or, “Live Free And Design Hard”
Hi! I’ve taken a few days off to explore other projects – mainly how much vodka I can fit in my body at any one time. Somebody told me that all the best writers were alcoholics (Joyce, Kerouac, Hemingway) so I’ve been looking into it, but all I seem to do is giggle a bit and fall over. A work in progress, maybe, and maybe I can still fulfill my ultimate ambition of dying on the floor of a pub toilet, leaving a sick-stained masterpiece behind.
In the meantime, however, there’s this : the third iteration of the groundbreaking I Love Design series, itself stolen wholesale from the BBC’s excellent The Genius of Design program. This has been my favourite kind of post to write because it’s easy to get enthusiastic about the design styles the world has to offer. A restatement of key aims, then : this series has been concerned with talking about those designs that we tend to ignore on a daily basis, and how important and cool they can be if looked at in the right light. Hold onto your hats.
for the last week or so I’ve been wallowing in a deep pit of ebay-based frustration as I try and pick up a Swatch watch for less than the retail value, only to be outbid by thrifty little jackanapes who outbid me whenever I turn off my phone (to sleep, for example). I steadfastly refuse to pay £40 (that’s, like, two hundred of your US dollars or something) for a resin-and-plastic wristwatch, total material value £1.70. What perplexes me is how much I want one and how obsolete such technology is. We live in a world where the diodes needed to count seconds can be implanted into any functional object, and yet the traditional, mechanical wristwatch is still an item – hell, still a fashionable item. There was a regrettable time in our culture’s history -it was the eighties, but isn’t it always – when those nasty digital watched with LCD displays were the haut couture. Thankfully we’ve gotten that out of our system, and the analogue wristwatch remains. I guess it’s a sign of how elemental the tick and whirr of cogs and gears are that makes them appealing – after all, we’ve had cogs and gears for three thousand years, and the cog-driven clock has a history going back to the twelfth century. In an age where most practical components are driven by slivers of silicon and the invisible pulsing of electrons, I guess it’s nice to carry around a visceral embodiment of pre-binary technology. There’s all sorts of reasons people still wear mechanical wristwatches : retro-futurism and traditionalism, nostalgia and elegance. It’s also, i suppose, nice to own something that only has one practical function. In an era where we never use my phone to make phone calls, but instead to surf the web, play music and that excellent Simpsons sim city game, it’s rather reassuring to own something that steadfastly carries out one function with neat, portable efficiency.
And if anyone has a Swatch they’re willing to sell, drop me a message.
We drive through traffic lights so often that we barely notice they exist. When I was preparing for my Theory Test I had to memorize most of the most common signs and symbols that appear on UK roads (of which there are several hundred), but never once two hundred pages of handbooks did I read an explanation of a traffic light. I think that’s because there’s something so elementarily obvious about the red-amber-green system that an explanation would be by nature irrelevant. This brings me to a interesting point about good design – good design fits the people into the product. I’ll illustrate this : in what Hobbes would have called the State of Nature, people ate berries and fruits and lizards and things. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were keyed to certain colours that indicated the edible nature of foods. For example, most plants illustrate their health with colours – a bright green is a healthy, positive colour, a dark green less so. The chemical availability of fruits – how edible and digestible they are – is also illustrated by colours. Our primate ancestors were, just as we are, very visually orientated when it came to finding food. Just as we regard green as a generally positive colour, so do we regard reds and oranges as generally being warning colours. Snakes, amphibians and certain birds illustrate their poisonous nature with colours. These aren’t hard and fast examples, of course – green potatoes are poisonous and red apples are nutritious – but it is at least indicative of the way we view things. You don’t need to tell a child that red is a danger sign and green is positive. You just get it. It’s hard-coded into your evolution. So traffic lights are an example of a really good design, because the colours that show alert us in a pre-programmed way that borders on instinct. You don’t have to think about what a red light means. You just get it.
