“First Thoughts are the everyday thoughts. Everyone has those. Second Thoughts are the thoughts you think about the way you think. People who enjoy thinking have those. Third Thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They’re rare, and often troublesome.”

—Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

Discerning between the positive potential of novelty and the dangerous traps of fashion is tricky. There’s no formula for maintaining the necessary vigilance.

The difference is choosing to think, and think again. And maybe, as the quote above suggests, to not even stop there.

When we see something new, something that surprises us, our brains race to fit it into existing mental pathways. From an evolutionary perspective, we may be determining whether it is useful or dangerous. From a creative perspective, it’s rather more complex, partly because the new thing may not dart as quickly to our base survival processes. It has more time to wend its way through obstacles or seductions such as judgments, personal experiences, cultural filters, design training, bad design training, competitive threats, esprit de corps and more. At any point, this new thing can become mired, jammed or simply dismissed.

As humans, if a thing is so completely new that we can’t relate to it at all, we’ll dismiss it, sometimes before it even makes its way to our conscious thoughts. We must find some connecting point, no matter how small, for it to matter.

As designers (whose very livelihoods depend on being both novel and relevant—recognizable, even deeply familiar—to others), we want to respond to new design ideas with a balance of critical thinking and openness. And second thoughts.

Example: I see a thing I’ve never seen before, or a designer does something with type I had never thought of (or would have refused to consider). My first reaction may be “Not enough contrast between the two typefaces: ew!” Bonk: out it goes.

If I apply some secondary thinking, I can begin to look past my first reaction:

  • Why don’t I like it?
  • What rule(s) does it break?
  • Are there times when it’s a good thing to break that rule?
  • What was the designer trying to do, even if I think they failed?

There are lots of other questions we can ask ourselves (I hope you’ll comment with yours), depending on what we’re evaluating, as well as the context, but probably the most important questions we can ask ourselves are:

  • What is the impact of the design on others?
  • Without the filters of design training, can they (those “others”) let in a message I am missing?

Asking questions like this frees you from cynicism, frees you to let more wonder in and frees you to grow, to innovate, to create.

Now to Fashion

Remember when web design clients consistently included “a web 2.0 look” in their list of requirements? The “look” was usually lozenge-effect buttons, lots of drop shadows and dimensionalized “widgets”.

Now web design writers are talking flat, flat, flat. It’s a fair pushback reaction. I’ve certainly had enough of lozenge buttons. But too frequently, it’s a reaction, rather than a response.

Response requires some thought, is less often a straight rejection, and is willing to embrace facets of the offending quality in a way that evolves it.

Reaction engenders fashion: that thing we do almost entirely because others are doing it. Or, if we’re honest, it’s also the thing we don’t do almost entirely because others are doing it. Either way, we’ve bypassed evaluation and analysis and handed the decision to that (largely auto-piloted) obstacle/seduction course I described at the beginning of this post. Very little conscious thinking is involved. No contribution has been made to the creative, evolving conversation that is human innovation.

In the U.S., we’ve got some hefty handicaps. We are not a design culture. Creativity and aesthetics are perceived as frivolous, or worse: as fickle, magical spirits that possess a chosen few. As a result, most Americans are afraid to make novel design decisions, and so must rely on fashion, because it tells us what to like.

That’s why it’s just as important to run a few filters across things we are quick to like:

  • What exactly do I like about this?
  • Why?
  • Do I like it because I have a decision to like everything by [designer/artist name]?
  • Do I like it because it’s in my favorite store or magazine? (I struggle with this one when I’m at an Anthropologie store)
  • Do I like it simply because it’s familiar?

This post is not a criticism of fashionable dressing—something I’ll probably never master. It’s meant as a call, both to designers and those who buy design—for advertising, published media or to store your pencils in—to challenge our relationship with design, and to take the decision-making process back from our latest design taste-makers.

Living things seek out and thrive on novelty. Thinking, questioning humans have the power to create novelty that is not only new, but that also spreads wonder and fuels more growth, more innovation and more creativity.

Novelty vs. Fashion in Design

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