A few months ago, a video emerged of Kanye West giving one of his signature verbal fire hoses to the students at Detroit College for Creative Studies. As I watched, a smile slowly curled on my face, anticipating the silence he would receive at the end of his rant.
That didn't happen.
I started to dig around, and I was shocked to see that generally speaking, students and graduates admire Kanye West. Remember, there's a very key difference between working with designers, and being one. Kanye is not a trained designer, but he's a creative mind that has the ability to pay designers to work on and execute his ideas. So then how did Kanye West become a design influencer that can do no wrong in the minds of design students?
All illustrations by Connor Pelletier-Sutton
I have a real love/hate relationship with concept of the "influencer" as a whole. I think it's magnificent that an individual's work can be collectively appreciated on a social platform, validating that there are thousands upon thousands of incredibly talented people out there viewing and interacting with their work. But the game has evolved so much from the dream we had 10 years ago, and it's fascinating (or quite frankly, upsetting) to dissect.
So let's start by focusing on Instagram, the clear choice for all types of creatives to share their work and watch an appreciative audience grow in front of their eyes in 2019. I joined Instagram back in 2011 while doing my masters in Architecture. "This is awesome!" I thought—a way to share my architecture models and ideas without bothering friends who wouldn't care about that on Facebook. And those filters, oh boy those filters. How wonderfully they would cover up the crappiness of my photos and quality issues in the models (or so I thought). At the time, "influencers" didn't really exist. The audience was small, and hash tagging wasn't a thing quite yet. We would mostly share our handles by word of mouth to one another, and the focus was on sharing our work. It was awesome.
Inherently, that hasn't changed—Instagram is still for sharing images. But as the platform gathered more users and it felt more and more crowded, we evolved with it. Whether intentional or not, Instagram today is a tacitly competitive space when it comes to creatives. It's as though we're all fighting for an audience that in actuality, can and does consume content from everyone. And out of this innate human need to compete and be the leader of the pack, we birthed influencers.
Now, it's not all bad. One of the greatest things to have come from this evolution is the desire to push ourselves and create better content to share, making us all better and hopefully encouraging others to push themselves too. Even this has its pitfalls, though, which lies mostly on the shoulders of influencers.
The problem here is that we're painting a complete illusion of what we do to the next generation of designers and reduce the job down to some beautiful renders or sketches.
One thing that social media influencers experience far less than a more traditional celebrity is the rise to fame through an in-person audience. That in-person experience helps others understand the impact of their actions and words, (positive or negative) more effectively than through only digital means. As a result, they may not necessarily think about the impact of their actions and how they influence others.
Let's take a minute to remember we're talking about creatives here, not socialites, movie stars, etc. Our influence and impact is minimal in the grand scheme of things, but our actions can be damaging in many other ways. I am not an influencer by any stretch, but on a near daily basis, I receive a message from a junior designer, student, or teenager saying something to the effect of "I wish I had your job!" Or "I hope to do what you do when I'm older!". But what nobody ever sees is all the work and time it took to get to there in the first place, and that's the danger.
A number of professional industrial designers use instagram as a way to detox from the reality of being a designer in the working world by sharing wild concepts, and beautifully rendered but essentially unusable designs, which in my eyes reduces them to sculpture. The problem here is that we're painting a complete illusion of what we do to the next generation of designers and reduce the job down to some beautiful renders or sketches. After all, who wants to see a photo of you on a bad hair day struggling to come up with an idea or paying invoices?
Even in my own line of work, I am not a traditional industrial designer. I often work on projects that are at times ridiculous and over the top. But because of social media, people have the illusion that I work on those types of projects all day everyday. What they don't see are the behind the scenes hours of PowerPoint, strategic meetings and tactical reviews I often go through see if the projects I propose will be actually be approved.
Now imagine then, the impact that someone with an even more significant following has on their audience? Whether they like it or not, everything they share or do will be consumed, and most likely, emulated. So do influencers need to be more mindful and conscientious? Absolutely.
