Thursday 20 May 2010

Fighting the Ugly

I watched "Helvetica" today, a documentary by Gary Hustwit about the Helvetica typeface. One of the interviewees is Massimo Vignelli, Italian designer highly influential in the modernist design movement. One of the things he said of the many that stood out to me was something along the lines of "As designers, we are always in a war. We are fighting against the ugliness."

I have seen this movie twice now, and both times, that quote was the most salient part of the movie for me. I have been wanting to write something about these ideas for some time now, but I couldn't think of the correct context in which to begin my thoughts. Now, Vignelli has reminded me of one of my biggest design principles, not just as a designer, but as someone who lives and breaths design in all aspects of my life - I, along with designers, artists, and aesthetically-minded people of the world, am fighting the ugly.

Modern design is Utopian in nature. (I stole this from a recent lecture of one of my classes). Modern design aims to change the world. Can a chair, or a wall, or a spoon really change the world? Perhaps not in isolation, but the principles upon which these items were designed might be the same principles upon which world change can be based. Beauty, simplicity, honesty, truth - can the world become a better place with a little more of these? I certainly would like to think so.

One of the things I remember from a religious studies class in high school was the broken window theory. If memory serves me, the idea was that if we just clean up the streets, cover up the vandalism, break the broken windows of the sad and abandoned places of our urban spaces, we can reduce crime and promote better behavior among the once troubled gangs that brought fear and loathing to certain parts of metropolitan cities. I think this theory extends past religious principles into key principles of design and human psychology as well. There is a positive feedback loop that is created with good design - if you see something beautiful, you feel good, and crave more beauty, thus craving more positive energy, and so on. 

I like to think of this not only while working on design projects, but perhaps even more importantly, when getting dressed in the morning. If I dress nicely, I feel good, and when I feel good, I am more productive, more active, and more successful. So, the next day, I do it again, because I liked how yesterday felt. After living in Paris, I returned with a much more defined sense of personal style, and a much clearer understanding of style as a social concept. Parisians will never be caught looking less than 100%. Never. Perhaps theres a bit of pride or honor that has been passed down into the culture over time, as Paris is one of the main fashion capitals of the world, so naturally Parisians are fashion-inclined. It is in their culture. But beyond that, I think they just know what works, what doesn't, and what makes them feel good/beautiful. Not every Parisian is a model or designer, but every Parisian looks like they should be one. Waking up every morning in Paris for me was not just waking up, rolling out of bed, and going to class, like most american students do, but it was spending a whole day of my life in the city of Paris. So naturally, I wanted to look good! I didn't want to stand out as the American tourist, which wasn't much of a problem because I naturally feel inclined to dress the way Parisians do, so my mentality about dressing changed, and it stuck. I go to school in a small college town in California, where 90% of the students wear the least interesting thing possible, because "its just class." Well, after living in Paris, class was never "just class". It was a day of my life. A day of my life that I could choose to spend trying to be as invisible as possible, just trying to get by, wearing the least interesting, least attractive thing possible, or it was a day of my life where I could fight the ugly. I could put in some time, some effort, and some love into my day, and I would be rewarded in the end.

I have found this to be one of the biggest changes since my time in Paris - a clear understanding of the importance of aesthetics and beauty in our every day lives. What a depressing world it would be without art, without cool-looking cups, without a perfect black scarf, without a beautiful building, thoughtful public spaces, ergonomically-friendly tools, etc, etc, etc. If everyone took a little more time in their day to take an interest in these small aspects of our lives, I do think the world could become a better place.

Design is so much more than superficial, consumerist evil, though many people do believe so (including myself a lot of the time). Design is a powerful tool, that when used wisely, can do wonders for our spirits.

Join me in fighting the ugly, one day at a time.

Photo by me.
da Vinci Staircase

ps.. this whole post is in Helvetica. Isn't it nice??


Anonymous said...

I've never seen that movie, but reading your post made me really want to watch it! :)


catalina said...

Thank you both for reading my blog and commenting!!

A Gluten Freestyle said...

Excellent post, I'm really intrigued to see this documentary now. Fonts really interest me (although I'm a plain old Courier girl!).
Fab blog.

Mia Adorante said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
catalina said...

Thanks so much Mia!! And all of you for posting! I'm so happy to know that a few people out there are reading my blog!

Mia said...

Oh Cat!!! You just made my day, what a beautiful post. Vignelli's words are just so wonderful, my favorite part of the film. And Paris, it really is exactly how you described it... I think we could use a whole lot more of it over here. Fantastic photo. Bravo! -m

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