Monday Musings - Monday Musings (The Great Flattening)


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Hi friends,

Greetings from Austin!

The essay I just published about living here is the most popular thing I've written in a while. It was read more than 70,000 times this week, which was bonkers and totally unexpected. You can read it here.

Here's what else I want to share this week:

  1. Tropical MBA Podcast: I was interviewed about the three pillars of the Write of Passage method: (1) writing from abundance, (2) writing from conversation, and (3) writing in public. I also spoke about how despite so many people striving to make their writing shorter, punchier and more condensed, I'm so bullish on long-form essays. Here's the full transcript.
  2. We're Hiring a Chief Evangelist: Do you love writing, but hate how it’s taught in schools? If so, come work with us. We're building a Write of Passage program for high schoolers. As part of it, we're hiring someone to be the face of the program — yep, it won't be me. You'll be in charge of communicating its value to parents and showing them how writing on the Internet can change their kids' lives.
  3. ​How Philosophers Think: Philosophers are the best class of thinkers I know. The way they dissect ideas reminds me of the smartest kid at my middle school. He'd take apart computers, then reassemble them, so he could understand their inner workings. Philosophers do this with ideas. They aim to think for themselves. But as the story of Socrates reminds us, doing so can be risky.

Design Gone Wrong

Companies are losing personality and it’s making the world boring.

Just look at logo design. It's become flat, bland, sterile, timid, and unimaginative because companies are so desperate to appeal to a global population. The more you scale, the more you need to appeal to different kinds of people, which sucks the personality out of what you're doing.

Just look at how the Pepsi logo has evolved.

The original logo has much more personality, but my favorite one is from 1940.

The same thing is happening in the design world. Agencies are tasked with appealing to the widest possible swath of consumers. That means appealing to different cultural values and accessibility needs — in a world where you can be lampooned on Twitter for the slightest offence.


I'm Tired of These Drawings

Once you see them, you can't un-see them.

Have you noticed how these figures are everywhere now?

They were originally designed for Facebook, by an agency called Buck, who wrote: "We designed and built a scalable system rooted in flat, minimal, geometric shapes. The figures are abstracted — oversized limbs and non-representational skin colors help them instantly achieve a universal feel."

Catch those keywords?

Scalable, flat, minimal, instant, and universal. These are the defining trends of contemporary design. And I'm tired of them.


It Started with Architecture

The Cultural Tutor, one of my favorite Twitter accounts, argues that if you look at the built environment, you'll see we've traded beauty for usability.

We've removed the kind of thought that elevates ordinary objects from a utility to something more meaningful. He writes that beauty is a reminder there is more to life than a "material, automated, machine-like existence."

The shift from beauty to usability is evident in the simplest of items, such as telephone booths.
You'll also see the shift in door handles, where tiny ornamentation can lead to big improvements.

Elevators too.

(Seriously, read this Twitter thread).

Architecturally, even our interiors have become flat. Our homes have become so open that they lack cozy spaces like they used to. The rooms are so well-lit that they lack the texture of shadow.

We can do so much better, people.

Not everything needs to be designed for everybody.

In my own life, writing is much easier when I'm writing for a small number of people on my intellectual wavelength. Likewise, leading Write of Passage became easier once I stopped trying to come up with 'the curriculum to end all curriculums', and started focusing on serving curious and high-energy people who are obsessed with ideas and want to write on the Internet. We're hell-bent on delivering that niche of people with the best product possible. I have no aspiration to be the only writing course in the world. There are tons of ways to teach writing and it should stay that way.

As I like to say: "The problem with education isn't the method itself. The problem with education is that basically every school uses *the same* method in the first place."


The Great Flattening

I'm tired of the Great Flattening. Bored of a world where every company adopts the same values, the same diversity statements, and the same style of visual branding.

The cost of trying to reach everybody is the loss of personality. Though I don't like their music, I respect Radiohead because they've doubled down on who they are. If somebody doesn't like their music because "it's too weird," they don't pander to that opinion. Not everything needs to scale to the moon. Radiohead's eccentricity is what makes their fans so devout.

I feel the same way about my favorite musician: Porter Robinson. His music is beautiful because it's filled with personality and delightfully unoptimized for massive reach. Two weeks ago, my friend left one of his concerts 10 minutes in because he "didn't get it." And yet, Porter's music moves me so much that I made a 100-minute documentary about him (releasing it in September!).

Robert Frost famously gave excellent business advice when he said: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference."

People are desperate for companies with personalities. Out of personality comes beauty and brand loyalty. It's a quality that can't be measured on a spreadsheet. Though the beauty of a London phone booth is hard to quantify, it shows up in their tourism numbers. Tourists love that London phone booths shout boldly. We can feel they were designed with care and love and personality and attention to detail. The designers refused to make something boring.

The irony is that people fly from all around the world to see those London phone booths because they weren't designed to appeal to every single person from every single culture, in the most efficient way possible.

Let's reject the Great Flattening and add some personality to the world instead.

Photo of the Week

Speaking of personality, we just finished a new production studio in Austin. I worked with a designer named Erin Driscoll Thornton (one of the most talented people I've ever met), and from day one I told her to reject minimalism and give this space some chutzpah!

So that's what we did. There's stuff everywhere. Yes, it’s a madhouse. But somehow, it works.

To create it, we pulled from Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Disneyland, French aesthetics, and organic architecture. Then we stacked my personality onto it because I'm tired of The Great Flattening. Though it won't appeal to everybody, I love it because it's bursting with expression as a celebration of artistic excellence.

Have a creative week,

David Perell Logo 2x

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