The Test of Time: How are designers creating long-lasting, impactful work?
It’s not easy navigating the ever-shifting realm of trends. Here, we speak to four creatives for the low-down, finding out how they make stand-out work that will leave a mark on visual culture.
In 1960, when designer Alexander Girard was asked to create the look and the space for La Fonda del Sol, the now-iconic Latin-American themed restaurant in New York City, he created a family of over 80 motifs — in each of them was a smiling sun, in bright, electric shades of fluorescent yellow, pink and orange. Girard wrapped the motifs in a typographic border that spelt the restaurant’s address, and used them liberally across the space — on the menu, on tortilla bags, matchbooks, paper napkins and even on the faucets in the washroom. The restaurant shut shop in 1971, but the objects and ephemera designed by Girard — which slowly found its way to exhibitions and auction houses — continue to resonate today. “The iconic sun has gone on to inspire many identities and designs worldwide to this day,” says Sarah Di Domenico, co-founder of Montreal and Los Angeles-based Wedge Studio. “I think that's because there's a universality to its charm and playfulness. It's very rooted in a place in time but still brings joy and feels fresh when you see it.”
Whether it’s Girard’s effervescent motifs of La Fonda del Sol, Yusaku Kamekura’s identity for the Tokyo 1964 Olympics, or Emory Douglas’ newspaper covers for The Black Panther Party — design history brims with examples of seminal pieces of work that feel just as powerful today as the day they were made. What is it about these works that lend them their enduring appeal? And more importantly, how do designers today create work that not only paddles through the sea of sameness around us, but leaves a mark on the visual culture of our times?
Today, the idea of creating long-lasting work can often be eclipsed by the need to churn out visual ‘content’, especially in an industry always riddled by rising and ebbing trends. With the surge of mediums and platforms, easy shareability and the warp-speed acceleration of trends that have designers constantly hooked on the idea of the “next new thing”, it’s easy for the swirling chaos to deflect the creative process.
“For me, a long-lasting piece of work is one that allows me to have a relationship with it beyond its visual appeal, and becomes a source of joy and inspiration – something I can keep revisiting and rediscovering.”Kushagra Gupta
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Shivani Parasnis: Harry Belafonte (Copyright © Shivani Parasnis)
“As a designer, getting engulfed by trends is almost inevitable — you consume design and art for so many hours everyday that it does trickle down to your work, sometimes even without you noticing it. But what matters to me is how I connect that to my own authentic practice,” says Shivani Parasnis, senior designer at Spotify. “I see trends as techniques. To me, they are demonstrations of different skill sets.” Trends can often be akin to tools that designers use to create a certain look or mood, but they’re best used as a lens to reflect one’s worldview, an approach that can elevate a trend from a mere flash-in-the-pan fad to an integral element of the narrative.
“For us, it’s important to study the prevalent trends, but also push beyond them to create a unique language. In that sense, to us, trends represent the baseline,” says Justin Lortie, co-founder of Wedge Studio which, over the years, has become known for its clever yet playful identities and campaigns for a score of brands. “At Wedge, it's important for us to create an enduring quality in our work for our clients. Something that takes their business forward and differentiates them with distinction, versus anchoring them in a fleeting moment or even worse: looking like everything else.” This tension between creating something that at once feels fresh, belongs to our times, but also promises to remain relevant years on is key to the process. It also calls for a significant amount of creative exploration.
However, as the world moves faster than ever before, the industry’s growing dependence on data-proof trends and a ‘sellable look’ often throws a spanner in the works in the path of experimentation. With the foundation of the design work increasingly being led by marketing strategies with a finger on the pulse of what sells the best, designers are often left to mirror pastiches of creative work they’ve already seen before. “When the measure of a designer’s work is based on engagement — likes, follows, clicks — there is data to support playing it safe, and pushing outside the known can be a hard sell,” reads an excerpt from Design Threads, an interactive online report released last year by Porto Rocha and Float, that unpacks the state of design today through urgent conversations with leading designers across the industry.
“When I'm making anything in the art and design space, I'm doing my level best not to think about or look at other examples of design for guidance.”Matt Dorfman
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Copyright © Kushagra Gupta
This begs the question — how are designers pushing against the tide of the times to create long-lasting pieces of work that don’t just sit still, look pretty on the feed, but also help us engage with the world in refreshing new ways? What helps a piece of work collapse the constraints of space and time is often linked to its “context, medium and the experience it delivers”, says Kolkata-based designer Kushagra Gupta. “For me, a long-lasting piece of work is one that allows me to have a relationship with it beyond its visual appeal, and becomes a source of joy and inspiration — something I can keep revisiting and rediscovering,” he adds. This can be achieved through light-handed interventions, like creating a “sense of time through a sensitivity of choices and craft”, says Sarah. Citing an example, she points at Wedge’s recent work for boxed wine brand Ami Ami, for which the studio pulled visual cues from the typographic language of vintage French crates. “No one would know that, but it offers a feeling of time. It gives a lasting quality you can't put your finger on, but you can certainly feel,” she says.
