Timeless Design Does Not Exist

Regardless of the field we are in, we are constantly being told what to do or what to follow. With design, the ideal that’s put on a pedestal, that everyone will then point at and say “do this,” is timeless design. A vision of what is considered timeless design has been crafted over time, ever evolving, and is now what we’re told to strive for. However, there is naivety in such aspirations—there is no such thing as design that can transcend time, it’s trends, conventions, and limitations.

Before all else, let’s look over the generally agreed upon characteristics of timeless design.

  • Simple
  • Memorable/Recognizable
  • Meaningful
  • Relevant/Appropriate

Of the endless amount of lists that litter the internet, I’ve distilled the characteristics of timeless design to the four above.

What’s interesting to note, just about everyone who references timeless design suggests that timeless design will hold their own 100 years from now. The consistent claim is 100 years. What about after 100 years? What happens then? It’s humorous how people are simply looking 100 years ahead and calling it timeless. What about 1 million years down the road? One issue I have with the term timeless design is the fact that it’s disassociated with the meaning of timelessness. We can look at it timelessness in two ways:

  1. Without beginning or end; eternal; everlasting
  2. unaffected or unchanged by time; ageless

In the first definition of the word, it’s easy to dispel the idea of timeless design because design history, as seen in evolutionary terms, is a clear indication of a beginning. Everything designed today is the result of evolutionary influence over the years of art and design development as well as social growth.

Further more, the reduction of forms down to their simplest nature doesn’t inherently grant them timeless ability. The only reason that the reduced form and minimal design we so commonly see today is supposedly deemed timeless is because we’re culturally fitted for that. We have all of the tools and education to understand that sort of design, it’s the result of our modern convention. It’s essentially a long-term trend. It’s not transcending the barrier of time, it’s merely appropriate and possible for our time period.

Everyone forgets about emotions

To say design is timeless is to completely discount the emotional appeal that can be attached to an organization and their logo. Two of the most common examples used when describing timeless design is Apple and Nike. Both have logos that have become pop culture icons and are extremely reputable brands, and with the simplicity of their logos it’s difficult to argue against them. However, many people don’t take into consideration the skewed perspective they have for brands they love. Two other logos that tend to make the list are IBM and Volkswagen, again, they both have minimal logos derived from simple shapes and negative space.

One logo that we’ll likely never see on the list of timeless logos or icons is the Nazi swastika. If we consider the same objective reasoning that got the other logos on the list, it very well should be on there. We leave it out because of the negative feelings attached to it. We can’t be entirely objective about design because design is done for people, and we can’t forget that people have emotion.

Popularity doesn’t warrant timelessness nor does simplicity.

We love Apple and Nike so it’s easy to put them on praise, but what if we hated them? What if we despised them? Would their logos be forgotten? What happens when the companies fade? Can pop culture icons truly be timeless? Is it popularity which makes them timeless? What if everyone created/had Apple or Nike-esque logos? Would they all be timeless? Is it the mere fact that they stand out, they’re well liked, and market leaders that make them timeless?

Is the defining of something as timeless based on the merit of objective aesthetics or by what’s demanded/needed of the time?

Having a preconceived idea of what makes something timeless means we must submit to a predefined convention, it means we’re halting progress in the name of timelessness. Have you ever thought, can a better language or alphabet system exist? If so, arguably everything that has been labeled as timeless becomes the very opposite—something of the past.

Design isn’t timeless, it’s only an idea you project onto it.

It’s not of our ability to know what design will be like millions of years from now because it’s not possible for us to anticipate the culture changes that will occur over that time. Will we be in flying cars? Will things be the same? Will we be cave people again? Will the Earth exist at all?

Trends are inevitable

Trends will always exist—they are a documentation of history. Trends, to an extent, are important. It’s okay to work within trends, and to define new ones. It’s a means of leverage and adaptation. Trends are like tiny experiments, and experimentation is a necessity on the way to timelessness (which can’t be reached).

Embrace that trends exist. Leverage them. Use them to transport your message. They can be carriers for your concept. Trends aren’t by default a bad thing. The biggest thing is maintaining that sense of experimentation that exists within trends and by defining new ones. There are of course current trends such as flat design, but there are also trends of the past that you can visit and learn from.

I’ve allowed myself to experiment with becoming more distant from the minimal work I used to do because I’ve recognized that if I can do anything, why be generic? This isn’t to say simplicity is generic, not at all, but rather I have the opportunity (or I can at least create the opportunity), by revisiting past trends, to challenge design norms and create diversity in a world of sameness.

The Key to Timeless Design

Timeless design doesn’t exist, but it’s an ideal we can strive for

In an interview Dezeen has with Philippe Starck, he explains why timeless design is not a cliché, and argues in favor of it. Although I don’t agree with the notion of timelessness, I like what Starck had to say.

“Timeless is the only way that is really ecological. We don’t need recycling if we just buy less. It’s a new way of thinking. You don’t buy for six months. You buy for you, for your life and for your children and your grandchildren.”

During another interview, Massimo Vignelli urges designers to be disciplined and to stay away from trends. However, having that mindset essentially claims, “We found it. We figured it out. No need to worry about what everyone else is doing because we already figured out how to create timeless design.” I disagree with this mindset because it stops us from pushing, from seeing what people are interested in, from experimenting with fleeting moments, and from learning about our ever evolving culture.

I don’t believe timeless design exists, however, I believe we can produce thoughtful and meaningful design. The recognition of trends existence and the use of trends isn’t inherently negative, it’s a sign of progress. Above all, I believe it’s our responsibility to design with integrity—to ensure we are making conscious decisions, aware of our environmental impact, and to design with longevity in mind, but to never stop pushing.