• Opinion

    Opinion: Why designers must guard against the march of homogenous visual cuture

Opinion

Opinion: Why designers must guard against the march of homogenous visual cuture

Posted by Rob Alderson,

This week Rob Alderson reflects on his trip to Design Indaba in Cape Town and the increasing importance of designers keeping it local. As ever you can add your thoughts using the thread below.

Amid the bars and boutiques of the international departures terminal at Johannesburg Airport sits a shop called Out of Africa. It’s the last chance saloon for tourists to pick up souvenirs, a comically condensed floor-to-ceiling offering of “all things African” with masks and statuettes, jewellery and fabrics, drums, plates, pipes, magnets and Mandela T-Shirts piled high everywhere you look; Africa as marketing man’s dream.

If that sounds sneering it’s really not meant to (I spent a good hour or so perusing the place in wonder). But it did resonate with one of the emergent themes of last month’s Design Indaba in Cape Town; how important is a sense of place in the design world?

This issue was tackled head-on by Pentagram partner DJ Stout. His talk focused on his Texan heritage and its constant, welcome effect on his graphic design practice. “If you don’t pay attention to where you’re from,” he said, "you kind of get lost trying to be global.” But while his presentation included cowboys and baseball and lovingly lingering film of the Texan landscape, he was accompanied on stage by an incredible musician on a grand piano; an attempt, he explained, to challenge these deep-seated perceptions of Texan culture.

“If you don’t pay attention to where you’re from, you kind of get lost trying to be global.”

DJ Stout

His talk raised two really interesting, interconnected points. One is the importance of authenticity in design. Cultural globalisation by way of websites like ours and many others can narrow the pool of inspiration, and several speakers talked of the importance of breaking this cycle. But DJ also warned against a reductive approach to defining a sense of place. His Texas confirmed some of our preconceived ideas, and undermined others. We should all guard against silo-ing our ideas about cities, countries and continents in some kind of Out Of Africa style parody.

Thinking back to the other speakers, this idea was raised again and again. Juliana Rotich rethought the modem in a specifically African context, frustrated by previous blindness to considering the very particular technological challenges it faces. Virtuoso architect Michel Rojkind spoke of embracing the chaos of Mexico City rather than trying to design round it. Thomas Heatherwick unveiled his plans for Cape Town’s dedicated modern art museum, repurposing a disused grain silo on the waterfront, thereby working with the city’s economic and architectural history.

On one of my last nights in Cape Town the city’s hipsters flocked to a screening of Wes Anderson’ The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s no great revelation that hipster culture is uniform wherever you go, and it’s reductive to suggest that designer = hipster. But this is one of several forces levelling out creative culture the world over, and I think we need to guard against that. Design Indaba reinforced the fact that “local” still has a big part to play. Otherwise it is not inconceivable that design drifts into a space where everyone mimics everyone else; from Bogotà to Brooklyn, Sheffield to Shanghai. Out of Apple, perhaps…

comments powered by Disqus
Ra

Posted by Rob Alderson

Editor-in-Chief Rob oversees editorial across all three It’s Nice That platforms; online, print and events. He has a background in newspaper journalism and a particular interest in art, advertising and photography. He is the main host of the Studio Audience podcast.

Most Recent: Opinion View Archive

  1. List

    It’s fast approaching the time of all-nighters (not the fun ones), tears, last-minute panics and all the other things that come with the end of learning and the impending beginning of the terrifying thing they call real life. But like the mum that tells you you’re always the best and most talented and most beautiful, or the best friend that bursts into your house and pops the kettle on/pours the gin, we’re here to remind you of some of the advice that might be able to help you.

  2. Stevedaniels-hero-list

    There is an awful lot of discussion around starting a new magazine and for many creatively inclined people it remains one of their foremost ambitions. Last week Makeshift founder Steve Daniels wrote an excellent blog about the things to consider when planning a new publication, and in doing so summed up many things we too feel are important. Steve’s now become an advisor to the title he founded, a move which maybe gives him a little extra distance to write “not a guide to the nuts and bolts of finding a printer and selling subscriptions but a contemplation of the major elements that will set you up for success.”

