The Anxiety of Precedent

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Design trends today are in a state of cyclical contradiction: while our cultural ideals are becoming increasingly progressive, our design styles are chronically anachronistic, based on the tenets of obsolete technologies and defunct cultures. History has shown a ripple effect of certain trends being recycled across disconnected moments in time and space. When we look at the way designers are trained to study precedent, it is easy to see how this process might occur; as a matter of inspiration, we are taught to learn from our precursors and draw from their successes, but we must be weary of this influence. When we turn to precedent for inspiration, we must be mindful of the historical contexts and cultural connotations that are bound up in that precedent and the bias that their appropriation creates.

When we look at the keystone design movements—from the Renaissance to Art Deco—we see that they each arose as a process of reaction and counter-reaction to their predecessors (Hebdige), a relationship which is inherently finite. When these movements die and are later resurrected into newer generations, they are often colored with new meanings that reflect contemporary ideals, but they are nonetheless rooted in times and places which were fundamentally different from the present. This system of precedential appropriation can create a kind of duplicity where our cultural identity—our zeitgeist—does not match up with the products of our design. At best, this can lead to a culture which is lacking in unique, meaningful symbolism; at worst, it can lead to the erasure of disparate cultures.

Graphic Design: The Forgotten Web Standard. Mike Kus, 2009

Historically, this kind of appropriation is not a new occurrence. Literary critic Harold Bloom referred to this cycle in poetry as “the anxiety of influence,” that poets are hindered creatively by the influences of their precursors (Bloom). I believe the same holds true for designers, and that this reactionary reformation is a pendulum.

When the gaudy, bourgeois decorations of the Rococo period became unpalatable to the democratic revolutionaries of the mid-1700s, the trend shifted toward Neoclassicism, which appropriated classical Greek and Roman styles and imbued them with new meanings to suit the era. In the 1800s, when new technologies allowed for the mass-produced wares of the Industrial Revolution, these bland designs led to a resurgence of artisan craftsmanship that became the Arts & Crafts movement. When designers had lost their taste for Western colonialism, the elemental structures of Modernism gave way to the diametrically-opposed chaos of Postmodernism; but, today, we find that the sudden and intense globalization brought on by the Information Age has given those orderly Modernist elements new uses, and so we have appropriated them to suit our current ideals (despite their antiquated, colonial context).

While it is true that we can use the study of precedent as a historical lens through which to view our present culture, this resurrection of old styles creates a sort of refraction—the ghost of a previous time superimposed on the present. This blurs any unique, cultural, design identity and leaves us with reactionary designs echoed from the past. In comparing, for example, the mid-1900s Modernist approach to book page layouts with the page layouts of contemporary web design, we can find an elemental understanding of the way we digest visual information. But, we also find ourselves adopting a system that was based on very different, increasingly obsolete, technology.

Left: Jan Tschichold’s book design layout. Right: a generic sketch for a contemporary website

Our current design epoch is a kind of “New Modernism.” As we move through the Information Age, we find ourselves inundated by the sheer bolus of information to digest on a daily basis, and so we have turned to the reductive styles of Modernism to winnow out the clutter. With the popularity of Apple products and the trend toward “flat,” iconographic interfaces, we find an affinity for clean lines, symmetry, and the utilization of negative space that is reminiscent of the work of Modernists like Jan Tschichold and Otto Neurath. These styles attempt to declutter the delivery of information with layouts that prioritize content over design. We are adopting the reductive visual standards set by Modernism, but for entirely different reasons than the Modernists did. These designs (or lack thereof) bleed into our daily lives and have increasing influence on our cultural aesthetics. We can see the evidence of this perhaps most dramatically in the great public spaces of humanity’s new natural habitat: the internet.

a sample of Otto Neurath’s ISOTYPE

As any website has the potential to reach a global audience, web design has created the need for a universal style that can be intuitively understood by the people of any culture. If a website’s design has any degree of learning curve, people will immediately back out of it and choose a different site. We simply do not have time for design to interfere with the delivery of information. As such, visual systems are occurring that dictate style through page layout structures which recall the Van de Graaf and Golden canons popularized in Jan Tschichold’s book designs (Tschichold). The use of these templates as basic, elemental frameworks for universal understanding across cultural divides has led us to an updated interpretation of Modernism: that its reductive styles are skeletons which are not meant to be the end result (as De Stijl and the Bauhaus so erroneously assumed) but templates upon which further, more personalized, designs can be developed.

the Van de Graaf canon

This critiqued and adapted interpretation of Modernism has led to its resurrection in contemporary graphic design. A standardized, structural underpinning allows for websites to be created all over the world that feel intuitive to us. However, we must also consider the ethical ramifications of this cross-cultural standardization. While this reductive style can be efficient when designing in our immediate system, it can also be damning to future innovation and destructive to cultural identity. Designing from a template is naturally restrictive and complacent, imposing limits on the evolutionary scope of design. There is no practical reason for websites to resemble books, other than this simply being what people are used to. But, as our world becomes increasingly digital, these antiquated designs are increasingly at odds with our technology. As designers, it is our responsibility to envision new horizons for design as the world changes. Imagine what the internet might look like if its designs were not based on technology developed thousands of years ago.

