Aesthetics can be understood as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience. It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience. Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.
— Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics
Questions of representation are central to the practice of graphic design. An understanding of who we are speaking for, and who we are speaking to, is the starting point of any design brief. It is through this role of mediation, expressed as aesthetic form, that design enacts its power and responsibility. However, this mediation often happens uncritically, guided by a designer’s intuition, stylistic trends, and the instrumental framework of marketing and PR concerns. A multiplicity of factors, conscious and unconscious, play into a designer’s aesthetic choices of imagery, typography, composition and colour. And as much as some might argue to the contrary, none of these choices are neutral.
In the case of colour, Pantone Inc. holds incredible influence with their increasingly marketed and mediatised Colour of the Year campaigns. Purportedly determined through a prescient reading of the cultural zeitgeist (by a select cabal of colour specialists), it is important to understand that the company, and the industry it serves, have their own specific interests and agendas that drive these selections. Pantone’s choice of “Rose Quartz” and “Serenity” as the 2016 Colour of the Year is the most insidious move by this colour-industrial-complex since “Blue Iris” in 2008. As with “Blue Iris”, Pantone has once again mined the subcultural landscape and used their monopoly within the creative industries to propagate their colour properties to the world.
From IK Blue to Blue Iris
Pantone was on point in 2008, presenting a slightly muted version of the IK Blue (International Klein)/RGB Blue trend that evolved out of the Dutch “default design” approach of the early 2000s. Default design advocated against the smooth surfaces of graphic professionalism, employing low-res imagery, system fonts, crude layouts, and the standard web link hex-colour #0000FF. It incorporated a self-referential criticism into its aesthetic, and the prominent use of RGB Blue became a clear signifier of this. The colour was carried forward with the emergence of a vaguely defined “critical graphic design” aesthetic, shifting between Default, IK, and Reflex Blue, and it was often used monochromatically, in large flat swathes that were both vivid and jarring.
Though IK Blue and RGB Default Blue are not the same, their intense visceral effect is similar, stemming from the colours’ physical/digital materiality; Klein’s blue was unique due to the synthetic resin binder which allowed the pigment to maintain its clarity, whereas Default Blue is as pure a blue as the RGB spectrum can achieve. Referenced in William Gibson’s 2010 novel Zero History, the character Hubertus Bigend has a suit made entirely of material in IK Blue. He states that he wears this because the intensity of the colour makes other people uncomfortable, and because he is amused by the difficulty of reproducing the colour on a computer monitor. Gibson, an astute cultural observer, used this reference to acknowledge its avant-garde popularity while pointing to the inherent subversive quality of the colour.
The mainstreaming of “Blue Iris” by Pantone softened the subversive punch of IK Blue (which by 2008 was already an identifiable commodity in contemporary art and fashion circles), further bolstering its popularity amongst designers and the consumer population at large.
Rose Quartz and Serenity
“Rose Quartz” and “Serenity” (hereafter abbreviated as RQ+S) present a far more nefarious situation. There’s no doubt that Pantone’s trend forecasters/cool hunters are once again on point (much more so than last year’s Marsala), yet anyone who has spent a little too much time on Tumblr over the last few years probably could have seen this coming. The tonal pink and blue palette has been growing exponentially in popularity online since the emergence (circa 2010-11), purported death (circa 2012), and expanding influence of the micro-cultures of Seapunk, and its successor, Vaporwave, as part of a more broadly defined subculture of internet-fuelled art employing what can be described as a Tumblr aesthetic.
The popular use of these colours, and specifically their combined usage, has emerged out of a tumultuously contested subcultural space. Pantone’s conceptual framing of RQ+S is disingenuous at best, and once one digs a little deeper, can be seen to represent a clearly reactionary political force.
Seapunk #wet #deep #dolphins
Seapunk, an electronic music micro-genre that started out as a hashtag in-joke on Twitter, became more identifiable for its online visual aesthetic than its music; psychedelic dreamscape collages of underwater imagery (with a clear overrepresentation of Ecco the dolphin), web 1.0 graphics and gifs, classical roman sculptures, and 90s era rave nostalgia, all immersed within shimmering pastel and neon tones of turquoise, aquamarine, pink and purple. Not quite RQ+S, but we’re getting there.
