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Can design semantics survive the age of the fake?

Amsterdam, The Netherlands. 2018
Words by Michael Klein

From the editor's desk

Somewhere in the western world, a prospective client is browsing design agency websites. They all either came well recommended from her peers or their name is associated to the kind of high-visibility work that in the mind of a client is always a seal of excellence. 

As she flicks through those websites, a certain leitmotif begins to take shape. "We bring breakthrough connected products and services to life by redesigning people’s relationships with the world around them" states one agency. "We fashion high-potency communication assets" says another.

The prospective client is intrigued, but she's uncertain about what exactly is being pitched to her. "We work for the disruptors and the disrupted [...] design powerful brand experiences and innovate new brand-led products and services."

One has got to wonder, is my product brand-led? And how can you innovate something that is new? 

"We transform brands and businesses by crafting unforgettable worlds." "We define strategic narratives that reach new audiences, fostering emotional engagement."

At this point the prospective client is completely bewildered. The only thing she understands is that she can expect a quote matching the magnitude of those statements. In regards to what she will actually get for her money, her ideas are more confused than they were before.

What do design agencies actually do?

Designers working in branding have grown accustomed to an industry whose statements about itself match in grandeur only the ability of some of us to pack paragraphs full of buzzwords until the meaning starts to elude us. The purpose of language is being subverted: good design doesn't sell itself, and certainly thinking that one could win clients by insisting on the value of design and their own objective abilities seems passé. Therefore we have banished all efforts to try and communicate accurately and honestly what is it that we do —— what is it that we deliver. Our language has been removed from the realm of meaning to be placed in that of the symbolic. Just as monuments used to be erected to infuse awe into people, masquerading subject matter behind a glorious façade, the language spoken by the design industry is being reframed to elicit impressions, not to communicate meaning. Semantics are out of the picture. It doesn't matter what is being said as long as it gives the impression that what's being offered will place the recipient at a higher status. 

“The difference between design produced with a focus on design and design produced in an environment where designers are the low man on the totem pole is that the former is almost always superior in cultural value, aesthetic quality and functionality”

Most of the agencies who have replaced semantics with language as symbol would resent being called design agencies. They would consider it reductive in spite of the fact that the vast majority of their offering to clients still appears to be identities, websites, printed communication and digital design for products. Even the way in which they showcase their work is hardly distinguishable from that of a design graduate portfolio. In their neverending efforts to grow, these agencies have bought into marketing demagogy and persuaded themselves and their clients that they sell something superior in which the design process is merely a cog in the wheel. The sense of self-aggrandizement that this idea entails is so powerful that agency leaders apparently became oblivious to the fact that what they deliver at the end of a project is communication produced through a design process; everything that comes before exists solely to frame the context for that process to happen, no differently than how site inspections in architecture exist to frame the context in which a new building will be built. The difference between design produced with a focus on design and design produced in an environment where designers are the low man on the totem pole is that the former is almost always superior in cultural value, aesthetic quality and functionality than the latter, and is usually produced by small studios that employ a fraction of the personnel.

The most successful example of this philosophy today is Pentagram. Despite the fact that, collectively, Pentagram is one of the largest design agencies in the world, it operates as an ensemble of small studios working independently on client projects with small teams. All partners are designers and alongside their teams they have repeatedly proven they can solve the problems of clients at every scale by focusing on design. This is the language used by Pentagram to describe itself:

"Pentagram is the world’s largest independently-owned design studio. Our work encompasses graphics and identity, architecture and interiors, products and packaging, exhibitions and installations, websites and digital experiences, advertising and communications." 

It's almost shocking to think that Pentagram is in the same line of work (and in the same league) as most of the agencies that describe themselves in the ways quoted at the beginning of this text. Here are no disneyland-esque promises of dreams, no perception games, no self-aggrandizing vocabulary, no butchering of semantics. Pentagram describes itself as a design studio because it sells design and doesn't wish to trick any emperor into thinking they sell special invisible clothes.  

Language and simulacrum

In "Ogilvy on advertising"(1) David Ogilvy, one of the most brilliant minds in the history of advertising, recalls a client of his paying $75,000 for a logo that he thought "any tyro in our art department could've designed better for 75$". Present day Ogilvy offers something called "360 Degree Brand Stewardship®" (I have a far too vivid image in my mind of the meeting room in which this name was conceived) and the imperialist advertising industry has colonized the design world by buying studios as well as founding their own design and branding chapters. This has aided the spread of the new paradigm of linguistic travesty, which is beginning to penetrate all the way down to to the small design studio.

A traditionally cultural enterprise (as opposed to the purely capitalist advertising agency), the small design studio now feels compelled to adopt the vernacular of large branding agencies to remain relevant on the marketplace. I have observed in more than one occasion how design studios are slowly shifting their language from an objective way of picturing their services to the kind of inflated vernacular that is customary where settlers from the advertising industry have planted their flags. 

As language is not static, but dynamic, the issue arises. At an atomic level there is the word, which changes in meaning based on popular usage, as well as individual perception. It can be argued that when two people use the same word they rarely mean the exact same thing. The meaning of words is fluid and so is that of sentences and idioms if enough time is given for new meanings to soak in. A new design vernacular that is perpetrated enough in the professional sphere will quickly find its way into the public perception and into academia. Students will learn to express themselves in this new vernacular — they will learn that this is the way to talk about their work. 

Design is above all an intellectual activity, an activity of the mind. In order to produce meaningful work designers need to be able to think clearly, but thinking can only happen through language. There is no thought without language (not at least the type necessary to design) and there can't be clear thought with contrived language. Therefore the way we talk about our work is much more important than it appears, as it is the very bridge through which we approach world-building. 

There is a sociological adage that postmodern society is killing reality. But if Baudrillard identified simulations in television and amusement parks(2) — in the realm of images — what is happening in the niches of design and branding is that language itself is being replaced with a simulacrum of language. The economy of brand itself is a collection of simulacra, in which the consumer has been molded into someone whose interest in buying products and services has been replaced with that of buying identification through symbols. The new design vernacular was brewed in the economy of symbols and is a representation devoid of semantic significance, a trompe-l'oeil that only gives the illusion of meaning.

Symbols and simulacra are easy to use because they act as a mask to meaning. Nobody can point exactly to it and therefore nobody can attack a symbol-like statement on defendable grounds. Contrarily to clarity, symbols are cheap to produce and at everyone's disposal. Everybody with sufficient linguistic ability can come up with deceitful language or can otherwise borrow it from others, as language without semantics is empty and interchangeable. Growing immune to the influences of contrivance might sound daunting in the age of the fake. What is real? Designers, beware: the stakes certainly are.

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