It was a slushy winter in Providence when I heard Ben Wilkins, a design technology lead at Airbnb, proudly talk about Design Language System(DLS). DLS is a state-of-the-art system that allows designers to create a product with ease using pre-designed functional components as building blocks. Ben Wilkins further discussed the possibilities of the system where, with the help of machine learning, the computer can assemble the design with just a quick hand-drawn sketch or a few keywords.
Initially I was filled with awe about the convenience it will provide, followed by a slight fear for my job security. Through out my design education, I was taught by several Swiss-taught designers and was urged to read “The Crystal Goblet” by Beatrice Warde. Thus, it was difficult for me to accept the fact that function-based system designing was being replaced by machines.
But Modernism is a perfect philosophy for computer-generated designs. Royal Institute of British Architecture associates Modernism with “an analytical approach to the function of buildings, a strictly rational use of (often new) materials, an openness to structural innovation and the elimination of ornament”. The computer’s data-driven design will serve the analytical approach to the function, and the structural innovation will bloom from the process. Computer is the ultimate modernist designer.
Is that what the people really want?
On Dezeen’s interview with fashion designer Jonathan Anderson, he claims that the craft will become fundamental in design. He says: “we’re in this moment where we’re trying to become more tactile” because “we are living in such a period of non-reality”. Here the word “tactile” was used in a broader term, where instead of meaning “being able to sense textures”, it means “being able to sense that it is a man-made experience”. Similar principles can be adapted for graphic design. In order for designers to provide “tactile” experiences, the forms should clearly look man-made. The irrationality and the selfishness of these forms provide the warmth that the people crave. Such forms existed before Modernism and it is time to bring them back. They are called ornaments.
Ornaments have been vilified ever since the birth of Modernism. Adolf Loos, one of the forefathers of Modernism, claimed that the cultural evolution is equivalent to the removal of Ornament. Loos supports the idea by pointing out the inefficiency in material, time, and labor.
But things have changed, especially in digital space. Now it is easier than ever to create forms with the finest details. The duplicitous nature of the Internet allows the ornaments to be easily accessible to everyone. Ornaments are no-longer for the elites. Ornaments are the tactility we craved and the freedom that we missed. Its irrationality is what signals the human existence and its unrestrained expression is what records the history.
Also ornaments can provide solutions to newly gained connotations of Modernism. As Modernism gained its popularity over time, this rule of western male designers has been imposed upon the world. Under the name of “The International Style”, Modernism, with its unifying force, has ignored the culture and value of non-western countries and tried to create the monotonous vision.
It is also important to focus on the misogynistic aspect of Modernism. In another article, “Ladies’ Fashion”, Loos wrote:
“The clothing of the woman is distinguished externally from that of the man by the preference for the ornamental and colourful effects and by the long skirt that covers the legs completely. These two facts demonstrate to us that woman has fallen behind sharply in her development in recent centuries”
According to Llewellyn Negrin’s article “Ornament and the Feminine”, Loos’ condemnation of woman by rejecting ornaments was “recurring theme in the writings of many of the most prominent modernist designers and architects”.
But ornaments also had their connotations – its ability to give unquestionable authority to its subjects and, after proliferation of Modernism, its connection to “tastelessness”. Thus in order for ornaments to serve as solutions to the problems of Modernism, they should be redesigned and repurposed to break away from the past. With successful execution, designers can achieve liberated future, an ornate future.
To further develop the idea of ornate future, the dichotomy between ornamentation and Modernism should be reconsidered. According to an art historian Robert Nelson, “Ornament was not a device for soaking up meaningless space but an artifice for claiming space as meaningful”. In graphic design, Modernist ideas can be applied to the quote. By giving typeface to information and placing them in a conscious way, one is giving a meaningfulness to a surface. From clear typefaces to elaborate negative spaces, any choice that a designer makes can be considered as ornaments because, as a result, information gains hierarchal significance. Similarly, German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer wrote about the function of ornaments as:
“The nature of decoration consists in performing a two-sided mediation; namely to draw attention of the viewer itself, to satisfy the taste, and then to redirect it away from itself to the greater whole of the context of life which it accompanies”.
Here, Gadamer claims ornaments as functional devices. According to Gadamer, function of the ornament is to pull the attention of the viewer to present the information. To apply the idea to Modernist graphic design, choosing type size, colors and composition can also be considered as acts of decoration. So as an act of dismantling the dichotomy and reclaiming ornaments, I am substituting the word “graphic design” to “information decoration”. By doing so, information decoration can provide sensory experience to the ubiquitous non-reality and record history of our time. Following is the Information Decorator Manifesto to elaborate the fundamentals of ornaments and its usages.
Information decorator acknowledges the function of ornaments as a presenter of information.
Ornaments should draw the attention to itself just to redirect it to the broader context.
Any act done on a surface to present information is an ornament.
An ornament is a key to free the information decorators from restrictions.
The term ornament is arbitrary to information decorators.
An ornament acts as a spatial, temporal, cultural, and/or social anchor.
All ornaments should be true to information decorators and information decorators should not hesitate to create them.
By being true to their creators, ornaments can provide tactility to surfaces.
Ornaments should present the information without asserting authority.