In late 2011, Seapunk graphics and fashion imagery exploded on tumblr and the style was quickly picked up by fashion bloggers and online music and culture magazines. By March 2, 2012, the NY Times style section ran an article, entitled “Little Mermaid Goes Punk”, signalling “la petite mort” of the micro-culture to many of its progenitors. On November 10, 2012, Seapunk truly broke into the mainstream with Rihanna’s performance of Diamonds on Saturday Night Live, which was described as a “screensaver performance” before the frenzied backlash brought the Seapunk terminology into the limelight. Azelia Banks’ “Atlantis” video dropped the next day, and Seapunk’s co-optation and death was officially declared.
also, why aren’t y’all frustrated AT ALL at the rihanna thing? that performance marked the commodification of an aesthetic movement…— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)
…which means all taste-makers have to start all over. it’s a lot of work. clearly ur not doing shit but consuming if ur not peeved by this— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)
“wow amazing rihanna performance i love seeing my tumblr on SNL” why? that Aesthetic served as an exclusive binder for URL counterculture…— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)
…tomorrow, when it enters Phase Three and Forever 21 puts a price tag on it, it will no longer be exclusive. its purpose is gone.— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)
The Seapunk story is as much about its co-optation and commodification as it is about the music or visual style. It was arguably one of the first internet-based subcultures to be thrust so quickly into the mainstream. Angry responses to its co-optation, and articles mocking these responses flooded the internet in equal measure. For the corporate taste-makers, the style offered an exciting counterpoint to the wholesome faux-nostalgia and whitewashed elitism of hipster aesthetics, and thus provided a new market to explore, develop and extract value from. This wellspring was short-lived however, as artists and adherents soon jumped ship, no doubt seeing where the style was headed.
Vaporwave: The Jester in the King’s Court
Vaporwave has been hailed as Seapunk’s successor, though it actually emerged in parallel, with less dolphins, and a more mature theoretical grounding. The dolphins have been replaced by renderings of the assorted detritus of techno-capitalism; anachronistic corporate logos, dead media formats, GUI elements, and perspective grids. Musically, the genre samples and remixes the corporate soundscape; elevator and on-hold music, the piped-in pop of shopping malls and office lobbies, smooth jazz, easy listening and motivational new age harmonies. Vaporwave differentiates itself from Seapunk through its critical self-awareness, and it is far more intentional in how it employs its parodic kitsch aesthetics. It is darkly cynical and sickly sweet, exemplified by artist and label names such as The Pleasure Centre, New Dreams Ltd., Fortune 500, Business Casual or Condo Pets.
Analysis of the genre points to Vaporwave operating within what can be described as an accelerationist framework; expanding, repurposing and exaggerating the technosocial processes of capitalism in order to provoke radical social change. Its saccharine caricature of corporate culture engages whole-heartedly with the alienating nostalgia of the post-authentic, playing the role of the jester in the king’s court, or acting as a hall of mirrors in the funhouse enclosures of capital. Its tactics have abandoned confrontational resistance to instead lubricate the symbolic ground upon which capitalism stands, and offer it a series of gentle, yet insistent, nudges.
In 2015, in a desperate attempt to stay relevant, MTV (a Viacom International Inc. company) rebranded with a full-on Vaporwave aesthetic and the Orwellian tagline “I am my MTV”. Undoubtedly counselled by agency customer-engagement experts it was as transparent as it was blatant. Their VMA campaign promos featured Miley Cyrus gesticulating in front of a green screen, enticing the public to fill in the blank(ness) with their unpaid labour. The crowd-sourced results feel tepid at best, with a significant percentage of the content created by agencies and design studios, most-likely commissioned by MTV. And within all of the internet-y visual chaos, a smooth and uniform surface reappears. In spite of this co-option, or perhaps due to it, the Vaporwave aesthetic continues to evolve and expand, within the not so hidden corners of subreddits, and to mutate and accelerate, parading on the front lines of fashion.
