i recently saw a lecture in which a large design studio showcased a huge range of research and design solutions for converse and "all stars" in particular. it is probably just my personal background and beliefs clouding my judgement, but the more i watched this presentation, the more i because nauseous about the careful scrutiny and subsequent commodification of alternative/youth/creative/rebellious culture. being in the punk/hardcore scene for many years showed me clearly the difference between authentic expressions of an alternative view of society/culture and inauthentic/prepackaged ones. this typically happens in the form that this design studio engaged in -- understand the audience, design some campaign featuring your "solution" that embodies the correct brand attributes which mirror the audience's attitudes, attach it to your product, and sell those attributes/product back to the audience. not cool at all. now as i said before, it may just be my own sensitivity to this issue and others don't find fault with it. in an attempt at objectivity, i asked my wife -- a long-time chuck taylor wearer -- why she repeatedly chose to purchase those shoes.she mentioned first the associations with her youth, which involved punk rock, skateboarding, etc. next she mentioned (correctly) that the shoes have an association with counterculture and she identifies with that, so she continues to signify her cultural associations by wearing those shoes. that's all fine and dandy and i don't have a problem with any of those reasons. i guess it's when the company decides to actively push that angle in trying to sell more shoes that it becomes problematic. the imagery and video i saw in the presentation included a canvas bag with "revolution" stencilled in red on it, guys skateboarding, people playing music shows, raw rock 'n' roll soundtracks, etc, etc. what i think is amusing about the studio's "understanding" of the audience, as thorough as it is, is that anyone that is serious about nearly any of the subjects they tried to associate themselves with, would have a huge problem with the product. any serious skater, except maybe an old school dude, would never skate in chucks these days. anyone serious about social/political activism or revolution would be unlikely to wear chucks because nike owns them, they are not sustainably made, they don't pay their workers a living wage, etc. but maybe that superficial understanding of "rebellion" is exactly what appeals to converse's target market -- those who think they are being rebellious by wearing a particular brand of anything. so what do you think? why do you wear chucks? why not? what do you think of their association with counterculture, whether propagated by culture itself or by designers, marketers and the corporation? is the sale of rebellion tatamount to heresy?
i recently had a lovely lunch and conversation with my summer intern, logan smith. we were talking about all that dreamy naive stuff that design could do to improve the world and logan mentioned that he wants to use design to help people. a noble cause, and a goal that i share, which i guess explains why we're working together this summer. i got to thinking later on, "what does that mean exactly?", because it can mean really different things to different people. we also have to ask more specifically, "help people do what?" value judgments quickly come into play as to what causes are worthy -- the comprehensive identity design for the third reich helped the nazis effectively add to their ranks, but can also help someone navigate the home ownership process or compare the ecological footprints of competing products. sure, design can help us select a brand of frozen food, but is that just a rationalization of the profession's status quo? by "help" in that sense, do we really mean "persuade"? and, really, do we need more people to help us with those types of decisions. there are plenty of designers out there ready and willing to shoot sexy food shots and all that, but not that many really willing to take on the thankless tasks of educating or informing in ways that are truly needed or beneficial for society. but the major point here is that it's up to each individual to determine what causes are worthy of design help, or what audiences are in most need of our help. a few questions may prove helpful in thinking about those issues:
- am i helping someone to become more thoughtful?
- am i helping in their education?
- am i helping them make better decisions?
- am i helping increase health, well-being, equality, justice, (insert your preferred value here)?
i just thought everyone would like to know that today i received an email from someone apparently named "pancake". my life is now complete.
the other day i drove through one of those mega-huge 8-lane intersections that car-crazy johnson county is known for, when i saw what i thought (and i indeed verified) was a crazy dude in a bright orange shirt dancing around on the street corner with a fake guitar. at first glance this looked like any other "free spirit" getting their groove on in public, probably talking aloud to themselves about the arrival of the mothership. to the contrary, i deduced after a couple of seconds of gawking while driving in heavy traffic that this was indeed a gainfully employed person making a public fool out of themselves for what is likely less than a living wage. to be more specific, the guitar was made to look like a pizza, which was actually kinda cool, but i digress. this is not the first time i have seen such ridiculous spectacles for employment. some wacky tax company in kansas city has people dress up like the statue of liberty and wave at potential tax customers driving down the street, and i think i've seen the actual little caesar's dude more than once on a street corner. there are other characters that currently escape my memory. i don't think i need to go into too much detail about how sad and degrading this situation must be, and what a cheap marketing ploy it is, but to make my point clear, indulge me a bit if you will. in a system of veritable wage slavery, suffering a part time job is torturous enough. at full-time hours, these jobs do not produce a living wage (enough compensation to pay rent, bills, food, transport, insurance, etc) and are often meaningless drudgery to most employees. i say "veritable wage slavery" because people desiring a "normal" life are forced to conform to such a system to survive with some level of comfort. what realalternative is there? back to the point. a normal part-time job at little caesars is enough pain without adding the humiliation of dancing around wildly in public with a guitar announcing $5 pizzas or whatever special it said. maybe that dude enjoyed it, but i just felt embarrassed and mad for his sake. i felt mad at little caesar's for feeling that this is a smart marking strategy (but maybe it is, which is sad also) -- smart enough to justify those kind of shenanigans. i feel mad at a system/situation that causes people to feel like they need to subject themselves to that kind of a job to pay the bills. i can't decide if it's more sustainable or compassionate to have that guy making a fool of himself, or for me to get a pile of pizza mailers in my mailbox each week. that shouldn't be pondered anyway because little caesar's will do both of course. the final issue i have with this kind of marketing ploy is that it's dangerous. i gawked most of the way through the busy intersection trying to figure out what the mini-spectacle was all about. hard telling how many other people did the same thing while talking on their cell phones and punching in gps coordinates. [ an article on a similar situation in sioux city iowa. i don't care if the guy seems to enjoy it; it still reeks of exploitation to me. ]