The posting Does the US suck at design? focuses quite a bit on currency design, but brings up some other points that remind me of a conversation my wife and I had while we were in Spain in June. As we travelled around, we were constantly struck with how much attention to design and detail was taken. From the presentation and packaging of your morning pastry, the abundant (modern) sculpture to the style of the people you pass on the street it was a refreshing change from what you would encounter in the US.
My first trip abroad was our belated honeymoon trip to New Zealand. It was then that I started to take note of the differences in attitudes toward design and presentation. One of the first things that I noticed was that food that you would get in a pub in NZed was often much better that what you would get at a restaurant in the US — always fresh, well made and very, very tasty. The other thing I began to notice was the attention that was given to public spaces and buildings. As we have traveled the world from Dunedin to Bergen, I am often struck by how train stations have fabulous facades and thoughtful layouts within. Squares are built to sit and enjoy and are frequently enhanced with sculpture and stylized lamp posts. Even in the narrowest alleyway, there are colorful flower boxes to brighten the space — people take it in their own interest to add these touches.
One comment in the original posting that I don’t necessarily agree with is that ‘beautiful things work better’. I don’t think that it follows that they work better, but they may be more fun to use and, as such, come into your hand more frequently that the ‘ordinary’ would. I also recognize that this notion can go too far — just look at nouvelle cuisine and any of the bling crapola like diamond encrusted ipod cases. When it becomes more about form than function, a thing can become confusing/unsatisfying to use.
So what accounts for the difference in the US? Part of me wants to say it is the pre-packaged, short attention span society that permeates the US. It seems that everyone wants to be an individual but they take their cues from television so they just wind up largely being one undifferentiated mass. Sadly, this seems to be particularly true of many of the ‘creative types’ that seem unable to create a style of their own and are happy to simply endlessly rehash goth, punk and hippie themes. Equally sad is that this lack of creativity is not just in the younger generation; it is a trend among adults to rehash youth culture with staggeringly bad results. It is sort of like the old joke about Elvis impersonators — none of them really look like Elvis, but they all look like each other.
It is somewhat amusing to spot the trends in other countries and try to forecast when they will show up in the US and from there, when they will make their way into the Midwest. For most things, it seems to take about 3-5 years. For the most part, it is quite easy to spot an American abroad due to the differences in style and behavior.