In 2015, my friend and I did a talk called Make The Web Weird Again.
The premise was a rather simple (and maybe naive) one — the internet that we grew up with, the one of the baffling experimentations that made it the headiest art form we knew, was dying. The rise of the big platforms had neutered the creativity endemic to this communication form in the first place. Affordances for ad words, mobile loading time, SEO, frameworks and the rest had sanded all the edges off. We ended with a call to break things again and make them weird for all of us again.
During Q and A, we got some great feedback, but one has stuck with me to this day. A young man from a popular web optimizer raised his hand and asked several questions about scale. “How will any off-the-wall idea get to 100 million views?” he asked.
The crowd booed.
Reflective Vs. Utilitarian
At the core of everything anyone makes is a question of audience.
The expressions we make to each other are communications meant to impart meaning. A successful communication is one aligned to expectations of its audience, whether the goal is to incite, titillate, or amuse. A failed communication is one that fails to express what the creator has already resolved.
In art, we expect the artist to lead us into their realm. It is a promise of conveyance of experience which stirs our soul. When we see a painting, a comic, a song or a movie that touches us, the internal dialogue is: “Yes, I feel that, too.” But note the unidirectionality of it. We do not ask the artist to come to where the audience is. Creation that meets the audience is considered cheap, pandering, and low brow. For some, the more difficult and obtuse the art, the more it takes on a layer of elite prestige. In Western society, we value the specificity of individual vision, and we ask the audience to come to accept it, no matter the journey.
We can call this Reflective Experience, and it forms the basis of many art forms — the expression of an internal human of emotion, and then the attempted transference of that feeling into another human. Think of the mournful break-up song. The song writer, if successful, is not only expressing the pain of a personal break up, they are attempting the transfer that pain to the audience. If successful, it becomes a piece of reflective experience. They expect they audience to feel the pain they feel. This is considered a successful communication.
Now consider the reverse for the practice of design, or what we may call Utilitarian Experience — the best design is formulated with the end-user in mind. A teapot made strictly in the mould of the designer is considered an affront, a dereliction of the sacred duty of the designer, which is namely to make the object as easy and (if Rams is to believed) as unobtrusive as possible.
There is no room for auteurship in the realm of design, and for a good reason — the designer is not exactly sure who would be using the object. If a poster is baffling in its communication intent, surely it has failed as an objet de design. The internal feelings of the designer are immaterial. What is essential is the core promise of design, namely, to come to where the audience is, and deliver the most ideal objective experience, regardless of ability or status.
The above imperfect, cliched and functional taxonomy served as an acceptable division of the roles of Reflective and Utilitarian work until the internet became the dominant channel for popular communication.
Communication in Transition
The internet has flattened the space between Reflective and Utilitarian experiences. Our cues to delineate the audience, and what is valued in a creation have been totally destroyed. Applying the opposite considerations to each of these experiences makes people feel like things aren’t right.
Paint-by-numbers, karaoke, make-your-own-taco bars, the New Yorker caption contest — at best these are considered guilty pleasures, at worst, middlebrow pap. But why? It’s because we consider the input of the audience to be so anathema to the process of autership, and hence ‘great art’, that it beggars belief that anything of value could be generated. Creation by committee is so poisonous, the phrase itself has become a stand-in for poor results.
On the reverse side, designing a product without a core set of end uses in mind is considered a professional dereliction of duty. A designed item that is made to satisfy an audience of one (the designer) is regarded as arrogant, aloof, and downright foolish (with a few rare exceptions.) This is the whole premise of the joke behind Jaques Carelman’s work.
The blending of our artistic and utilitarian impulse has confused these roles. Our phones are our watches, the way we get jobs, and how we pay our bills. They are also our entertainment, our moments of delight and a carrier of the human experience. This mental bleed is more destructive than we as yet recognize.
Why Are We Making This?
In the formative years of the 21st century, design has become the challenge of understanding and remembering who we are making things for, and aligning our efforts accordingly.
One of the great magical spells weaved by the internet is that a project dreamed up on a basement can be a hugely profitable success, and being a hugely profitable success has become the prime directive for so many young creatives. As mercenary impulses have moved further into the creative fields, the mathematics behind success gets to be quite obvious. The more people, the more money, and the more valuable the product.
But what if the opposite were true?
Not every important piece of culture should be, or can be, popular. Uncommon positions, unusual backstories, and controversial ideas don’t have the luxury of gathering waitlists. But by asking Reflective experiences to play by Utilitarian rules, we are putting those uncommon human experiences at a great disadvantage.
The utopian ideal behind early UI work was that, given a low enough bar, human beings would use this new platform to spread new ideas and share commonalities. To be sure, it did that, and still does, to some extent. However, the unintended consequence of asking all of human thought to be plowed into these discrete patterns of use and understanding means that we have whittled down the opportunities of Reflective experiences to only those that operate within the Utilitarian paradigm. You can have any color you like, as long as it’s black, as the old quote goes.
A world driven by talk of wild IPOs and Unicorns has fatted itself upon the notion that just enough is not enough. We should stop being tricked by late-stage capitalism into thinking that numbers equal total value. We’re playing a dangerous game when we fall into that trap, because numbers equal value is the first step on the path towards monetized sameness, and it will be very hard to get back once we’re too far down that road.