Opinion: Sam Jacob

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

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.