Category Archives: design watch

Color is culture (disruption watch)

Watching for the future feels optional.

Watching for disruption, that’s more urgent.

One way to look for disruption is to watch our color palette.

Cause color is culture. And that means it can tell us that culture is changing.

I was reminded of this when I went to an artisanal fair in Hudson, New York. Everyone around me was dressed in autumnal hues. I had turned out in a bright yellow that can only be called nautical. (I wear this coat not because I sail, but because I am very much hoping I will not get run over when walking at night.)

Autumnal colors, good. Nautical yellow, bad. Color matters because color is culture. (Thank you, Peter Spear, for your patience with a tone-deaf visitor.)

So last night, watching TV, I couldn’t help notice this new ad for Cadillac.  Notice the riotous use of color.

This struck me especially because Cadillac recently used a very different palette, showing new models drifting through the moody, monochromatic, streets of Soho. Very quiet, very hip, very dialed down.

So what gives with all the colors? No, I’m asking. What gives?  Is this an indication of a change in culture? Is this the future whispering in our ear?

But of course, this could well be an eccentric choice on the part of the brand or the agency. That’s always possible. But let’s assume that the people at the brand and the agency is listening to culture as hard as we are…and possibly, just possibly, they think they’ve heard something, they’ve spotted a future, they have seen a disruption in the works.

As I was suggesting in the last post (How to read a t-shirt) we cannot follow everything happening “out there” in culture. We have to rely on other listeners. We have to divide the labor of our disruption watch.

The question now: Are big, extravagant colors coming? And does this suggest something in culture that might be big and extravagant too? Is the new prosperity going to change our palette, our messaging, and the messages that matter in brand building? Is the economy going to drive culture in new directions?

No, I’m asking. Is it?


You know who might have an answer to these questions is Ingrid Fetell Lee who, as it happens, has just published a book called The Aesthetics of Joy. For more details, see  Ingrid’s website here.

Peter Spear has a great newsletter called That Business of Meaning. I think you can subscribe here. Otherwise visit Peter’s website here.


Blazing culture

Nike ACG Cassette Playa Carri Munden As they come off the assembly line, consumer goods might as well be lumps of coal.  They are utterly inanimate, so much plastic, metal and/or fabric.  

It's up to cultural creatives to breath life into them.  Through a cunning process of meaning manufacture, designers and marketers make the inanimate animate. They make objects come to life.

This process raises lots of questions for the anthropologist.  Here are one or two:

Are there any meanings in our culture that cannot be invested in goods?  How big is the envelope of useable meanings?   Is any meaning off limits?  Is anything impossible because implausible?  Are there, to use Austin's language, felicity conditions that must be satisfied?

Nike ACG Blazers offers us an interesting test.  They are designed by Cassette Playa and launched during the “Future Primitive” runway show.  The theme of the show was “urban shamanism.” 

Cassette Playa’s creative director Carri Munden (pictured here with the ACG) offered this exegesis of the meanings of her design:

“Ancient Amazonian hunting rituals adapted by a gang of skaters in a post apocalyptic city”. 

How wonderful.  


See the entire Carri Munden Interview  here.

Austin, J L. 1965. How to Do Things With Words.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Florida, Richard.  2002.  The Rise of the Creative Class.  New York: Basic Books.   

Brian Collins: design genius

We_logo_from_wecansolveitorg_2 For power, elegance and strategic perfection, how about the icon from  We read it as "we" but something tugs at us.  There is an anomaly here, and it takes a moment to see that the "w" is actually an "m" turned upside down.  We issues from me.  We transcends me. Brilliant.

I was pleased to see that this is the work of Brian Collins.  Hats off ot Mr. Collins.  I was at a dinner party on Saturday night, and to our surprise, everyone agreed that Brian wrote the best status lines on Facebook.  Hat’s off for these too. I recommend you find Mr. Collins on Facebook and befriend him.  The status line was never so well designed.  Plus it nice to keep the company of genius even if it’s only online.


For more on We Can Solve It, go here

Speak, machine, speak! (on nothing in design)

Coke_machine There is a revolution taking place in the world of marketing.  Consumers are tired of the best efforts of the designer and the brander.  They find tedious our efforts to anticipate the terms and phrases they want to hear.  In the words of that old Talking Heads song, it’s time to "stop making sense."

Let me introduce you to the Coke machine in the basement of Building 6 at MIT.  I was standing there the other day trying to get a bottle of Dasani at the break. 

