Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Geoff Mckay - About the Rise of Digital Design

As a designer, your whole life is better when you’re inspired. I’m in a constant battle to stay inspired, and one of the ways I do this is to watch a lot of documentaries. I keep a collection of films on my laptop and watch them whenever I’m flying for work. I’ve seen Helvetica about 50 times. One of my new favorites is Synth Britannia, a BBC production about the origin and development of synth pop in the ’70s and ’80s. A musician recommended it to me, but the immediate thing I noticed was the parallels between this era of music and the current state of design. I have been inspired by the stories of these pioneers, and I think the design community can find value in them, too.
The story of British synth pop is essentially the story of a rebellion against the status quo fueled by the accessibility of new technology. Early groups like Depeche Mode, Human League, Gary Numan, and OMD all had to invent their own genre and even their instruments as they went along. They set out to do something they cared about in a way that worked for them and ended up achieving their own artistic satisfaction and changing the face of music forever.

In the early 1970s, music was dominated by prog and glam rock--Emerson Lake and Palmer on one end, and David Bowie and Elton John on the other, producing the kind of large-scale theatrical music reserved for the very upper echelons of musicians and budgets. It was a completely closed scene where only the very elite ever had a chance of getting their music out into the world.

Then punk came along and threw all that out. But at the same time, there was a group of musicians who saw punk rock as just a re-hash of rock and roll, and while they appreciated the ethos, it wasn’t the sound of the future to them. To them, the future sounded more like Kraftwerk. This, paired with access to previously unavailable and unaffordable music technology, was enough gasoline to ignite a music revolution.
To me, this story echoes the dawn of digital design. Not that long ago, design was print and TV, and print and TV were dominated by big advertising agencies. Design hadn’t changed in decades, and unless you were one of a few elite designers at a big agency, it was almost impossible for your work to reach a mass audience. Designers craved something else; another channel through which they could express themselves. Street art was one of the ways: graffiti and wheat pasting emerged as the punk rock of the design world, but it was still just a rehash of painting and print. And then along came a new way to design and a brand new medium: digital.

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