I'm OK, You're OK. Design in the age of diminished expectations

by Michael Rock
1996

Ok Cans 02 1995

In a culture with an appetite as voracious as ours for new consumer experiences, it was only a matter of time before we would get The Lab - the world's very first "anti-mall" in Orange County California, the spiritual home of Ronald Reagan. Shunning the glossy, faux-elegant apportionments of the standard mall, The Lab offers suburbanites intimate shopping at Urban Outfitters and Tower Alternative (the giant record store chain's grunge boutique) — amidst the industrial decay of an inner-city fantasy.
"Malls are all marble and buffed out..." but project developers proclaim The Lab is "not about marble and fountains. We're taking the warehouse concept and giving it a very raw, very non-slick look." Designed by Ron Pompei of New York (who is also the architect for the Urban Outfitters chain), the anti-mall is built into a crumbling factory space which has been left romantically distressed: exposed structural elements, faux peeling paint, and recycled architectural features carefully arranged to give the impression of natural decay. Fountain, palm tree and bland central sculpture — the traditional mall accoutrements — are replaced by heaps of leaking chemical drums, a vegetable patch, and a listing pool table encircled by sagging thrift-store furniture.

The success of design programs like those of Urban Outfitters and The Lab – along with countless other examples, like the burgeoning popularity of the grunge style, or a subculture magazine like Raygun – pivots on a particular notion - one that equates honesty, value, and spiritual well-being with a kind of natural, neglected and seemingly undesigned aesthetic.
Anti-design, which has been simmering for years as a feature of "alternative" culture, is finally making its way into the mainstream consciousness. And, inevitably, it is being touted as the key to the wallets of – who else – the notorious generation X, and their smaller underlings, generation Y. The anti-mall (a.k.a "mega-attitude center") promotions suggest that "The Lab project is about music, art, food and great product;" a cultural or communal, rather than purely commercial, experience.

The language of genX marketing and design has three prominent features: anti-consumerist consumerism, anti-nostalgic nostalgia, and anti-designer design. In each case, the underlying message is always obscured in a contradiction. A new form of image advertising addresses young consumers that purport to disdain image advertising. Witness Sprite's print and television campaign — based on the slogan: "Image is nothing, Thirst is Everything. Obey your Thirst!" — in which the cliches and inflated promises of slick advertising are openly mocked. Products that seem to defy the class pretensions of yuppie consumerism have experienced a kind of nostalgic revival; solid blue-collar "classics" like Budweiser (with a new campaign featuring twenty year olds in smokey bars and diners, reminiscing about classic TV shows — Gilligan's Island, Family Affair — and classic music — Peter Frampton, Deep Purple); and Rolling Rock (with a campaign theme "Same as it ever was").

The valorization of a product like Budweiser is both a nostalgic stab at some mythical pre-yuppie past (i.e. the seventies) and a rejection of the whole designer era (i.e. the eighties) when the designer label connoted a certain high-cultural cachet. Anti-design plays on the perception that the slicker the surface, the higher the degree of media manipulation. By converse logic, the rawer the package, the more honest, soulful or alternative the content. (Of course if this were true we would all be turning to the National Enquirer for an untainted vision of the world.) The genX figure is represented as misunderstood artist openly defying the crass commercialization of yuppie culture; that is to say, the entire plot of Reality Bites.

In graphic design, the anti-aesthetic borrows liberally from the tabloid press, 'zine culture and a snide adoration of the mundane objects of mass-consumer culture circa 1972. The proliferation of the fanzine is poignant, because underground magazines address a small, focused audience — the essence of niche marketing — with a idiosyncratic product that shuns the high gloss finish of more traditional media fare. In reality, media monopolies have been busy buying up some of the more popular underground 'zines – or at least replicating the cheap, undesigned look through careful design planning; see, for example, Conde Nast's transformation of Details from raw street tabloid to genX-boy fashion mag, or Time Warner's launch of Mouth to Mouth, in a bid for a segment of the alternative market.

