As a designer, your whole life is better when you’re inspired. I’m in a constant battle to stay inspired, and one of the ways I do this is to watch a lot of documentaries. I keep a collection of films on my laptop and watch them whenever I’m flying for work. I’ve seen Helvetica about 50 times. One of my new favorites is Synth Britannia, a BBC production about the origin and development of synth pop in the ’70s and ’80s. A musician recommended it to me, but the immediate thing I noticed was the parallels between this era of music and the current state of design. I have been inspired by the stories of these pioneers, and I think the design community can find value in them, too.
The story of British synth pop is essentially the story of a rebellion against the status quo fueled by the accessibility of new technology. Early groups like Depeche Mode, Human League, Gary Numan, and OMD all had to invent their own genre and even their instruments as they went along. They set out to do something they cared about in a way that worked for them and ended up achieving their own artistic satisfaction and changing the face of music forever.
In the early 1970s, music was dominated by prog and glam rock—Emerson Lake and Palmer on one end, and David Bowie and Elton John on the other, producing the kind of large-scale theatrical music reserved for the very upper echelons of musicians and budgets. It was a completely closed scene where only the very elite ever had a chance of getting their music out into the world.
Then punk came along and threw all that out. But at the same time, there was a group of musicians who saw punk rock as just a re-hash of rock and roll, and while they appreciated the ethos, it wasn’t the sound of the future to them. To them, the future sounded more like Kraftwerk. This, paired with access to previously unavailable and unaffordable music technology, was enough gasoline to ignite a music revolution.
To me, this story echoes the dawn of digital design. Not that long ago, design was print and TV, and print and TV were dominated by big advertising agencies. Design hadn’t changed in decades, and unless you were one of a few elite designers at a big agency, it was almost impossible for your work to reach a mass audience. Designers craved something else; another channel through which they could express themselves. Street art was one of the ways: graffiti and wheat pasting emerged as the punk rock of the design world, but it was still just a rehash of painting and print. And then along came a new way to design and a brand new medium: digital.
The all-electronic band Kraftwerk hit British TV in 1975. As so-called engineer musicians, they made all their own instruments, which inspired some punk rockers to trade their guitars for electronics, and spawned groups like The Normal and Joy Division. Several of these bands were inspired by a combination of Kraftwerk’s "engineered music" and science fiction writing, notably that of J.G. Ballard, whose book Crash has been described as a look "five minutes into the future." These bands believed they were creating the sound of the future.
Similarly, early digital design was led by a few small groups of designers creating what they imagined to be the future of design. Many of them were futurists: They designed everything to feel like it came out of The Matrix, with 3-D graphics or pseudo full-motion video. They hacked software to do things it was never meant to do, wrote their own design programs, and created networks and message boards to share their work and talk about design. They learned to code in order to help better understand the medium; this type of designer was really the first "engineer designer."
In the late '70s, it became possible for the average person to own a synthesizer and for tinkerers to build their own instruments out of readily available components, following diagrams from magazines (Joy Division’s first synth was built by Bernard Sumner out of a schematic from Electronics Today). Before this, synths were massive pieces of equipment that only the very wealthy could afford; bands needed cargo containers to carry all their stuff on tour. Now, people could write electronic music in their homes and record it at a studio relatively inexpensively. Among these groups of independent musicians making this new music, a kinship arose. They started their own record labels, like Mute, since mainstream record labels had no interest in the genre.
Similarly, starting in the early '90s, it became possible for designers to create and publish something relatively quickly and cheaply from their bedrooms. For the first time ever the end-to-end publishing process was completely accessible to anyone who was motivated to do so. The computers, the software, the hosting, and the ability to publish was even cheap enough for students. All of a sudden, designers could have their work seen by thousands of people, for a very low financial investment, and without having to be sponsored by a paying client or big advertising agency.
With this new medium available to a growing number of musicians, it didn’t take long to spark a rebellion against the music of before—against the big bands, against prog and glam, and against a system of music that was neither approachable nor inclusive. Bands like Kraftwerk wore suits, not flared trousers, and there were no guitar solos—they wanted to be seen as serious technical musicians, not boys dancing on a stage. The rebellion was essentially against the old ways of doing music, and the established music press and community fought against it; ridiculed it, shunned it, said it wasn’t music, and even tried to ban people from the musicians unions.
Just as synth pop rebelled against the big bands, digital design also rebelled against the establishment: the agency model, the ways people thought about communication and graphics, advertising, and product design. Designers who embraced digital design were certainly the minority working against decades of process and established norms, and they were largely shunned by those who thought that digital wasn’t valid or "good" design. It was dismissed as a novelty, or, at best, as just a way to put print and TV ads on a smaller screen.
Companies wanted to take the old way of doing things and simply repackage it—take a linear story and put it on in an interactive medium. But "Skip Intro" didn’t work. It still doesn’t work. For digital designers, there was rebellion in moving the conversation forward. In those days, it was magic to work with a group of like-minded people who risked everything and chose to go into a medium that was largely ignored, people who took risks without a roadmap. It was an exciting and scary and hard place to be, but there was a real camaraderie there, pushing design to a place that works better for us and, we thought, to the benefit of everyone else.
On April 24, 1979, a tipping point occurred. Gary Numan appeared on "Top of the Pops," and synth pop had its first hit record. His album sold over 100,000 copies. The established music industry was forced to take synth seriously. After seeing electronic pop on a large scale for the first time, young musicians picked up synth instead of guitars and deliberately chose to skip rock and form synth pop bands.
The future arrives, and there are kids who are electronic first. They’re not trying to take an old medium and change it into something else; they’re starting with the something else—the new thing. Depeche Mode became the first popular electronic music band, and they were followed by a slew of bands like Soft Cell, Ultravox, and Yazoo. Early pioneers such as Human League and OMD also score commercial successes now that the industry is ready for their sound.
These days, we’re seeing kids out of school bypass print and TV and go directly to digital. They were eight years old when they got their first cell phones. They grew up with laptops and the Internet. They’re hardwired to think about social spheres and digital communication. The level of sophistication coming out of very young designers about the medium is staggering and a joy to be a part of now.
After the explosion of synth pop onto the world stage, the press and industry were forced to recognize it as music and embrace it as an art form. Out of this first era comes The Eurythmics, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, and New Order, which, in 1983, would go on to create "Blue Monday," the biggest-selling 12-inch in history.
For designers, after a pretty decent amount of struggle, we are just barely starting to see the acceptance of digital design as something people should care about. Almost every agency is attempting to create a digital practice, and virtually every client is investing some money into digital projects. Acceptance is slow, much slower than I ever thought it would be. We may not have reached our "Blue Monday" moment yet —but we’re getting there.
It’s inspiring to know that others before us, in a completely different genre, found success in a comparable set of circumstances. There was a group of people who tried and cared and took risks. They had to define the medium, the tools, and the message as they went along—and it worked. I’d like to think that digital designers are at a similar turning point, defining a medium and changing design for the better forever.