Depending on what artistic movement you happen to be trapped in, ornamentation has been used to lesser or greater degrees to bring embellishments and stylistic flair to a design. Although the Egyptians used branding marks, the concept of brand identity didn't really hit full stride until the age of industrialism. It became a powerful means to convey ownership of a given product and, as a result, increase brand recognition in the consumerist society.
Evolution of brand ornament has grown into an industry. No longer is a mark purely used for identity as it was in the early years of the printing press, but rather it has taken on a life of its own. The Nike swoosh decorates t-shirts instead of the simple shoe. The Apple apple is a bumper sticker. The BMW auto badge adorns keychains, hats, and all sorts of revenue generating items.
The Reciprocation of Design and Culture
As anyone who has studied art and design understands - design does not exist in a vacuum. If you were alive during the eighties, you may remember the 'coolness' of wearing commercial identity brands transition into the very 'uncool' earmark of wanton commercialism. As the ebb and flow of cultural dynamics play out, the footprints of those ideals are left in the culture's design and art.
Automobile Badge Trends
It has been apparent to me within the past few years that automobile badge ornamentation has seen a growth in physical dimensions.
I have found it fascinating that we, as a consumer culture, appear to be heading back into the heyday of commercialism. I'd cite the techno-lust of the iPhone, the strange SUV craze, and the ever-apparent willingness for youth culture to wear branding on their sleeves again as a few trivial examples. It started me thinking that perhaps there was something somehow connected to the progress of automobile badges in relation to this hypothesis.
The following is a loose collection of images as I gathered them. They all are of Honda Civic sedan hood ornamentation. I tried to stick within a class of automobile to prevent potential minor variations in stylings. The result might surprise you. Bear in mind that the first sample is well within the anti-consumerism trending of the late eighties and early nineties.
1991 - 2 1/2"
1997 - 2 1/2"
1999 - 3"
2002 3 1/2"
2004 - 4 1/2"
2006 - 3 1/2"
2007 - 4 1/4"
2008 - 4 1/4"
What can we infer from the changing design trends on automobile badges? It isn't solely a Honda trait as we can easily see other car manufacturers following suit, some with even more exaggeration in their badge size than what Honda offers. Is it indicative of a consumerist upswing? Is the near 100% increase a design trend to push brand identity among insecure automakers in an ever crunching market? Or is it perhaps a pure Postmodern accentuation of ornamentation? What does the future hold for a western culture that is becoming increasingly aware of environmental impact and corporate accountability?
Pulling this discussion closer to home, we can examine ornament in the world of computing.
In 1998 Apple had culminated its laptop design with the black Powerbook G3. The ornament upon the lid is more or less as we see it today in the Macbook line, with one seemingly completely innocuous difference -- the orientation. Compare the two images below:
The difference is a subtle one. Notice how, when the lid is closed, the ornamentation faces the person who owns the laptop with the older Powerbook. With the newer incarnation, the ornamentation is upside down to the owner. Could it be that such a subtle detail was a complete oversight to the obsessive design team at Apple? Is there a point of perspective with the design statement? Is it possible that the slightest adjustment in ornamentation is reflective of an overarching sentiment with the new-age Apple?
I'd make the suggestion that the inversion of the ornament orientation is, in fact, completely parallel with the developments we have seen from Apple in recent years -- one of posture. The older age Apple that was renowned for their focus and attention to their audience has since been seen lately as an agressive push into a different realm -- the mass market. The shifting of such a simple detail as an ornament may be symptomatic of a greater change in focus of the design from one where it is personal, to one of posturing in front of others. The inward has apparently turned outward. The personal has become public. Instead of "Hey I love my laptop" it has become "Hey do you love my laptop?"
GUI and Ornamentation
I'll end this casually wandering discussion of ornamentation ending at our default interfaces in Free Software. I have long been a believer that our interfaces have been mired in a pursuit of late Modernist architectural semantics -- one where ornament is sin. While the parallels are purely coincidental, the mindset that drove Modernist architecture isn't exactly a world away from some of the brilliant minds that established Free Software and its GUI legacy. With that said, Modernist architecture is beginning to look extremely long in the teeth.
Recently I learned that the Murrine engine did away with the diagonal line ornamentation. This saddened me. It was the sole element that differentiated the engine from any one of its monotonous peers. Murrine obviously had its monotony, but I clung to the diagonal stripes as a sign that our temperment was at least beginning to shift in a more contemporary direction.
Each and every one of our GTK implementations suffers from dire monotony. "Consistency!" I can hear the developers shout. It is the often referenced refrain when someone suggests a migration away from the Tango cycle. "We need a consistent interface!" I have heard countless times.
"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."We could do much if our Free Software culture studied some of the premises behind interior design. Do professional grade interior designers have the same colour throughout in every room? Do they seek to make every single piece of furniture the same hue and value? Is every door in your living space identical? How about light fixtures?
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson
I'd argue that what we have followed for the past decade in Free Software GUI is Emerson's "foolish consistency". It lacks a central message / thematic and it reiterates upon itself far too many times. The net sum result is a feedback loop of complete monotony. Every widget - identical. Every tone - identical. Every emotional response - dulled.
What might be a light at the end of this tunnel? Perhaps we should look to ornamentation. What would a theme look like if designed by an interior designer? Would the widgets all be clones of their siblings or would there be a chance that they would be an ensemble cast? What if the overarching thematic drove the theme's underpinnings? For example, if we took a chrome feel as a useful device in our thematic, what if it was applied sparingly as ornamental flourish? What if the technique was used as a bridging device in the same way that modern house design often uses a material or texture to bridge different living areas within it? Could ornamentation be a defining underpinning in a greater style?
And Into the Future
This post has covered a huge bit of ground in one massive bite. I apologize for this, but it has been a perculating post in my brain for too long. In the end, I hope this humble post has at least shown the slightest of possibilities that design doesn't exist in a vacuum. In fact, even ornamental accentuations have reasoning behind them -- sometimes overt and sometimes more veiled behind societal constructs.
Where are we going as a culture? Where is our Free Software culture heading regarding design? Is our future one of repetition of the norm or the pushing into a bold new world? Once again, thanks for taking minutes out of your life to read.
Alas, I am but the sum of your clicks.