Mockup culture

A “real” rant, not a “mockup” one.

Yes, this is a rant. This is a rant about, what I call the “mockup culture”. What is the mock-up culture? Or let’s start with what is a mockup? The mock-up is a term often used in the world of design. Architects, graphic and product designers, etc. use it. A mockup is – quite possibly – a model of something that does not exist. Maybe it does not exist yet, maybe it never will. The mock-up is a means to render thoughts and ideas into an image or object. The entirety of the problem is rarely being addressed with a mockup. This is due to reasons of time and circumstances. A mockup is an idea taking shape, usually towards the early stages of a design process. Every design process starts somewhere or from something, such as a brief, an idea, a response a thought, etc. Once some of the variables involved have been defined, a mockup is being produced to see whether those variables have been evaluated correctly, or at least point in the right direction. Additional variables are then introduced and amendments, alterations and incarnations produced to develop the prototype further. In order to foresee, or better “imagine”, how the product will be shaping up, the mockup allows for significantly more precise evaluation. It further allows people who are not part or familiar of the design process to develop a stronger idea of the product or design. The mockup is therefor often featured in highly edited and polished environments to foreground the merits of the design. It is a tool to test and critically reflect on that object or concept, on one’s own thoughts with additional alteration and improvement in mind. Sometimes the mockup helps to confirm the author of the idea’s merits or seduce another party. It is also used to “sell” an idea, a thought or a product. All that happens within the design process. It is, however important to acknowledge, that the mockup is not “the real deal”. The mockup of a new car design is made in clay. It does not move. A book designer handles a book dummy – an unprinted, “empty” but bound version of the pages and cover. A branding expert displays his newly created logotype superimposed on an image of a cruise ship. A mockup is not an end itself, but only the means to it. Or at least that’s how it used to be.

What is culture? Culture is a set of obvious and subtle norms and guidelines, values and meanings that humans acquire, define and redefine throughout their lives. Culture – although based on convention – is a highly dynamic concept, always exposed to change and alteration.

What do I mean by “mockup culture”? When I use this term, I refer to the increasing infiltration of the mockup into the world of design (and the world outside of it) as an actual end result, as “the real deal”. When previously it was used to evaluate an idea within the design process, the mockup – now – is a means of evaluating a design practice for real. Yet, like the drawing of a hammer is no good to bang in nails, the mockup is not a suitable means to do so. This is – as mentioned – because a mockup only caters for a certain set of variables, the designer only responds to a certain set of questions with it. If you attempt to sit down and drive away in a clay car, you will be disappointed with the speed it achieves when hitting the throttle. That’s because it will not move at all. When you attempt to leave through a book dummy whose intriguing cover lured you into the story it is supposed to contain, its empty pages might stress your imagination just a bit too far to have that immersive experience. Both examples will leave you slightly troubled. All this seems a traceable argument I hope.

Nevertheless, when browsing through websites or selected social media to look at the works of fellow designers, I can feel both, admiration and a touch of envy too. Admiration for the amount of high quality works being produced, and envy that I did not do it. Wonderful stuff this is! I see dynamic layouts and compositions and typographic masterpieces that lead to visual (almost visceral) experiences. Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer that what we produce at our studio is of highest quality, and that we often reach places on our journeys with our clients that we did not encounter yet. But I am taken aback and confused by how much good work gets to see the light of day. These graphic geniuses on Instagram eat different bread, drink different water and breathe different air! Their work is phenomenal; their followers are in the thousands, their likes in the millions, and their influence on the discipline possibly even more breathtaking. Wow! How did they do it? Let’s get into it …

A second evaluation: Puzzlement. The work I see on the latest blog entry or the newest Instagram post seems to be a mockup. It is not real work. The amazing typographic calendar shows the cover page and January. From the remaining 11 pages we can see that Monday is always on the first of the month. The groundbreaking signage system is a superimposition onto a famous building and the harmonious book design is done with dummy copy spelling “Lorem ipsum”. All fine. It is only a mockup. Slightly relieved I could go back to the studio and tinker on my alphabets, grids and papers.

But “no!” It is not fine. That’s because that second – revealing – evaluation does not happen that often. Many knowledgeable and also less knowledgeable people don’t have the ambition, time (and nerve) to invest a second thought into an ephemeral Instagram post. Yet if that second glimpse does not happen, the post – the mockup – is perceived as actual work. It becomes “the real deal” and is consumed as contemporary design, as part of the (visual) language our society speaks and the (visual) culture we are part of.

This can have dangerous consequences. What happens if designers strive to create work like seen, and – even worse – clients long for the work that seems so ubiquitous? How does the visual culture, as seen online, inform people commissioning design? How does it shape their expectations? What about their wishes, arguments and choices when deciding on whom to collaborate with on the next project? Our culture becomes a mockup culture.

The argument following this theory – or let’s call it an uncomfortable suspicion of mine – might seem obvious: Designers want to create fancy designs, as it is part of the predominant culture. Clients commission designers that produce fancy design, as they too want to be seen contemporary in their messages. Design becomes increasingly self-absorbed, therefor exchangeable and consequently irrelevant. …

… at some point I might feel compelled to be more academic and rewrite this rant (or at least spell check it), but for now it’s off my chest. At least this rant is “real” and not a mockup. Back to work.

Vienna, 20220121