I could hear the coins go in.  And then there was that long pause, the one that makes you think, "damn, this thing is not going to…"  And then there is this great rumbling sound as the plastic bottle pachinkos its way through the machine, and into the opening. 

Sometimes I try to picture the mechanics of a sound, but finally I give up.  The mysteries of a Coke machine are impenetrable, knowledge too terrible for the likes of this anthropologist.

This is a wonderful sound because its low and rumbly.  But I especially like because it’s accidental.  It just happens to be the sound a plastic bottle makes as it tumbles through a Coke machine.  Call it a "found sound."

No one designed this sound.  This isn’t like the car door closing sound that Detroit builds into cars to persuade us that we have bought wisely, that our automobile is a paragon of quality and workmanship.  No, the Coke machine is a little like my dishwater.  It gives off a sound in spite of itself.  In the case of the dishwater, the sound is tumbling, but not rumbling.  It sort of swooshes, an ocean in a box.  (Dude, those saucers are surfing!)

The keypad of my ThinkPad makes a sort of plastic rustle and the hard drive makes a high pitched whine  The first makes me feel extra productive.  The second reminds me that everything I do on the keyboard depends on a mortal hard drive.  Other sounds I don’t like: the noise candy wrappers give off in a movie theater.  These suspend my suspension of disbelief.  Not all found sound is a blessing. 

The charm of found sounds is that they are not designed.  They just happen.  Not one thought to make them.  No one was trying to anticipate what a middle age anthropologist wants to hear from his Coke machine, dish washer or ThinkPad.  And this is charming because these objects become a kind of whiteboard.  I don’t have to shift anyone’s meanings to attach my own. 

And this is what I am proposing, that we make more things in the object world speak but signify nothing.  Because as I say, consumers are tired of our best efforts in the area of meaning management.  Part of the problem is the continued tyranny of KISS regime marketing (Keep It Simple, Stupid marketing). No meanings are always better than moronic ones. 

But some designerly meanings are the work of a virtuoso.  (I am the husband of a designer, so I know some of these paragons first hand.)  Their meanings are welcome.  They make objects more interesting, more vocal (positively scintillating), more companionable (positively chummy), more evocative and musical. 

I merely wish to say that there is a place in a design brief for "no meanings."  We should leave a place for the object owner or companionable to insert their own work. You know, like those great signs in Mexico City that say "disponible." Because, as it turns out, Shakespeare’s Lear was wrong: something comes of nothing, after all.  Nothing speaks!  Sorry (the marketer forgets himself), make that: nothing speaks like nothing! 

Note: this post is being published both here and at Gain, the AIGA Journal of Business and Design here. Thanks to Debbie Millman for including me!

The Royal Ontario Museum “crystal”

Rom_crystal I’m in Toronto for a couple of days.  From my hotel room I can see "the crystal" designed for the Royal Ontario Museum by Daniel Libeskind. The Crystal is pictured here, eyes right.  (Thanks to Kevin Marshall and his blog for the image.) 

My first reaction was terror.  And I was in good company.  Most people couldn’t wait to heap scorn upon Libeskind’s work.  Condemnation is a Canadian enthusiasm, a form of national bonding.  And the Royal Ontario is a favorite target.  High profile, American architect, risky, rule-breaking design, the Museum, Toronto, the combination was really too good to be true.  People feasted on outrage. 

But now that I see the thing nearing completion, I like it more and more.  Almost every corporation is inclined to act like a citadel, closed in upon itself, suspicious of strangers, armored against the infidel.  Corporate cultures might as well be ethnographic ones.  They identify others, vilify enemies, and keep the world out.

And all of them are now obliged, on pain of their own obsolescence, to break the walls down and let the world in.  Every corporation nows aims for porous boundaries.  Every corporation, profit or not-for-profit, wants contemporary culture to run through it, now around it.  (That’s indeed much of the gist of my consulting on this visit.)

Something like Libeskind’s architecture is happening (usually somewhat more metaphorically) to every organization we know.  Walls are being penetrated, boundaries buckled, parts of the organization made to lean precariously way out into the world.

Libeskind’s design makes a stirring point about what will happen to institutions if they wish to survive  And he has captured some of the violence and ugliness that must  inevitably ensues.  We might not like this work as architecture.  But it serves pretty well as truth in packaging. 


Kevin Marshall’s blog is here