MySpace aesthetics revisited: “The vintage Internet”

Just this weekend I was thinking about an old series of posts here, from 2007, in which I mused about the aesthetics of MySpace. At the time I was trying to figure out why something so “ugly” was also so popular, in an era of supposed mass-good-taste in design/aesthetics. Since then of course MySpace has become much less popular. Are aesthetics part of the reason?

Well before I could hash out an answer, I saw this Observer story with a totally different take. MySpace aesthetics connote the “vintage Internet.” Now that’s a great concept, the vintage Internet. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

“It’s kind of like how you have those bands where they’re like, ‘Yeah we’re putting our record out on cassette,'” said Matthew Perpetua, the founder of the music site Fluxblog and a contributor to Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. “It’s that kind of contrarian impulse.”

At the Williamsburg party, where one of the opening bands had released an album on cassette, a bald design student named Kyle was standing near the merch table and praising a MySpace competitor, the San Francisco-based Bandcamp.

“I go there now. But I don’t want to go there,” he said of MySpace. “I want it all to be on Bandcamp.”

“O.K., I’ve never heard of Bandcamp,” said his compatriot, a diminutive green-eyed artist named Meghan. She blew cigarette smoke back and forth. “So I’m still going to MySpace.”

“No, no, and that’s totally O.K., too,” Kyle said quickly.

Much of the MySpace nostalgia is a response to Bandcamp, the glitz to MySpace’s gutter and a necessary part of the equation, just as cassettes and vinyl would have no cachet without the dominance of MP3s.

In defense of “how it looks”

Raise the subject of aesthetics when you’re wondering aloud about design, and somebody is sure to pipe up and say something along the lines of “Design isn’t how it looks; it’s how it works.” This is true — but false. True: A great-looking product that does not work is indeed Bad Design and will fail in the marketplace. And yet: Please show me a product or object hailed by the design elite as Good that doesn’t just so happen to be aesthetically pleasing. (To the design elite, anyway.) “How it looks,” in other words, matters, both to the critics and to the market.

Julie Lasky has an essay on Design Observer, Superbeauty, that is very much about “how it looks.” She contends that “beauty” has made a comeback in the 21st century, and evidence can be found in the design world; the essay is in connection with an exhibition called The State of Things: Design in the 21st Century, for which she co-curated a set of objects under the heading Super Beauty:

The category is based on the premise that nothing in today’s domestic environment is too modest or obscure to be prettified: sink strainers, dish soap packages, extension cords, humidifiers, radiators, computer components, fire extinguishers. It is as if contemporary designers have vowed to make an utter sweep of domestic inventory and leave nothing unpleasing to the eye.

The rest of her essay is here. I can’t speak with the sort of authority that Lasky can about this subject in the broader context of design and art criticism, so I was interested to get that perspective.

For what it’s worth, since the early days of Consumed I’ve addressed how I think “how it looks” makes a discernible difference in the marketplace. Read more

Facebook: The ‘burbs of social networking?

If you recall earlier posts here and here about MySpace aesthetics, you might be interested in the recent NYR piece about Facebook. There’s a lot in the piece I have trouble with, but there are also some things I found insightful. It is here.

Here’s one passage related to aesthetics:

While MySpace listed details similar to if less sophisticated than Facebook—”Education,” but also “Body Type” and “Zodiac Sign”—a MySpace page could otherwise look like almost anything else online. Every Facebook page, by contrast, was laid out in exactly the same way, painted in an inoffensive if antiseptic palette of pastel blues on bright white. Facebook’s engineers, much abler than their counterparts at MySpace, quickly stifled any attempts to break these rules. To call MySpace “ugly” would be roughly equivalent to categorically denouncing graffiti—to praise Facebook for its “clean” design, akin to celebrating tract housing.

The writer repeatedly compares Facebook to a “suburban” space. (My favorite instance is a bit talking about privacy settings: “One solution: set your privacy options so that no one could see your photos at all—a decision whose wisdom would be confirmed every time a drunken picture of a friend showed up on the News Feed, only to disappear a few hours later, like a Cheeveresque husband seen momentarily wandering, naked, down his front drive.” That’s funny.)

