2013 Academy Award-winning movie Gravity is not just a parable about the future of mankind, but of graphic design, too. The film shows how even the most highly educated operator of the most technologically advanced machine in the universe can be boloxed by garbage, and that the greatest threat to life and limb is supersonic flying junk sent into and beyond our atmosphere in the name of science and commerce. Despite its defining trait as the guardian of order, the graphic design profession is at the mercy of forces (and “innovations”) beyond its current control. Many designers are wondering whether graphic design has a future or will be ripped apart by exploding stars, engineers, and MBAs.
In Gravity, wise old middle-aged astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) disappears while trying to get Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) back to earth in one piece after she’s been cut adrift by marauding satellite debris. Like a traditional, old-school graphic designer, Kowalski is a smart problem solver, yet unable to return to earth because he hasn’t figured out how to cope with the new realities. Dr. Stone, as the contemporary hybrid professional, a co-mix of graphic and digital media, is attempting to survive as industrial and technological progress pose career-threatening impediments to her creative process.
My beef is that digital media are pushing the old verities of graphic design into a vortex of data garbage, simplistic jargon, and aesthetic incongruities. Ironically, designers, by and large, are better educated with more expert techno-skillsets. Thus, they’re in more demand when it comes to pushing data into digital space. Some of this has value, but much of it, like the space debris that ferociously threatens Dr. Stone’s wellbeing (and, analogously, the wellbeing of graphic designers), is careening projectiles of useless information, randomly targeting whatever and whoever is in its path.
This raises the question of graphic design’s future relevancy. Is fine typography and expert image direction and manipulation still the primary directive it once was? Or is code the new type? Can design be judged by time-honored aesthetic standards or is it destined to be viewed through anti-aesthetic lenses? Is there anything worth saving in design discourse, or is discourse over?
Kowalski muses in Gravity that not everything has an answer. “It’s nice up here. You can just shut down all the systems, turn out all the lights, and just close your eyes and tune out everyone. There’s nobody up here that can hurt you. It’s safe. I mean, what’s the point of living? If you decide to go, then you gotta just get on with it. Sit back, enjoy the ride. You gotta plant both your feet on the ground and start livin’ life. Hey, Ryan? It’s time to go home.”
[Spoiler alert] Ryan makes it back to earth. But that’s Hollywood, not graphic design.