It is not my intention to ascribe any sort of authorial/authoritative origin story to this recombinant aesthetic. Popular style emerges from a confluence of tendencies and cultural currents. The lineage of afro-futurist visual culture and contemporary afro-punk fashion have had a significant influence on the development of this aesthetic. Singular artists such as MIA, with her groundbreaking 2005 album Arular and the entirety of her oeuvre since, also provides a prescient cultural touchstone. Japanese kawaii purikura (photobooths), and their viral app counterparts, exemplify how software tools are often indivisible from the aesthetic culture they create and contribute to. And within graphic design, the trajectory of Metahaven's work (and that of their Werkplaats acolytes), with its disordered and distorted forms, photoshop filters and powerpoint layouts, alongside healthy doses of IK Blue and digital debris, can be read as a palimpsest of the overlapping layers that have come to define the look and feel of these times.
Softness as a Weapon
Contemporary radical feminist and queer aesthetics are also central to the emergence of the pink and blue colour palette within the subcultural zeitgeist. Similar to the linguistic reclamation of derogatory gender slurs, this femme-positive aesthetic contests the gendered nature of these colours and reclaims the “soft” and “pretty” as critical tools to deconstruct, subvert and contest the patriarchal framework.
As a cis male, I’ve kept my presentation of the following artists rather cursory. It is not my intention to speak for, and I assume I will lack nuance and depth in my descriptions, yet I feel including their work directly within this argument is useful for an understanding of the broader aesthetic context.
Often operating within the spaces of commercial fashion and art, the work of photographer and model Arvida Byström is emblematic of a critically “soft” and “pretty” aesthetic approach. Employing pastel colours, intimate and unfiltered self-portraiture, and motifs of ‘girl culture’, her work explores identity and gender ideals, while pushing against the conventions of fashion imagery and challenging normative expressions of femininity. The concerted use of this aesthetic by Byström and her peers critically highlights the social construction of gender while simultaneously celebrating it is a source of empowerment and agency.
Lora Mathis’ poetry and photography explore the concept of “radical softness as a weapon”, a concise and powerfully illustrative idea that describes the re-centering of emotion(ality), self-care and attention to the micro-political within radical activist circles.
“Radical softness is the idea that unapologetically sharing your emotions is a political move and a way to combat the societal idea that feelings are a sign of weakness.“
– Lora Mathis, interviewed by Hooligan Magazine
The softness advocated for here is a far cry from Pantone’s “connection and wellness” or “soothing sense of order and peace”. Born in response to the patriarchal characterization of the overly-sensitive female (and the complementary idealisation of the demure, soothing, and peaceful), it calls for the collective affirmation of the full-range of emotional and mental states as a means of empowerment and resistance, as a feminine presentation of resilience and strength.
Tumblr has proven to be a nurturing (though certainly not safe) space for the circulation of subcultural and counter-cultural interests, and the ideas and imagery of these feminist currents run in parallel, overlap and intersect with the aforementioned micro-cultures on the platform. Of course, the diversity of content posted on Tumblr is inherently limitless, yet nonetheless cohesive aesthetic tendencies emerge, reflecting the interests and aspirations of its most avid users. The term "aesthetic" itself has come to represent a specific genre of imagery on Tumblr that can be easily identified as the subcultural inspiration for RQ+S.
We are presented with a visual landscape of soft pinks and blues, a post-ironic poetics articulated through memes, digital art, selfies, and threaded "ask me anything" conversations. Taken as a whole, there is an undeniable ebullient softness to it, but roiling just beneath the surface is a crystalline anger directed at the way things are, be it gender normativity, the surveillance state, or good old-fashioned capitalist alienation. The emergence of this Tumblr #aesthetic represents the reclamation of symbolic vocabulary from the realm of commodity production, placing it back into the hands of the young, the feminine, the marginal.