Design, simplicity, and the marketplace

single_300So, speaking of design: I’m interested to learn, via Better Living Through Design, about the Normal Bookmark. It is “a simple, plain bookmark made from quality paper with a natural texture and color.” It is further described as a reaction to a “flashy” free bookmark that came with a purchase from a shop and that thus included that shop’s logo. This logo-ed bookmark:

reminded me of today’s busy society, where every company is trying to outdo, outsmart, out-compete and out-advertise each other. As a result, I feel our simple human lives have become quite suffocated and fatigued under the overwhelming pressure from modern-day media.

Good design is design that is invisible and should be free of the designer’s ego.

Thus the Normal Bookmark is just a blank piece of thick paper. With rounded edges. A pack of five costs $7.

Now I ask you: Is charging more than a dollar for a blank piece of thick paper really an example of “good design”?

It’s not clear what the specific paper-type is, or whether it’s, I don’t know, recycled or something okay now I see this page says the paper is “quality paper from managed and renewed forests.” That’s still pretty vague for me.

But seriously: Couldn’t anyone “distracted” by overly colorful bookmarks simply look around their apartment/home and find some suitably blank scrap material that could be repurposed into a bookmark? And for that matter, aren’t we in a recession where everybody is supposedly trying to be all conspicuously frugal? Or is this really just a satire?

Hip-hop album cover aesthetics follow-up

In my recent writeup on the aesthetics that I associate with Cash Money records in New Orleans in the early 2000s, I was a little hasty  — and, as revealed in the comments to that post, a little sloppy.

Peter pointed out that the No Limit records also had the look, and that the look in many cases came from Pen & Pixel, a design firm in Houston. And Tree Frog passed along this Pen & Pixel retrospective from earlier this year, in which Not A Blogger declares the firm to be “the John Waters of the Hip Hop album art world.”

Apparently Pen & Pixel’s founder himself weighed in to that retrospective, to say that while that company is still around, he and other originals are gone, and now have a firm called Rapid Design Concepts.

He also says:

The company at its peak (1998-2001) was billing almost 6 million dollars a year and was producing more that 23 covers per week. Yes, some were cheesy, some were insane and some were amazing…but the main thing to remember was PPG was a business enterprise, its function was to please the customers…we had thousands of maverick ideas that would have pushed and developed Hip-hop graphics further and faster…but the clients demand for the “same ol’ Bling Bling, Ho’s and cars kept the monster fed.

Then other comments started coming in, many with questions about how particular covers were put together — what was intentionally “less finished” looking, etc. Pretty interesting.

One last bit from another of the P&P founder’s comments, speaking rather directly to the aesthetics issues that interest me:

I also find it funny when people comment on how terrible the covers were, yet these are the same covers that helped the largest hip-hop artists make Billions! (not millions) And are now featured in museums and galleries. The same covers that set a time period in musical history. So we were doing something right!

Thanks for the comments, Peter & Tree Frog.

Further thoughts on aesthetics

I’m not sure why I got invited to this event above, and of course I didn’t go. But I’ve hung onto the email invite because of the way it looks. Aside from the recent posts here about the aesthetics of Asics sneakers and YouTube embeds, a couple of months ago there was an interesting discussion on this site here and here about MySpace aesthetics — specifically about why it is that MySpace seems popular despite such unpleasing aesthetics. (After all, aesthetics are supposed to matter today, etc.).

This invite, reminded me of that a bit.

When we lived in New Orleans in the early 2000s, when the whole Cash Money thing was really huge, I was always fascinated by the Cash Money aesthetic. Here are some Hot Boys covers, for instance.

Hideous! And yet … a pretty distinct graphic identity, no?

I’m not expecting any design-crit mag or site to delve into the Cash Money aesthetic and tell us its history, and who are its Peter Savilles and Stephan Sagmiesters — or even its David Carson. (Although I would sure read it, and I wish such pubs would assign articles like that.) But couldn’t one make the case that this isn’t an aesthetic mess at all, but rather a coherent visual language?

