With our feet still firmly in 2020’s pandemic but our heads already contemplating on how 2021 might be, the words ‘new normal’ are bound to come up. But let me say two things about the current society we find ourselves in. First of all, there is nothing normal about it. Believe me, the pandemic is not what should be scaring us the most. Don’t get me wrong, we should be scared of it. Covid is a mean m*therf*cker, leaving a trail of victims behind and affecting our economy and mental health in a way we can’t even fully grasp yet. But what should be frightening us most is an even nastier virus that infected our society long before Covid did and whose curve is anything but flattening. The name of this disease; superficiality.
A superficial state of mind
I’m not going to go into what I think is the greatest super spreader of this virus (social media) but its symptoms are obvious; statements that are not backed up by research or data are as valid as the statements that are, the likeliness of personal attention is a key barometer for success, a like is more important than love, appearance more important than substance. And the most dangerous symptom of them all … to think that all of this is normal. It’s like Covid would trick your brain into thinking you are not sick, or even worse, that this is the way you should be feeling to be really healthy.
We have become lazy. Too lazy to think and realise that this superficial state of mind should not be normal at all. Normal should be doing things that really matter. Normal should be appreciating people and things for their substance and their story – no, I don’t mean those random snippets of moving images without real content and short enough for our lazy brain to process – and not just for the way they look. Normal should be trying to really change things instead of hiding behind our ignorance.
“We have become lazy. Too lazy to think and realise that this superficial state of mind should not be normal at all.”
Secondly and sadly, there’s nothing new to it. Although some of us are doing major efforts to contradict this, we are a smart species. Smart and flexible. A consequence of this is that we easily adapt to a new situation. This was the case when Covid hit us at the beginning of the year and this will be the case again as soon as that vaccine is running through our veins. This was the case when we allowed a right-winged, populist president to gain control of our society and this will be the case again after he’ll be forced to concede and leave. The reason we are so flexible is because we tend to forget easily. It is human to forget the bad parts and glorify the good parts. It’s part of our survival instinct. But while that flexibility kept us alive and allowed us to evolve, it’s also the reason we keep on making the same mistakes and we keep on underestimating the consequences of our actions and bad decisions. We just can’t help it. As a species in general we just don’t learn from our mistakes fast enough to keep up with the fast pace of our lives and the harmful decisions we make in the process.
All hail the big brands
This is why, as a species, we need examples we can refer to, we need guidance we can hold on to and we need leaders we can relate to. Where religion and politics used to be the most powerful and influencing authorities in most parts of the world, nowadays they get overshadowed by a new king in town: brands. Like religions and politics, brands have a huge amount of followers and reach. Just like religions and politics, they should be thoughtful about on what level and how to influence those followers. Recent history has taught us that much.
“There’s a new king in town: brands. Like religions and politics, brands have a huge amount of followers and reach.”
While religious leaders have a council of bishops – male dominant, unfortunately – and leaders of state have a ministry to do the groundwork and advise, brands also need a multi-cultural and gender equal team of experts. These experts are called designers. And I use this term in a very broad sense. They design the brand, so the brand can take its place on the world stage. But with great power comes great responsibility and unfortunately this is where, more than often, things turn to shit.
I see three options here. One, the person or organisation understands this responsibility and uses its power in a smart and ethical way. Two, the responsibility and power is underestimated. Three, the power is valued over the responsibility. Option one and three are active decisions to do good or bad. Option two is neglect which is as bad as option three. As designers we are faced with these three options every time we help a brand take the stage. And let’s be really honest now, option two and three sound very familiar.
Option two means we don’t take the challenge and our jobs seriously. It means we have brainstorms and discussions on wording, primary colours, secondary colours, moodboards, primary fonts, secondary fonts, materials, wireframes, transitions, shading, patterns, animation speed and God forbid, trends. All things scratching the surface but no word about responsibility. And I hear you say ‘but we also define the brand values!’. True for a lot of you, but do these brand values say something about the brand’s responsibility towards society, the active role it needs to play apart from being ‘dynamic’, ‘authentic’ and ‘smart’?