However, plot twist: this isn't about them—it's actually about you. The clue to the power you as a "follower" hold is in the name we've given these people: influencers. Do you want to blindly follow and be influenced, or do you want to stop, take a minute and think about what you just saw or read, and decide if it makes sense for you to emulate?
That's not to say you should unfollow every industrial design influencer you admire. But I am saying that, especially when it comes to your current or future career, it's important to be practical and pragmatic with the loads of information you consume on a daily basis, whether it be via Instagram, YouTube or even design blogs. Take in the information for what it is—not for what you want it to be.
Remember the Kanye anecdote at the beginning of this article? It's understandable if you admire Kanye in some capacity as an artistic and cultural influencer, but please take his creative rants for what they are and avoid worshiping his every move, especially in a design context. Same goes for social media influencers within the industrial design industry.
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As a student, I initially interpreted designers "detox" of beautiful sketches as what ID really is. After doing work in the field, I've realized sexy sketches are not needed. When I first started, I thought my bosses sketches were rough. And they are! But they communicate what's necessary in order to model / prototype a product. Great article Paul!
If one is still stressed about the popularity of instagram designers, it is important to remember that the real battle is not being held on instagram. A couple of likes and a spread on leManoosh are not the highest achievements in the design world. The aspiring youth currently yearning towards spicy keyshot renders and speckled CMF will soon learn that the real battle, as it always has been, is in the domain of selling real products. In the real market, products must be visually proficient, yes, but they must also be manufacturable, cost effective, targeted and reliable. No one, not even Nick P Baker, can take that from the economy at large. It is here where only a real complete and holistic approach to the whole design process can win.
While I think it's harsh to single out one person to make your point, I frankly, couldn't agree more. Love your blog post on this.
Good points in here Paul. As one of the "influencers" (ugh that word), I feel like I should chime in. Like you said, a lot of designers use instagram as a way to experiment and play around with ideas that we can't do in our day jobs. Discouraging this unfettered creativity based on the idea that someone has a responsibility to their followers would be disappointing and not beneficial for anyone. I really appreciate you proposing that the responsibility and critical thinking be shared with the followers as well. If anyone is interested to hear a bit more about this topic, we recorded a podcast episode about this idea of instagram deception.
Oooh great topic!
I think like other professions or interests that spark a community on Instagram, the posts are much more about the dream and illusions we tell ourselves about those topics than reality. And to a certain extent, that's fine. But thanks for the reminder that designer Instagram is not what actual design is. Designy content that gets high engagement doesn't mean it's actually a viable product or even good portfolio work.
I think for a lot of people that post, it can be about justifying the hardworking lifestyle and sacrifices that allowed to achieve some degree of success in a highly competitive industry by glamorizing it.
With that said it's not all bad. Some of this work can be inspirational in different ways, as long as you take it with a grain of salt. I've personally came across a really supportive community of folks applying computational design to sneakers. It's been great to share notes and seeing how peers are pushing the envelope. With that said, few in that community would be considered influencers...
For design students and the design curious, I yearn for the popularity of the Project section of the Core77 forum. It seems most now use IG for that purpose. I remember a few years back students and professionals taking on side projects would use that forum as an interactive log of their development. You'd see a lot more of the actual work and the feedback would be meaningful with people sending sketches and markups in. I always feel like a creepy maniac if I post a comment on IG that's more than 2 sentences long.
Balance your influencing influencers with the blue foam dust insta, and all will be forgiven.
Dumb snark aside, one aspect that does seem somewhat irresponsible is that the majority of 'influencer' projects are bite-sized for immediate consumption, processing, and within-second emulation. This is how influencing works: it has to be timely, it has to be digestible in a little square photo or video. A project that takes 3 years - as many projects do - will just not engender a significant degree of influence. (would love it if someone can correct me on this.)
One of the best description of ID influencers I've seen. It also applies to everything art, and the ugly truth is that if an influencer wants to generate the most amount of interest (likes, follows etc), that person has to create and post content on a daily basis, which is not a time frame that's realistic for most industrial design projects. So we end up with a platform that has a format encouraging 30minutes-1hr quick renderings and sketches that have no use in the real world.
@Addvanced add me like and follow bro!