If you asked a young designer 20 years ago who their design heroes are, you'd hear some familiar names.
Some would mention Saul Bass and his brilliant poster designs. Others would point to the wide range of work from Vignelli. Or that of German designer, Otl Aicher. Maybe Louise Fili's timeless typography. Or Chermayeff's pervasive branding. They might reference Tibor Kalman, the iconic Ray & Charles Eames, or advertising legends such as Bill Bernbach or George Lois. Or they may look to fashion: Coco Chanel, Vivienne Westwood, Yamamoto.
Ask me 10 or 15 years ago and I would have told you similar names as above in addition to more contemporary web natives such as DerBauer, 2Advanced, North Kingdom and many more. The early pioneers of digital design who made websites and products no one had ever seen before. Their work shaped the internet in its early days and opened my mind to what design could do.
There are many more names, some less known than others but just as influential. What they have in common is a mastery of their field. They reinvented one, or many more, categories. Their work is not just recognizable. It has an opinion. Or perhaps it's recognizable because it has an opinion. These people had style, character and their own point of view. It's why we love them.
But things have changed.
Today I speak with young designers and ask them who their heroes are. Who do they look up to?
And more often than not, the answer chips away a tiny piece of my soul. They point to a social media influencer. A design personality on Instagram, YouTube or TikTok. Someone who doesn’t actively pursue the craft of design, but is more likely famous for being famous. For creating viral and digestible feel-good content.
You'd be right to say it: These people are creating something too. They have to plan their content calendar. Schedule out the Instagram carousels, the Reels, the TikTok posts. They're scripting, creating and editing videos. That's hard work! And I recognize that times have evolved. Today's designer or artist must also have a platform, or at least their peers would lead them to believe so. But this is not the industry I entered when I was just starting out. This is not what I looked to when I aspired to be a designer.
I risk sounding old and bitter here, but the creative industry today saddens me. More specifically, I feel a disconnect from the design community I once admired. I became a designer because I fell in love with the legends who came before me and paved the way. (I realize some of them, along with some other great designers, are still practicing today. I see these designers as the exception.) Each had a strong passion for design that ignited a fire in me. My respect for these people came from the significant work they did over decades – not from their fame in itself. These people made a name for themselves through a dedication to their craft. We not only know their names, we can easily point to their work.
The new world is different. I can grumble and wax nostalgic all I want, but it won't stop the steam roller that is social media. Today it isn't so much about what you do, but how loud you do it. The internet has changed how we operate in the world, and it's not exclusive to the design industry. Today we follow design influencers who don’t know how to design outside a template. We follow athletes who are more about entertainment than they are about their sport. We follow Instagram brands that are more about trends than they are about fashion. It's just the way things are today and you can see it across every field.
What it amounts to, as far as I can see, is an astounding decrease in quality and increase in sameness. As more designers rush to the market, I sense a lack of a long-term view and purpose in the industry. We are more concerned with liking, commenting and subscribing than the work itself. When the measure of success is the size of our audience, the work doesn’t have much meaning anymore.
What's missing is a sense of pride in our work. A desire to learn a craft, master it and practice it with passion. And I don't speak of work in the sense of "hustle and grind." I mean the the work, the output. The devotion to honing a skill and creating something beautiful and original. The delight of looking at a design or product and knowing whoever made it had something to say.
I speak to young designers every week, most of them burned out at an age when I didn't even know what the term meant. They have no energy to create or form a point of view because they’re too overwhelmed managing their online presence. Young designers are starved for real inspiration. They are hungry for the satiating taste of true, focused passion. They crave the confidence and excitement that comes with developing an expertise. They lack the nourishment of doing significant work that makes a difference.
Who you admire influences who you'll become. Watching my design heroes gave be something to aspire to. I knew I'd never be as good as them, and that's what drove me to try.
Perhaps what we need are new heroes. People we admire not for their following, but for their work. I don't know where to find these new heroes, but I know they're there. Silently working in the shadows.