  3. Kingadz-autenticity-list

    In the branding and advertising world, authenticity seems to have become the Holy Grail. Seemingly melded to whatever people need it to convey, it’s become a buzzword whose significance has mushroomed while its meaning has all but vanished. With this in mind King Adz, aka Adam N. Stone – whose new book Unbrandable is out this summer – considers what authenticity really means in a contemporary creative context. You can add your thoughts using the comment thread below…

  4. Kinfolk_14.cover

    The latest issue of Gym Class magazine has an eye-catching cover; with bold block capitals on a black background spelling out: “Nobody cares about your oh-so-cool, Kickstarted, tactile, minimalist unoriginal magazine.” It’s intended as a “call to action,” Gym Class editor Steven Gregor told MagCulture, “make magazines, and make them exceptional.”

  5. Applewtach-list-int

    The Apple Watch was officially unveiled yesterday (as was a super-thin 13.1mm new MacBook) and as ever the internet is awash with run-downs and reactions slobbering over the new products. For Wolff Olins design director Jan Eumann though, the imminent arrival of the new timepiece got him thinking about logo design, and in particular how app buttons have rehabilitated the logo. You can add your thoughts using the comment thread below…

  6. Rod-hunt-int-hero

    Do you really need an agent? Why? What do they actually do? In a talk hosted by The Illustrator’s Guild of Ireland at this year’s Offset festival a panel featuring Peepshow Collective’s Andrew Rae and Chrissie Macdonald, illustrators Rod Hunt and Matthew Griffin and Bernstein & Andriulli agent Sam Summerskill, we heard about how best to go about finding an agent, what they look for and what they get up to. Here’s what we learnt…

  7. Opinion-int-list

    After visiting the Design Indaba conference in South Africa, Rob Alderson asks if the leading designers working today favour humility and modesty over the cloying over-confidence of their predecessors. As ever you can add your thoughts using the comment thread below…

  8. Opinion-davidpearson-int-list

    Last week an interesting Twitter debate sprang up after a comment by graphic designer Andy Pressman who admitted that on a recent series he worked on it wasn’t always possible to read the books before designing the covers. So we decided to speak to a few other book cover designers and find out where they stand on this apparently quite divisive design issue; as ever you can add your thoughts using the comment thread below…

  9. Marckremers-opinion-int-list

    As part of the digital design showcase we are running with Represent, we interviewed Marc Kremers and found him in an unflinching mood as he detailed some of the issues he felt were affecting the industry. Such was the reaction to Marc’s piece both on the microsite and social media, we have decided (with his permission) to republish an excerpt of his interview here. You can add your thoughts using the comment thread below, and check out the dedicated digital design showcase here.

  10. Ije-nwokorie-indaba-sun

    As CEO of Wolff Olins, Ije Nwokorie is well-versed in the creative landscape; the forces that shape it and in turn how it shapes our world. Describing himself as “born in the US, bred in Nigeria and enlightened in England” he also has a global sensibility that sets him apart from many of his peers.

  11. Opinion-int-list

    A new survey has identified what clients see as the four worst types of design agency, and Rob Alderson suggests we should listen to what they had to say. As ever you can add your thoughts using the discussion thread below..

  12. Robertbye-opinion-list

    The intern debate is still one of the most talked-about issues whenever we meet young designers. This week Robert Bye wrote an interesting article about why, after three months interning in a design consultancy, he believes doing crappy jobs did sometimes make sense.

  13. List

    Assistant editor Maisie Skidmore chimes in on the debate about the presence of full-frontal male nudity in Rick Owens’ AW15 collection which showed in Paris a few days ago. Do you think penises on the catwalk are a step too far? Leave your comments below!