February 29th, 2012

Novelty is Overrated – A lesson from history

Designers are confusing novelty for progress, when variety could offer an answer.

prototypes for coca cola

Novelty is Overrated. By David Law

Pictured: Prototypes for Coca-cola bottles, by Eva Zeisel

It’s the constant debate. Is our latest project something the client will have ‘seen before’ and if so, why are we doing it? Shouldn’t we be showing them things they have never seen before? Shouldn’t we be pushing the boundaries, always trying to create stuff that’s ‘new’?

The mantras of an agency I once worked at was ‘a safe place to experiment’ and ‘professional radicals’ (an advertising agency, I might add).

It’s the constant refrain in the comments section of any design blog: “It’s ok, but it’s basically just aping the xxx identity.” etc., echoing the ennui of the trolling classes.

Certainly as practitioners, we find novelty exciting.

However, I was struck by something I read in On Design – a Magic Language of Things, by Eva Zeisel. Eva, who died aged 96 last December, was a world-class ceramicist and educator. Born in Budapest, she became the first woman member of the Hungarian Guild of Chimney Sweeps, Oven Makers, Roof Tilers, Well Diggers, and Potters. She worked for the World’s largest ceramics factory outside Moscow just to ‘see what was behind the mountain’ and was appointed artistic director of the Russian China and Glass industry.

She was then arrested and imprisoned in Moscow on suspicion of plotting to assassinate Stalin, fled to New York with $64 in her pocket and established the first ceramics course at Pratt Institute. In 1946, Zeisel was given the first one-woman show “Eva Zeisel: Designer for Industry”, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She was still designing up until 2010.

In other words, she is someone who’s point of view is worth hearing.

Her position was that we, as a society, have come to overvalue novelty through ‘our deep seated belief that what comes later is better than what came before’. Moving forward is called ‘Progress’: an advance toward a richer, better future – Innovation. We use the term “Avant-garde design”, meaning design marching forward.

Today designing mostly means to make something new, an attitude that, in her opinion, can only have a negative impact on the work of a designer.

She states, “Inherent in creativity is a happy, positive attitude. It is discovery and exploration. But, in attempting to create something that doesn’t already exist, the designer focuses on how NOT to design something. Anything negative in the way of creativity is a hindrance, not a benefit.”

“We have therefore come to overvalue novelty. While ‘variety’ is an aesthetic term and attracts attention, ‘novelty’ is a commercial term that attracts buyers.”

“Hang on!” I hear you cry – isn’t that exactly what we should be doing? Attracting buyers? We are in the commercial world after all?

What I’m saying is that the main focus of much design today is innovation; the communicative aspect of design is getting lost. Due to our fascination with technical inventions, our designs have moved from the idea of ‘feeling’ into that of ‘reasoning’.

Beauty is not appreciated through reason – its enjoyed through feelings.

I remember a brilliant remark from my colleague Simon Manchipp in a tense meeting when he was asked how effective an identity we had created would be and he replied “I can’t tell you when you’re going to fall in love.”

We are constantly searching for the golden fleece of ‘authenticity’ when we talk to our clients. We look at great Savile Row tailors or luggage makers unsullied by “progress” and we marvel at them for the feelings they engender. They were created before the ‘machine age’ and ‘innovation’ and we love them. The idea of ‘loyalty beyond reason’ is one we can all identify with (The cult of Apple).

Through design, we should be trying to get people to fall in love, not simply buy products and services.

In other words, novelty only gets you so far. ‘Variety’ however is an idea we can all appreciate – languages were formed through variety. In biology, a variety ‘has an appearance distinct from other varieties, but will hybridize freely with those varieties.

For example, it has yet to be seen whether the current trend for ‘dynamic’ or ‘adaptive’ branding is simply a product of ‘novelty’ through technical advancement or whether it is not only interesting but useful in the long term as well.

It’s certainly my experience that however interesting and novel these schemes are, they are harder to manage without qualified guardianship. Left to their own devices, they usually revert to consistency rather than coherence.

By fostering desire through variety rather than simply novelty, appreciation becomes a long term design investment.

Today’s digital space, as it is inherently innovative, is littered with reasoning, not feeling. That’s why so many luxury brands find the space awkward to deal with. (I read somewhere the ideal app for a master luxury watchmaker should cost £5000 and should have been created by a huge team of craftsmen in an Atelier in Geneva).

Innovation has an important place in design, but it should be tempered with an understanding of feeling ie. creating variety, not simply novelty for novelty’s sake.

I’d rather be soulful than shocking any day.



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