July 20, 2017

Subcultures and Design

Los Angeles by X

When I first decided I wanted to design for a living there were only three things I really wanted to make: t-shirts, skateboard decks, and album art. I was seventeen when I decided this. I had grown up drawing and playing music and this felt like the best way to use my passions to make money. Most of my time listening to music was spent with punk and rap. Both of these cultures have rich visual histories, and both were impossible to escape in Southern California.

My first interaction with punk music was when my dad bought me Los Angeles by X. It had a cover that felt like it was from a different world. At the time I only owned two CDs: Love Always by K-Ci and JoJo and the N Sync Christmas album. It was 1998 and I had just received my first portable CD player as a gift from my grandmother.

In the months after that, I begged my parents to buy me more music. Parental Advisory stickers ruined my life.

My collection of album art slowly taught me the visual language of cool. Effectively, I could walk into any Virgin Megastore or Tower Records and navigate through the aisles solely based on the art I was looking at. I could tell what was southern rap based on the Pen and Pixel style, all nu metal albums had weird illustrations that felt kind of hip-hop inspired but were also aggressive in a way that felt more House of Pain than Geto Boys, and boy bands were dead giveaways because you would just look for five guys in all white. Every culture had a language, and those languages changed rapidly.

I recently tweeted something that I have been mulling over in my head:

I struggle with loving design as the visual voice of a subculture and that also marking the beginning of that culture’s commercialization.

In recent years I’ve come to realize that music has always been a way for me to connect with the world outside of my immediate grasp. Of course, growing up in California exposed me to my fair share of west coast rap and white guy reggae, but exposure to the rest of the world was through music.

My struggles with these visual languages are their journey from the original subculture, to me, the 9-year-old white kid. By the time it got to me, I was able to admire the artifact of a culture and appreciate it, but it also represented that it had gone through a long and drawn out process that marked its selection from its place of origin, and its packaging for my consumption. I was not a member of the original subculture, I was an observer.

This has always been an interesting thing for me as a rap fan. As a designer, I take a special interest in album art and any graphics related to music. But all facets of a subculture can be analyzed in this way. For example, nearly 3 million people follow this playlist on Spotify:

Get Turnt

This playlist, while it may be a celebration of rap culture, is a feature used to keep listeners engaged with the product. And as a white rap fan, I have to be aware of the fact that the origin of turnt” was black culture, not rap culture. I do my best to respect the complexity of this journey, and I know a lot of people don’t.

Appropriating subcultures for money isn’t anything new. But with the internet it seems to happen at warp speed. Things get removed from their origin point so quickly that people don’t have time to see the transition from underground to commercial. In example, Hassan Rahim’s artwork for Jacques Greene and Nick Jonas’ blatant rip for his house-pop single.


Nick Jonas

So, in short, I will always love seeing and hearing new things from the subcultures I feel connected to. It’s truly inspiring to me to see people create new things inspired by their life experiences. As a fan, I feel honored to have those things shared with me. Out of respect, I have to remember what it took to get these things in front of me, remember the risks people take by sharing themselves with the rest of world, and do my best to make sure members of my family don’t dab.

Designers should be aware of how our decisions can change culture. We should be aware of the distinctions between inspiration, appropriation, and plagiarism. If we’re inspired by a culture different from our own, we should do our best to understand it, and think twice before using it for personal or commercial gain.

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