As a footnote, despite the recent party invite, interesting to note the way Lil Waye’s album covers have evolved, graphically speaking (left to right: 1999, 2005, 2008):

Harmonic follow-up: Unappealing aesthetics and embedded video

Following the passing mention, in the recent post about Murketing videos, that I “positively hate the way embedded videos, especially YouTube videos, look on or my other sites,” I got an email from someone who says he is a product manager at YouTube. (I have no reason to doubt that he is, I just have no way of confirming it.) “If you had a moment I would love to get some more detail so perhaps we can incorporate that feedback into our product plans and understand what you’re looking for in an embedded player,” he wrote.

I already replied, but since the topic of unappealing aesthetics has come up recently here, I thought I’d share an excerpt of that reply here.

I would point to two aspects in particular:

One is the start screen, the blurry image and the big arrow “play” button. It just looks bad. Why not a crisp screen image? Doesn’t everybody know at this point that you click the screen to start the video? And even if they don’t, there’s a play arrow right below in the control bar.

Second is that the YouTube logo is, for my taste, too large. I understand wanting brand the thing, but it seems to me it could be handled with more subtlety, preferably in the control bar, so that the embed doesn’t look like a big ad for YouTube.

If you just glance at a blog or other site that has a YouTube embed, it invariably jumps out as a visual spoiler. There’s nothing else blurry on the page (most likely), nothing else that looks so incomplete and tentative. For many viewers of that page who have no intention of viewing the video, it’s just visual noise; a distraction. And I actually think a crisp, focused image is MORE likely to make someone want to click.

As a side note, I wish there was more control in the “customize” feature for embedding YouTube videos — different sizes being the most obvious thing. The current visual customization option, changing the colors of the control bar and so on, is kind of meaningless.

Just to be clear, I’m not solely picking on YouTube; I’m not crazy about the way any embedded video looks. Although I do think YouTube may be the worst.

Your thoughts? YouTube may be reading!

Ask Murketing (which in turn asks you): How much style will you sacrifice for function?

A friend of Murketing writes:

The other day I bought new running shoes, Asics. I like a certain model (Nimbus) which are super comfy, but they are designing progressively uglier, and this latest incarnation is just hideous, with these weird scribbles along the bottom. It also comes in pink and purple (’cause that’s what we gals like).

I like Asics not out of true brand loyalty, but because the shoe does fit me well and is most comfortable. But this tme I nearly bought something else because these are really just plain ugly; I had a chat with the clerk who agreed and said, in fact, every customer is saying the same thing. It’s like Asics has some death wish or something, to drive away customers.

It’s just peculiar how in the running kicks market, some brands never look ugly, and soem seem to go out of their way to look ugly. I guess my question is how loyal are people — can you make a product so aesthetically undesirable that even the faithful will ultimately go away?

Interesting question! Setting aside whether Asics has a design death wish (although if you have opinions on that, let me know), is there a point at which a product is just ugly you’ll switch to a different one even if it means sacrificing something like comfort or performance?

AntiFriday: Highly concise edition

Design Won’t Save the World, originally uploaded by frank-c.

So it’s a holiday weekend and I’d just as soon not be sitting in front the computer at all. Nevertheless. In lieu of the usual rundown of dissent, critiques, and backlashes, I offer you this one image.

Have you ever seen that T-shirt, popular on several trend-blogs, that says Design Will Save The World?

Well, Frank-c doesn’t care for it: “I think it’s misleading and primarily flawed; it’s inaction cleverly disguised as action. If you want to save the world, start by saving what’s prevalent in it: people. Help them. Love them.”

On that actually-rather-upbeat notion: Have a good weekend.

[Thx to Shawn — though please note that if this entry ticks you off, he shares no blame.]

Barackists (part 1): Let them eat font

Generally I don’t say in advance what the topic of a forthcoming Consumed will be. However, the one that’s coming out this Sunday is about Obama as muse. Surely you are already familiar with the many examples of Obama-inspired art and creativity from various sources. The subject was already in the air when I started writing, and since the column has gone to press many more examples have surfaced. Plus, as indicated by the image here by Baxter Orr parodying the now-famous Shepard Fairey Obama print (via the recently revived Animal New York), it’s reached the point that some creative types are, perhaps, starting to question the nature of this particular bandwagon.

