Aesthetic Pollution and the Soul of Design

Just as farmers are the keepers of land, we designers are the keepers of mindscape. We must nurture it and care for it and make sure that there will always be wilderness, diversity and freedom there.

De Stijl, Bauhaus, constructivism and Dada … Heartfield, Dumbar and Kalman … Design has long stood at the forefront of aesthetic and political change. But after the Second World War we became entangled in the thicket of consumer capitalism and lost our way.

Our magazines decayed into toxic mindscapes – noisy, fractured places ruled by ads. We designed millions of glittering, short-lived products destined to spend eternity in the purgatory of landfills. We championed consumption, aestheticized and validated waste and constructed false emotional glows around brands. For 50 years we glorified corporate power and kissed corporate ass. The marketplace became the soul of our profession. Now facing a warming planet and a precarious future, a new generation of designers is stepping beyond that sorry history to forge our profession’s path into the future.

Do we still have it? Can we invent a new magazine aesthetic and transcend the death of print? Can we design sustainable products and rid our cities of waste? Can we cultivate new sensibilities for our post-materialist age? There are hints of this new aesthetic in Kenya Hara’s Designing Design when he talks about “a future without artifice,” “whispered value systems” and creating “vehicles of thought and feeling.” There are clues of it in Jean-Marie Massaud’s mission to create “a new art de vivre” and inspired examples of it in Banksy’s (and other street artists’) heady mix of politics, design and the intimacies of everyday life.

The first steps in the fight for the soul of our profession are to boldly rise against the obnoxious billboards springing up in our cities, to combat the antidemocratic viruses invading cyberspace and to resist the corruption of our identities by brands. Our century will be a time of tremendous ideological clashes, paradigm shifts and meta-meme warfare on all fronts. As designers, we must be the advance guards – positioning ourselves at the forefront of every struggle and debate.

Just as farmers are the keepers of land, we are the keepers of mindscape. We must nurture it and care for it and make sure that there will always be wilderness, diversity and freedom there.

For the Wild, Kalle

Tsubaki Noboru, Aesthetic Pollution, 1990. Photo: Katsuhiro Ichikawa.