On authenticity

Patrick Baglee discusses authenticity, the primary theme of POINT, an international design conference taking place in London in May 2013. 

As a principle, authenticity is used as a quick and convenient badge and remains open-ended enough in its definition to allow for multiple applications. To some, authenticity is a means of adding value: ‘nominal’ authenticity is confirmation that a thing is by the person it is said to be by. In the case of a Picasso, Stradivarius or Invader mosaic, the most significant effect of this type of authenticity is to add to and increase something’s intrinsic and commercial value. The other primary definition, of ‘expressive’ authenticity, is fantastically general. It, in essence, is nothing more than a personal and committed act of creativity, or an act of any type: whatever you do is by definition authentic because only you can do it.

The drawback here is that expressive authenticity has no obvious quality standard attached to it. So, if it is committed, but wholly unsuccessful, does that mean it can still be truly authentic? Some would argue that in order to retain an inherent sense of value, authenticity ought to spring from an act that carries a sense of appropriateness of purpose, careful consideration and responsibility. Certainly where designers are concerned the intent must be to take the problems we are given to solve and do so in a manner that is not just ‘authentic’ in expressive terms (the people who are employed to do the job are the ones who actually do it), but also in the way in which the problem is understood, investigated and ultimately resolved.

There is, as far as design is concerned, a problem in that authenticity is perceived by many as being reliant on the final outcome of the act. That is to say, authenticity is the result, the product or the object; as if by merely existing the object itself is imbued with authenticity – whatever the standard of execution. As designers, we do or should achieve a higher standard than that. We should consider the possibility, if not just state it outright, that the true genesis of authenticity starts far earlier. Should there not be equal if not greater importance placed on what could be best be described as an authenticity of process. Without this, how can an object or outcome be truly authentic?

There are certainly precedents in design literature that give the idea of authentic process some support. In ‘What is a Designer: Things, Places, Messages’, Norman Potter says:

‘Good design is the generous and pertinent response to the full context of a design opportunity, whether large or small, and the quality of the outcome resides in a close and truthful correspondence between form and meaning.’

Potter’s ‘generous and pertinent response’ might well be a reference to the creative brief that should carry a complete understanding of the challenge, the client’s business, the audience and any relevant cultural precedents. ‘The full context of a design opportunity’ is much more to do with the immediate reality of the problem than with the riches that might follow upon its solution.

Massimo Vignelli, in his eponymous canon, makes two very strong points in respect of an authentic process that straddles both the expressive and process driven types of authenticity. His own design process and approach starts with a search for meaning, firm in the belief that ‘clarity of intent will translate into clarity of result.’ When he goes on to talk about responsibility, he also says that as designers our first responsibility is to ourselves, to the integrity of the project and all its components. It is about being ready to ‘commit ourselves to the most appropriate solution.’ Can intent alone be enough? Does genuine intent include within it the process of design as a given element? Likewise, is the integrity of a project something that includes process as a given? Methodologies differ from designer to designer, agency to agency and the external understanding of what comprises the design process differs from client to client.

Michael Bierut put the challenge of authenticity and its definition in a creative context very neatly when he wrote that ‘No one cares more about authenticity than a graphic designer.’ He was looking, in part, at the criticism offered by Tibor Kalman of the ‘Classico’ pasta sauce label designs. The background is important because it suggests that the authenticity some designers find is in fact that of conformity to a norm. This is a kind of borrowed visual provenance, a reflected graphic authenticity that is actually closer to a mix of pastiche (of previous work) or homage (to the obviously successful versions that have gone before). Yet as Bierut goes on to point out, in a commercially driven industry, there is pressure to conform to such graphic norms. A client might already have a vision of what they think they want to see, the travelling public will expect to recognize the emergency exits in any airport irrespective of where they find themselves in the world, and pasta sauce labels might well have to include rolling hills, olive trees and rustic typography if they are going to help sell the contents.

To be authentic is not necessarily to be original, though originality might well be a highly desirable outcome of an authentic design process. Originality is important because it suggests that a problem has been assessed, explored and solved entirely on its own merits. Originality is an outcome based on a unique assessment of a problem – a response that could only exist because of that particular problem and set of circumstances. But again, originality is most commonly represented by the outcome – not necessarily by the process that got you there.

If being truly authentic meant never following norms then the potential dichotomy is an interesting one; there is a far greater risk of originality and failure. Conformity might well mean an ordinary outcome, but it could also mean you keep the client, and your job. Ultimately though, isn’t the challenge presented by following an authentic process a more interesting, engaged and rewarding way of working? And whether what you do works or not, doesn’t this process of thinking as designers – whether individual or collaborative – truly reflect and bring out the very best of ourselves? Whether the outcome is original or not, if you get where you need to be by an authentic process isn’t every creative act one in which every designer can take pride, whatever the outcome?

Perhaps Oscar Wilde put the challenge of authenticity and creativity best. ‘Be yourself,’ he once said, ‘everyone else is already taken.’

You can buy a ticket to POINT here.



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