In psychology, sublimation is described as a type of defence mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behaviour, resulting in a long-term conversion of the initial impulse. This definition provides a clear analogy to the processes, goals and ramifications of the practice of cultural appropriation. Within this framework, Pantone’s co-optation of the pink and blue colour palette can be seen as just another salvo in the symbolic warfare between official and unofficial culture, between the socially acceptable and the socially unacceptable.
However, unlike more commonly understood practices of cultural appropriation where the semantic range of the appropriated aesthetic is somewhat limited (initially at least), Pantone’s isolated focus on colour creates a dangerously free-floating signifier to which meaning can be arbitrarily inscribed.
In MTV’s example, the appropriation of Vaporwave aesthetics is elaborated using a full range of formal signifiers; colours, iconography, typographic treatment, thematics, and channels of distribution. Though meaning is distorted and diluted through this process of commercialization, the semantic value of MTV’s appropriation is still rooted in the original cultural context and draws from its aura of “cool”. It acts as an attempt to co-opt a resistant market demographic that is already attuned to the aesthetic, while simultaneously shocking new audiences into paying attention. The semantic references to the subculture remain more or less intact, and though MTV may capitalize on this in their bumpers and on specific channels/shows, it cannot redeploy the aesthetic throughout all of their properties, where its specificity prevents it from conforming to the content. Even on their websites, visual evidence of the rebranding is minimal, perhaps simply due to the UX challenges embracing Vaporwave aesthetics would entail.
With Pantone’s RQ+S, colour is appropriated as an abstract design element in an attempt to sublimate the counter-cultural impulse behind its use, and to make it palatable and profitable for Pantone and the multitude of its allied creative industries. Though Pantone is forced to partially acknowledge RQ+S’ origins by briefly referencing ”societal movements toward gender equality and fluidity” in their release copy, the thrust of their recontextualization positions RQ+S as “embracing, reassuring, secure, gentle, weightless, airy, relaxing, soothing, peaceful and calm.” All of this admittedly “even in turbulent times." The aim is to fully divorce the colours from their specific cultural context in order to generate a mass market commodity.
Pantone’s cultural influence shouldn't be underestimated. Every day countless designers reference their products, and this year’s announcement was particularly well mediatized. This has resulted in RQ+S being marketed within a multitude of product categories, all released with Pantone's inscribed meaning, with many products directly profiting the company through partnerships and licensing. Beyond filling corporate coffers on the backs of subcultural labour, the truly grievous effect is the erasure of a critical aesthetic tool from the subculture and its associated social movements. It blunts the critical teeth of the colours’ usage within these contexts and undermines the visual self-representation, self-determination, and autonomy of these subcultural groups. Joyous, rebellious anger is being cynically muted into a gentle, weightless calm by designers everywhere, blindly following the authority of Pantone’s proclamations.
Form as Sedimented Content
Art negates the categorial determinations stamped on the empirical world and yet harbours what is empirically existing in its own substance. If art opposes the empirical through the element of form, (…) the mediation is to be sought in the recognition of aesthetic form as sedimented content. What are taken to be the purest forms can be traced back even in the smallest idiomatic detail to content.
– Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
The limited discourse on “socially responsible” graphic design usually revolves around working with “socially acceptable” clients, platitudes about design thinking, and the choice to use recycled papers. But ideology is embedded within the myriad of formal and symbolic choices designers make, and our responsibility lies equally in these decisions. No signifier is truly arbitrary, and though the meanings of colours are not permanently fixed, they contain, and are in fact formed through the layering of contested, ideological histories of content. Social, economic, and political pressures coalesce into form, and at some point petrify into a generally accepted vocabulary. The question of who gets to define that point is central to how aesthetic history is told, and graphic designers play no small role in when and how this moment arrives.
In choosing what content is layered into the forms we use, designers can abet or contest the colonization of aesthetic territories. These choices are not abstractions, and their accumulated effects have real-world impact. We can choose to contribute to a dynamic and chaotic culture that challenges the naturalization of neoliberal capitalism or we can reinforce the narrative of its calming consumer comforts. We have a critical responsibility to decide which side we are on. At the very least until next year.