And before you ask how it could be any other way, I’ll give you a counter-example of bad design. Motorway signs, including speed limits, in the UK are in blue and white and usually sited high above the ground, meaning they often blend with the sky. We are not predisposed to regard blue as a signal of anything in particular, and it’s been suggested that many speeding offences on motorways are as a result of people simply failing to see the signs because blue doesn’t fall into our category of important colours.
There’s a scene in the only Nick Cage film I enjoy – Lord of War– where the arms dealer enthuses about the finer points of the Avtomat-Kalashnikova 47 gas-operated assault rifle. Most of the information he passes on in these scene is lost on me – I’m not a gun person – but I am at least left with a sense of something aesthetic. After all, somebody has to design guns. And they do, and they do with a pretty brutal aesthetic. Because, let’s face it, most guns are designed with an aesthetic edge, too. People buy guns not just to shoot bullets but to send messages, too. The aforementioned AK-47 is, as Nick Cage points out, on flags and coins. It’s symbolic both of the best of Soviet design and of a pure, efficient functionality. Y’see, a gun isn’t like most other objects. You can’t use it for anything other than to shoot bullets, and the sole function of bullets it to turn big, living things into chunks of dead things. Unlike, say, a hammer, an axe or a kitchen knife, which can be used to kill people but only as an auxiliary function, you can’t tile a roof or cut a tomato with a gun. Guns, in short, kill people. And their design is expressedly pointed in that direction. Like them or loathe them, guns at least have a design aesthetic. Everybody recognises a six-shooter or an assault-rifle. You don’t need to be told that it’s bad news if somebody in the immediate vicinity has one. A few months back I called guns “big black cocks of death” because that’s what they are – black metal phallic objects that kill people. And gun designers know that. Even painting them pink in an attempt to appeal to young women doesn’t ameliorate their destructive potential, although it does make them look vaguely more like a dick.
In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead the central villain, Ellesworth Toohey, remarks that, “although consigned to history, the British Empire has at least provided us with two great objects : the cup of tea and the detective novel”. Toohey is not a nice guy, and he’s dead wrong, because while the British Empire may indeed be consigned to dust, it has had an irreversible effect on fashion. I’ll state it clearly: what is worn by every government functionary, world leader and person of interest from Ulan Bator to Yap? The suit. The suit is the symbol of the man in charge, no matter how small his domain. What began as the fashionable wear of the upper-classes in the 19th Century has become, over the years, the symbol of the working person. People can be graded and categorised by the quality of the suits they wear, and often are in fiction.
The suit has a long and convoluted history, beginning with the evolution of the French petticoat and the Croatian cravat, the ancestor of the necktie, but it didn’t come together until it was codified by the Brits, who used their innate ability to steal somebody else’s ideas and make them slightly better. The influence of the Empire led to the mass adoption of the suit as the formal wear of business, no matter how hot or cold the office, and it has remained that way, with only small modifications, ever since, the symbol of the authoritative, professional person. Long may it reign. Rule Britannia!
We might be moving into the age of Kindle (and, lord, I hope not) when paper itself becomes obsolete and we are content to read our great works on bright screens and risk eyestrain, but for my money there is nothing about new technology that will ever replace the tactile feel of a paperback novel. There is something special about the design of a book that is appealing on levels that can’t be replicated by technology – the smell of binding glue and high-quality inks, the sensual pleasure of crisp white pages and the durability of a paperback novel. These are things that enhance the pleasure of a novel in ways that aren’t directly connected to the story it contains, in the same way that the taste of whiskey isn’t strictly connected to its intoxicating effects. Screens and e-ink can’t reproduce the feel of creasing the spine of a new book or closing an old and much-loved one. Ultimately, what I’m saying is that a book is by design a tactile and sensual pleasure as well as an intellectual one. You can fold the pages and make notes in the margins, throw it about as much as you like, leave it in the bottom of a bag for six months, and it will still perform the function for which it was designed. I hope that books still get made, no matter how much Amazon and Barnes & Noble encroach on traditional print media. Because if they stop getting made, we’ll be losing a property similar to the value of vinyl over mp3 : something intangible, evanescent and impossible to define.