by Bonne Zabolotney Dean of Design + Dynamic Media//
Few designers contest the idea that we cannot measure the success or failure of any design until the context in which it was created is fully understood. Understanding context, however, requires a knowledge of the culture in which the design in question is situated.
In his essay, “Culture is Ordinary”, Raymond Williams asserts that ideas of culture are insinuated in all aspects of everyday life: “Culture is ordinary… A culture has two aspects: the known meanings and directions, which its members are trained to [and] the new observations and meanings, which are offered and tested” (2009, p. 93). For Williams, the idea of culture means everyday life and the hegemonic values that go hand-in-hand with the ordinary, combined with more concrete and experiential forms of culture, such as novels, films, and advertising. To pose the question, “what were they thinking?” about any society is to inquire about ideas and issues of economics, politics, ritual, technology, and culture. Design emerges as an intersection of these factors, with the nature of this intersection ever-shifting.
Charles Eames explained design as the overlap between the interests of the designer, the client, and of society as a whole. Eames considers design as a professional practice, with primary responsibility toward the client, and resulting benefits to society. He does not, however, examine what happens when the interests of society do not correspond with the interests of designers and their clients. When we begin to question the interests of society and its corresponding cultural systems, we increase “our understanding of the way [contemporary] design works to reflect or create values” (Drucker, 2008, p. xxi). To further illustrate this relationship between design and cultural shifts, I offer two assertions:
The meaning of design changes when its surrounding political and cultural ideology changes.
The swastika has been known for thousands of years as a positive icon of good fortune and prosperity:
The swastika also symbolized light or the god of light, forked lightning, rain and water. It represents Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva — Creator, Preserver, Destroyer. It appears in the footprints of Buddha… represents Jupiter to the Latins, [and] Thor to the Scandinavians… The swastika was similar to the ancient Hebrew letter tau, the sign of life… (Heller, 2000, p. 6–7).
Given these meanings of universal good, non-religious groups and consumer culture eventually adopted it as their own. During the early 20th century, swastikas could be seen on North American hockey sweaters, Carlsberg® Beer labels, Coca-Cola™ trinkets, and as Rudyard Kipling’s personal insignia. By the time Adolf Hitler became head of the German state, the swastika had also become the symbol for German nationalism. Expropriating the swastika allowed the Nazi party to corrupt the optimistic meaning of the symbol for their own cause. By 1940, Germans saw it as a sign of strength and solidarity while North Americans and Allied Europe viewed it as a sign of aggression — something identifiable to fight against. Although the shape has not changed for millennia, today the swastika is interpreted as “a vivid reminder of a mournful history, [and] an instrument of its depravity” (Heller, 2000, p. 12) due to the political and cultural ideologies associated with this symbol.
The value of design changes when availability of materials, technologies and economics shift.
Various types of lace have been made since ancient history, but it became widespread and very popular in Europe during the early Renaissance. Lace was hand-made; it took much time, energy, and skill to produce small amounts, and was consequently highly valued. The textile industry, which developed during the Industrial Revolution, greatly changed this perception of value. By the mid- to late-1800s, most lace was machine-made by a new thriving commercial industry. Improvements to equipment allowed cotton to replace the original silk thread, and the scale of production allowed various laces to be cheaply produced. A growth in transport, colonization and trade further expanded the marketing of lace. Chemical Lace, developed in the early 20th century, changed the method of lace-making altogether: cotton thread is embroidered on a base fabric, which is later chemically dissolved, leaving the lace pattern behind. By the mid-20th century, Polyvinyl Chlorine became a material was used to make lace-trimmed vinyl tablecloths. To achieve the visual aesthetic of lace we no longer require hand-crocheting of natural threads, we merely require a lace-like pattern to be stamped in plastic. The design and visual aesthetic of lace hasn’t changed much over 500 years, but its value has. It is no longer exclusive, expensive, nor difficult to obtain.
In both of these examples, design can be interpreted “as a cultural practice, as a cultural phenomenon” (Drucker, 2008, p. xxi). While the visual essence of the designs did not change, the way in which they are perceived and therefore valued, shifted throughout history. Fully understanding the factors leading to shifts in perception of design allows us to assess and anticipate contemporary design practice. We are able to situate design practice as a cognitive process — as social behaviour — fully embedded in ordinary and everyday culture.
1. Williams, Raymond. “Culture is Ordinary.” 1958. The Everyday Life Reader. Ed. Ben Highmore. New York: Routledge, 2002. 91-100.
2. Heller, Steven. The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? New York:
Allworth Press, 2000. 12.
3. Drucker, Johanna and Emily McVarish. Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2008. xxi.