Sound Off 8: Celebrating Design

In January I was fortunate to make a presentation at what is now called "Chattanooga's best party of the year". The Second Annual AIGA Ten Show, a celebration of Tenneseean design, attracted nearly 700 people — at one point the firemen blocked the door to prevent further enthusiasts (or revelers) from entering the church-cum-exhibition! It's just one of many anecdotes from a nearly perfect evening.

The show was set up in a dilapidated building complete with roof tarps and exposed beams. (This, juxtaposed with valet parking and climate-controlled port-a-johns, was part of the magic.) The acoustics were a challenge due to the crowd and architecture. So after the presentation I had several requests to present it again so that it could be digested in a less severe moment. Seven months later I've finally made some time to accommodate. Without further adieu, here is an abridged transcript of the slide show:

The Ten Show, a celebration of design: January 20, 2007

Tonight we’re having a design party. We celebrate because, though the design profession was once confined to the realm of aesthetics, market forces and consumer sophistication have made the role of designers increasingly significant. Once considered a commercial artist, the graphic designer is now a tastemaker, communicator, cultural anthropologist, artist, business developer, provocateur, humanist, whistle blower, entertainer and creator of all that is covetable.

So what better place to start coveting than Target? Graves, Starck, Mizrahi and Oldham probably would have sounded like a law firm to most people 10 years ago. Today, those names are uttered in the same sentence as Charmin, Old Spice and Purina (yes, I think that’s a good thing). Target has democratized design without dumbing it down. They have even redesigned the prescription medicine bottle for the better. We can purchase and enjoy beautifully functioning products without breaking the bank. We’ve entered another age of prosperity akin to an era when cars had fins and exotic boomerangs morphed onto every object imaginable.

But today, we’re much more “practical” people… And more finicky! Who would have thought we’d desire so many toilet brush options? Cultural affluence and efficiencies in manufacturing have resulted in more choice for us----- Style has gained value and designers are right in the middle of it.

Another case in point: the first iMac. Its revolutionary all-in-one design had an element with a cultural effect that is arguably more influential than the device itself. Apple’s Jonathan Ive named the translucent innovation Bondi Blue.

And well... it caught on… Even an icon like the Swiss Army Knife shed its red for a new look. And you know what? People bought both! Of course design’s influence extends beyond simply changing appearance and materials.

Design also helps us communicate with one another. In 1974 the AIGA, commissioned by the Department of Transportation, released the first complete set of symbol signs. It became standardized well beyond D.O.T. facilities, breaking down barriers of language and even of literacy.

In 2001 The AIGA started another initiative called Design for Democracy to help civic organizations improve the voting experience. This ballot from Yamhill, Oregon is a successful redesigned that makes it easier to read and to use.

Which leads me to typography. The very way we read words and understand letters is up to designers. In 1900 Peter Behrens, a German designer, said that typography, second only to architecture, “provided the most characteristic picture of a period, the strongest testimonial of the spiritual and progress.”

Helvetica was designed in 1957 by Max Miedenger and has become synonymous with legibility, clarity and stability. Whether you like it or not, it’s everywhere: civic wayfinding, corporate logos and homemade signs. It’s so much a part of our cultural fabric that this year a documentary film celebrating the typeface’s influence will debut in honor of its 50th anniversary. The star of the film even appears on your tax form.

Let’s put it in reverse and look at how current events influence design.As the war in Iraq continues, it becomes a part of our collective consciousness. Designers are influenced by the conflict and translate it into what they do.

It started on the fringes.... showing up in youth culture and street fashion. The culture clash found its way into the brand and products of boutique clothing brands. Serum vs. Venom released this Burqha inspired hoody in the Spring of 2006. It hit alternative mega brand Diesel. Note the military influence of strapping and zippers. And found its way into expensive hotels a la Phillipe Starck and his gold plated gun lamps (he didn’t sell this one at Target).

We are influenced by our times and environment. Graffiti and protest art has moved from the street… to our feet-- and these are mainstream brands: Nike, Converse, Puma. The Air Jordan’s showcase drawings depicting Michael’s life. The outside world is welcomed inside. Even Calvin Klein is getting funky.

Beyond products, we see a growth into immersive environments. These are photos of the Hotel Fox in Copenhagen. Commissioned by Volkswagen to launch their Fox model -- that’s right the car maker. Obviously, its not just any hotel. Each room was individually designed by one of 21 international artists from the fields of graphic design, urban art and illustration. The hotel was initially used by VW to explain their target audience to the media. They orchestrated international press tours to Cophenhagen to share the Fox story through the hotel experience and art car installations. After the media hype they opened the hotel to the public and have maintained the brand campaign.

The visual slang applies to other businesses. Even very different ones. At Tricycle we use the language of activism to promote the change of an industry. But it’s not just a look. We believe in revolution by design. We create new experiences to change habits and reduce consumption by redesigning the lifecycle from product development to market. By helping companies sample their products more effectively we can truly address the three P’s: People, Planet and Profit. Its a triple bottom line savings for manufacturers, their customers and frankly, all of us.

Designed experiences are key to our new economy. And they don’t always have to be niche. Some experiences just need to be yummy. Like ice cream. Now we all know it’s not enough to have a great product. How we experience the product matters. Clumpies’ Chattanooga retail setting is branded with rural americana typography, invoking feelings of authenticity and craftsmanship in each spoonful.

Conversely, the retail experience of the Flow Market in Copenhagen is fashioned with mass-produced grocery fixtures, reinforcing the anonymity of the products they carry. Rather than comfort we feel distance. In this case, design becomes art. We’re challenged to reconsider the world in which we live. And how we live in it.

Tonight, as you peruse and meander about the best design in Tennessee, look for cultural influence and influences of culture. Look for entertainers and tastemakers. Look for entrepreneurs and provocateurs. And after you leave tonight, look for us during your morning commute, your weekend fling or your daily grind. Without a doubt, the state of design in our state is looking good. As you see here tonight, the quality of work is high and our contributions to our culture and economy are significant. So let’s celebrate!

Note: Two of the winning Ten Show designs were selected for 28th Annual AIGA 365 competition. Way to go Tennessee!

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