It's May — the month of hay fever, television sweeps and final reviews. Of the first two, I can say only this: as a veteran allergy sufferer, I watched the swan-song episode of The West Wing in an antihistamine-induced haze, and it didn't help. From what I have read, most of the other season finales were a snooze even without the added drug boost. (On the upside, I did have a couple of rather memorable dreams, including one in which I was kidnapped by George Clooney.) It is possible, even likely that the Senate Intelligence Confirmation Hearings for General Michael Hayden, President Bush's choice for CIA director, pulled more listeners last week than watching any of a number of highly-touted last episodes. Not that this is any indication of edge-of-your-seat suspense, mind you. In perhaps the best sound-byte of the week, New York Times columnist David Brooks said that Michael Hayden's confirmation hearings were the dullest event in the history of the universe since the creation of sedimentary rock.
Yet just as pollen count and television consumption are measured this month, so, too is the work of thousands of dedicated design students all over the country — indeed, all over the world. Like television, schools enjoy a summer recess between the months of May and September, and design programs engage in their own seasonal cliff-hangers.
We call them final reviews.
In an essay I wrote a few weeks ago about the state of current design, I criticized what I perceived to be a kind of content-free tendency to make work that revels in a kind of illustrative never-never land. This stylistic urge is something of an epidemic, and, I feared, indicative of a weirdly escapist mentality: why tackle real ideas and solve real problems when you can just make things look cool? This ultra-dense, layered-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life stylistic bias is fundamentally anti-modern in form (more, not less) and frequently at odds with content (dense, not readable) and from all indications, it's everywhere.
So when, this spring, I participated in final reviews at nearly half-a-dozen schools across the United States, I confess that I fully expected to see this sort of thing everywhere.
But I didn't.
What I saw made me rethink my position, because I think, infact, that many of these students are onto something. What I saw in many cases was thoughtful and engaged, bold and striking and self-aware — not self-conscious. I think this work may indicate the beginning of a visual language that's not so much escapist as experimental: and okay, the kinks may not have been worked out yet, and there's still a little too much content-free nonsense for my taste, but taken as a whole, there may be every indication of the emergence of a new way of expressing ideas. Sometimes provocative, often beautiful, occasionally cryptic and impenetrable, it is, nevertheless, new. This work is not so much a reflection of as a reaction against the current state of modern culture, in particular to the banality of the media: to its didacticism, its obviousness, its almost perverse celebration of non-fiction. If the public's appetite for media moves increasingly toward libertarian fare, toward a world in which surveillance is a given and community-mediated reciprocity is the norm, then what happens to imagination?
I'm all for principles and geometry, clarity and communication. But I'll go to my grave fighting for the role of imagination in what we do — and this is what I think is beginning, ever so slowly, to be reclaimed by smart, provocative, thinking designers everywhere. This work — the best of it, that is — represents a new kind of exoticism, strange and unusual, compelling and odd. If post-colonial exoticism grew from Nineteenth-Century cultural expansion, then what's our excuse? The short answer could be that it's a response to the hygienic purity of modernism, a technological backlash: the rediscovery and celebration of the hand-wrought, the personal, the beautiful. (Maybe it is escapist, after all.) I suspect the longer answer is a good deal longer. Good thing, too: with schools closed and the networks on hiatus, we've got all summer to think about it.