Sunday, December 07, 2008

Looking Like Lagos

Recently, I re-read a foreword written by Creed O'Hanlon for a US non-fiction book on marketing, Living Brands by Raymond Nadeau. O'Hanlon is one of those rare thinkers who approaches problems outside their conventional contexts and comes up with ideas that, even when they're not immediate solutions, suggest new ways to go about finding them. In other words, they're the sorts of ideas that work best in unstable times.
The following excerpt is obviously relevant to artists worrying about surviving a recession that will endure – and deepen – over the next eighteen months:
Much of so-called ‘smart’ thinking about marketing today is undone by a pervasive disregard for people’s individual capacity for unpredictability. The fatal flaw of many ‘designed’ environments, both physical and virtual – and for me, an ‘environment’ can be anything from a web page, TV ad or a computer game to a living space, a shopping mall or a household appliance – is that consideration for aesthetics and technology comes first, the expressive, improvisational nature of human functionality second. They lack not just basic utility, but soul.
Intuitiveness is missing, and instead of our awareness being enhanced, our minds and senses are overloaded. Too often, too, real creativity has been replaced by what Malcolm McLaren has called, “a karaoke world, a world without a point of view... it is a virtual replay of something that has happened before: life by proxy – liberated by hindsight, unencumbered by the messy process of creativity and free of any responsibility.”
The result: media and humanity have become, somehow, disconnected.
Which is why, these days, I find myself arguing for some kind of benign chaos, and abandoning a measure of organisation and structure (both inherent in the definition of ‘design’) to allow for more random, unmediated patches of unmanaged response and purposelessness – even just plain silence – in consumer marketing.
We’re reminded by post-modern social thinkers that the emphasis on design nowadays is inextricable from the emergence of shopping as the primary culture of developed societies. More and more products compete for our attention, and each has to communicate a unique distinction to capture a jaded consumer’s attention. The trouble is, the context (design) often overwhelms the content (substance) and the consumer, who is drawn by the context, is left dissatisfied and frustrated. Which makes them harder and harder to reach. It becomes a self-negating cycle: design rather than substance is used to attract and briefly sustain the consumer’s attention. Its allure fades and ends up disappearing into the irritating white noise that surrounds our lives. And the disappointed consumer, still compelled by a search for meaning, moves onto the next thing.
Marketers and product managers too often think of their markets as somehow orderly, navigable, the result of a coherent architecture, rather like the cities of Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, or Canberra, the capital of Australia (both of which were purpose-built as their nation’s capitals but suffer from a sterility that compels a degree of both individual isolation and collective dysfunction). In fact, most markets are like Lagos in Nigeria.
If you have seen any recent photos of this city, you’ll immediately understand what I mean: freeways and main roads unfinished and blocked by cars for which they have become temporary parking lots or shanty towns or makeshift bazaars; repurposed for social and commercial interaction, they’re no longer useful as arteries for any kind of mechanized traffic, but they work in other, different and maybe better ways.
Interestingly, in 1999 and 2000, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and the Harvard Design School’s Project on the City studied Lagos and the total breakdown of basic infrastructure and civil order there that defy all conventional wisdom on how cities develop. He wrote, “We resist the notion that Lagos represents and Afircan city en route to becoming modern... Rather, we think it possible to argue that it represents an extreme and paradigmatic study of a city at the forefront of globalizing modernity.
“That is to says, Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather, we may be catching up with Lagos.”

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