Curse of The “D” Word

Do you make things look nice? Do you spend more time worrying about nuance and aesthetics than substance and meaning? Do you fiddle with style while ignoring the big picture? If your answers are yes, yes, or yes, then you are a decorator.Being a decorator is not how graphic designers necessarily want to perceive themselves. But what’s the big deal? Is anything fundamentally wrong with being a decorator? Although Adolf Loos, an architect, proclaimed ornament as a sin in his essay, Ornament and Crime, an attack on late-nineteenth century Art Nouveau, in truth decoration and ornamentation are no more sinful than purity is supremely virtuous.

Take for example the Psychedelic Style of the late 1960s that was smothered in flamboyant ornamentation (indeed much of it borrowed from Loos’ dreaded Art Nouveau). Nonetheless, it was a revolutionary graphic language used as a code for a revolutionary generation — which is exactly the same role Art Nouveau played seventy years earlier with its vituperative rejection of antiquated 19th-century academic verities. Likewise, Psychedelia’s immediate predecessor, Push Pin Studios, from the late 1950s through the 1970s, was known for reprising passé decorative conceits. In the context of the times, it was a purposeful and strategic alternative to the purist Swiss Style that evolved into drab Corporate Modernism, which had rejected decoration (and eclectic quirkiness) in favor of bland Helvetica. In their view, content and meaning were not sacrificed but rather illuminated and made more appealing.

Anti-decorative ideological fervor to the contrary, decoration is not inherently good or bad. While frequently applied to conceal faulty merchandise and flawed concepts, it nonetheless can enhance a product when used with integrity — and taste. Decorators do not simply and mindlessly move elements around to achieve an intangible or intuitive goal: rather, they optimize materials at hand to tap into an aesthetic allure that instills a certain kind of pleasure.

Loos and likeminded late-19th and early-20th Century design progressives argued that excessive ornament existed solely to deceive the public into believing they were getting more value for their money — when in fact they were being duped through illusionary conceits. These critics argued that Art Nouveau (and later Art Deco or Postmodern) decoration on buildings, furniture and graphic design rarely added to a product’s functionality or durability; it also locks the respective objects in a vault of time that eventually renders everything obsolete. Decoration was therefore the tool of obsolescence.

However, decoration also plays an integral role in the total design scheme. It is not merely wallpaper. (And what’s wrong with beautiful wallpaper, anyway?) Good decoration is that which enhances or frames a product or message. The Euro paper currency, with its colorful palette and pictorial vibrancy, is much more appealing than the staid U.S. dollar. While the “greenback” is comprised of ornate rococo engravings, the U.S. bills lack the visual pizzazz of the Euro. Of course, visual pizzazz is irrelevant if one is clutching a score of $100 bills: putting the respective face values of the currencies aside, the Euro is an indubitably more stimulating object of design because it is a decorative tour-de-force with a distinct function. One should never underestimate the power of decoration to stimulate the users of design.

Decoration is a marriage of forms (color, line, pattern, letter, picture) that does not overtly tell a story or convey a literal message, but serves to stimulate the senses. Paisley, herringbone or tartan patterns are decorative yet nonetheless elicit certain visceral responses. Ziggurat or sunburst designs on the façade of a building or the cover of a brochure spark a chord even when type is absent. Decorative and ornamental design elements are backdrops yet possess the power to draw attention, which ultimately prepares the audience to receive the message.

It takes as much sophistication to be a decorator as it does to be a wire-framer. A designer who decorates yet does not know how to effectively control, modulate or create ornamental elements is doomed to produce turgid work. The worst decorative excesses are not the obsessively baroque borders and patterns that are born of an eclectic vision (like the vines and tendrils that strangulated the typical Art Nouveau poster or page) but the ignorant application of dysfunctional doodads that are total anachronisms. A splendidly ornamented package, including the current crop of boutique teas, soaps and food wrappers, may cost a little more to produce but still have quantifiable impact on the consumers with discerning tastes who buy them (and who sometimes keep the boxes after the product is used).

There are many different kinds and degrees of decoration and ornamentation. While none of it is really sinful, much of it is trivial. And yet to be a practitioner of this kind of design does not a priori relegate one to inferior status branded with a scarlet (shadowed, inline and bifurcated) letter “D.”

Some designers are great because they are exemplary decorators.

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