By their fruits; so shall ye know them” OR Our Designs are Whom we Are

February 27, 2017

I wrote recently a few verses on automobiles and their shapes and about how these shapes reflect an outlook assumed to be conducive to selling cars by their manufacturers; and which shapes do seem to have become successful economically for these makers.

The shape in particular which so many manufacturers have gone for is a general one which tends to their portray cars as being as if ‘predatory animals’ engaged in hunt and so brightly alert and ready to pounce. This of course is a figure of speech of mine, and it describes a general impression taken from the tendency of the latest cars to be in profile sloping downwards towards the front and their window lines and their other lines also sloping to meet this dipping profile; as if it were that extrapolated these lines would meet about 20 or 30 foot in front of the car.

Such a design, I tried to say, I believe tells us about whom we might be, and how we see ourselves; and in this case concerning car design, it tells us that as drivers we want to be seen at least to be assertive, thrusting, fast, and ‘a cool player’ on the road. And this is an important factor in what sells cars, because it is what appeals to many drivers at the present time.

I now want to extend these theses about cars to our use of design on consumables, products and services, in general; and to show, I hope, how design (and other conventions, dresses, packaging) in its details reflects our presuppositions and our prepossessions as consumers, and so is affecting our day to day interplay with others in society.

I have come to believe that almost all of the design and ‘get-up’ we make and meet with in daily life is indicative; indicative of our mental states and so more broadly, I see design as showing us whom we think we are; individually, as societies and as sentient human populations.

The best approach to explaining myself to you and at the same time beginning to argue my case is I believe to offer you one by one a number of specific and telling examples; ones which would be hard for you to disagree with concerning what I suggest are their subliminal statements, and maybe also their attractions to us.


First up: Superhero Movies.


Superhero movies clearly are highly stylised and so have been intensely subjected to ‘angled presentation’ from a deign perspective. Their technical elements include:

  • Much use if CGI
  • Much use of fast action
  • Short shot scenes
  • Close ups
  • Mock-ups of apocalyptic destruction
  • Busy ‘dynamic’ mood music background
  • A super-suit and other ‘hero’ paraphernalia
  • A dominant public role/presence in society
  • Much mayhem and continuous action  

Superhero movies have only surfaced as a trend in the past 20 or 30 years. What is now achievable technically in visual and other effects has been one leading driver of their emergence. But why not the ballet, the opera, etc; which has almost equal potential to benefit likewise from use of technical movie effects?

The answer is obvious; ballet and opera are very much so minority delights and the numbers of their followers are insufficient to fund a use of expensive state of the art equipment skills and personnel to put them onscreen as fully fledged fantasies.

From this observation we can infer that Superhero movies are and have to be popular entertainments; in order for them to be profitable investments for their backers.

Thus these types of movie, them having to be popular, to some extent then they are required to appeal to popular tastes and also at the same time in some degree they also are helping set popular trends. They thus are feeding trends into society as well as subsisting for their enjoyment upon trends already prevalent there. No-one would disagree with this I think.

It is of note that Superhero movies are almost all based on comic book stories and ideas; comic books which once were, in the UK at least, 50 years ago when I was young, almost an exclusive preserve of child or maybe teenaged readers. The important thing is that once these ideas and superheroes appealed almost only to minors who of a course possessed only immature outlooks and behaviours.

A question then arises: why has their audience moved over the years and so broadly into a population which is adult and by the law is considered mature responsible and fully-developed?

Now some great works of art have in the past been buried in the mists of their times;  the works of Vivaldi for instance were ‘rediscovered’ in the 20th century more or less solely at first by Ezra Pound, poet and companion in versifying to the great T S Eliot.

So is this late entry into the popular lists for Superhero movies a belated general public recognition of the quality of those once kid’s-only comic stories?  And this question carries in along with it another related question: Can stuff which was extremely widely read by millions of juniors, and at first intended more or less as only ‘junk’ consumption; rise to a level in a space of 50 years so as to be on a par in artistic value to say The Four Seasons or The Gloria?  Is public perception of their enjoyment and value sufficient for them to be set beside Vivaldi’s works; or is there something missing from this suppositional situation?

You might be beginning to see how this question of design, as it is presently done and enjoyed by us today, bears upon and opens up like a can of worms a host of knotty conundrums to be considered upon?

Had we to say that yes, there remains something yet lacking to fill up the space between the eminence of the works of Vivaldi and the meteoric rise to broad enjoyment of Superhero movies; then we should be in danger, given the former status of these heroes as being as children’s literature, of heading in a direction which suggests a possibility that our peoples in society, and so society itself, has moved towards a rather more callow and immature state of being over the years?

That package of bulleted technical characteristics I marshalled into a list above here is a package which is likely to appeal very much to children; lots of spills and melodrama, action, push-and-shove, colour, lights, busyness and noise; not far off a straight out cartoon show such as the old Hanna Barbra stuff used to be.

(Since the 1970s in UK – and elsewhere, for they come from elsewhere also - cartoons have been considered to be for adult consumption also. Family Guy, The Simpsons, Max Headroom, Spitting Image are just a few.  These too seem to have ‘grown up’ or else their audiences have ‘rejuvenated’?)

