When I was in the industrial design graduate program at RISD I became intrigued by the various, and profound, ways in which cultures understand personal identity. My particular interest was in 'material culture,' defined as the stuff we wear, carry, display and use to express who we are, what we stand for, who we want to be in the future and how we desire to be seen by the culture that surrounds us. The element that seemed most captivating to me, and became the basis of my thesis work, was the growing understanding of how the very nature of personal identity has shifted over time, most obviously from the start of the Industrial Revolution until now.
It’s absurd to try and paraphrase a hundred years of profound social, cultural and mechanical revolutions into a sentence or two, but I'll attempt it anyway: During the Industrial Revolution manufacturing technology developed to the degree that we were able to mass produce everything from clothing to food to housewares to machinery. That growth prompted the need for new markets (to sell the newly produced goods) and, as somewhat of an unintended side effect, created an environment where upward mobility and the capacity for self-expression was possible in unprecedented levels. This new wealth and ability to create and sell on the cheap effectively broke the back of many existing social and cultural “rules” that had formerly relied on something like a scarcity model to create and maintain social strata and order. Of course, these changes caught many people by surprise and upset the traditional power structure, creating revolutions, some bloodier than others, and producing the world many of us live in today. Whew!
I loved that many of the identity-related and cultural questions people were asking themselves during that last cataclysmic event seemed so familiar to us today, as our world becomes ever more virtual, where the meaning we ascribe to things seems more and more fleeting and the means of self-expression become ever cheaper. Since that first burst of innovation, encapsulated in Henry Ford's famous exclamation that the "customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black," we’ve moved to mass-customization, transmedia experiences and any number of other ways of personalizing and customizing the things, systems and services we surround ourselves with.
Designers however, often educated using principles, techniques and thinking still rooted in those early days, have been taught to apply archetypes, generalizations and various formulas that describe idealized people and things. These are essentially dress-forms designed for us to hang our designs on.
But what many of us are realizing, increasingly, thanks to the work of artists and philosophers, psychologists and anthropologists and cognitive scientists, is that there's no such thing as a singular human identity or personality. That people are defined by, and in turn reflect, the multiplicity of situations they find themselves in. And that personal aspirations and expressions are as variable as those contexts, each being composed of a symphony of signifiers that are identifiable to those who matter, those kindred spirits versed in the symbology the wearer is projecting. And unlike in the past where context and environment was somewhat locked, those situations are becoming ever more complex and varied over time and space.
And as goes the individual goes branding and product-design.
Watching the current industry move towards defining branded experiences over straightforward traditional branding and product design I see another sea-change occurring. In essence, we're moving from the maintenance of a fixed, consistent position into one that's coherent in expression, but faster, more agile and organically tuned to each situation. In this way the things we create more accurately mirror the wide variety of worlds and contexts we find ourselves in. A sense of narrative and journey becomes more important than any fixed global state, and we move to a world where flexible, evocative throwaway digital interactions can be juxtaposed with a desire for timeless, iconic physical objects.
We're haltingly learning how to design in a way that plays to the strength of material and context, rather than trying to force everything into the same ill-fitting box. We're getting better at load-balancing at a conceptual level; creating systems that tell stories in the aggregate. This newfound flexibility has created the capacity for counterpointing, playing things like the transience of the digital and the timelessness of the physical against one another. Witness the massive disparity between digital and physical design languages on products like the iPhone. You can love or hate the digital design language with all its fluff and fake leather, but it kind of works when placed on such a simple and clean physical device. Perhaps this also explains the continued love we feel for modernist design objects with their unrelenting focus on utility over personality. These things are our new pyramids, timeless forms that can weather the constant, daily change and evolution we experience in real-time.
It's an exciting time to be in the innovation business. We clearly need new tools to adapt to our increased understanding, and for the first time have the ability to design suites of things, symphonies that mirror those we see occurring in our personal expressions of identity. Our world is moving at a furious rate, and many of the things we’re confronting seem new and slightly crazy. But it’s also important to remember that, like with all things, there’s probably a precedent. In this case there are lessons to be learned by digging deep and thinking of the things we design the same way we think about ourselves. We’re complex creatures, sometimes irrational, but always flexible and changing. In the future more of our products, systems and services will likely be as well.
As frog's Executive Creative Director, Nick de la Mare leads frog’s cross-disciplinary teams in the pursuit of strategic design solutions across product, service and experience. His work focuses on the convergence of digital and physical media to create branded experiences for Nike, Chase, Disney, Johnson & Johnson, among others. His projects have been recognized by the IDSA, AIGA and others, and published widely.