"How can culture exist in a stream
of Photoshopped incontinence?"

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Opinion: Sam Jacob

Opinion: in the first of his bi-weekly columns for our new Opinion section, Sam Jacob describes the way that sites like Dezeen have unleashed a "design tsunami" and discusses how "the endless spewing of design imagery" is affecting design culture.


Contemporary design suffers from a severe case of consumption. Not that wan condition that affects inhabitants of Victorian novels but that thoroughly modern version of consumption brought about by binging on toxic levels of images and information. Its most pressing symptoms present themselves as chronic vomiting and constipation to the point of obstipation. In other words, it can’t hold it down but neither can it pass a movement.

Design’s high-gloss diet is incredibly rich yet gruel-thin and it’s produced a weird physiology: flabby corpulence and stick-thin emaciation as though it were anorexic and obese simultaneously. Contemporary design culture consumes as though it were at a Roman vomitorium where nothing is digested, where everything is swallowed for the fleeting pleasure of consumption itself only to be thrown up to make room for the next course.

The medium, as we well know, is the message. So to try to glimpse the nebulous nature of contemporary design culture we should look to design’s own forms of media. The frames through which we look at design are not transparent; they are mechanisms that construct design culture around the mass of manufactured objects we produce. Perhaps then it’s not contemporary design itself that is the source of its condition but the media that communicates it that is the source of its condition.

There was a time when design could be catalogued. Its objects could be counted and accounted for, arranged in sequences to construct particular narratives. Think of the way in which institutions such as the V&A or MoMA constructed narratives and ideologies of design through the things they collected and exhibited, through their patronage. The museum, like the magazine, functioned as a particular kind of design media. Between the late 19th century and 20th centuries museums and magazines wrote narratives and impulses from Arts and Crafts to Modernism, Brutalism and Postmodernism. They wrote designs narrative so indelibly that we still trace their intent today.

These once-strong curatorial frames are now just sieves in a design tsunami. It’s not that the museums got small, it’s that design became monstrously voluminous: uncountable and uncuratable. The sheer volume and scale of design has outgrown any of its previous states, bursting the seams of the definitions that we used to clothe it with, apparently impossible to frame in the gallery or on the page.

Design culture now flows through a new form of media as an endless glut of glossy imagery gushing through super-lubricated digital downpipes. This very site is perhaps the poster child of the new media through which we consume design culture. And so, I would argue, as the new popular form of design media, it is a site within which contemporary design culture is now manufactured. But what, exactly, is this new form of design culture? How can anything like culture exist in this stream of Photoshopped incontinence?

Dezeen is a design media born digital. It’s not an internet shadow of a preceding physical institution but a thing in and of itself. It emerged out of the kind of communication that used to happen backstage of journalism. Its simple trick was to divert the flow of designers mass-mailed press releases addressed to journalists into a publicly accessible form as fast as possible. Free from the formats and obligations of traditional media, Dezeen’s structures and logics emerged out of the protocols of electronic communication themselves: ordered by date, tagged, collated by a content management system.

Scrolling through we quickly become nauseous at the sensation of unrelenting glossy immediacy. We become dumb to the invention and imagination that designers exert. But as we gasp for air, drowning in its infinite shallowness, we should recognise that it is also a product of our collective desire. It is the will of the epoch expressed in an insanely huge slick of stuff. In this slick we find a perfect storm where design’s sense of individuality meets the flattened hierarchy of the digital, multiplied by the superfast churn of content.

Sick as it might make us, the endless spewing of design imagery and ideas down our screens has other effects on design culture. It liberates us from the traditional custodians of curator and editor so that the designer is freer (if they make it through Dezeen’s selection procedure) to talk unhindered directly to the world (for better or worse). Dezeen’s format, speed and volume also, simply through the ravenous nature of the beast, serve to break down traditional disciplinary boundaries - at least within its own terms. Students and graduates rub shoulders with the old and famous with far more regularity than in museums or magazines.

But at the same time we see criticism reduced to metrics of hits, likes and retweets. We see barely legible comments obsessing with old-fashioned, pre-digital (pre-Modern even) ideas of authenticity and originality when they aren’t just plain paranoid-aggressive. Just as it expands our vision of design, it simultaneously shrinks our own ability to understand. Our own conception of design mirrors the media through which we see it.

