Anti-design Cont. (the issue of irony)

Is irony good or bad? This may seem like a pointless, random, and somewhat pretentious question, but I believe it is actually the paramount question for designers of my generation. First, what is irony exactly? According to the dictionary it is “An expression of meaning, often humorous or sarcastic, by use of language of a different or opposite tendency.” A simple example of irony in design is Andrew Stafford’s plastic ‘Swiss’ door wedge. The door wedge looks like a wedge of cheese, get it? Haha.

A little further along the irony spectrum we have Type Life magazine. This magazine displays a number of experimental typefaces by Swiss Typefaces which are often parodies of classic faces. The magazine intentionally breaks aesthetic norms and takes some understanding of standard design tropes to appreciate. In other words you have to know what’s right to appreciate what is intentionally wrong.

But what is maximally ironic? Finding something that could be considered maximally ironic is not as easy as it sounds. What defines maximally ironic? In my mind, a piece of maximally ironic design would be an item entirely removed from its initial purpose. Perhaps a car that doesn’t run, doesn’t look like a car, and is actually an apple; but it is presented as a ‘car?’ This object would rely entirely on the viewer’s interpretive skills and cultural understanding to fill in all the blanks about what the design means. Another example could be a personal website that has no information on it at all, it is simply just a blank page. No one has tried that before, right? How original! Remember, this website would be slightly less ironic if it was for a maid service, and the blankness of the website was perhaps an immediate and honest reference to how clean your house would be after their services. Maximal irony is entirely cryptic. An auto-biography of only blank pages. The most ironic piece of design would perhaps not be touched at all, any human touch would create a level of error and honesty not congruent with pure irony. I don’t know of any items that have gone this far, but I have a few close examples here.

Lucio Fontana Painting.

Kazimir Malevich “Black Square”

Leonhard Laupichler Designer Website

Although these examples may seem deeply removed from the mainstream, in reality, they are not. Many of the leading cultural influencers are becoming increasingly ironic. From musicians like Bo Burnham who came to popularity through his albums “words words words” and “what”, to Off-Whites fashion designer Virgil Abloh’s notorious Air Max shoes which say “air” on them, to TV shows like Family Guy and South Park and movies like Deadpool which shower their viewers with cultural references; Irony is a central part of our generation’s culture, and seems to only be increasing as the endless pursuit of “new” continues. So is irony good or bad? Well, it depends what you believe. Irony has historically been used as a means for expressing social dissatisfaction and subverting the powers that be. This is not necessarily a bad thing- take for example posters made in Nazi occupied Netherlands making fun of their captures. The problem is that irony has no intrinsic value. Although it may dethrone a tyrant, it offers no solution in and of itself. Irony sits behind a cool and removed wall and criticism. This is where we designers must question ourselves. How bad do we think the state of the world really is? Where do we draw the line?

For me personally, stumbling upon the designer Leonhard Laupichler’s personal website was like a breath of fresh air. In a sea of noisy poorly designed web pages, here was someone who had the confidence to simply type his information and click publish. But this website was more than ironic, it also shows perfect organization, order, and legibility- qualities that prove the website to be objectively good, as well as subjectively. In a postmodern state of pure irony, nothing is objective. All meaning is relative, so there is no point striving for those lofty moral and objective goals. Embracing the classic tenants of modernism seems equivalent to having faith in the overall good nature of the world. Modernism says: all you can do is try your best, whereas postmodern irony says: what's the point. Co-founder of the Design Museum Stephen Bayley described purely ironic design as “the inappropriate use of design language for its own sake.” It is essentially a worship of intelligence and cultural comprehension, it provides nothing in the way of genuine improvement.

So what is the solution? Is it possible to go back to sleep and forget all the irony and cynicism we have consumed? No, I don’t think so. But I think we can return back to a state of something like modernism and re-embrace cheesy, sincere, and most of all vulnerable values. I think the late writer David Foster Wallace put it best when he said “hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is some kind of fear of being really human.” We cannot outsmart life with our design, we’ve gotta live it.