I dreamt a few nights ago that I was watching a television game show called Photoshop! in which designers, as contestants, were asked to capture images from the web in front of a live studio audience. Suddenly a photo of a horse merged with a long-stemmed bottle to become a giraffe. The audience roared! Beaming, the designer of the horse-bottle-giraffe combo retreated behind the studio curtains as another designer emerged, ready to one-up his opponent with still loftier flights of Photoshop-fancy. This process appeared to repeat itself somewhat interminably (although it did start to get interesting when the giraffe started to talk) when, mercifully, I woke up.
It occured to me just then, in that fleeting instant of sleep-induced delirium before one is truly awake, that all the boundaries have blurred. The boundary between software and entertainment; between work and play; between TV and the computer. And now, thanks to yet another reality show about design on television, the boundary between design as it really exists and design as the entertainment industry would like us to believe it exists. Somewhere in there is the boundary between good and evil, and I'm pretty sure I know which side the networks are on.
You knew all this already, of course.
Or did you?
Enter Tommy Hilfiger.
Last night, CBS Television in the US debuted its new series, The Cut, (modeled after other reality shows such as NBC's The Apprentice) in which: "16 aspiring designers will attempt various challenges that will test their talent, business acumen, sales and marketing expertise, resourcefulness and sense of style. Living together in a loft in Soho, New York, competitors will have to confront the complexity of the fashion industry and each other." In promotional spots for the show, the contestants' initial undertaking involved designing a billboard on Times Square in New York. Since when is designing a billboard a fashion exercise? (Answer: when it's a global lifestyle brand.)
On to the contestants. Chris C. is a MFA candidate at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, majoring in graphic design. Restaurateur and Vanderbilt University graduate Chris S. has no professional design experience, but is determined to prove "great designers can be found in unexpected places." Additional "unexpected places" include a contestant who alleges to be a former Republican press secretary, a one-time Miss Minnesota and a professional skateboarder. Needless to add, they're all ridiculously good-looking.
And why not? Design is a natural topic for television. A search of the word "design" on HGTV reveals no fewer than ten different shows, from Bed and Bath Design to Design on a Dime to my personal favorite, Curb Appeal. Here, a posse of design experts remake the facade of a house in just under twenty-eight minutes. (For anyone who has ever lived through a protracted saga of home renovation, the experience of watching this show falls somewhere between therapeutic massage and an unparalleled narcotic high.) I am personally vexed by this network's annoying tendency to use words like "design" and "decorating" interchangeably, a sloppy editorial conceit somewhat akin to CBS's misguided notion that aspiring fashion designers are perfectly capable of tackling billboard design problems. (In just under twenty-eight minutes, naturally.)
At the same time, design is not now, nor has it ever been a discipline requiring certification to practice. What better material for a reality TV show? And yet, the idea of design icons like Tommy Hilfiger fueling a national appetite for fame and fortune suggests, erroneously I think, that talent can be won. It's a misguided reading of Horatio Alger: in this televised version of the American dream, design is a lottery, its rewards instantaneous and unpredictable.
What about work? What about process? What about, say, talent? When did it become okay to blur the line between design as a discipline and design as a spectator sport? A part of me wants to believe there's a future in design on television. The idealist in me, harboring the skeptic in me, which is really just a front for the cynic in me, isn't so sure.
Last night, I had another Photoshop dream: this time I was using the lasso tool, literally trying to reel in ideas for the conclusion to this essay. When I woke up, my first thought was how horrifying it was to have two dreams about the same software program in less than two days. It depressed me to witness the deeper preoccupations of my subconscious reveal themselves so crudely, when I suddenly realized that I was, in fact, rather enjoying these fragmented episodes of suspended reality. Of course, the entertainment value lay in their loopy, illogical narratives, in their irreverence, in the very absurdity that I had unwittingly authored while (presumably) sound asleep. In these dreams, I felt no responsibility, no sense of challenge or duty or anticipation or even involvement in the plot permutations, and indeed, I had no urge to participate in their consequent resolution. No, here in dreamland, I had nothing to lose. That's what made it so liberating, so goofy. So unrewarding. And so very unlike any design reality I know.