Communication Design:

Not too long ago I received an email from a member of the CD community. This member of the CD community was a she as she happened to be; not a he, but a she. Honestly, it really doesn't matter to me, but anyway, that is beside the point. The point is that she was inquiring of my kinsfolk up in our neck of the woods for help, advice and information concerning the creation of an online music store. As such, I was more than happy to inform her that her attempt to make an online music store was completely misguided and naive. I pointed out that with the exception of Apple's online music store, none of them turn a profit. I pointed out that Apple only appears to turn a profit, when in fact they are really only making about 1 cent for every MP3 sold. I also pointed out that the online music store was just a devilish ploy to sell more iPods. Yes, iPods... hardware... that's where the real money is. I told her that Sony's hardware division makes $60 billion more a year than their music division and that the Sony corporation was actually encouraging file-sharing to their music division's dismay. Yes, I pointed out that an online music store was like smoke in the water and a fire in the sky. Then I suggested that she construct a small MP3 player. Needless to say, I never heard back from her. After all, you kind folk in CD do not design and construct MP3 players. No, you design fancy graphical displays on already existing technology. At best, you design the look of the interface. That is why it is irksome when rumors float around saying that you are dissatisfied with the fact that we get computers and brand new Eames chairs, which first of all aren't Eames chairs and secondly, which is none of your business. It does not matter if your department makes better web pages and broadcast design work. You can have your web design and your broadcast design. On a whole, those folk in our neck of the woods that are only concerned with questions of aesthetics (in existing and tired mediums no less) are a marginal and dull group who secretly get snickered at behind their back. Basically, I bring up the MP3 player and the web store to point out that we are not in the business of creating aesthetic pleasing interfaces for tired business-models. No, we are in the business of defining problems and addressing them. That is why you don't see many MP3 web stores coming out of our neighborhood. It is because we know better than to flog dead horses. Anyway, the point I am trying to make over and over is that we are concerned with defining problems and creating the tools necessary to resolve them. We are not concerned with making a really well designed whatever on the already existing medium. Unless of course, making a really well designed whatever on an existing medium is necessary for resolving our initial problem. It really comes down to a fundamental difference on our outlook on reality. There are those that design the tools, create the ideas and influence the future; and then there are those that take those tools and use them to make stuff look pretty. You see, I hate to bring McLuhan into this and I'm sure an argument can be made against what I'm about to bring up and all, but I would hold true that to a large extent that the "Medium is the message." Honestly, I think Baudrillard, as well, made a good case for the fundamental importance of the medium itself, albeit for slightly different reasons of course. Anyway, that is beside the point. The point of the matter is that any pretty, little, well laid-out, pictures you can come up with, only play second fiddle to the already existing medium. Yes, you are undoubtedly better than us at web design, but you will most likely never design and implement anything to rival the web (with all of its obvious hypertext shortcomings and its push to turn all of its content into a gated corporate community for little more than the creation of online music stores that don't make money). Yes, you will make better communication design work, but once again that is simply an outmoded medium and good for little more than producing spectacle that reinforces that established order that sells us stuff we don't need. As far as enacting proactive social change or shaping the world, I question your department's ability. You are communication design after all. All you do is communicate. Where does the dissemination of information get us? I am aware and you are aware. You have communicated this information to me a million times before? Now what? Well, you may say, that we are living in the information age. Information is the most important resource there is. Information is commodity and commodity is business and business makes the world go round. The problem with that is that information has the nasty tendency of wanting to be free. Yes, information is culture. Information is the story's we tell ourselves about ourselves. In other words, when it comes down to it, no one can truly own the imaginary currency of a dynamic collective culture. I keep bringing up the online music store because it really is a precursor of things to come. I can envision a day in the not so distant future in which people buy things not so much because they care about the brand, but rather because the thing looks nice and is functional. Have you ever been to China and visited the electronics market or really any market for that matter? If you have, you would noticed that in the largest developing market the world has ever seen, people are buying things based more on the basis of design and functionality. Yes, they're basically buying design and technology. They are not buying a brand image or an idea. There are hundreds of brands flooding their markets and no one really gives any particular one much notice. Ultimately, they are buying a well-designed, functional, tool. And in summation, for the sake of repetition and drilling the idea on home, they are buying design and technology. That is why we are getting the chairs that are very nice and all (but not Eames chairs). That is why we get the computers. That is why our lab gets redesigned every summer. That is why people ultimately like us better. Much like China, we are the future. However, don't worry, there will be plenty of jobs available for your people to design the sharp look of our interfaces. I am sure we will have jobs available for web and broadcast designers, even if the jobs don't fit into that arena. We may have to train you on the current tools and ideology, but I'm sure we will tolerate you enough to keep you around for the sake of designing visual presentation on the ever increasingly rare occasions when screen-based and print-based design presentation work will be needed.

Randy Sarafan