Snack Attack

Author and critic Will Wiles spins the tombola of pop-cultural zeitgeist in order to see what happens when the graphic design canon meets the online attention racket. 

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Valerio Loi, Web Popularity Products

More than a decade ago, I used to go to a bar called Asylum in Fitzrovia, central London, to listen to music. A friend and I had become fans of a particular DJ night called bAsTaRd, which specialised in what were then called sometimes called “boots”, for “bootlegs”. It's easy to see why this name didn't stick, and the other name did: “mashups” much better evokes the technique on display, mashing one song into another to create something else. Missy Elliott's Get Ur Freak On to the tune of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, or the Beach Boys' God Only Knows sung to Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. Those may sound like unlikely pairings, ridiculous even – bAsTaRd had the regular effect, unusual in a DJ night, of making you laugh – but it worked more than anyone might reasonably expect. The surprise as you unpicked the components of what you were listening to, the pleasure of recognition and the more intense delight of hearing something familiar cast in a completely fresh way – it was joyous stuff. The sheer inventiveness of the night, based in making, sharing and enjoying, was a marvel.

Asylum was an analogue peninsula of a landmass that mostly existed online. The same spirit of anarchic creativity and generosity animated the Photoshop competition and image-manipulation sites that exploded in popularity in the early years of the new century – sites such as Worth1000, Something Awful, Fark and (my personal favourite at the time) b3ta. Visual punning, image mashups, jpg bastardy, something in the style of something else – this was a good part of the stock in trade on those sites, and still is today. Everyday folks had unprecedented access to powerful photo-manipulation, video-editing, animation and illustration tools, by fair means or foul, and were using them to make each other smile. It was an extraordinary outpouring of creative energy, one made all the more extraordinary by the fact that it has since become ordinary, a normal, stable part of the online ecosystem. (The above-mentioned sites are all still running, with one or two mutations along the way, which I'll return to.)

The churning torrent of imagery online was sampled and smeared, adding to the torrent, adding to the churning.

Network evangelist Clay Shirky calls this massive increase in creative activity the result of the  “cognitive surplus”. In his 2010 book of the same name, Shirky argues that we are using our leisure time in more productive ways, making, participating and doing. And simultaneously the network is making it much easier to make and do in collaboration with others, to form communities and responsive audiences. He focuses mostly on more immediately useful and worthy projects, such as Wikipedia – but also this flood of what the Situationists called détournement, “as in to detour, to hijack, to lead astray, to appropriate”, in McKenzie Wark's definition. The churning torrent of imagery online was sampled and smeared, adding to the torrent, adding to the churning.

Many of the users of these sites were amateurs, often using nothing more sophisticated than MS Paint, but some were professionals using their free time (or misusing their company's time) – especially on Worth1000, where competitions were rigorously streamed according to expertise. Jump ahead to the present day, however, and it's interesting to see how the mashup and the remix has moved from the hobbyist fringe into the professional graphic design mainstream. What if Pantone made beers, for instance? Spanish creative agency Txaber mocked up some packaging. Social networks have been turned into supermarket products by Valerio Loi. Modern artists turned into modernist architecture? Federico Babina has an exhaustive collection. Or road safety signs based on famous movies, or business cards based on famous movie characters. Or how about Westeros, the fictional continent that is the setting for the fantasy novel-turned-HBO-hit Game of Thrones, rendered as a Beck-style rail network map? Designer Michael Tyznik has you covered. 

Every popular TV show spawns this kind of unofficial spin-off, particularly if it has a very strong look: Mad Men, with its impeccable 1960s styling, was a popular target. How would it look, for instance, if, er, stripped of its impeccable 1960s styling? The blog of stock imagery supplier Shutterstock tried that one. But nothing beats Game of Thrones. The opening credits reimagined as Saul Bass-style animation; the series imagined as 8-bit computer game; state flags imagined as house banners. This is barely scratching the surface - there are so many Thrones remixes that The Onion's Buzzfeedalike, Clickhole, created its own version: the credits reimagined as an old man eating soup. Rebranding the show's feuding noble families as modern corporations is a bizarrely popular activity within this particular Gamut of Tropes, a task separately taken on by designers Darren Crescenzi (of Nike), Elliott Scott (for, again, Shutterstock's blog), and Mordi Levi. (DesignCrowd tried the trick in reverse, restyling modern corporations as Westerosi families.) “The Internet comes up with some strange tendencies,” wrote Fast Company, remarking on this coincidence of effort. “Not just memes, but something far more nuanced: memes of memes or meta-tropes, maybe. We're talking complicated cultural alchemy – a mix of cult popularity, Reddit dust, and pirated copies of Illustrator.” 

