Monthly Archives: September 2010

What’s Wrong With Good?

Mostly I’d like to use this post as an opportunity to link to this series of essays by graphic designer Frank Chimero, and to say very emphatically, READ THEM! As he writes about his own personal quest to essentially save his sanity by re-evaluating his work–by trying to rediscover what, if anything, is actually good–he offers a lot of insight into much more than just design. He offers a lot of insight into life. Not only is the message relevant, the narrative is enjoyable to read. And taken as a whole, the essays say everything that needs to be said.

Well, almost.

One reason I’m posting his essays here is because they made me think further about something I’ve been pondering anyway. Namely: Why does good sometimes go bad? (Or, more often, just mediocre?) Why is an artist’s, writer’s, designer’s, or musician’s early work–even if not very refined–so often more moving and more powerful than their later work? What goes wrong?

I first began thinking about this question as it relates to musicians. Some of the music I love is a bit obscure, or at least started that way. But across many years, I’ve seen much of it become less obscure–more popular. And as that happens, it often becomes less good. There is something (something that is the opposite of magical) that happens once a work of art seeks to appeal to the masses. Often, it becomes just a watered down version of itself.

And it’s so disappointing.

I could go on a tirade about what the masses love (think: watered down) and why, but I’ll refrain. I’ll refrain, I’ll refrain, I’ll refrain. Because really, it doesn’t matter; it just is.

I’m not even sure if I’m posing this as a question (Why does this happen?), or just making a wandering statement about my observations. But either way, I feel that more often than not, as a maker’s work gains more popularity, something gets lost along the way.

Is it because intentions are more pure in the beginning? Is it the amount of time spent on early work? Is it that passion and authenticity wane?

An unknown artist, with nothing to lose, doesn’t really have a choice but to pursue making what he or she is passionate about. The work can be original, authentic, hopefully unique, maybe even a bit wild or ground-breaking. However, once hit with a bit of fame, notoriety, acclaim–whatever you want to call it–there are expectations to meet and pressures to succumb to. Time pressures, money-making pressures, people-pleasing pressures. Maybe a musician spent years crafting a debut record, and maybe it was a culmination of a life’s work in some ways. If it’s successful, then what? More work is expected, and chances are the process will be forced into a speedier ritual. And chances are, something in the quality or uniqueness will be downgraded a notch or two.

Personally, I think there could be any number of causes, depending on who is the maker in question. But too often, I think it stems from giving the people what they want, from trying to appeal too generally, and from straying from the original passion, intention, purpose, and pleasure that came from making the work.

This is probably a complex issue–one that could be deeply analyzed–and I know I’m only scratching the surface. I’m not delusional enough to think this situation will ever change on a grand scale, but it’s refreshing to see someone like Chimero–undoubtedly a successful young designer–questioning this issue. I, for one, appreciate his willingness to not just accept his own status quo, even if it’s all a result of him being “not a very balanced person.”

It’s okay, Frank. I can relate.

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It’s Just a Spoon Rest

“It’s just a spoon rest; what’s the big deal?!”

“No, no, no! It’s symbolic of so much more; it’s not just a spoon rest!”

Here I give you a snippet of my internal dialogue—the conversation I have with myself after getting really worked up over something so seemingly innocuous as a spoon rest. (Or, I should say, a Pot Clip, as the product in question has so aptly been named—not to be confused with your average spoon rest.)

Maybe the timing was just right. Maybe I was in just the perfect mood, the perfect frame of mind, to be so irritated by…nothing.

Maybe I was still internally dripping and drowning in the sorrow I felt after finishing What Is the What last night, a novel by Dave Eggers that tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee—just one of the more than 27,000 Lost Boys of Sudan. It is a story that is at once tragic and beautiful, full of undying optimism under ridiculously devastating circumstances. And there is no doubt that it forces the reader to be confronted with the excesses we live with—to understand the true basic necessities of life, and of happiness, even.

So the next morning—this morning—when I saw an innocent Twitter post with a picture of the Pot Clip, the dichotomy that my mind was forced to grapple with was, apparently, too much. This is how it goes sometimes: I find myself with excessive amounts of what I’d almost call anger over something like a Pot Clip.

So here we are.

It is—and yet it is not—about the Pot Clip. It’s about what the Pot Clip symbolizes to me. In a nutshell, it epitomizes excess. It symbolizes the items we have at our disposal (literally) to fill our lives with ease, with happiness, with stuff. What does it say about the state of our lives when we put forth the energy, money, time, materials, advertising and marketing dollars, shelf space, world space, head space, etc. necessary to design, manufacture, and sell a product that will stylishly keep us from dirtying a counter with a spoon while we cook?

To me, it says that life is too damn easy.

[I should, in an effort at full disclosure, out myself as someone who experiences mild anxiety over the idea of having too much stuff. I live in a space of about 400 square feet, which is quite small by regional standards—yet not in many other locales. My belongings are pretty spare. It wasn’t always this way, but now that it is, I feel much more free and can’t imagine living any other way. If my cabinets and closets begin to feel too full, I know I must take a step back and rethink The State of My Stuff.]

This scenario, like many, offers a perfect opportunity for me to once again express my love/hate relationship with design. I both love and hate that design infiltrates everything we experience and live with on a daily basis. I love that any argument about how we live, what we live with, where we live, between which walls and under which roof, how we get around, what we eat off of and how we prepare our food—is an argument about design.

Some designer was commissioned to create the Pot Clip; someone thought it was a nifty, and apparently, marketable idea. Turns out it was; the Pot Clip now appears to be sold under numerous different brand names. It comes in different colors, even. Imagine it! Pink, blue, red, green, yellow, black—you can have a Pot Clip in whichever color perfectly correlates with your kitchen or your mood.

The Infamous Pot Clip

It’s nonsense. And it’s wasteful. And I can’t think of it any other way. Are we ever going to stop designing, manufacturing, marketing, selling, and buying ridiculous items like this that will eventually end up in a trash heap?

I think likely not.

My next thought is: What would we all do if we weren’t making stuff like this? From start to finish, think how many people are employed in the entire process of the Pot Clip—from its conceptual birth to its conceptual death in the trash heap.

This is the point at which my brain spins and spins and spins—and I must stop thinking about the Pot Clip.

It’s just too much.

I feel very strongly that there are much better, much more important, much more useful ways for human brain power, creativity, and design skills to exist in this world. Yet sometimes an innocuous item like the Pot Clip tells me that maybe I’m the one being ridiculous. That maybe my undying optimism about our potential as human beings and as designers is ridiculous.

But either way, it is stories such as that of Valentino Achak Deng that keep me grounded. It is stories such as his that allow me to see a Pot Clip as symbolic of so much more. It is stories such as his that keep me from filling my life with needless things.