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The Universal Aesthetic

Thanks to globalization and the internet, ideas are traveling wider and faster than at any point in history, giving design the opportunity to become a truly universal language—but is there a downside?

01/29/2014 By Felice Silverman, IIDA
Photography courtesy of IIDA

Does design shape culture, or does culture shape design? It’s a bit of a “chicken and egg” question, as each certainly influences and is influenced by the other. To properly answer the question, we first have to ask, “What is culture?” Many factors define culture, including history, current events, local context, and, most importantly, people. Design and the arts are a response to whatever is happening in a culture. But culture isn’t only a regional phenomenon—it exists in all sorts of communities, from the virtual to the real, from the neighborhood to the workplace. As designers, we are experts in defining and designing for each client’s culture, whatever that culture may be.

I recently did a little experiment to see if I could identify “culture” in the design of spaces. At the time of this writing, the winners of our Global Excellence Awards had recently been announced, and we were anticipating their celebration at Maison&Objet in Paris. As in every year, we awarded projects from a diverse range of countries, including Lebanon, China, Estonia, Italy, Mexico, Australia, Hong Kong, Great Britain, Japan, and Greece. To test myself, I examined the images of the winning projects before looking at their titles or locations, and tried to discern where the projects were and where their designers were from. I expected that I would be able to guess, but I could not, proving that good design truly is universal.

This is a positive as far as the globalization of design is concerned, and evidence that our field is helping to shape culture worldwide. With the progress of globalization and the homogenization of workplace technologies—the platforms on which innovative ideas are now shared—the needs of each culture have come to resemble the needs of others. It thus seems logical that good design decisions and innovations will become more universally adopted and commonplace around the world than they might have been in previous decades. We all design for people, whether those people are from Estonia, Hong Kong, or Boston, and what we learn in one part of the world influences the rest of it.

The Eames splint provides a wonderful example of the symbiotic interplay of culture and design. In designing it, the Eameses used a new technique for molding plywood to create a lightweight, inexpensive splint that could be easily mass-produced for use in World War II. The splint responded to an immediate cultural need, and the success of its innovative design led to the development of the Eameses’ groundbreaking furnishings. In this instance, the design was so influential that it not only shaped culture, but it became culture.

Maybe what I’m seeing in the common aesthetics among our Global Excellence Award winners is another example of design becoming a culture unto itself. But is this necessarily a good thing? By moving in the direction of a one-size-fits-all approach, are we in danger of losing authenticity in design? One could arguably point to the Eames splint as an example of one-size-fits-all design. It was revolutionary and its impact was felt not just by the soldiers who benefited from its intended purpose; the molded plywood technique used in their manufacture became a signature of the Eameses’ furniture designs, and has influenced generations of designers everywhere.

As wonderful as their creations were, the breadth and endurance of their global impact almost necessarily implies the loss of other equally valid, highly individual design solutions from any number of cultures around the world—our obvious collective approval of the Eameses’ design work and influence notwithstanding.

Based on the speed and agility with which new and innovative ideas are finding their way across the world, there’s no reason to expect that the advance of a global design aesthetic will slow. But in the rapid approach of a universal style, I would suggest that something is being lost in the transition to a world of freely exchanged ideas. The beauty of cultural distinction and identity is in danger of becoming a casualty, in the same way that opponents of globalization fear Westernization or Americanization in other parts of the world, or the manner in which rapid development and commercial growth in countries like China have led to entire cities that lack a distinctive design character.

With this escalating risk of increasingly homogenized design in mind, I would challenge designers worldwide to strive for balance in their work with respect to the culture/design cycle of influence, taking the best innovations from wherever they can be found and seeking the solution that best integrates that new idea into the existing culture in which one’s identity has its root. In this way, we will not only guard against the eventual erosion of unique cultural identity, but will keep alive the expansive and rich palette of ideas available to us from around the world.


IIDA President Felice L. Silverman, IIDA is president and a principal at Silverman Trykowski Associates Inc. in Boston. You can reach IIDA at (312) 467-1950 or at