But the biggest player in the anti-aesthetic is OK soda, Coca Cola's ploy for the vast disposable income controlled by disaffected youth. OK promotions are based on "underselling" the product, a job accomplished by the product's name — not great, but ok for now. Both the name and the container design — in amateurish, industrial grey with rough illustrations reminiscent of cartoons scribbled on a math book cover — are products of advertising giant Weiden and Kennedy, who also handles Nike's inveterate campaign.

In case the consciously-unconscious design language doesn't make the point clearly enough, angst-design products rely heavily on zen-bytes. A Coke press release announces "The true nature of OK-ness is elusive. OK-ness embraces mistakes and contradictions. It is optimistic, yet ironic." The OK campaign, the toll free recorded message (1-800-I FEEL OK) and the container itself, are illuminated with koans like: "Don't be fooled into thinking there has to be a reason for everything." And: "What's the point of OK? Well, what's the point of anything?" The Lab's press kit contains a stack of Raygun-esque promotional materials full of neo-hippy spiritualisms like "The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness."

The movement is, on the surface at least, rigorously anti-romantic. Anti-typography, in a highly mannered way, makes reference to pedestrian or accidental gestures, in an attempt to sever any connection to professional culture. Forced justification of type across a narrow column makes reference to the cheap, quick process of an underground newspaper and signifies a lack of typographic sophistication, and therefore a kind of brute honesty, even at the hand of a skilled designer like Raygun's David Carson. Computer accidents suggest the immediacy of low-rent desktop publishing, a reference supported by the proliferation of garage fonts, letterforms designed to be intentionally dirty, unrefined or off.

In support of their anti-establishment credentials, designers like David Carson, Ian Anderson of Designer's Republic, et.al., wear their lack of professional design training as a symbol of authenticity. The autodidact, star of the anti-design culture, coalesces the image of the raw, natural talent and the radical outsider, testing the tired and dogmatic mores of the typographic establishment. In a recent issue of Raygun, one breathless neophyte congratulated Carson, noting "Yr (sic) still managing to piss off a butt-load of design teachers, so ya must be doing something right."

From fashion design to fashion magazines, this cult of the amateur is conflated with the mythic idea of the "street," and a glorification of the inner-city. This repackaging of the urban experience, through the co-opting of subcultural forms like hip-hop, promises a "soulful experience" for a middle class audience in the controlled setting of cyburbia. On the back of my Raisin Bran, for instance, a translucently white kid copping a gansta pose offers a new line of street-inspired baseball caps and jerseys free to loyal Kellogg's consumers. The blaring speech balloon announces: "Yo! Hip-Hop Gear® has emerged as the new generation of official gear of Hip-Hop that makes 'Statements of Social Consciousness.'™" The Lab rebuilds the decaying street in the pristine center of the conservative suburb.

That nexus – of the street and "social consciousness" – is the underlying message of projects like The Lab or OK Soda. The image of the crumbling, dangerous city — Urban Outfitter's windows are often artfully shattered (bullet riddled?) — is imagined as "real" in contrast to the clean, safe, utopianism of the typical suburban mall. But The Lab's design evokes a nostalgic message as well. The main thoroughfare of The Lab evokes equal parts Road Warrior donnybrook and the happy, multiculturalism of Sesame Street's stoop, in which the grit of the city is a carefully maintained design element.

In genX hype – which is in itself a marketing strategy – design is imaged as a form of false-consciousness. 'No design' is considered good design. It is almost as if design embarrasses us with its very superficiality. As a result, the fashionable designer must obviate his or her own presence in the work. Design is refigured as the skillful suggestion that no designer was present, that the elements somehow naturally fell into place or the surface has peeled away to reveal an inner truth.

But it's always a mistake to confuse what things look like with what things do. The exposed structure of anti-design ends up reinforcing, rather than disarming, the undergirding message. Those artfully exposed seams reassure us, with a broad wink, that everything is under control; the designers aren't dead, they've just mastered the art of camouflage. Sitting around the pool table enjoying the community spirit at the anti-mall, sipping a warm can of OK, you might notice that the fetid arm chair, the cracked ashtray, the potted tomato or the pool table itself all have prominent price tags. The alternative lifestyle cash and carry. Smells like teen spirit.