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The Design Cult

Rob Horning’s columns at PopMatters are always thought-provoking, and his recent commentary on Virginia Postrel’s and Rich Gold’s paeans to design is no exception. Gold and Postrel celebrate design, but Horning looks at its dark side:

If the design cult had its way, we wouldn’t even be able to carry a coffee mug without wondering if it’s cool enough to be seen walking down the street with it in hand. Nothing is to be free of the anxiety that comes with wondering whether someone will mutter “Cool” when they see it.

When design and customization options are associated with a particular good, you can no longer avail yourself of the usefulness of a thing without venturing a bit of your identity at the same time. It’s akin to what I’ve always imagined living in the East Village or Williamsburg, New York hipster neighborhoods, would be like, where you can’t go out to do your laundry or go to the grocery store without feeling the pressure to look cool. The tyranny of design makes it so you can’t simply own a functional car that gets you places; because of the rich associations marketers have imbued in autos, every aspect of your vehicle says something to the world about the personality you wish to project.

Having been through those neighborhoods on a few occasions recently, I have to concur, and to observe something even more paradoxical: fashion trends can be so constrictive that people actually appear to have collaboratively settled on a uniform. Horning goes on to explore how the plethora of choices offered by the new design economy can amount to a veritable Terrible Trivium, a bramble of tiresome choices:

You can’t simply take advantage of the usefulness of a cell phone without opening up a Pandora’s box of personalization options; not only must you be worrying about which phone to get, you need to consider what color it should be, which picture to use as a background, what ringtone to have it play, what banner slogan to have it display.

Do we really want our things so freighted with meaning? Though eco-labeling may lead to enviro-saving chic, might it also just mark out those who can (and can’t) afford to go green? Echoing Thoreau, Horning offers this warning:

We are consigned to communicating through design, but it’s an impoverished language that can only say one thing: “That’s cool.” Design ceases to serve our needs, and the superficial qualities of useful things end up cannibalizing their functionality. The palpability of the design interferes, distracts from the activity an item is supposed to be helping you do. The activity becomes subordinate to the tools. You become the tool.

I was reminded of this by some of the scarier exhibits at the Design and the Elastic Mind show, such as the proposed “genetic sensors” and accessories for the lonely. Though at least the latter was deemed “design for debate,” what is the debate it is trying to provoke? And is it even a debate we should be having?