Isn’t it time pop culture popped once again? The trouble with design for the masses
As a planet we are in times of great change and uncertainty. Even the relatively small world of contemporary design is facing some pretty big challenges.
The post-Brexit comedown. The talent surge from consultancy to client side. The downgrading of traditional craft skills due to the upgrading of new tech skills. The commoditisation of what designers have always done as a 'new', 'measurable', 'strategic' 'asset' in the largely overblown guise of 'design thinking'.
All of this stuff is slowly sucking the joy and unpredictability out of design, but perhaps the biggest issue for design is 'big design' itself. The truly everyday commercial work – that too often feels unloved and disparaged.
It's partly down to the fact that populism is feeling a like a negative force, a wave of pent up anger that's toppling prime ministers, fuelling crappy 'constructed' telly and even driving a reality TV star towards the White House.
It feels like the fun part of pop culture has gone a bit flat, and I mean 'pop' in both senses of the word. The pop that can reach and affect a mass populous as well as the pop that sucker punches you right between the eyes.
The kind of design that just feels good. ITV is pop. The Tate and Lego are pop. Google is pop whereas Amazon is probably not.
Being pop is more than following fashion or trends. It's about design’s ability to make the world a more vibrant and spirited place on a grand scale. It’s about design with real heart.
Looking at the design press you could be forgiven for thinking that, like a consommé, the best design comes in rarified doses, after being endlessly noodled with and to be appreciated by a privileged few.
If you read design blogs and the comments section, everything starts to feel a bit Donald Trump; too much sniping and bitching, all of which puts up walls to keep the regular folk out of the conversation. Too often that conversation is about 'what X reminds me of' rather than 'how X makes me feel'.
As for the general press, design on mass scale never gets beyond the 'price it cost the British taxpayer™'. The inference being that design for the everyday should be efficient and production-line like, devoid of spice and kick.
Most worrying is that this ‘bigger the blander’ ideology even seems to have spread to the once most progressive of the pack – the tech industry. Visually there seems to be a resignation that the transition towards comfy pants is a natural part of a brand’s lifecycle.
Look at the way the West Coast icons have shifted from weird looking outliers to eerily similar looking corporate behemoths. Uber, Instagram, even Apple. The need for brands to work on an app scale, to flex across platforms or simply to play nicer with others means identities can become identikit.
Today usability and distinctiveness are the two big forces modern brand designers have to wrestle with. On one hand brands want to stand out from everyone else; on the other, they want to work as seamlessly as the next. This tension can be difficult to resolve. The ideal colour choice from a UX perspective will be the one that 1 million people prefer, but in terms of distinctiveness it will always be the opposite of your competitor. Design for Generation Snowflake often ends up not being individual at all, just a big dumb snowman.
It really doesn't have to be like this.
The bigger the audience, the bolder the solution can be. A brand expression can be radical and everday at the same time. Look at the poppy craziness of Pokémon Go or the downright weirdness of the Channel Four refresh.
But to make that happen, we in the creative industry need to remember the art school oddness that got us here. It's too easy to blame a critical audience or a difficult client for what is actually a fear of failure or ridicule.
It's true that new or different mass design is often pilloried as a waste of money or something a child could do, but that should be a reason to be bold, brave and ballsy. If all you have to lose is the respect of the Daily Mail then you might as well take a few risks. If as designers we aren’t pushing buttons, we might as well pull the plug.
Going big is often seen as selling out, but this is lazy thinking. While it's always going to be fun to design a sweet poster to reach 200 people, it's a whole different challenge to touch the hearts and minds of 200,000 energy users, 2 million hospital visitors or 2 billion subscribers.
Big can be and should be beautiful. Everyday need not be ordinary, and working to appeal to the general public can mean genuinely progressive design solutions.
People often confuse pop with something soulless or empty. Yet this doesn't have to be, and often isn’t, true. Instead design that gives its best shot and aims straight for the hearts of the masses can be the most glorious, meaningful and exciting design there is. At a time when the world often feels like a big scary place, everyone would benefit from a bit more positive pop.
Chris Moody is chief design officer at Wolff Olins. You can follow him on Twitter @moodythinking