Hey Ryan: I think design is the voice of a culture.

So my buddy Ryan posed a really thoughtful question: Does design regress to the mean?:

Ryan’s hit on a couple of things that I think about a lot. The gist of the question (I think) is this – if we all drink from the same inspiration fountain, will we all ultimately end up designing things that are largely similar?

I guess on a lot of levels, inspiration comes from history and context – what have you seen/done in the past, and what in the present is different enough that it’s grabbing your attention? For me feeling inspired is always this rush of clean energy, I just heard something in a new way or saw something differently that created other thoughts. If you take that same dynamic and zoom it out a little, you could say that this all happens to us as a culture so we all live and experience movements in taste semi-simultaneously. (That’s not to say we all like the same thing, but I guess it shouldn’t shock me that my colleage and I ended up with the same blog template…we have some shared friends, work in the same industry, and probably consume lots of the same media. She is, however many multipliers smarter than I and lives an ocean away, we haven’t caught up in months.)

I once worked with a really talented graphic designer who used to keep all these old advertising books in our project space for inspiration. These books were phenomenal, they were old ads organized roughly by topic area and hard bound by decade. When you looked at advertising at that level you could see soooo many similarities in the style and artifacts used in the ads. There were all the cliches, like the 50’s ads being very space aged, and the 70s ads feeling very rugged and musky. But it made me think, if advertising is catering to wants and needs, at that point an time, lots of people were being inspired by similar things. You can even see similar movements now, i see lot’s of very clean, sparse, modern expressions around, just five years ago things felt a lot more hand crafted and craft paper-ish.

This sort of brings me to your example about Tropicana and Innocence. Companies test the hell out of their concepts so they resonate with consumers. From that perspective, any design that is successfully marketed and sold in today’s connected economy seems to be a de facto representation of what lots of people want. No everyone, but the big hulking average. So, in some ways design is a voice of a culture, and it’s emotions and desires. From there it seems like subcultures have their own voice you see expressed through different aesthetics, from punk paper zines to Keffiyeh scarves to twitter tweets.

So to the final bit about how we find inspiration. It feels like it works like an ant mound. Ants go out into the world to find food and break it back to the hive for a communal meal the way people seem to look for hot new inspirations and show them to the world. If no one brings new inspirations, things get stale because we’ve all seen the same thing, but then someone brings some nutty outlier to the table and it triggers lots of inspirations in people. So on a personal level of expression it feels fresh, but on a macro view, it’s a slow ebb and flow between styles.

This was fun, I’m on the hunt for a thoughtful question to volley back.

What does everyone think?


  1. But is there not a creative class of ant that actually produces stuff that other people find inspirational? Maybe consumption of design does eventually center around some kind of mass palatable zeitgeist. But surely the designers themselves still seek new and different inputs, thereby still contributing and continuing a grand cycle.

  2. Hey Maya!!

    I think you’re right. Maybe it works like trickle-down inspiration (with no judgment on who sits where in the food chain). Designers (formal definition or not) definitely play a key role, they define the movement.

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