by Helen Armstrong, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio
Why do designers obsess about the future? Admit it. We do. In the after party of a recent conference—and why is this where all the best ideas bubble up?—this point was driven home by Bernard Canniffe of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He leaned over and said, in an exaggerated whisper, “The secret to any design conference is this: begin each conversation with “In the future….”
A prompt for the evening, the conversation took off from there. We went around the room, each giving the statement our best stab. We moved from “In the future, designers will be questioners,” to “In the future, designers will be telepaths,” to “In the future, there will be no design.” As the night wore on, these statements seemed increasingly funny, not because they were ludicrous, and not because we were tipsy, but because the idea struck a cord. The future fascinates designers. We jump at every bump that suggests we are being left behind. One whisper of, “in the future,” and we all strain to hear.
This craving for insight goes back to the early days of our profession. Avant-garde artists of the early 1900s focused pointedly on what lay ahead. Bauhaus designers, like El Lissitzky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Herbert Bayer, strove to discover a visual language appropriate to the new age of the machine. The past, a time of symmetry and ornament, was a stale leftover to be thrown away. Avant-garde designers sought to communicate instead through universal forms—sleek, functional, efficient and unequivocal. “In the future,” dominated their ideology.
(left) Herbert Bayer Bauhaus sixtieth-birthday exhibition poster for Wassily Kandinsky, 1926
(right) Herbert Bayer Photomontage cover for the first issue of bauhaus zeitschrift, 1928.
El Lissitzky Cover and spread from Dlia Golosa (For the Voice, or Read Out Loud), 1923.
This same spirit spread westward after World War II, as many Bauhaus artists immigrated to the US. Machine-inspired Avant-garde ideology morphed to fit the needs of big business, as it suddenly found itself booming and popular. Industry, after all, had won the war, or so their public relations departments proclaimed. Eager to hold on to this public support, big business seized upon design