Hooked on a Feeling

by Michael Rock
2015
Published in T Magazine

Raf Simons
Raf Simons, 2015

We designers love to fashion ourselves as “problem solvers,” but let’s face it: the line between solving problems and creating them is blurry at best. What problem is being solved by a $1,500 pair of heels, or a $150,000 car, or a $150,000,000 architectural extravaganza in the Bois de Boulogne? The truth is, no matter what designers say, we have never simply answered problems. The act of design vacillates between the functional and the beguiling, often performing one while claiming the other. Le Corbusier dismissed the architecture of his beaux-arts contemporaries as cloying, while he looked longingly to the brutal utility of the grain elevators and factories devised by American engineers. A half century later, Rem Koolhaas jettisoned function in favor of performance: “functionality is boring; performance is about what role the building plays and what kind of scene it triggers.” There has long been an ideological divide between the utilitarian and the emotional, between rational design and the decorative arts, but the balance of power is shifting: In the battle between the head and the gut, the gut’s now cleaning up. 


The empathy economy is booming. Facts are out, feelings are in. This is attributed, at least in part, to a kind of brand-mania that asserts that everything from your razor blade to your public library to the IRS needs to have a relatable personality. Everyone is in the business of brand management: artists, designers, businesses, celebrities, politicians, museums, universities, armies, nations. (Is it only a matter of time before we’re debating our intergalactic positioning?) Branding is supposedly not about what something says, or what it means, but how it makes us feel. A brand is a promise. It’s the putative guarantee of the emotional payoff on an investment in a particular product, place, or individual. So the new handbag makes us feel chic and knowing; the laptop, savvy and contemporary; the vodka, suave and sophisticated; the museum, refined and sensitive. When we talk about a strong brand, what we mean is that it consistently delivers the emotion it promises. The most successful brands, or at least the ones everyone emulates, have the knack for using design to produce an emotional coherence that spans from content to product to experience. Think Apple or BMW or Chanel. Not everything has to look alike, but it all has to feel alike. Whenever we encounter them we get that familiar brand sensation. That tingling tells you its working. 


So if the goal of design is emotional coherence, how is that end achieved? Enter the mood board: the most quotidian, slightly-embarrassing and now ubiquitous design tool. The mood board has long been associated with the softer design arts—fashion, interiors, styling—that trade in allusion and affect. Decorators used them, serious architects didn’t. There’s no science to it, simply a collection of inspirations and influences: an array of Xeroxed pictures pinned to a foamcore panel or scattered on the studio floor, a cloud of references composed to evoke atmosphere. Their very vaporousness is the point. Pictures joined together don’t signify any one thing, but rather inchoate feelings. An image of a silky kitty, when juxtaposed with an angora bunny, a desiccated dandelion, and an eskimo anorak, is freed from the bonds of the corporeal and becomes the essence of fluffiness. For the professional brand manager the mood board attempts to render, in a handful of swiped images, some vague quintessence that’s difficult to achieve with words.


For fashion designers who are required to pump out a new set of allusions every season, the mood board has long been an essential and highly confidential way to pinpoint explicit references before assiduously burying their tracks. One former Calvin Klein designer recalls how when she worked at the brand in the 00’s, the mood boards were sacrosanct. Only certain people were allowed to touch them. The foamcore was covered in different materials — linen for one collection, cotton for another — and the teams was required to use specific pins. The boards could only be carried one at a time, never stacked, lest the surface was disturbed. As almost proof of how far we’ve come, last spring for his men’s collection, Raf Simmons came right out and superimposed his reference images—a Japanese block print, an antique postcard, an astronaut—directly onto coats and jackets. He likened pieces in the collection to “mood boards you’d pin your favorite images to.”


As the longing for emotional connection spreads from how we want our clothes or living room to feel, to how we want our minivan or pharmaceutical or constitutional democracy to feel, the mood business continues to expand. (A friend recently told me her therapist encouraged her to make a mood board expressing the feelings related to her recent divorce.) This expansion is fueled, in large part, by the sheer overabundance of available images. It’s hard to remember that a couple of decades ago, finding pictures of things was actually quite arduous and involved countless hours of random page flipping. Now a few seconds of furious key-stroking produces endless examples to regurgitate. Every possible idea is immediately diluted by retroactive references. That glut of images is constantly resifted through personal curation tools such as Pinterest and Tumblr, and inspiration websites such as ffffound.com or vfiles.com. Such hyper-individualistic online collections, in turn, become open-source mood repositories scavenged by branding professionals. Why assemble collections of your own when there are millions that exist ready for appropriation? Need to evoke cozy softness with a vaguely synthetic overtone, an early seventies color palette, and just a touch of glam rock? Missile silo chic? Mid-century Crimean beach culture? I can guarantee someone out there has that covered. There are even Pinterest pages dedicated to collecting other mood boards: collections of collections. And then, of course, there is Instagram, which turns every individual life into a social network mood board. The carefully curated Instagram account is essentially a personal image management tool: private life as public brand.


While the ascendency of mood boarding reflects the way brands, from commercial products to people, are imagined at this moment, the question remains why we are all so susceptible to manufactured emotion. Why are we so needy? Perhaps this yearning is a reaction to the lurking presence of Big Data. As vast files of meta-data and personal search histories are ferreted away in some server farm in god-knows-where, we crave the kind of anodyne, gauzy experiences that at least promise something warmer and more human. When everything is available all the time and we’re inundated with information in every way, shape and form, we’re left no choice but to favor what makes us feel.