From swagger to self-deprecation: The end of the ego-designer era?

4 March 2015

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…

You can still find the TED talks if you know where to look. A designer takes to the stage, smiles beatifically as the rapturous applause dies down, and begins. The talk is more of a sermon; a series of examples that confirm the speaker’s genius, sprinkled with commandments that sound deep and inspirational but wilt under the most cursory scrutiny. “Design knowledge is actually human knowledge.” “To be a creative is to heed the world’s call.” “Branding isn’t a conversation, it’s a love affair.” Ok I made all these up, but I bet you didn’t know that automatically.

In Cape Town last week though, I noticed a new kind of culture. Take Emily Oberman, a partner at Pentagram – one of the world’s most respected design agencies – who has defined the look and feel of Saturday Night Live for the past 20 years. She was passionate, she was funny, she was self-deprecating. She played Dick In A Box on stage, and sang along, linking it to some perceptive comments about packaging design.

Or take Dan Wieden, founder of the world’s largest independent advertising agency, whose manner was anything but brash and who seemed to take great delight in skewering some of the pretensions of his industry. Interviewed afterwards, he laughed at those who become obsessed with “theories about shit rather than the things themselves.”

The speakers at Indaba seemed to confirm a trend I’ve noticed at conferences over the past couple of years. No longer do the preacher-designers predominate; in fact on the odd occasion they do appear they seem slightly ridiculous. I think there may be three main reasons for this shift.

Firstly, the creative industries have been changed, transformed as much as anyone by the digital revolution. Anyone who stands on stage and says “This is how it is,” simply can’t have the same gravitas. Nobody really knows. Secondly social media has had an impact. In the past, delegates could grumble about a designer’s ego during the coffee break; now they can skewer their pretensions in real time over Twitter. Thirdly I think design has been demystified. The democratisation of basic tools has opened up this previously removed world to the masses. That’s not to say great designers have been undermined, rather that they don’t seem quite as quarantined by their genius. They take their work seriously, but maybe not themselves.

As Emily Oberman said last week: “Not everything we do is a joke but I do think everything should have a level of wit.” Maybe it’s the end of the ego-era?

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About the Author

Rob Alderson

Rob joined It’s Nice That as Online Editor in July 2011 before becoming Editor-in-Chief and working across all editorial projects including, Printed Pages, Here and Nicer Tuesdays. Rob left It’s Nice That in June 2015.

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