From pixel pushers to gatekeepers
We have been dosed to sleep the last couple of years. We have been scratching the surface and turned it into a competition on social media. Likes over love. Reach over responsibility. We have been neglecting what it really means to be a designer. While being critical and inquisitive should be two of the most important qualities of being a designer, we have had our heads in our own arses for way too long. We have been pushing pixels to make brands shine, omitting the real potential of those brands. When brands take the stage they should be opinionated and clear about their responsibility and it is our role as designers to advise them, do the groundwork and make sure they are understood. Brands need to stick their necks out. But therefore, designers need to pull their heads out of their arses first. Because they need our heads, not just our quick fingers and mad shortcut or pencil skills. We have to try to make this world a better place, not just a prettier one. We have to get our morals straight and seed our work with them. We have to be critical and inquisitive again.
“Brands need to stick their necks out. But therefore, designers need to pull their heads out of their arses first.”
Let’s talk about the third option now. When power is valued over the responsibility that comes with it. In the anti-social era of social media power has shifted from knowledge to exposure. Divido ergo sum. Exposure should never be a goal. It is a means. A means to share a message. The goal is to make the audience follow and act on your encouragement to make our world a better place with less injustice and more equality.
The superficiality of our times even reflects in our vocabulary. A group of followers used to share the same set of beliefs and have a common goal. Nowadays, followers share the same set of pictures and have a common ‘interest’. Don’t get me wrong, I think this kind of exposure is a great tool. But again, it should serve the even greater purpose of sharing a message. A message with real content. If you’re sending your work out there, make sure you do it for the right reasons. Just being out there for being out there and loving the attention is not the right reason. You’ll just be magnifying the dump of irrelevance that is your ego. This is the problem with reach being the main barometer for success. It tells us little about the message but more about how much we like its wrapping. A piece of shit in a pretty wrapping is still a piece of shit.
“Just being out there for being out there and loving the attention is not the right reason. You’ll just be magnifying the dump of irrelevance that is your ego. A piece of shit in a pretty wrapping is still a piece of shit.”
We are the real influencers
Like I said before, not taking your responsibility of adding meaningful content could be the result of not realising the importance of it. Unfortunately it often comes from an active decision not to do so. While there might be a list of reasons to try to justify this decision, none of them is good enough. When your client does not see the importance of the bigger picture, convince him. Again, designers are not just hired for their software or drawing skills. We are also hired for our advice and to make sure there is a meaningful message under that pretty wrapping. Convince your clients of your responsibility so they can take on theirs. Be critical about your role as a designer. You shouldn’t even want to compete in the visual crap race. You should be wanting to change the world. Keep. Your. Bar. High!
Yes, this takes effort. It is a constant effort to keep performing on a meaningful level. It needs focus. It needs time. It needs determination. Like for everything on this planet, one of the most basic laws of physics applies here as well. To every action there is an equal reaction. Superficial work generates a superficial audience. If we want our creations to have a meaningful effect, we have to put a meaningful effort into creating them.
Again, it all starts with being critical and inquisitive. About the world but also and especially about ourselves. We have to dive deep into the content of our projects to make them really matter to the people using, seeing or experiencing the results. Again, it needs focus and determination to stay down, diving deep. Any distraction will make you float up to the surface again, into effortless superficiality.
“We have to dive deep into the content of our projects to make them really matter to the people using, seeing or experiencing the results.”
This is where the real power of being a designer lies. As the advising and creative team of brands of all sorts, we have a huge impact on to what extent their audiences are influenced by our work. Whether you like it or not, we are the real influencers. We have the power to change mindsets. Our work can create real followers again. Followers that set in motion the change that we intended in our creations. Things like optimism, equality, solidarity, simple kindness.
Form follows function. The function is sharing a meaningful message. The form is what we all love doing so much.
Illustrations by Paulien Verheyen