There is something both romantic yet tricky about the word timeless. The idealist in us would love to create something timeless within our lifetime, but there is an oddness to such a desire. What does timeless even mean? Is it possible to create something as such? Moreover, does it even matter? Considering our digitally-driven world now, I’m not so sure it does. And I’m not so sure we even care as much.
To be timeless, as defined by the dictionary, is to not be affected by the passage of time, to be resistant to change. But when I compare the definition to our perception of timeless work, there’s a conflict: timeless work isn’t actually an issue of time. Rather, it’s a principle, a style, concept or quality of work. To create something timeless is to have it look a certain way, not necessarily to be unaffected by change.
Timeless work is a pursuit of the ego. Simply because we assume that when it comes to what we make, everyone will just ‘get it,’ and that it will be relevant 50 years from now. But if there’s anything that life has taught me, is that we can never be certain things will stay the same; we can only be certain that things come and go, or they take on new forms, and what’s timeless about that?
As the world progresses and new culture emerges with new wants and desires, design must too follow suit because it’s rooted in culture. If design is resistant to change, we consider this a failure because design isn’t static, it’s usability and interaction – it’s an experience. These features make timelessness in design tricky, because what’s in use is generally what’s needed now. Design has to move with us or get left behind.
Designer Frank Chimero’s wonderful short book, The Shape of Design, is an enjoyable read on what design means to him, offering us deep insights along the way. Chimero believes that a marker of good design is that it moves, from hand to hand, maker to maker, context to context. Good design moves along with time, and as it moves, it improves along the way.
“We must respond and move, simply because the work moves and the space around design shifts as culture changes and the adjacent possible grows. Design is always in motion; we either sway with it or we get thrown off the line.”
Design consists of various fields that work with different processes. A fashion designer will ask different questions to those of a web designer. The problems and goals are different. It’s perhaps why a goal like timelessness, which pulls into consideration sustainability, doesn’t matter as much on the web as it does in fashion or architecture because the physical limitations aren’t the same. The web doesn’t require material resources in the same way.
The web is highly ephemeral, which is why it struggles to co-exist with timelessness. Millions of content is added everyday only to be eventually lost. The web isn’t like a fine wine that ages well; it’s like a river. And as the ancient philosopher Heraclitus stated centuries ago, “one does not step into the same river twice” (unless one’s content is constantly on Google’s top search ranking). There’s nothing timeless about a field that’s in a constant state of flux.
Companies like Snapchat and Vine are loved by millions for encouraging the ephemeral web. Snapchat, in particular, blew up because it’s grounded on our reality. It simulates how we communicate face-to-face and understands that moments are temporary. We’re simply just passing each other by.
A lot of anxieties in life comes from the boundaries we set for ourselves. As well as that, we’re especially cautious of who we are online because of reputation. People generally have an impression of our digital selves first before they meet us in real life, if they ever do at all. This creates even more pressure to be a certain way, to the extent that people will start whitewalling. This is the act of deleting past posts on Facebook in order to manage a reasonable reputation online.
Snapchat works because it psychologically liberates us from such anxieties and represents our desire for privacy. In temporary snaps, we can break our curated online reputation without the concern that things will stick around. Snapchat doesn’t care about breaking outside of time, just boundaries.
Sarah Perez, in looking into the trend of the ephemeral web for Tech Crunch, observes that:
“The web is not a static thing. It grows and shifts to reflect the society it serves.”
This new generation of internet users imagine the web as deletable. They certainly don’t care as much about timeless content.
However, if there’s one design that’s not changed much since its inception, it’s the Google homepage. It’s the one example I can concede as ‘timeless’ design.
Google’s an interesting case because despite its ‘timeless’ homepage, it’s arguably the driver of the ephemeral web. Think about what we do when we want to know something. We google it. But how Google’s technical functioning works is that it shows content based on relevant keywords, and is the whole reason that SEO marketing exists, in which companies market to people based on what they’re currently searching for. Google doesn’t deliver knowledge that’s timeless, but what’s relevant and what’s trending.
Furthermore, how we consume content online has affected how we experience time. An article written last year may not be considered as legit because a year is considered relatively long in digital years. This just shows how skewed and subjective our perception of time is, because we’re judging the quality of a work on how long it’s been around, not how good it is.
It’s hard to think about timelessness when we’re under pressure to build things quickly, to fail fast. In the age of immediacy, we’re being pushed away from such a pursuit. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Whenever I hear timelessness as a principle of good work, I flinch. I wonder, why is it even a goal at all? Everything changes, old things get replaced with the new, the world moves on. I don’t believe in the pursuit of timelessness. In fact, I think we are too time-conscious. These days we’re constantly busy, affected by FOMO, and reading up on how to ‘optimise’ our time. What’s timeless about always being reminded by our alarm, our apps, our deadlines, of how little time we have?
Einstein once said that:
“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”
It’s human to want to structure things, to give a name and meaning to them. Time is just one way of making sense of the world. So then, there’s nothing human about being timeless.
I’m more concerned with the stuff going on now. The stuff we make and share, we do it for this generation, for this world, not for 100 years down the line. Our problems don’t matter later, they matter now. The future may help us imagine how the world might be, but we can only start fixing today.
“The only important thing about design is how it relates to people.” – Victor Papanek
The digital world calls for a new way of thinking, and this earthquake of changes has got me questioning what’s timeless now. Though I don’t agree with timelessness as a creative pursuit, I do respect the attitude and mindset it carries: that because nothing lasts forever, we should try and make things sturdy and sustainable. Although the world is abundant, it’s not infinite. There’s no need to pressurise ourselves to create something timeless, but it’s good to not make throwaways. Content should help people to think and reflect. Products should be designed to not only help people live well, but appreciate what they’re using precisely because they won’t last.
Understanding that the finite permeates everything and that not everything can be replaced or bought, urges us to appreciate what we have now. The best design responds to the world, and that’s very timely indeed.