Dezeen and its digital cousins represent a new form of digital design culture, entities with total and unrelenting equivalence, a narrative with no top, no bottom, no start or end. It is post-curatorial and post-editorial. In other words, it’s a place where everything can happen but nothing ever will.

While it shares some of the native digital qualities of other networked cultures (Wikileaks to Fan/Fic to name but two) Dezeen, its imitators and its users have yet to develop an equivalently sophisticated version of digital design culture. Instead, within their space we see designers caricaturing the role of design, designing things that are familiarly design, talking like we imagine designers talking. We see objects and buildings that seem like characters of objects and buildings we have seen many times over, the kinds of things that fit the narratives of old media. We remain haunted by spectres of design past, unable to give up these rusting professional armatures.

Worse, even, as we have also jettisoned the powers of old media to give shape and meaning to the worlds that design produces. Having abandoned their abilities to develop narratives and direction for design culture we are left with the same image of design, the same boring heroisms, the same banal beauty, the same stale imagination spinning around and around. To paraphrase Orwell, if you want a vision of design’s future, imagine a screen regurgitating images on a human face - forever.


Sam Jacob is a director of internationally acclaimed architecture practice FAT where he has been responsible for award winning projects in the UK and abroad that include cultural, retail, housing and commercial projects for clients including Selfridges, BBC and Igloo.

His work has been exhibited at major institutions such as the Venice Biennale, MAK and the V&A. He is design critic for Art Review, contributing editor for Icon, and contributes to many other publications including co-editing a recent issue of AD, a launch title for the Strelka Press alongside editing strangeharvest.com. Sam is Professor of Architecture at UIC and Director of the forthcoming Night School at the AA.

  • INawe

    Instead of pointing out and criticizing everything in hindsight with your overly worded observations, what do you propose be the solution (if one there even exists)? To me, this article is only half done and remains incomplete. Just my opinion.

  • James

    I think the point behind the article is important, but I’d just like to read your for and against, or hear your opinions on where we go from here.

    The purple prose (that, in fairness, a lot of architectural journalists are prone to) doesn’t make your article easier to read, or lend it greater impact.

    This is an opportunity to put Dezeen’s views across and your own. I am looking forward to reading more from the minds behind this site, but if you begin to echo some of the drivel written by architects about their own work, I will go back to just looking at the pretty pictures… which would be ironic.

  • http://superproductive.blogspot.com/ super_productive

    OBLIGATORY SNARKY COMMENT HERE

  • JonnyJ

    Awesome, I really enjoyed that article. Thanks, Sam Jacob.

  • MeMyselfAndI

    “There is a common misconception that ancient Romans designated spaces called vomitoria for the purpose of actual vomiting, as part of a binge and purge cycle.”

    Source: Vomitorium/Wikipedia

    • Karl Metz

      Thank you! The misuse of this word is one of my pet peeves.

  • Arthur Nerbas

    Interestingly, Sam has no problem using this medium to express himself?! There is no “solution”, because this is the evolution of design! Concepts are exposed and we develop them if they are valid in our respective culture. Just like the traditional grand tours of Europe for the Beaux Arts.

  • Ian Townshend

    Sites like Dezeen, like Facebook and Twitter encourage users to make a snap judgement. You are not expected to spend more than two minutes on a particular piece but encouraged to comment on it. There is no time to let a design breathe, to live with it, to learn to love it.

    You see it, you like it, you want it. You see it, you dont like it, you rip into it, then you go back to the safety of BBC News and Sky Sports where at least we don’t have to think at all. It’s distraction not culture. Ooh look, Chantelle’s chest…

  • Morrison

    I can’t help but imagine the author checking the number of “likes” on his article. It’s human nature.

  • Paul

    “There was a time when design could be catalogued. Its objects could be counted and accounted for, arranged in sequences to construct particular narratives.”

    There was a time when critics and theorists could build some spurious kingdom of authority by cataloguing and imposing an order on something that had no real order even then. We live in times when ideas have exploded and creativity is everywhere, and the consumption of this can be momentary or enduring. This terrifies the critic whose long words and “contextualising” no longer give them power or point. It is the age of the creator not the critic. This is to be celebrated. Unless you are Dezeen’s new “opinion journalist” in which case it is to be moaned about.

