Design Is an Echo Chamber

Social studies about the web are intriguing—they show just how social we are, with ideas and people flitting about like an unstoppable hive of bees, always looking for the next blossom.

One thing I wondered about, in light of last week’s discussions about ShopSanity’s el cheapo logo, which turned out to be a chop job based on clip art, is the notion of echo chambers, and how that relates to the “truths” designers all “know” about design. That discusion made a lot of things bubble up that can’t be proven: that ShopSanity was “devaluing” our profession, that contest sites for creative services are “bad.”

The things we all “know” are things like “design improves value,” that “‘good’ typography is necessary,” that “Arial shouldn’t be used since it’s a bastard child of Helvetica,” that “design is good for the world,” and so on. Not necessarily actual truths, but the things we hear and have repeated to us every day.

But I’m not convinced of many of these things. My personal viewpoint is that “common knowledge” should always be eyed suspiciously. Based on my skepticism, I started to wonder: does design lack in actual power on the web because it can’t be proven? And does it continue to be popular simply because designers talk about it all the time in highly public spaces?

Are we doing what Edina Monsoon described when she snapped that a fellow PR agent had “PR’ed PR into existence, darling?” Are we doing the same thing for our own little profit center—designing design into existence, creating an echo chamber to support our own beliefs about aesthetics without any real regard for their relationship to the rest of the world?

My concern in pointing this out is that there are some pretty basic truths that are actually only bullshit we repeat to each other to the point that we find it true.

Are logo contest sites actually damaging our craft, or are they opening a real conversation about what it means to create content, possibly leading to a (much needed) change in copyright law?

Do ripoff fonts really devalue the typographic arts, or do they sometimes evolve the notion of what a letterform is and does, the same as folk vernacular signage?

And does anyone really give a damn if you choose Arial over Helvetica? Or is it really that the Helvetica we know is just the most broadly recognized of the grotesques, thereby making it “better,” and Arial upsets that perception because it’s not from the lineage designers recognize as valid?

Just asking.

10 thoughts on “Design Is an Echo Chamber

  1. Pingback: crowdSPRING sold us stolen property! But we still support crowdsourcing? « Shopsanity

  2. Shopsanity

    @Bob Dow
    Thanks again for pointing out the logo issue.  As we described [paraphrased] to one Twitter follower – “Right now it feels like I’m saying I drive a pinto since thats what I can afford while everyone tells me to buy a Ferrari.”  
    We know spending at a high end firm can lead to better results, although there was a lot of buzz in the design echo chamber about how we thought crowdSPRING and a high end firm were the same.  We don’t, which is why we ended with  “Is it as good as spending $300,000?  Probably not, but it’s certainly not 1,000 times worse!”
    The quotes we got were $50K for just name and logo, plus likely needing to buy URL.  $75K for that plus some text for the website.  That was from the same firm I’m guessing you’re citing as $200K+ for several rounds of immersion…    

  3. Khoi Vinh

    Patrick: +1 on Vignelli’s overrated, misunderstandingly praised subway map. It’s not a good piece of design. I often refer to it as the point at which Modernism jumped the shark—and I’m a huge fan of Vignelli’s work, if it isn’t obvious.

    Still, useless as it may be, it’s pretty.

  4. Patric King Post author

    i just thought of a perfect example of what i’m talking about, something being “good design” because designers repeatedly say it is, even though it clearly isn’t: vignelli’s new york subway map. i hate that thing, and i hate what it symbolizes even more.
    it totally distorts and obfuscates where places are—but design writers point it out over and over as a “piece of great design,” while it’s not. it’s utterly useless, except to designers who like pretty spacing and clean surfaces. to the rest of us, it just gets us lost in manhattan.

  5. Jon Whipple

    Echo chamber: Yes.

    Are logo contest sites actually damaging our craft: No, logos aren’t important at all. Which is why I can use existing logos with impunity even going so far as to pass other people’s work off as my own. And just making up pretty pictures and decorations that may or may not – or better still: COULD have something to do with the problem – rather than actually doing any work. So no, contests are great.

    Do ripoff fonts really devalue the typographic arts, or do they sometimes evolve the notion of what a letterform is and does – Again, no not all, because having a font with bad kerning and missing characters won’t pose a problem in prepress, and nobody will noice how crappy things look because our expectations are already low and we should probably let them go lower. Rip-off fonts have no impact on the designers and publishers of originals at all, so I’d say go ahead and rip-off all you want.

    Yeah, I see your point. Totally unfounded assumptions about design. What the hell have we been thinking all this time? PS I know you won’t mind me remixing your work, but could you make sure that it’s okay with your clients? I don’t want you to be surprised when I told them you said it was okay to use your stuff. Thanks for doing my work for me, I appreciate it.

  6. Amy

    I’m afraid to answer any of these questions truthfully. But I would like to ask one of my own, and that is: am I really seeing primes instead of apostrophes on a design blog? 

  7. Bob Dow


    good post. I am the person that told shopsanity that their logo was a ripoff from Shutterstock and another site. I have no beef with them, I just hate it when people crow about the value of crowdsourcing (we save 200K!)  and are completely naive about what they are getting for 1000 dollars vs the alleged 200K.

    The 200K (and more) they were quoted by more than one agency included immersion, several rounds of design and Brand Strategy. They paid for and got a logo. Did the logo convey a message? Yes, it did, but IMHO it conveyed the wrong message. They were calling it a “zen tree” I think I correctly named it Clown Vomit.

    Can an el chepo font and a piece of clipart convey a message as well as some handcrafted art and great typography… yes, of course. Can a kid right out of design school can nail it for 10% of what everyone else is charging? yep, sometimes. great artists have painted great art from shitty paint and bad tools, but I think most agree that when they can finally afford to, that it is a great joy to work with better materials and tools.

    After 16 years in this business, I’m not really surprised anymore that people are shocked that you have to pay real money for good design based on research and strategy. There is a surprising amount of fine tuning that happens to make things more appealing to consumers. A great case in point is the Dole logo. I know it was here for several years and then at Landor and I know really excellent typographers worked on it in both shops for countless hours… it’s crazy. But the more successful your brand, the more you have to keep tweaking it to keep people interested. 

    The biggest bummer about graphic design is that it’s a mostly thankless job with an extremely high burnout rate. This is probably what drives peopel to cut corners, especially when clients don’t want to pay. 

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  9. Khoi Vinh

    I’ve always believed that your leading assertion is correct, that design is an echo chamber. But that doesn’t mean there’s a yes or no answer to this question, necessarily. The echo chamber produces a lot of noise relative to signal, that’s for sure, but the signal is valuable—and not just to designers, but to industry and culture, too.

    Regarding your more specific questions about contest, I suspect that the answer is, yes, they’re prying open this question about value, and that’s what makes people nervous. It’s not pretty, but it’s progress.