Like so many things, it’s all a matter of inspiration. When designers rely too heavily on precedent for their inspiration, the result is lacking in innovation. Especially in a field like design, which thrives on being cutting edge, this is the kiss of death for both design and culture alike. This problem is compounded when the template is culturally exogenous. The elemental structure of Modernism is a Western style, and implying that this Western style is culturally universal is shaky ethical footing.

Design trends are very easily influenced by exogenous interference: the way American styles continue to be influenced by Modernists who fled Europe during World War II, the way Indian designs have been influenced by Western colonialism via British occupation and designers like Ray and Charles Eames (Eames), the way ancient Japan was influenced by Chinese writing systems. History has shown that exogenous design, through appropriation or colonization, has a viral effect when introduced to new cultures.

What design institutions consider precedent—the canon of Western (mostly European) design—is important, but it is also hegemonic. Precedent is an arbitrary history, not a road map to be followed—any more than contemporary automobiles should follow the path laid out by the Oregon Trail. In order to enter a new period of reform, we must learn to discard this mindset of using precedent as a template and instead embrace designing from within the vacuum of our relative futures. It is through this that we might learn more about the nature of design as an organic product of culture than the Modernist reduction of style could permit.

When we look at the success—the pervasiveness—of cultural design trends, from the Mayans to the Bauhaus, we must observe what made them so successful. In a word: kairos. These movements were successful because they were the organic creations of their particular places and times. These were indigenous trends that arose from the zeitgeist into systems which suited their respective cultures. They were simply not designed to be compatible with other places and times. Design Anthropologist Wendy Gunn writes that “designs, it seems, must fail, if every generation is to be afforded the opportunity to look forward to a future that it can call its own” (Gunn 144), Designers like Jan Tschichold or William Morris or Leonardo Da Vinci were reacting to previous systems, creating or encouraging rebellion against them; but, as reactions, the systems they created were necessarily impermanent. Tschichold himself later renounced his earlier modernist work as fascist and authoritarian (de Jong). Once the reactionary fervor settles—once a rebellion becomes the status quo—its motivations are no longer inherent. Even more so when it has been appropriated from a different era or culture.

What we must do, then, is to try to understand culture on a broader scale: as a product of humanity that is bound up in the zeitgeist of particular peoples at particular times. When we design across cultural divides, we must focus our inspiration first and foremost on the needs of the people of that culture and design in ways that are culturally organic rather than steeped in exogenous precedent. We must plan our designs around what happens after a design is implemented and base this plan on holistic human truths and cultural relevance, else we risk interfering with the natural course of design evolution.

If rebellions are the intentionally-designed reactions to obsolete practices, then it would make sense that this pendulum swing, this push-and-pull, would be a natural counter-reaction to that rebellion. Eventually, this chain of reactions evolves into new systems, but, historically, this evolution has been dilatory. Today’s cultural progression is such an avalanche of reformation that every backswing of the pendulum puts design at greater risk of falling helplessly behind our evolving ideologies. As designers, it is increasingly important to understand the systems under which we operate—and our roles within these systems—so that we might be able to escape them and design proactively, for the sake of future generations, rather than as a reaction to the obsolescence of our predecessors. We must evolve our reasoning behind why we design to reach the full potential of what we can design.

Originally published in The Student Publication, the nation’s oldest student-led design journal
NC State University’s College of Design
August 2018

Works Cited

  • Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Routledge, 1987, pp. 1-4 and 15-18.
  • Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence. Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Tschichold, Jan. The Form of the Book. Translated by Hajo Hadeler, Edited by Robert Bringhurst, Lund Humphries, 1991.
  • Eames, Charles and Ray. The India Report. National Institute of Design, 1958.
  • Gunn, Wendy, et al. Design Anthropology. Bloomsbury, 2013, p.144.
  • de Jong, Cees W. Jan Tschichold – Master Typographer: His Life, Work & Legacy. Thames & Hudson, 2008.