On the weekend, I’ll be talking at AIGA in New York City. My argument is that designers could be the ones inside the corporation to deliver cultural intelligence. This would make them, among other things, the ones who help protect the corporation from the "blind side hits" produced by the perfect storm of contemporary markets and contemporary culture.
How to make the argument? Well, I think designers armed with a knowledge of culture could have helped rescue Microsoft from its brand ignominy. As it was, this achievement came from the geniuses of Crispin Porter + Bogusky. And who knows, exactly, how they came to their revelation. But here’s how a culturally-minded designer might have done it.
Our culture has long been predicated in a simple distinction between the mainstream and the avant garde. This construction helped us understand the bourgeoisie as a group of people committed to convention and la doxa. They are, so the stereotype tells us, nervous nellies who are most reluctant ever to depart from their slavish conformity. Thank God, says the stereotype, for the avant-garde. These are risk takers who care nothing for convention or materialism, who bravely throw their personal comfort and safety to the winds in pursuit of artistic truth and social justice.
As cultural distinctions go, this was pretty crude, but it was extremely convincing. It was quite customary to find that people making popular culture after World War II tortured themselves with the idea that they were bourgeois when they ought to have been avant garde. This distinction ruled.
Sometime in the 1990s, something happened. Our two-part system exploded. Now in the place of an inside mainstream and an outside avant garde, there was a great fragmentation. The mainstream lost its ability to police the tastes and believes and behavior of most people. The avant-garde lost its ability to control the restless, experimental margin. Both hegemonies lost their coercive power. (This was an especially bitter pill for the avant garde because it liked to think of itself as a plunky band of misfits who fought the hegemony and not as an interested power-player in its own right. But of course they were.)
In the place of our founding duality, there were many groups who deferred neither to the center or the margin They simply went their own way. Yes, of course, they could hear the impatient scolding that came from center and edge, but, no, they weren’t much interested. They were now prepared to go their own way. Respectable? Who cared? Hip? Who cared? The distinction was dead.
This cultural architecture is precisely what is at play in the Apple vs. Windows contest. Apple choose to ally itself with the avant garde position. And this was of course pretty easy to do. Microsoft was clueless, bad tempered, and unimaginative. And Apple was, or became, the brand of choice for hipsters. So the Apple vs. PC ads almost wrote themselves. All the agency really needed to do was to find two characters who would capture the essential differences between the brands, and of course they did.
And for awhile this was a brilliantly successful campaign. I felt its siren call and in my most recent transition between laptops I almost moved from a Windows machine to an Airbook. And I have to say, that when I heard that Crispin Porter + Bogusky had taken on the task of giving Windows new credibility, I despaired. I mean, surely Microsoft and Windows were beyond saving.
Anthropologist, heal thy self. What I did not see was that there was a cultural opportunity. I did not see it, at least, until Crispin Porter + Bogusky rolled out there "I am a PC" spot. But of course. Why didn’t I think of that! There was a third position, created by the great cultural flowering of the 1990s. If Apple was avant garde, the path was clear for Windows to be the new alternative to the alternative. It could step out of the old contest that left it a clueless and bumbling mainstream play. It could embrace the great cultural efflorescence that emerged of the1990s and make itself a brand too concerned with real difference to care about merely hip difference. It could embrace real diversity instead of the single, predictable difference that comes from being cool. It could embrace authenticity instead of a pose. At a stroke, Apple was made to look a little precious and a little self important. Hats off to Crispin Porter + Bogusky. (If anyone can tell me the names of the people inside CP + B who deserve particular credit, I would be grateful.)
This is what cultural literacy is good for. As I say, we can’t know how CP + B did it, but it’s clear that a designer in a strategic mode could with the right training could have been the one who gave Microsoft this opportunity to tunnel out of its captivity. And what’s that worth? A place in the C-suite and no less.
McCracken, Grant. 1997. Plenitude. Toronto: Periph. Fluide.
See the CP+B website here.
Since writing this, I’ve decided not to use it on Saturday at the AIGA talk. I hope readers of This Blog who happen to be there will come up and say hi.
Thanks to Wordle.net for the image.