It is often said that good design is able to stand the test of time. Designers are constantly trying to create timeless design. One of the most well-known, self-proclaimed ‘timeless’ designs is the typeface Helvetica. Helvetica got rid of all unnecessary details in order to achieve the ultimate, neutral form — in order to strip the design of all meaning and make it multi-interpretable.
Whether Helvetica really is timeless, will forever remain unknown. But can timelessness be achieved in the first place? Is timeless design even something we would want to achieve?
Before Helvetica graphic design solely consisted of ‘positive space’ filled with handwriting and serifs, oversaturated imagery and lots of text. According to Michael Beirut, Helvetica cleared away the advertisement clutter of the 1950s.┼— Helvetica. Directed by Gary Hustwit. UK, 2007. However, what would Helvetica be if there was no awareness of the common graphic design aesthetic prior to it? How could Helvetica even exist without the history that preceded it? Every design — even if it claims not to be — is a child of its time. It will always be rooted in and built on whatever tradition or history came before. It might rebel against it, it might idolize it, but it will always somehow be related to it. And therefore design (or everything, really) fundamentally cannot be timeless, since it is based on that very time.
Besides, design cannot be a thing on its own — it is not independent. A design will always be shaped and changed by its creator. Likewise, this creator (whether that be a designer, a dancer or a baker) will always be a human, shaped by his youth, his cultural background, his experiences and his struggles. And those things are all based on time. A design always has roots, because its designer always has.┼Maybe timelessness could solely exist within the inhumane, artificial intelligent realm of problem-solving — but that is a discussion for another day.
To go even further, a design is a material thing. It is form, shape, structure, substance. And — to take a more scientific approach to the matter — form,┼Here ‘form’ used synonymous to ‘modernist design’: after all, the modernist slogan “form follows function” states that form is synonymous to modernist design. in its broadest sense, is nothing but a (visual) incentive that triggers an (emotional) response. This response is where the meaning of the design is conveyed: the response can feel good or bad, but it will always be some sort of emotion, expression or interpretation. The very fact that design is for example visible or tangible will therefore fundamentally trigger an emotional response: it will by definition convey meaning. However, meaning is exactly what modernists didn’t want their designs to convey. Or, as Massimo Vignelli said: “Type shouldn’t be expressive, the message should be.” ┼— Helvetica. Directed by Gary Hustwit. UK, 2007. But if — for the sake of timelessness (or, how the modernists described it: neutrality) — a design should be meaningless, how can it still be a design? Only no design (something that cannot be seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted) will trigger no response and therefore be meaningless.
As already mentioned above, meaning — or value, according to the Cambridge Dictionary — can be found in the viewer’s response to the design. Thus the value of a design is not in itself synonym to the value that the designer attaches to it. Or, as the saying goes: after a design is finished and published, it is not yours anymore. The interpretation of the viewer will change the value of the design. Therefore one design can have multiple meanings in different contexts and with different viewers. So even if timelessness was a value that could be triggered by a design, this timelessness (as one of many values) would never be experienced by everyone, since every design triggers a unique emotional response in every individual and will therefore have a different meaning/value for everyone.
This is also what happened to Helvetica. At first many people experienced Helvetica as a fresh breath of air, as basic and neutral, simply because they didn’t know any better than the old, crowded and colorful way of graphic design. Helvetica started to gain a following and in no time Helvetica’s popularity increased and started to appear everywhere — corporate identities, public signage, you name it. Designers that grew up in this Helvetica-dominated visual culture were used to typography being simple and straightforward and associated Helvetica with normality, boredom, warnings and rules.┼— Helvetica. Directed by Gary Hustwit. UK, 2007. In this case overuse of the typeface rapidly downgraded its value and reduced the amount of people that associated it with neutrality.
To wrap it up, it is by definition impossible for a design to obtain a status of timelessness. But even if it was possible, timelessness would mean that a design would be stripped off every identity or spirit it could have possessed. Someone would never be consciously experiencing design. We would feel touched nor bored, humble nor annoyed. If in a utopian world every form, every piece of design would be a timeless one, maybe our spirit would be stripped off too. We would never feel a thing.
And after all, isn’t a touch of spirit what we are trying to achieve as designers? Isn’t that the very reason of a designer’s job being as fulfilling as it is? Don’t we want to touch our audience, trigger something and stir up the ordinary? I hereby advocate a world in which design is soaked with timefulness — a world in which cultural references, historical and traditional perspectives and time-specific aesthetic choices are applauded; a world in which design can dazzle and inspire and annoy and bore, for glorifying and criticizing design will strengthen both the designer, the design and the audience.
© Merle Findhammer.