2011-03-21

Style is the Message

Stylistic trends in design surround us. Shallow is a criticism that is leveled at lazy design where the underlying ethos of the style is forgotten and the forms merely emulated – often for inappropriate things. But style, used correctly, can be powerful. Just as much as “the medium is the message” (Marshall McLuhan), style changes the message too.

Style is emergent – that is style emerges from the decisions of people creating things in the visual realm of a sub-culture. There is rarely a conscious decision to create a style, the creation of style is grassroots not top-down. Even top-down styles are proposals that must gain acceptance from the grassroots creators of visual ephemera. There is not a one-to-one relationship between styles and a sub-culture. Just as sub-cultures do not have black and white boundaries, neither does style.

Fashion is the style that is in now. Fashion comes about because of the human need for novelty and newness. That means styles that are overused become tired. But style can have a phoenix like life cycle where an out style is recycled with a modern twist as “retro”.

The stages that style moves through are: emerging, now, cliché, kitsch, forgotten, retro. Emerging styles are those that are beginning to gain traction but are not yet main-stream within their sub-culture. Now are the current main-stream accepted styles. Once a now style starts to become over-used it loses the power of its ethos and newness as it becomes cliché. Eventually the cliché becomes kitsch – something humorous to poke fun at then the style is forgotten. Style can remain forgotten for quite some time before it becomes the now retro style. Retro is a nostalgic nod to the past that re-interprets the old ethos of the sub-culture in the terms of now.

As the sub-culture changes the style needs to evolve also or it risks becoming out of date. The clothing fashion industry as long understood that creators must always look forward. Creations have a life-time that extends from creation into the future. A good design will stay “now”, or “in fashion” throughout its intended life-time. Simply copying the “now” style of today means that it will become cliché sooner.

Why does style work? Style is familiarity. Style contains the visual cultural markers that help an audience determine if the message is for them. It is the uniform or the tribal dress that betrays outsiders in disguise to the sub-culture insiders. Style contains the visual passwords that determine the authenticity of the message’s voice. Style is the “spoon full of sugar that helps the medicine go down” (Mary Poppins).

Provided the style is authentic then it can ease a message’s passage to a target audience. By referencing the works of other creations in the visual sub-culture a new creation can place itself loyally within that sub-culture.

More than just easing the acceptance of a message, style also abbreviates the ethos and messages of a sub-culture. Therefore, style is a constant reinforcement of sub-cultural values

Shallow style results from inauthentic misinterpretations of the visual codes. A good designer should seek to understand a style, the ethos it represents, and the relationship it has with its sub-culture before attempting to create in that style.