Style as crutch. Every great designer has a default mode that provides a solution when original thinking, for whatever reason, is impossible. This default mode, deployed with regularity, becomes associated with that designer’s unique personal style. Do not fear your default mode, but nor should you seek it. Simply know that there’s a safety net if you need it. Knowing that makes you less likely to need it.Style as assimilation. We are taught to value originality, to assume that the first goal of every design solution is differentiation. If you think that standing out in a crowd is a universal goal, take a look around. You will see few people sporting hula skirts or top hats. Instead, everyone is trying to fit in. Some design challenges have the same requirement. If you’re creating packaging for spaghetti sauce, you can make it jump out from the shelf by making it look like a bottle of shampoo. But people in the pasta aisle aren’t looking for shampoo. They’re looking for spaghetti sauce. And what makes spaghetti sauce look like spaghetti sauce is the aggregation of a hundred small stylistic cues that need to be understood and mastered. Once you know how to fit in, you can decide what it will take to break out.
Style as timestamp. [Year] called, they want their [dated graphic trope] back. Oh, snap!
Style as denial. I don’t like to think I have an identifiable style, says the designer with the identifiable style. A way of working can become so comfortable that small differences can seem exaggerated. With surprising regularity, a designer is blind to the fact that it all looks alike, that the same patterns are being repeated over and over. The entire field of psychiatry exists to address this problem in daily life. At what point do you need professional help?
Style as trademark. You can identify an Emily Dickinson poem by the punctuation alone. There is an entire profession called “forensic linguistics;” its specialists can authenticate a Shakespeare sonnet or derive a criminal profile from a ransom note. What evidence are you leaving behind?
Style as narcissism. Or, falling in love with your own handwriting.
Style as disguise. Planner Andres Duany has said that the comforting style of New Urbanism — front porches, picket fences — is nothing more than the nostalgia-imbued Trojan Horse in which the radical planning ideas — no cars, tiny yards — are delivered. Mary Poppins: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Style as professionalism. Eero Saarinen’s motto was “The style for the job.” His design for the TWA Terminal was as different from his General Motors Technical Center was as different from his U.S. Embassy in London as air travel is from automotive engineering is from international diplomacy. Purists viewed him with suspicion, but he was enormously successful and made the cover of Time magazine. After his early death, his work seemed to date badly. Today, everyone loves the TWA Terminal.
Style as prostitution. The oldest profession(alism). Who would the client like me to be today? “I’m a whore,” Philip Johnson liked to admit, preempting any criticism.
Style as homage. The gala invitation done in the mode of the event’s honoree. At a party for architecture dean Jay Chatterjee, famously fond of bow ties, attendees were asked to wear bow ties.
Style as impersonation. It can be surprisingly satisfying to attempt to channel the voice of John Baskerville, or William Morris, or Alvin Lustig, or Robert Brownjohn. Satisfying and, to some, dangerously addictive. Like a painting student copying an old master at the Musee de Beaux Arts, Hunter S. Thompson once typed out the entire text of “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He said he wanted to find out what it felt like to write a masterpiece.
Style as indulgence. Even at its emptiest, style can be a source of great pleasure. I work in a building that was constructed 100 years ago as a bank. In the basement, side by side, are two vaults. Each vault has a massive door manufactured by the Remington & Sterling Company, made of brass and steel, with a gleaming mechanism visible behind glass. Each door is covered with elaborate, hand-engraved filigree, graceful and exuberant, purely decorative, and destined to be — literally — locked away from public view, for the decoration is all on the inside. But that’s not the amazing thing. The amazing thing is that the doors have slightly different patterns. One is based on oak leaves. The other is based on maple leaves. It’s as if some craftsperson said back in 1912: these two doors for the job at 204 Fifth Avenue, are they right next to each other? I’d better make sure they’re different. The vault doors would work just fine without any decoration at all, of course. That makes the gift ever more special.
Style as style.
This essay was commissioned by Julia Hoffmann and Joe Marianek for the 2013 School of Visual Arts Senior Library, a book celebrating the best work of that year’s graduating class.