Recently I revisited my snapshots from this summer’s NeoCon tradeshow in Chicago. While a few of this year’s products were exceptionally beautiful, innovative, or used game-changing technology, what struck me the most was not these standout items but a sea of other products, all of which had much, perhaps too much, in common. For one, I counted over 20 examples of high-backed cocoon-like lounge seating from different manufacturers. And most of those products were covered in felt, clearly another major trend. Then there was the common color palette – orange, pale blues and greens, yellow and gray, found in products hailing from the U.S., Europe and Asia alike. For me, one of the main takeaways from the show was that trendiness was happening at a global scale and appeared to be a bigger factor than ever.
There’s little doubt that today’s product manufacturers are tuned into what’s trending among end users—and among their competition. Too often, it feels like we are seeing a version of something, rather than a bold new concept. Are designers simply more aware of trends than they used to be? Or is there more to it than that?
The truth is that design has always been referential. Only now, virtually any image or idea can be conjured up online in milliseconds. If you want to know what’s hot in Tokyo, New York, or Buenos Aires, it’s just a tablet-swipe away. Local trends can now become global movements overnight—just look at fixed-gear bikes, food trucks, even playful corporate office spaces.
In many ways, the design industry is at the center of this revolution in consumer culture. Changes in the way we digest visual information have a direct impact on the products in the marketplace and the built environment. Everything now influences everything else. While instant access to visual images can help catapult a design trend into global prominence, it also poses interesting challenges to interior design practice.
More and more, designers are using reference images to describe the direction of a design internally or to clients. With accelerated project schedules, there never seems to be enough time to iterate on an idea, sketch or model it, or order a material sample to help explore a texture. It’s both faster and easier to start with a few teaser images of what a design might feel or look like. But this unfettered access to inspirational images may actually be changing the way we design.
What’s wrong, exactly, with using this kind of visual shortcut? Inspirational images have long been used to give a sense of emotive context, and tools like Pinterest are actually great for this. Left unchecked, however, a shift from the contextual to the directly referential can stifle the creative process. The problem arises when designers use examples to tell their story that are too literal—images of other lobbies when designing a lobby, for example. Visual references are better used to support the rootof a design idea or conjure a visceral response, not depict the final aesthetic.
Building visual context for a project without being literal takes some effort and diligence. Recently, our firm designed a headquarters space for an outdoor equipment company. To begin the conversation with our client about the design direction, we consciously limited reference images to scenes from nature and those that depicted activities proposed to take place in the space: campfires and group hikes for gathering spaces, someone looking out at a serene lake for quiet spaces, and so on. These emotive images conveyed the intended feeling, but avoided literal references to other projects and allowed the subsequent design ideas to stand on their own. Instead of posting the inspirational images online or on a presentation board we hand-bound them in a book with twine and a small twig clasp. This project was about connecting to nature and the linear narrative and tactile quality of a booklet was more powerful than a collage. More importantly, relying on images from other projects simply would have felt inauthentic, so our simple approach was one the client truly appreciated.
In our image-obsessed world, we need to continue a dialog with our clients about the process of design, and the difference between using referential and literal images is an important one. With design-heavy social networks like Pinterest and Houzz, clients are becoming more and more empowered to participate in building a project’s visual identity. Our clients are collecting concepts, ideas, and images of the things they like and are bringing them to the table. In itself, this type of collaboration is a positive trend. But the lines become blurry when clients ask designers to not just draw inspiration from pinboards, but literally incorporate elements from found images into a project. This style of “idea shopping” via visuals echoes the user-customization and made-to-order manufacturing now often seen in fashion and product design. Working with a preconceived look as the starting point can affect both the dynamic between client and designer and the outcome of the project. If you show a client reference photos of finished projects that have a similar “feeling”, chances are your client will cling to one of them and your project will end up looking like something both of you have seen before.
Designers are not just curators of ideas (though we certainly are that); good designers process inspirational influences as the context from which to derive their own ideas. The design process is rooted in rigorous research and the exploration and testing of concepts until the right one emerges. We need to educate our clients about this process unless we are willing to accept a new paradigm of made-to-order design solutions based on a series of scrapbook images.
The consideration and reinterpretation of external ideas can be a valid tool in the creative process. A piece of music, film, art, or design can be referential, but a designer needs to add something extra, something original, for it to become meaningful. Our “value add” is the ability to interpret and fuse external inspirations—even trends—into unique and inspiring solutions that solve specific needs beyond being entertaining or aesthetically pleasing. On television, designers conceive and build projects in a single day, and virtually all of the focus is on aesthetics, creating a flawed portrayal of our profession. Designers can and should offer a much better vision of the value and impact our work has on people’s lives. In this context, using reference images (much like rendering and modeling software) can be a useful tool, but if used as a crutch, it may actually short-circuit the design process. In a media-centric world, designers have to anticipate how clients will use digital tools and be prepared to explain how a complete and thought-out design, not just an image of visually interesting finishes and forms, will further the client’s objectives. Real innovation requires that we transcend the constraints of literal references and push beyond the latest trends, especially in a world where these surround us at every turn.