Design Is an Echo Chamber

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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.