Reddit dust, yes, but it's pretty popular with Fast Company too, and with blogs, news-sites, aggregators and eyeball-sinks from Designboom to Flavorwire and Buzzfeed. And it's the stuff of Tumblr and Twitter, where it swirls and swills without respite. It's very hard to know were the transfer into design-world respectability began – maybe with Olly Moss's hugely popular repackaging of classic video games in Romek Marber-era Penguin covers (2011). Certainly that exercise had plenty of followers.

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Olly Moss, Videogame Classics

But is it really “complicated cultural alchemy”? Rather, this can be seen as the pop-cultural phenomena of the moment being thrown into a spinning tombola of different design languages and getting randomly paired up, over and over again, until it seems that every possible permutation has been exhausted. Immerse yourself in these mashups, collect examples of them, and you see a relatively small graphic design vocabulary forming the basis of the great majority of them: Saul Bass, Isotype, Beck-style (or Vignelli-style) schematics, 8-bit, classic Penguin, Simpsons characters, Pantone … so we chuck in the ingredient, crank the handle, and, I don't know, The Walking Dead as Apple iPhone apps. There's 2,000 notes on Tumblr for you, gratis. 

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Michael Tyznik, Game of Thrones Transit Map

There's a curious irony at work here. The newly productive free time Shirky identified in Cognitive Surplus didn't come from nowhere, and it certainly wasn't liberated from the earning day. It was the time we used to spend watching television. In Shirky's view, the television era, 1950 to 2000 or so, was a dark age of the imagination – passive, numb, uncreative – and we were blessed to be at last freeing ourselves from the one-eyed tyrant's grip. But it seems that the goggle box is still operating     a fairly extensive licence on our collective imagination, even if the means of consumption and enjoyment are evolving, and it's now more of a goggle boxset. The redesigning and remixing is going on with the set on in the background. Pop-y, snacky, often rather corny – a lot of this stuff is no more than the design equivalent of popcorn.  

It's not fair criticising popcorn, because there's nothing wrong with popcorn in itself. They vary, but none of these individual projects are bad or wrong – often they're pretty, or witty, or even both. And it's all just a bit of fun, the same joyous smile-sharing it ever was. Popcorn's fine – just don't gorge on it and you'll be ok.

But how much fun is truly being had? The Situationists feared that détournement would turn, inevitably, to what they called recuperation – a slippery concept, like a lot of Situationist thought, but meaning something along the lines of co-optation or appropriation. They feared their tools would be taken up by the social structures they despised, taken up by the society of the spectacle itself – and perhaps turned against them. Popcorn design has a whiff of recuperation. Béhance is hungry, always. It must be fed. Many of these projects are available as prints. Careers were founded and reputations made on the Photoshop-competition and image-mashing sites ten years ago, and what lingers is a sense that this is how reputations are made, that this was their primary value. It's the Buzzfeedification or Redditing of the graphic design CV – the portfolio must be made viral, and tasty popcorn, delicious Tumblr-bait, is one way to do that.

With the remix itself remixed as not much more than a fun way to connect designers and other creatives with employers and clients, it has been corporatised. As mentioned above several of these examples come from the blog of Shutterstock, and it's a shrewd way for the firm to show off what an be achieved with the imagery it can supply. But it's the fate of one of the original Photoshop competition sites that should put the nutrition value of popcorn in real question. In the summer of 2014, Worth1000 was bought by DesignCrowd, the graphic design crowdsourcing platform, “to create a bigger and better marketplace for freelance designers to find clients and earn income”, in the words of the blog post announcing the acquisition. “Whether you’re a seasoned pro or just starting out, you can find exciting contests that will challenge your creativity whilst having a tonne of fun! Keep an eye out for our fun and irreverent community contests!”   

It's the old song, but not quite to the same tune.