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Better to Burn Out than to Fade Away

Looking for patterns in the space between disciplines.

Design is now a profession. We have conventions, standards, guidelines, metrics, and support groups.

As design continues to earn more credibility in the corporate world, some designers have rejected a standard professional path, perhaps fearing that their creativity might be impaired by banal corporate groupthink. I recently interviewed a young designer who preferred to be described as a graphic artist – not a "designer" at all. And certainly more artist than businessperson.

I know a talented person named Chuck Anderson. Chuck specializes in creating photo-manipulated imagery for recognizable consumer brands. I like his work, but to me Chuck is more stylist and illustrator than designer.

Photo illustration by Chuck Anderson

Photo illustration by Chuck Anderson

What's interesting to me – besides the impressive invention of his personal brand, "No Pattern" – is the implied rejection of patterns. The thought being that that patterns are bad, or boring, or trite. I once worked with a woman who was very impressed by a firm which promoted the value of an "anti-grid" in graphic design. Like antimatter in physics, this sounds exciting, but I have a hard time understanding what "anti-grid" means.

Recently I learned that the TSA deliberately avoids patterns to throw off would-be terrorists. It's why, despite your best efforts to optimize your chances of getting through airport security quickly, they throw you off by asking you to do it differently each time. Of course, the TSA is looking for patterns. Patterns can be understood and taken advantage of. But "no pattern" can't be copied – it's never the same thing twice. It's not about clearly, accessibility, repeatability, or performance – it's about individuality, autonomy, and freedom.

Like many creative people, I have seasonal love affairs with other people's work. Sometimes they're great stylists, but too often they're one trick ponies. When someone first asked me if I had heard of Chuck Anderson, I thought they meant Charles Anderson , a designer who first made a mark with 1950s style clip art. Charles Anderson is a very talented artist, producing an incredible catalog of work. So Charles may be more designer than Chuck, at least in my book. Still, Charles is less like design icon Buckminster Fuller than pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.

CSA Image by Charles Anderson Design

CSA Image by Charles Anderson Design

I don't know if consummate pop artist Andy Warhol's infamous quip about the future, when everyone will be famous for 15 minutes , applies. I do know that many styles fall out of favor in what feels like 15 minutes, and relying on styling alone requires seasonal reinvention. In fact, Madonna – and now perhaps Lady Gaga – may be the most popular stylists of our time. Both of them have made it a chief objective to change styles every 15 minutes.

Patterns are our way of making sense of the world. Identifying and illuminating patterns is a big part of what designers do. Alfred North Whitehead said that "style is the ultimate morality of mind." I believe designers have always been influenced by artists and vice versa. In the big tent for design, there is room for both artists and stylists, thinkers and doers, designers and business people. 

We should look for patterns in the spaces between these disciplines.

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