The Systematic Eradication of Surprise and its Detrimental Effect on the Level of Joy and Wonder in the World

The presentations I’ve enjoyed the most in my life have usually taken this form: we open by verbally explaining our thought process for the particular project, without going into too many specifics, as the table is still empty. Maybe if there was a funny or defining moment involved that story will be recounted. During that preamble the sense of nervous anticipation is tangible, and when it ends, our (usually single) idea is unveiled. The client looks horrified. This really was not what they were expecting to see. They try to remain positive but I can sense their panic. 

This situation would have been easily avoided if only we’d have made a few moodboards at the very beginning. We could have trawled through It’s Nice That, pulled off loads of images of foil blocking on Colorplan, maybe some monograms, one which has been made into a repeat pattern and used on the lining of a gift box. Or if we were feeling a bit edgy maybe I’d hit Many Stuff and nick an image of a risographed self-published book about nothing, printed in pale pink and electric blue. It wouldn’t take that long. By showing without any context other people’s solutions for other other people’s briefs we could have set the scene, we could have all agreed on the visual style that we would be using. We wouldn’t even need to think of much of an idea. It would be amazing. Our client would feel comfortable at every part of the process — fuck it, they’d be an integral part of every step of the process. They’d feel real emotional ownership from the word go, and they’d be comfortably content with our complacently competent solutions come the final presentation. And I’d be so fucking bored I’d want to slash my fucking wrists.

I suppose this rant could be seen as the expected curmudgeonly old wanker stuff about how things were better before, but I really do believe that the superabundance of instantly accessed visual culture is creating a strange global homogeny. As it was so much harder to see what your contemporaries were doing in pre- and early internet times, you just got on with it, plunging blindly forward with your own ideas without being able to check whether or not what you were doing looked like what graphic design was supposed to look like right now. But there’s more to it than that, and it’s self-perpetuating. The rise of the brand agency with their strategists and their client pandering and hand-holding has slowly eradicated experimentation, risk and surprise, to the detriment of actual enjoyment by the people doing the work — and it shows in the timidity of the vast majority of work these agencies are producing. Where is the pleasure and challenge (fun) in giving the client something they’ve seen before and showing them what they’re going to get before they get it?

This, when coupled with the new moodboard culture — where everyone is now an online ‘curator’ and revelling in a smug illusion of creativity — has had the reverse of the desired effect. Design is no longer a verb, it’s a noun, a thing to be into, a culture in the contemporary sense of the word, meaning there’s loads of useless twee shit you can buy to tell other people that you’re into it. Witness the platoons of identically Folk clad folk filing through Pick Me Up with their printed cloth tote bags hanging flaccidly under their arms like ball-less scrotums.

An hour or so has passed, and the formerly horrified client is grinning and excited, giddy even. The presentation really was not what they were expecting to see, but after letting it sink in and seeing how it all works, they have realised that it was exactly what they needed. Everyone is happy.

A footnote:
The most horrifying manifestation of this fear of surprise that I’ve witnessed came when I was lucky enough to be working freelance in the early stages of a large car marque’s rebranding. The creative director had an intern print out seemingly every car badge in the world and stick them on the walls of the “studio” in groups: Animals, monograms, abstract symbols, crests etc. The task was to create a different route to sit comfortably in each of these categories. To which I countered “why don’t we do just one route that isn’t in any of these categories?”. I didn’t last very long.

This article first appeared in the debut issue of Can't Understand New Technology, a print only publication created and edited by the very talented Camilla Grey and Steve Price.

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