    • rorystott

      No. No no NO. I’m sick of people like you creating this idea of the heroic, freewheeling society and the tyrant critic trying to chain it down. They are not trying to “build some spurious kingdom of authority”, they are mapping real connections and commenting on real issues.

      There is order, to everything humans create. Economical, environmental, scientific, sociological, artistic, philosophical – every endeavor of design is affected by all of these factors, and frequently the best designers are the ones who understand this and use it to their advantage. Sam Jacob himself is possibly one of the better examples of this fact.

      The age of the creator? Bullsh**. This is the age of the consumer, my friend. Which happens to play into the hands of the creator, because no matter how awful their design there is bound to be a consumer with just as poor taste. Just look at all the overpriced tat that cascades down the pages of this site. Why such a high price for plastic junk? Supply and demand, the lower the demand the higher the price – because only a few strange people are willing to actually spend money on it.

      However much you dislike the idea, some designs are better than others, and the best people to give perspective on this are critics. Because, however much you dislike the idea, not everyone is equal and holds equally valuable opinions. Some are more intelligent and more aware of the conditions that underpin our society, and can point us in the direction of value – whilst you would have us running around sh***ing our pants at every vaguely new idea.

      Oh, and if you have a problem with long words, buy yourself a bloody overpriced and over-designed dictionary.

      • Paul

        I have no problem with long words. I have a problem with people using them to claim authority. The point is the internet is full of critics. We don’t need authority to make the connections. We can make them ourselves.

        He wants a canon. Canons are always about exerting power. The world is now much more exciting than that. Interestingness is everywhere. Design flourishes. We should celebrate that. Little is lost with the distribution of criticism. Very little.

      • Paul

        Oh and I’d say the best people to judge designs are the people who use them. Always.

    • Emri

      I think both of you are right to some extent. Unregulated design can fail to question its own need to exist and end up feeding wasteful, trend-seeking consumer behavior. Criticism can lead to snooty connoiseurship and elitism. The people who judge designs best are the people who use them.

      Unfortunately sleek marketing convinces people to buy tons of stuff that they will later realize they don’t want or need which might be one of the problems with design imagery today. Ikea looks so much better on the Ikea website than it does in my house.

  • rory_olcayto

    Memorable… in the way that bit in Fight Club where we see Ed Norton kicking the sh*t out of himself is memorable. Cheers!

    One point, however: Dezeen is emphatically not post-editorial. As Sam himself points out, work posted on this site is selected by the Dezeen editorial team (humans with prejudices, not bots).

  • Brevity is the soul of wit.

  • young designer

    In tech circles we call this tone of dismissive jealousy “butthurt”. It usually comes from an ugly basement dweller who’s just as nerdy and technically proficient as some millionaire founder, but managed to miss the boat.

  • robert thomas

    “Flabby corpulence and stick-thin emaciation”. Ironic that a piece stuffed so full of these “corpulent” adjectives reflects so perfectly this “gruel-thin” critique.

  • Tyler

    Dear Sam Jacob, before I start, let me just say that I am a big fan or the work you’ve done at FAT UK. Congratulations on kicking off the Dezeen Opinion pages. Prepare yourself for the firing squad. They’re already taking the piss and it’s only been a few hours.

    Now, I must say, I find this whole situation fascinating. The director of FAT UK is calling out the internet for de-contextualizing design imagery and then being lambasted for it by people who seem completely unaware of the body of work produced by FAT UK.

    The fact that you wrote this article in this brash and abrupt yet overly-decorative style is the best thing about the piece. All of it’s ironies, intentional contrasts, and lack of position, for or against, are so consistent with your built work that I can’t stop grinning.

    That’s not to suggest that your built work is superficial. I know a lot of thought and investigation goes into the development of your built work. But, for me anyway, FAT UK is the poster-child of our binge/purge design non-culture, where anything goes, and anything goes with anything else.

