“The great flattening”: A visual companion

These essays tend to be a bit wordy, so I thought I’d mix things up today with a few pictures.

This is courtesy of blogger David Perell, who by chance compiled a few images the other day which directly speak to some of the trends we’ve been discussing.

He calls it “The Great Flattening”, by which he means the gradual homogenisation of aesthetics, architecture, design, and branding into characterless internationalist blob.  We have explored the same phenomenon here by other names – whether in the case of blandingperma-revolution, or post-culturalism.

Ultimately it’s all the same thing:

A relentless attack on the particular in favour of the universal generic.

I wasn’t planning on writing any more about this as I think we’ve covered it enough.  However I just had to share the images from Perell’s post, since it’s one thing to pontificate on this stuff, but quite another to see it with your own eyes.

First we have the branding issue, neatly encapsulated by the evolution of Pepsi over the years:

This is a familiar tale, which you might also have seen visualised in this famous graphic of the evolution of luxury brands in recent years:

Many have commented that this is particularly strange in the case of luxury brands, since they are meant to serve as rarified status symbols, and to ooze luxury.  However if we bear in mind that neutrality is now the ultimate status symbol, and that overt luxury is becoming a bit gauche, then this contradiction is resolved.

Sticking with the world of branding, we come to these ubiquitous characters, who you’ve probably seen gracing many a website in the past couple of years:

According to Perell they were originally designed by Facebook by an agency called Buck, who said:

“We designed and built a scalable system rooted in flat, minimal, geometric shapes. The figures are abstracted… to help them instantly achieve a universal feel.”

Scalable, flat, minimal, abstracted, universal – it’s hard to come up with a better description of the phenomenon than that, and it’s highly apparent when we move out of the world of branding and into architecture.

Here Perell highlighted a Twitter thread pulled together by The Cultural Tutor, who noted how attempts at beauty in public works and utilities had been squeezed out by a utilitarian universalism; even down to the tiniest detail:

The irony here is that the philosophical goal of such developments is to make things inclusive, culturally non-specific, and “for everyone” – however at the same time it is culturally specific artefacts that attract visitors from all over the world, who are more than happy to enjoy and admire things that supposedly “weren’t built for them”.

This reminds me of one of the great strategic fallacies of our time: the belief that people only like things that act as a mirror, reflecting themselves back at them.

Certainly there is a grain of truth in this.  Sometimes mirroring your audience as precisely as possible is a smart strategy.  Certainly there are many brands who do that.  However equally valid is to attract people with something that is decidedly not like them.  This might either be something that is elevating and aspirational, something they “look up to”, or equally it could simply be something exotic and intoxicating.

It is indicative of the arrogance of the universalist assumption that a Western tourist would happily marvel at the wonders of Great Zimbabwe, or the Alhambra, or the temples of Kyoto, but would assume that the same wouldn’t apply in the reverse.

The fact is that tourists come in their millions to visit Stratford-Upon-Avon, Oxford, and Westminster Abbey – not Canary Wharf.

Because of this, Perell’s conclusion is that we should reject the great flattening, and return producing things with personality and particularity.

As a consumer – and indeed as a human being – I agree with him.  However while this is what I would like to see, we have to bear in mind that what is “good” is not necessarily the same as what is “strategic”.

Effective strategies are responsive to grand systemic currents, not, unfortunately, personal preference, or what is “right” in the abstract.  The changes we discuss here are, yes, partially philosophically driven.  But more than that, they are systemically driven.  They are the unthinking consequences of the way the world is unfolding.

The fact is that the market does indeed respond positively in many cases the flattened / blanded / homogenised products.  This is for many hard-to-unpack reasons, including:

  • Cost
  • Status anxiety
  • Fashion
  • Education
  • Etc.

Because of this I don’t think we can assume that those luxury brands would do better if they reverted to their prior characterful states.

On the contrary, they probably wouldn’t.

When it comes to public works, the story is a little different, because these aren’t so wedded to the demands of the market.  They have a certain responsibility to be edifying and uplifting, so there I would agree more readily.  However most of us don’t work with such free briefs.  Most of us have to deal with reality as we find it, not as we wish it to be.

Can we reintroduce passion, specificity, personality, and beauty back into the world through our projects?  Yes.  But we must do it within the constraints of the above reality, not in spite of it.

That is the art of strategy.

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