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Designing Freedom in California

Consider California a design mecca? The Golden State is most commonly known for its mid-century modernism, Apple products, and Silicon Valley founded and funded apps. The designers and the ideals that have informed some of the most ubiquitous products we use today are examined closely at the Design Museum’s Designing Freedom exhibit.

The exhibition chronicles designs from the 1960s counterculture to Apple’s prolific computers and tracks the ideals that were born from the hippie culture in San Francisco and eventually trickled down the peninsula to Silicon Valley. Designing Freedom refers to the ways in which these designs have pioneered ‘forms of freedom of expression’.

‘California is a place that manufactures fantasy on an industrial scale’. Still true with the entertainment industry in Hollywood, fantastical playground at Disneyland, Pixar’s Bay Area studio and Apple’s sprawling headquarters in Cupertino. Californians search for ways to see the world in a different light. In the 1960s, the neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco popularised LSD and its ability to “expand consciousness and free oneself of inhibitions, sparking psychedelic visions”. This lead to tablet, poster, and album designs with psychedelic graphics promoting San Francisco venues such as the Avalon Ballroom, the Fillmore and The Matrix which hosted artists from Otis Redding, to the Grateful Dead, to The Doors. These works tried to recreate, in artistic form, the sensation of tripping out. Wes Wilson created such designs for rock concert promoter Bill Graham, where his posters featured his signature psychedelic lettering that looked as if it was melting or moving. Similarly, Victor Moscoso used highly saturated contrasting colours to create vibrating images.

A few decades later and a few hundred miles down the coast in San Diego, the surfing subculture was transformed into a design graphic by David Carson. Carson has been hailed as the “master of typography” with his distinctive and unorthodox grunge style for Beach Culture and Ray Gun magazines in the 1990s. His work bled into popular culture with ads for Nike, Levi’s, Quicksilver, and Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

While counterculture graphic design was aimed at liberating the mind during the 60s and 70s, the paramount creations for championing freedom of speech are social media tools, which allow personal expression through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. With these tools, we can edit, filter and curate our public-facing profiles – a virtual and carefully-crafted persona. Only ten years young, the iPhone allows us to be constantly ‘tuned in’ at all times. Work, music, and entertainment are always at our fingertips. They’re designed for everyone from savvy teens to tech-challenged grandparents, with a simply presented interface and intuitive UX.

Interface designers in the Bay Area are creating tools that have global reach, largely affecting culture and politics in addition to our ‘most common daily experiences’ – the way we interact with others, conduct business, and transportation are among a few of the applications.

iPhones have even aided the transformative sharing economy through companies such as Airbnb and Uber, further enabling our mobility. Waymo, formerly “the Google self-driving car project”, is continuing to shape transportation – an invention that facilitates our personal freedom and the alters idea of freedom as being “recast as the luxury of being a passenger in the hands of an artificial intelligence”.

Designing Freedom not only shows us how we have become increasingly dependent on these designs but also shows how we are evermore willing to “submit to self-surveillance”. With these forward-thinking designs come cameras, GPS and geotagging that can track our daily movements and document our purchases and our physical attributes in ways that allow our personal data to be accessed business and governments. While omniscient public and private organisaitons can claim to use such data for security purposes and effective advertisements, ultimately improving the customer experience, it’s clear individual empowerment and freedom does come at a cost. The tools that were once thought to enable greater amounts of freedom, now greatly impose on our personal privacy.

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