This acceptance into the adult fold of Superhero movies and of cartoons has been accompanied by an addition of ‘adult content’ to them. These additions in the main have been of a cynical and amoral kind, brusque and strongly-assured in opposition to and in criticism of what might be termed (a little on the soft side) as being traditional Christian values. These are values which once had been widespread, and paid lip service to out of fears of ostracism, even by that minority who would have had them abolished.  Although today’s world in UK sees these values daily being openly disregarded, rubbished, attempted quashed, and labelled dead, and redundant.

This is happening in– as they would have it – the highbrow press and media, as much as it is in the popular news and views, Christian values are non gratia passé items.

So, nowadays we watch movies and cartoons which once were considered children’s viewing; only with an element added of somewhat tainted and cynical content, specially for we adults to consume.

These cartoons and movies remain very much ‘dressed-up’ in the same manner as they had been ‘dressed up’ formerly for kids – see my list of bullets above.

What then might the adoption by adults of this set of design features mean culturally and socially for us as a people?

Does it mean for instance that we have seen clearly that there is no high or low in art or in behaviour, or in the presentation of elements and so of their design; that all art and all behaviour is AOK unless the law intervenes, or has potential to intervene? As said John Lennon, are we then to say: ‘Whatever gets you through the night”?  Are we now thus liberated from our former restrictions and so have we come to feel and to see that hectic exuberance and erratic behaviour is cathartic and so is able to ease the tensions of the day for us when we watch them on screen?  With nothing in us having been lost or altered?

And that other stuff, such as Vivaldi, let it be good, our crash bang Superhero movies are just as good. John Lennon again ‘Nothing is real; there’s nothing to get up about’?

These examples of Superhero movies and of adult cartoons are just two in common circulation amongst those tens of thousands of patterns for design which are popular, and made popular by us, in the present day. Some more areas are:

  • PC games
  • Fantasy Warrior fiction books
  • Car design
  • Architectural design
  • Advertising of products/services
  • Exotic Holidays/Cruises
  • Technologic Equipment
  • Clothing
  • Partying Peripherals
  • Gambling/Casinos
  • Medicines/Salves etc
  • Treatments
  • Tanning
  • Tattooing
  • Massage
  • Exercise Gyms
  • Sports Equipment
  • Sport in General
  • News and views
  • Paper Magazines
  • TV Shows

All of these things, which together comprise, for most of us, most of our lives, are similarly ‘levelled’ so as to have acquired an acceptance which say 50 years beforehand they did not generally possess in people’s minds.  This acceptance is not a gain of ‘respectability’ nor of a ‘rise in aesthetic or moral value’ of any kind; and indeed all such values as respectability and ethos etc have become very much so no-go areas for us, and are gone.

Instead have come into favour such things as ‘renowned notoriety’ and ‘assured pushy aggressiveness’; and being self-engaged (having “attitude”); and in general being careless of incident (stuff happens), all things now being ‘par for the course’  so that ‘anything goes’, and so on etc. This all together might umbrella-ed under one word: ‘cool’.

I think maybe our prosperity and our relative political freedoms have possibly made us revert so as to have become once again infantile somewhat, and so we have become retrograde in our development as a people.  So much so that once carefully cautious radio stations which would have been prudent about the limits of what might be used in public (swearing, obscenities, grossness, and so on) now let pass some of the most distasteful remarks and options as  being in accord with their standard practices. And allowed in any part of the broadcasting day also

And are we not hypocrites when we stop the ears of our children and scold them for their language and words and behaviours, yet we glibly feel no compunction about ourselves allowing into our consciousness thoughts expressed publicly by others which are appalling and make one feel besmirched even from just having heard them said?

Our design criteria manifestly demonstrate our parlous state. There are the ‘pagan’ architectural lusts for display of personal or else corporate or civic power and for stamping that power into a landscape – the shard, the gherkin and other blemishes.

There is a trend for wearing clothes which are ripped and shabby as being the height of fashion; a trend which shows to me that we have become a people who has forgotten how it was to have to dress in such a fashion because the wealth was not there to back-up one’s folly.  Likewise casinos and gambling are a glitzy and enticingly advertised confidence trick; supported avidly by government for the tax return income it provides the government. These things are simply a tax on the poor; the very persons most adversely influenced by all this ‘return to immaturity’ we have embraced.

The national hysteria, one which has been created by and since orchestrated by commerce and government so as to become for us an adoration of all things sport and sportspersons; this is likewise a wheeze by which vast sums of ordinary people’s money is siphoned off into pockets with too much money in them already.  It is nothing more than a vast diversion from what is far more real urgent and rewarding – which is called life.

Clubs, merchandise, regalia, outfits, followings, collections, publications, clothing, everything sports-centred in garish and scattergun offers and marketing; and all done with a huge ungenerous tongue in cheek by The Big Players in commerce who are using us, abusing us, and laughing up their sleeves at us; thus they rub salt into the wounds.

I sometimes think we ordinary people are merely used as fodder, for our purchasing power and our productivity at work; marshalled by Boards and Chairpersons so as to be mis-educated into being their bankrollers as consumers; and that we are given by them no more or better thought. I feel that they are an insult to us and that we just do not, will not, see that this is so.

Our so-called prosperity – we have lost by it so much by it; so much.