Five years on Australian design from 1995 to 2005

We are raiding the archive of Andrew’s writing projects past and present…

10 years of Australian design (1995 to 2005)
Australian Creative, October 2005

The past, present and future appears to be well mapped in the creative disciplines of architecture, interior, fashion, and product design, yet in advertising and communication design it seems primarily focused in the now. Is this lack of future insights incidental, prophecy or simply a good reason to have a rant?

If you Google search ‘2015’ and ‘graphic design’ on the Internet, there are 30,700 results. Page one: no hints of the future, but universities flogging design courses, design firms flogging design services, or design publications flogging subscriptions. Make a similar search in architecture or fashion and there are dialogues about buildings for changing climates and seasonal ready to wear clothing banks for hire.

Perhaps the lack of future insights reflects the advertising and design industry’s primary function to serve ideas and causes found in architecture, interior, fashion, product design, and commerce. Media guru and academic Marshall McLuhan’s quote, “All advertising advertises advertising”, seems to be not so cynical when considered in this context. Among many notable and quotable McLuhanisms, his disturbed impression of mankind’s shuffling towards the 21st century in the shackles of 19th century perceptions seems appropriate here.

The 1996 Australian Census revealed 19,578 Australian graphic designers; the 2001 Census figures grew to 21,144 designers. Compare these figures to AGDA’s Industry Survey registering 2,500 design firms averaging four people listed in 1997’s Yellow Pages, which exploded to a staggering 5,500 firms registered in 2003 averaging five employees. The numbers tell a curious story of flux in studio sizes and dispute the claim that being big is better. Studios of 12 or more staff appear to be a rarity rather than something to be fostered.

The last decade witnessed a moving feast of new customers, sectors, job descriptions, products and technology. Take a visit to your software cabinet – a graveyard of redundant floppy disks, manuals and bulky packaging. Software that was once valuable, temporarily useful, ends up some time later mostly useless. Go no further than you business card file and take note of the business cards of companies that have changed names, merged, closed shop or reinvented. [We’ve developed a sense of attachment and detachment over the past ten years, a time that can be best described as terrific, challenging and fleeting.]

FutureBrand’s latest edition of ‘Propeller’ seems to agree. It’s lead and only article, ‘Tomorrow’s World: FutureBrand’s perspective on how to monitor and predict future insights’ is a 1,500 word lure with a simple yet extraordinarily loaded projection: expect 2015 to be something unexpected.

If you are left with yet more questions about what the future holds, maybe the past decade will provide some answers.

Ten years ago the drawing table was near extinction from the typical creative studio. Desktop publishing changed the creative space forever. Physical artwork transformed into bits and bytes. Ruling pens, inks, brushes, airbrushes, bromides, and galleys of type – all the components that made artwork became a suite of tools in publishing software. People who specialised in those crafts and skill sets where closed down, retrained and made redundant.

The art director and designer moved from being a curator of the creative process to become a little of all the people he or she used to oversee – the retoucher, typographer, proof reader, finished artist, camera operator and computer operator. A creative process that once relied on convincing presentations, open-minded clients, and a spontaneous process gradually became dulled by zealous research, mock-ups that looked better than the real thing, and an expectation that everything had to perform or perish.

Technology has enabled power to shift from the organization to the individual. In few short years the type design industry has been redefined. An industry that was once dominated by a few powerful companies now has hundreds of players. A prolific body of type design, from the traditional to unconventional, has bloomed. An ancient craft has flourished in less than ten years, resulting in typeface designs in the tens of thousands where once there were only hundreds worldwide. The only downside: bewilderment brought about from the vast choice.

Designers have become chameleons too. Many who were once bound to making shuffling objects on white spaces are exploring new territory. Designers are becoming art directors, artists, film directors, photographers, entrepreneurs, writers, producers, event consultants, business strategists, educators, publishers, parents, rock stars – the seem to be making impressions everywhere.

Amid all these great and new changes, the stock markets open their doors to the general public. A new style of commerce placated the desires of short-term investors and frustrated any form of medium-term to long-term planning. Customers changed, diverted, subdivided, went underground, became affluent and niche, with laptops computers 55 times faster. And all the while new time saving devices promised us more time, yet the list of tasks for an individual to comprehend grew and grew and grew.

Critical communication design theory grew and grew and grew too. Communication design magazines and publications now address the death of the logo, and celebrate new and not so new expressions. Designers have been called to bear arms or the closest writing instrument, by revisiting an international designers manifesto first penned by Ken Garland in England in 1965 and revisited by Rick Poyner in 2000, titled First Thing First. A home grown equivalent was AGDA’s Anti Free Pitching register authored by John Frostell in 2001.

Design associations now serve memberships in the thousands with design excellence programmes, client awareness initiatives, and education resources – to the point that they have become almost bureaucratic. Design-inspired vanity publishing and self-publishing have exploded in print and digital media from simple monologues to concept-based expressions and stories. Design students can start with a basic degree in communication, and continue through to doctorate levels. Conferences, exhibitions, festivals, public forums and design markets have been dreamed up, organised, well attended, reinvented and allowed to become bigger and better every year.

The future

Then we are left with what is next.

Let’s recount Dickens’s opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities which reveals that time is the only thing that moves on; the future is a mystery until fate reveals it. I wonder if this idea is the shackleless future that McLuhan was talking is about. Find prosperity in future by expecting the unexpected and getting on with what you feel is right.

We are living a history that thrives on extremes. Ironically the latest media concept – reality and lifestyle television – may create a community focused on ‘the we’ instead of ‘the me’. The endless stream of reality programs beamed into our lounge rooms is proof of people living and consuming at their best and worst. As the novelty of such programming wears thin, new tolerances and questions are raised, and shifts in thinking take form.

What is the point of treating young people like lab rats? Why do we tolerate and aspire to be like wealthy nymphomaniac airheads? How can we stop countless logging trucks thunder out of Tasmanian old growth forests? Which war on what? Maybe in time Ray Martin will retire, be made to catch a tram, a train or car pool to work, and fit a water tank on his house, too.

Maybe the future is something familiar yet very different. Maybe you are a designer who specialised in designing with paper, in a future where paper isn’t flushed but likened to gold. A future where the client becomes a designer and the designer becomes a new generation of client. The future could be a place where the environment matters, where communities care for each other more, give all they can afford and consume less.

Will advertising and design communication be the same thing in 10 years? A recent statistic in the Good Weekend quietly stated that 8.6 billon tonnes of direct mail fill Australian letterboxes each year and 61% of householders are angered from receiving this material. Is this a sign of change to come?

As a recent lecturer at Swinburne University, I am looking forward to the next generation of creative people making their way into our workforce. Communication students are mixing learning and intuition. They are willing to ask the challenging questions and generate thinking that is more that just making white rectangles pretty. I look forward to them challenging my work and stirring the pot.

The next decade promises to be an exciting time for creative thinkers, both familiar and totally unknown. The challenge of making our way of living sustainable, and sustainable quickly, will require a solution beyond the cause of buying and selling things. It will be another decade calling for more eclectic approaches, and the rewards will be there for those willing to take risks.

I invite you to participate in the wave of new processes as actively as you can. The next 10 years, like the last, promise to be productive, engaging and full of extremes beyond our wildest imaginations – as long as you stay true to being shackleless.

© 2005 Andrew Ashton, Studio Pip and Co.