Often, arriving at an impactful piece of design can seem like walking a tightrope between navigating the current trends, while also ensuring the work nods at an insightful truth about a product or a subject. “If a trend counts as anything we notice more than once, they factor into my own projects to the extent that I make earnest efforts to sprint in the opposite direction,” says Matt Dorfman, the art director of The New York Times Book Review. “But this doesn't always work,” he adds. Matt, who also runs his solo practice Metalmother, is known for his sharp, intuitive book covers — a piece of creative work which, in its essence, is meant to be timeless but is nevertheless touched by swells and dips of trends.
Trends in book cover design often surface because one particular design for a particular market ends up selling above a certain number of copies, and publishers look to play to the prevalent tastes and repeat that success. “As much as exploratory creativity is valued and championed in the design process, they're all still subject to any number of market evaluations that determine whether or not any of a piece's inherent creativity ever sees the light of day,” he says.
Matt’s fool-proof approach to navigating the ever-shifting realm of trends to arrive at a singular point of view is also a simple one: start with a clean slate. “Long before I have to think about any of those forces and I'm just working through ideas at my table, I like to begin by making something that has little to no chance of gaining traction with a marketing department or a publisher. If the piece possesses an essential truth about the story in question but features design choices which may feel out of step with the present moment – and even if my art director is the only other person who sees it – its approach has as decent a chance as any at becoming more familiar, reconsidered and accepted in the future,” he says.
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Matt Dorfman: The New York Times The Book Review. Illustrations by Lou Benesch (Copyright © Ben Giles)
According to Matt, an easy way to steer through the current visual landscape to create work that (hopefully) endures for a long time is to not look at it at all. “When I'm making anything in the art and design space, I'm doing my level best not to think about or look at other examples of design for guidance,” he says. “I'll subject myself to thought exercises where I try to game out what the musical sensibility of the piece might be if it existed solely as a piece of audio. And most significantly: actual human interaction. Face-to-face conversations – antiquated though they may be – still surprise me with detours and eureka moments that can inform things about my work that I'm that much less likely to arrive at on my own while toiling away at night.” This practice of looking beyond the world of design, and into seemingly disconnected points of inspiration – whether it be “fashion, music, architecture or just simply everyday life” – is inherent to Wedge’s process too, a technique they’ve christened “cultural foraging”.
“I’ve noticed that the more personal the work feels, the larger the footprint it leaves behind.”Shivani Parasnis
Shivani agrees, “At Spotify, every time I work on designing a visual system for a campaign, I focus on ‘How do I make this relatable, fun and authentic’ rather than ‘How do I make this look cool’. We always set out with an intention of creating visuals that are not only true to the brand, but are also impactful and ageless in the long run. And when looking for a starting point, I’ve observed that it always helps to find inspiration in your own authentic experiences, rather than chasing what the world wants to see.” One way to achieve the authenticity and relatability that Shivani speaks of is to make sure that the work makes space for the diversity and plurality of the people who might be consuming it. “I’ve noticed that the more personal the work feels, the larger the footprint it leaves behind,” she adds. For a recent Spotify campaign for the South Asian Heritage Month, Shivani designed a system redolent of old, printstock illustrations seen on packaging labels, ads and matchboxes. By choosing motifs of botanicals and animals indigenous to countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and a style familiar to the audience, she ensured that the campaign evoked memories of home for desi diaspora across the world. This idea of making design “less universal, and more personal”, and a growing interest in local perspectives also became a potent strand of enquiry in the Design Threads report.
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Wedge: Entre Terre et Pierre (Copyright © Wedge)
A look back at history can help unpack the qualities that make a certain piece of work resonate for years, even decades. Perhaps it feels personal, has a unique point of view that feels familiar to a specific audience, captures a snapshot of the cultural zeitgeist, or gives the entire world a glimpse of the spirit of a culture or a moment in time. After all, Girard’s folk-art sunbursts for La Fonda del Sol hinted of the electricity and the warmth of Latin-American culture, bringing it into the heart of New York for the very first time; Kamekura’s gleaming red sun in the official poster for the 1964 Olympics did not just nod to the excitement for the games, but also tipped its hat to the renewed nationalist identity of post-war Japan that was rising at the time; and Douglas’ newspaper covers, that reflected Black life as he saw it, made his work both timely and timeless.
Whether it’s through the approach or stylistic leanings, iconic pieces of design have always had a hold on us: they’ve reached across time, space and generations, sparking new ideas and conversations, helping the industry move ever-forward in daring new directions. “I recently went through some of my parents’ old cassette collections,” says Shivani. “It amuses me how something created over 50 years ago still remains a source of inspiration to so many artists, and reinvents itself in new ways through the work of newer generations of designers. But what’s most interesting about it is also the one quality that underscores its everlasting charm: they make us feel nostalgic for a time we weren’t even born in. Truly mesmerising.”
About the Author
Ritupriya is a writer and self-confessed “design maniac” based in India. She has written for Platform Magazine, Sofa, Eye on Design and Intern Magazine, driven to tell the stories of the people, projects and ideas that deserve to be heard.