now, Analogue is doing okay thanks to the fact that intelligent lay people, as well as art students and professional designers, come in to buy books about design. But Russell thinks that the cult may be played out within five years; he fully expects to move on to something else.

Analogue has a selection of music CDs and creative magazines; I open electronica bible The Wire and glance through some year-end surveys by music journalists. A paragraph by someone called Richard Henderson catches my eye. “Irony and solipsism have supplanted the visceral intelligence that, not so long ago, was the stuff of music,” Henderson complains. “We inhabit, after all, a landscape where digital typefaces carry the cultural purpose once accorded hit singles.”

Aha! That’s a very telling grouch, a jealous snipe at design from a music journalist. As a musician turned design commentator myself, I can’t help wondering whether the sanctity of 1970s rock music (with its fiercely vocational, charismatic, illuminated gurus, its passionate converts and adepts) has now passed to design. Do aspirational, spiritually minded people now turn to “contemporary visual culture” to fill their god-shaped holes?

Conservative blogger Michael Blowhard seems to think so. In a recent column he ponders what he sees as design’s pretentious spiritual tendencies:

“As far as I can tell, for many graphic-design people, ‘good design’ is a crusade. They get worked-up about ‘good design’; for them, the ‘good’ in ‘good design’ is a moral ‘good’ and not just a cool or snazzy ‘good.’ Graphic design can save the world! I find this attitude so bewildering that I wonder whether graphic designers are initiates in a cult I know nothing about.”

Blowhard (a conservative who hides his barbs behind impeccable politeness) finds the source of design’s questionable cultishness in a book by Alain Weill, Graphic Design: A History:

“I feel like a dimwit for having been so clueless. Wouldn’t you know it: the idea of ‘graphic design’ was born with our old friend and curse, Modernism. It had—and in the eyes of many graphic designers still has—a revolutionary program. Which means that, by my standards anyway, ‘graphic design’ really is a bit of a cult. Evidently you either believe in the program and you draw your energy from it, or you aren’t a real graphic designer.”

It’s certainly true that many Modernist creators had high-flown spiritual rhetoric to match their utopian political agendas. Architect Mies Van Der Rohe, for instance, said “Architecture is the real battle of the spirit” and believed that “God is in the details”. According to Mies, “the battle for the New Dwelling is only a part of the larger struggle for new ways of living.”

The tone is strikingly similar to the Magma website. “Once books were carriers of light and knowledge,” Magma solemnly informs surfers. “They were worshipped and they were feared. They were recognised as a rich and reactive substance, a highly nourishing and volatile matter... A powerful source. Our hope is that when people walk into Magma they will realize something, something will have changed in the way they perceive things... We hope Magma won’t be just a place that sells books, magazines, brochures, CD-ROMS, DVDs, objects, toys, t-shirts... We hope that Magma will become a way of watching the world change and evolve.”

Well, here’s my credo. I’m not a designer, but I love design. I love stores like Analogue, Magma and Zakka. I enter them as reverently as Philip Larkin entered a church, removing his bicycle clips and doffing his hat. To me they’re temples to human creativity, places dedicated to higher values, yes, even spiritual values. In a world that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, these stores and the curated, inspirational printed matter they contain reaffirm my belief that beauty really is elevating and that every “creator” is a kind of god. However pompous, pretentious, trendy, vain, empty, elitist or silly it may appear to non-initiates, our cult does contain values I’d call “spiritual.” I hope it continues and expands. If we spread the word, the congregation will rise.