A Time for Reflection

November 30, 2009 | by BatesMeron

Trends come and go in the world of style, and they are…ahem…reflected in the world of design, sometimes to the point of nauseating. A lot of times these trends are driven by technology—as soon as a new ability is made available, it starts popping up in commercials, billboards, print ads and websites. It is perhaps the fault of technology that while it has given designers greater power and speed, that speed has become expected of us and timelines are now tightened to the point where reaching for that new trend is a more viable option in a pinch than being original.

Anyone who’s visited a website, seen a billboard or thumbed through a magazine lately will probably notice that the entire world seems to be sitting atop mirrored glass. Reflected in all its polished glory are logos, packages, text, and people. It’s become so pervasive that I’ve accidentally learned Cyrillic by looking at all the upside-down text.

Tracing the root of an obnoxious trend can often be difficult, and though it pains a Mac-head like me to say it, I think it all started with Mac OSX and its accompanying promotions. Like a child drawn to shiny toys, the interface’s sleek bouncing icons danced atop a three-dimensional table of glass.

Resplendent in their showiness (and having a captured audience of designer nerds before them 8 hours a day…whispering things…), the icon’s styling soon began to show up practically everywhere a thing could sit atop another thing. Of course, we can’t leave out the harbinger of doom itself, the Microsoft Office Suite. Their Office 2007 and 2008 software came with a seemingly innocent new feature that allows any grandma or CEO to pop a reflection on any element they choose. Not long after the these two softwares launched, the world was mysteriously (though perhaps not coincidentally) coated in a thin sheet of translucent material.

I’m all for stylistic flourishes, but I have one important caveat. Namely, it must serve the higher purpose of a concept and not be done for its own sake. Watching reflections get used to fill space seems at best lazy and distracting at worst. Why is an Arby’s sandwich sitting on glass as it spins through space? What seems appropriate for a car seems wholly inappropriate for a tasty sandwich. When I think “delicious BBQ” I don’t think “hermetically clean as a processor chip factory.”  Nor do I want to.

True to the triadic philosophy of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, we are seeing a reaction (or antithesis, as he would have called it) to this sterile gleaming surface in the resurgence of hand-done design. Trade publications are expounding the virtues of craft over computers and rough-hewn textures over smoothness. It’s not unlike the way the Arts & Crafts movement reacted to the Victorian movement at the beginning of the last century by expounding the virtues of hand-made furniture over assembly-line production.

If Hegel’s triad holds true, though, we will soon see the synthesis of these two competing movements of shiny versus gritty, and I can only imagine what form that will take. Hand-worked type against molten glass? I shudder to think…

Of course, I’m never against anything for its own sake. Reflections definitely have their place and can be done well and for the right reasons. It has shown up in my work and others that I respect just like drop shadows and Victorian ornamentation (two other trends that were once overused). As with any tool, it is not good or bad in and of itself. It’s all in how you use it.

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