  • bonsaiman

    Well, I may be also too modern (shame on me), but I have to agree completely with every word Mr Jacob wrote, although I miss a few words like “maelstrom” and “apocalypse” here and there. People thinking his style “purple” is a clear, strident sign of our tweeter times. I miss books.

    A great start for Dezeen’s Opinion. Go ahead, guys.

  • FA711

    No matter the article… Sam is such a hot guy. Can’t we just have photos of him and other hot architects?

  • burnside

    I wonder if Paige Rense isn’t sometimes similarly troubled, turning out that monthly richness of imagery and description.

    Far from finding Dezeen’s profusion as a dilution of culture, I’m delighted by the global reach – a sharp edge against parochialism – and by the steady pressure it exerts on my own horizons and tastes. After all, these objects, projects and concepts exist in the world; Dezeen doesn’t imagine or invent the plenitude, it discovers and delivers it.

  • Tellsitlikeitis

    TL;DR

  • Hmmmmm

    Wow – a great example of people who have had their day and are, through their own egos and self-belief, being left behind by the change in consumption habits and the design eco system.

    I am surprised you involved such a backward looking self-aggrandizing writer with such a great site. If I was Selfridges etc, I would be trying to find a more progressively minded firm to work with!

    Maybe also think about the work you put out there. Your article is wholly contradictory to your built projects which could be perceived as fashionable and of the moment. Two words which generally don’t work well with buildings intended to last 25 years or more. Identity crisis or middle age fears of the kids taking over.

    It sounds like an article written by the last guy in a horse and cart when everyone else started buying cars. Bit tragic really.

    • bonsaiman

      When people began trading horses and carriages for automobiles it was a real jump forward and a frenzy. For a brief time people thought they were at the edge. Now they talk about global warming, jammed cities and colossal junkyards on a global scale. I believe Mr. Benz thought the small flatulence of his machine was quite neglectable. At that time, a critic may have sound grotesque and backward looking. Your analogy seems perfect to me.

  • god

    Quite savvy of Dezeen to have their first opinion piece entirely dedicated to themselves. And to have Sam Jacob trolling the audience into submitting passionate retributional comments is just the icing on the cake.

  • http://youtu.be/owTFyWlupOI grdzfsht
  • Chaszr

    Of interest… Jacobs decries the same segment of our culture which celebrates his infamously shallow and gimmicky architectural oeuvre (one wonders as to motivation). But then mine is just the opinion of one who still appreciates authenticity among other “dated” concepts.

    For my part, I choose to ignore design sites such as Dezeen, designboom, etc. purely for the lack of intelligent analytical criticism; a position I find only reinforced by the foregoing Jacob incontinence.

    • krs

      You are clearly ignoring these sites by commenting here…

  • daftpunk

    Design criticism has just eaten itself. Where’s Uncle Rick when you need him?

  • Vanderleun

    Overuse of ostentatious verbiage is not doing you any favors. It adds a whiff of flatulence to your writing that it does not need.

    “Not that wan condition that affects inhabitants of Victorian novels but that thoroughly modern version of consumption brought about by binging on toxic levels of images and information. Its most pressing symptoms present themselves as chronic vomiting and constipation to the point of obstipation.”

  • http://twitter.com/VladymirRogov @VladymirRogov

    Fabulous thinking. However there is a movement of design on the rise that is not created for the visual entertainment of the democratized masses.

  • Daniel Dolan

    Mr Jacobs, thanks for this article. As a regular follower of perhaps 10 design blogs such as Dezeen, I was pleased to see someone comment on this phenomenon. Also, I really liked discovering the word “obstipation.”

    Until somewhat recently, we had a world class architectural bookstore in Chicago where one could spend a day leafing through hundreds of books and magazines to absorb the work of a couple of hundred world architects.

    Today, via Dezeen and others, I am able to “leaf” through the work of several thousand architects and quickly appreciate their designs. It’s kind of the same, don’t you think? Except, of course, that now they mostly have names like eeek! and glOOp and… well you get the idea.

    In spite of the enormous number of images you have got to admit that many are the same. I know this because every single house has a glass wall that slides open and is over 75′ wide and whose owners are not afraid of being robbed.

    Best regards, DD
    Chicago

  • Thor

    What a tedious read.

  • alexis

    Great! He sure did get folks talking.