Obviously you’ll have wait until Sunday to pass judgment on my take on what this is all about, but in the meantime, I can tell you what my take isn’t: the one offered in this recent Huffington Post item suggesting that “young artists” are inspired by the Obama campaign’s supposedly awesome graphic design. I think this is silly. Or at least I hope that’s at all it is.

Read more

Motivation, reconsidered


Were I ever to organize an exhibition of stealth iconography in American life, I would be sure to include that poster of a kitten clinging to a tree: “Hang In There.” You’ve seen it.

I think it’s fair to count such posters as an example of the “motivational” genre. You’ve seen other examples of that, too. Posters exhorting you, basically, to do a better job, in settings as diverse as cubicle farms and the factory floor. These are the kinds of posters we are so used to seeing that we no longer see them.

Which makes it a form ripe for re-visiting.

One re-visitation strategy is the parody. Just the other day I was reminded of Demotivators, a line of posters and products by, “Increasing Success By Lowering Expectations.” It’s funny stuff. I wonder if an endless recession-speculation newsloop helps their business? I would think so.

Another strategy that’s popular in many categories is basically: update, modernize, reinvent in a way that’s more in-line with today’s taste standards. Given that motivational posters are among the most vapid forms of communication ever devised, I assumed that this approach simply could not apply here. However, these Alternative Motivational Posters (encountered this weekend via Ffffound) have proved me wrong. Some of them actually look pretty nice.

Will I be buying any? Well, I only have one employee, and I know he’s way too much of a malcontent to reach with this sort of thing, because he’s me.

Your bottle opener is bourgeois: Progress or Novelty?

This is a new bottle opener.

It’s part of Alessi’s “Dream Factory.”

Core77 and Notcot — both sites I enjoy and respect — say “stylish,” and “beautiful.” — also not a bad site, really, all things considered — wonders aloud: Seriously, why is this thing necessary? Who needs a high-design bottle opener, for crying out loud?

What do you say? Is this an example of progress and innovation, aesthetic or otherwise? Or is it mere taste-appeal novelty?

[Previous entries in the informal “Your X is bourgeois” series here and here.]

In Consumed: Emergency Décor

HomeHero: A fire extinguisher makes a claim that good looks can be a virtue.

Not long ago, Home Depot began selling a $25 fire extinguisher that did not look like a fire extinguisher: white, smooth and resembling a countertop kitchen appliance, it is “attractive enough to keep within reach,” according to a sales circular. Earlier this year, the Industrial Designers Society of America came to a similar conclusion when it gave the HomeHero one of its top awards. As is typical, the organization’s judges praised both functional and aesthetic qualities of the object. The write-up for the International Design Excellence Award asserted that it is less cumbersome and easier to use than a traditional fire extinguisher. “Most importantly,” the statement concluded, its “fashion-conscious” looks mean that “homeowners won’t want to keep the HomeHero hidden out of view, ensuring it will be in reach when seconds matter.”

Industrial designers are forever pointing out they are not mere stylists; doing their job well means making better things, not better-looking things. So it’s attention-grabbing when IDEA judges call style the most important feature of a piece of home-safety equipment….

Continue reading at the NYT Magazine site.

Your toilet is bourgeois

But of course there is solution: Buy something to make your toilet express more about who you are. You are a person who decorates the toilet. That’s who. Details about vinyl stickers with various cool images, at $20 per, are at Vital Industries on Etsy. Via BB.

Your cutting board is bourgeois. Here’s a more expressive one.

Another ideal canvas for expression: Remind yourself of your excellent taste while slicing onions with a $38 laser-engraved cutting board. Or maybe you better just order in and gaze at it while you dine, so you don’t mess the thing up.

Elsewares says: “The design actually interacts with the natural grain of the wood, creating a little scene. Each one is unique, not to mention really fun to look at.”