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  • Writer's pictureKatie Hughes

Ephemerality in Design

I wake up to the sound of distant pounding on the street below me - there is construction going on - a large banner scrawled with the name of the building company hangs loosely against a chain link fence to let me know to whom I owe my waking ire. When I get out of bed, I am met with the daily morning greeting from my toothpaste tube, covered in red and blue images and words, mingled in an early morning embrace. When I shower, a cacophony of voices, in the form of different fonts, calls out to me from the mixed plastic cadre of shampoo bottles and lotions strewn across the tub. When I leave the apartment, the sidewalk is littered with receipts and plastic bags and trinkets and flyers and business cards that each have a message for me, for someone once, for the empty sky now.


Design is all around us, and unless you find yourself in the most remote natural landscape, without so much as a trailhead sign to guide your way, you will always have spots of color to spark your interest and fight for your attention. From the tiniest fortune cookie slip, to the electrified billboards of Times Square, images of mingled typography and imagery are calling out to you, asking you to consider a proposition, buy a product, or change some part of your way of life. Design is cacophonous, ubiquitous, and often overwhelming when seen all together like this, in the slick mosaic we call a city, but it’s not beyond untangling.


I want to confess an anxiety of mine - seeing so many designed things everywhere makes me itchy, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. When I see a sidewalk littered with refuse, more man-made than natural, my skin crawls a little bit, no doubt due to a childhood spent performing community river clean ups in my home town of Los Angeles. When I pass through downtown and see the millions of cheap plastic toys and stuffed animals and smoking paraphernalia and clothing, I feel a sense of unease wash over me. This is my domain, I reassure myself, I am a designer and I am a part of this swell of objects. But something has never sat quite right with me about that.


When I was in grad school, my thesis was to create a streetwear brand that would convey messages about science, to effectively “make science cool” by dressing it in a veneer of hot graphics and snappy animated ads. The concept excited me, and still does, but my research into the fashion industry, specifically fast fashion, left an unsavory taste in my mouth, that even the most well-designed and advertised toothpastes haven’t been able to remove.


Now, I am the first person to be accused of excess - I spent all my pocket money as a kid in the pursuit of my burgeoning fashion interest at shops like Forever 21 and H&M, before giants like SHEIN even existed. I love books, and my room is less of a bedroom and more of a library of sculptures formed by stacked tomes. I have too many water bottles I never use, bought for their beautiful colors more than for a real need of hydration, and fifty pairs of shoes I could never possibly wear as much as they deserve. I am a consumer, and someone very easily swayed by a beautiful pattern of cloth or a bold shape of a product.


But as a creator, I feel unease when I approach the thought of creating things to go back out into the world. Why? I wondered as I printed my t-shirts by hand for my thesis. Why do I feel so incredibly unable to make art objects to share with the world, when that is the very nature of design in this era? This article delves into that very question, my inability to form an initial answer, and where things stand nowadays in terms of attention, ephemera, design, and the world at large.


It’s worth noting that when the word “ephemeral” is used, I immediately think of two other words - “permanent” and “waste.” This isn’t a screed on environmentalism. I advise the reader to allocate their attention to Greta Thunberg for that kind of thing. No, this is an analysis of the cultural impact of ephemerality in design, and the wastefulness of physical objects is a mere background note, looming large and loud though it may be.


When we talk about something like this, we have to remember that design, specifically graphic design, has just taken a monumental shift in the last fifty or so years. Whereas graphic design used to be entirely in the realm of the physical, as everything else was, now design occupies a split residency between the physical and the digital. While the digital is even more ephemeral, arguably, it also has more permanence in a sense that we shall see shortly.


Graphic design, in its commercial sense, came about in tandem with the creation of large-scale posters advertising products, services, carnivals, circuses, movies, books, and just about anything else you could buy. Pinning down the exact lineage of graphic design isn’t within the purview of this article, but suffice it to say that while humans have been decorating and adorning our clothes and walls and environments with “designs” since the caveman days, the kind of ephemeral design I’m discussing here is the product of the 1400s onwards, let’s say.


The preciousness of design objects like bowls for eating out of and sculptures to pray to spans every continent on the planet. There is a beauty to every day objects being carved and painted with decorative patterns. It’s human to want to play with and use beautiful things, I don’t believe that is too much of a stretch to say. We have thousands of years worth of pottery and patterned clothing, and mosaics to prove that we have always loved art and design in some sense, no matter where we have lived and communed on this planet of ours.


So design itself - the making of pattern and combining of word and imagery and beauty - isn’t really the thing I’m challenging here. Rather, I am concerned with the way in which a production of things, beautified by a slick application of good (or bad) graphic design, has lead to a meteoric rise in these very things all around us - both design objects themselves and the designed ads that market the objects.


When I think of a Byzantine piece of jewelry, or an ancient Chinese jade cup, or an African mask, I think of permanence, not because these objects cannot be broken (they can be fragile due to their age and composition) but because they were created with the intention of lasting importance. A poster advertising the new spring fashion line up for a brand isn’t intended to last - it’s intended to capture your attention today, and that’s it. It will be torn down in summer for the next cycle, if not sooner to be replaced by a poster for some other brand selling some other thing.


And this is all built into the system nowadays - instead of making a dress that could last you specifically 20 years to a lifetime, clothes are being made en masse as part of a global market that both makes more money than most industries and pollutes more than most industries. Look up the statistics on how much fabric is thrown away by the fashion industry, and you’ll rethink your closet. Look up the statistics on food waste, electronic battery waste, and everything in between, and you will begin to see how unstable our patterns of consumption are.


But the doom and gloom isn’t the focus here - the focus is that this mindset of making things specifically not to last and then adding an additional layer of designed advertisements on top of this may be healthy for the market, but probably bad for our brains and the earth.


Moving from the realm of the physical to the realm of the digital, we see an exponential explosion in this kind of marketing scheme. While the digital advertisements on social media and every website that hosts ads are less damaging than physical ones (except perhaps when you consider that every digital byte has a footprint in terms of electricity consumption which also creates pollution - consider the vast wastefulness of crypto mining in this vein), they are more damaging in terms of the lost hours we all give away freely to the internet.


I see the trend of social media brain drain as an extension of the physical realm of marketing and ads. Your phone basically places you at the center of Times Square, for hours on end, without you even noticing. It’s addicting, and that’s the point. But while we don’t see piles of refuse from this seemingly innocuous form of advertising, we do see other fringe issues that really amount to a great deal of psychological intrigue. Namely, because advertising online is extremely lucrative, and you can now see an ad, click it, and immediately be redirected to the website selling the product (instead of the old days where you had to watch an ad on TV or see a billboard and actively remember the product to go seek it out physically and buy it), there is nothing but an incentive to churn out new ads every single day, which then re-incentivizes companies to make more products and the cycle gets worse and worse.


But I don’t care so much about the actual shopping cycle. I care about the ways in which making design like this cheapens the beauty of things. There’s a very human, very visceral desire to sit quietly with a cup of tea in a beautifully honed mug, on a beautifully carved chair, and admire a garden intentionally designed and crafted by hand over months if not years. And while as a Los Angeles native, I am not opposed to loving the dirty concrete traffic jam that is my environment, I do feel a twang of desire for a more slow, beautiful, intentional way of being the older I get.


The instagram ads make me yearn to untangle my true love - the love of drawing and pattern and beautiful letterforms - from this abusive relationship it has entered into with commercial marketing. And before we assume that it was instead birthed from this very desire to sell products and make a quick buck, let us not forget the cave paintings, the pottery, and the wonder of all the slow objects that have come before.

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