We’re In An Era Of ‘Psychotic Sameness’

Stefan Sagmeister at Alt Design Summit 2013 photographed by Justin Hackworth
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Senior art director for content marketing agency Edge, Chris Stewart, recently headed to the Vivid Ideas Game Changers series held in Sydney, where he was bamboozled by what he learnt. Check out his opinion piece below.

When Stephan Sagmeister introduced us to the notion of ‘Psychotic Sameness’ my two-beer haze lifted. He had my attention. Amidst all the grandiose statements the phrase ‘Psychotic Sameness’ stood out.

What is it? It defines what he finds most abhorrent in the design world. It’s his refusal to do what people expect. It encompasses precedents set by agencies, clients and even governments, and clarifies that they mean little to him – it’s not that he is constantly looking for something new, more so something that makes sense. Just good old common sense.

He further articulated his point when describing the train stations in Moscow. Most train stations are depressing, bland places – as that’s how designers and architects have been conditioned to construct them. The ‘same same’ drab design means passengers must rely on bland signage alone to know which station they’re at. Not so in the former Soviet Union.

The Russians have defied convention to avoid a mundane experience across their capital city’s stations. Instead they’ve opted to protect each station’s original appearance and legacy – noting that each one can offer a distinctively different visual and physical experience. “The Moscow train network is the only one in the world whereby tourists actually consider each station as an attraction as opposed to merely a way to get to one.”

I didn’t agree with everything Sir Sagmeister shared (Exhibitions utilising excrement should be considered art…WTF?) However I do relate to his ideals around sameness being the real threat.

Sagmeister repeatedly states that even he has to constantly restrain from falling into the stream of status quo. The antidote he shared was divergent thinking, constantly placing himself in fresh environments completely removed from ones he knows. Sagmeister religiously shuts down his New York Studio once every seven years for one year as a form of sabbatical. By his own account “The first [shutdown] was a fucking disaster” but he now works to a high school styled timetable, with each session lasting no longer than an hour.

Sagmeister went on to show work he had created over his career, and how many of these projects were directly influenced by the unrelated experiences he explored during his time out.

The notion of ‘Psychotic Sameness’ has haunted creatives in the communications game for years. The idea that “because it has been done before it’s the only way” continues to prevail. Why is it that brands and agencies feel a level of safety in being able to select the safe option? Sure, there are financial considerations when it comes to taking a risk or being innovative, but it’s the brands that think like Moscow’s Rail Council that will be remembered – that’s where people want to get off, instead of blindly flying by.

Now is an exciting time to be in this industry for this exact reason. Advertising is bending to allow us to think more laterally, to execute ideas spawning from industrial design, rather than purely graphical.  It is now people who are effectively steering the way in which brands act. We are watching companies becoming more transparent and effectively develop work based on ‘common sense’. But common sense is a confronting ideal for a brand. It can make them feel vulnerable, but it will be exciting to watch those who truly embrace it, and subsequently the trust they receive from their consumers.

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