Do We Ever Start from Scratch?
The past is infused with cultural importance and can help designers tell resonant stories

Three proofs that we live in an era shaped by new: swipe your finger on your device and new content immediately appears across a myriad apps; Netflix spent $16 billion on new online streaming content in a single year; and planned obsolescence – the industrial design policy of producing goods that rapidly deteriorate or become obsolete – has now become a normalised consumer-driven strategy that incentivises more frequent purchases of new replacement products versus repairing or maintaining ageing versions.

With innovation, attention spans and consumer habits fixated on what is new, it is understandable that many of us have shifted resources away from the past to help us find our place in valuing or even shaping what is next. So, what do we do with all that came before and how can it improve the relevance of new work? Visual communication has a well-defined and welldocumented relationship to the past and here are two practical reasons to look at what came before as valuable source material to start from.

First, the past is where many visual design problems have already been solved.

‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (El Lissitzky, 1919) is a Soviet propaganda poster that came to symbolise the Russian Civil War, helped introduce the suprematism art movement and heavily influenced the Bauhaus and constructivist movements

 

For example, the three-bar menu icon, originally designed by Norm Cox for Xerox in 1981, became a broadly adopted symbol in mobile interface design in 2009, and now, when used consistently in the top portion of a website, easily guides users toward a collapsible menu without taking up precious screen space. There may be a future rationale where this icon is redesigned or replaced, but it would be foolish to try and do so without a deep understanding of how the icon developed and why it performs so effectively today.

Second, the past is infused with cultural importance and can help designers tell resonant stories. When El Lissitzky created the poster Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge in 1919, he was developing a symbolic image for the Russian Civil War. The resulting constructionist art movement and the original context as political propaganda, have been referenced and emulated ever since, resulting in numerous influences in subsequent graphic design works. The cover art for Walls Come Tumbling Down (2016, Daniel Rachel), for example, deliberately pays homage to both the visual structure and cultural context of Lissitzky’s poster, while adapting original design elements and combining them with music iconography. This connection to the past infuses a hidden story into the design and a richer purpose behind the designer’s modern decisions in typography, layout and colour.

In both these examples, we find an emerging Guiding Principle: looking backward can be a fundamentally creative act. Kirby Ferguson, creator of Everything is a Remix, shares that “our creativity comes from

without, not from within. We are not self-made, we are dependent on one another, and admitting this to ourselves isn’t an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness, it’s a liberation from our misconceptions.” What came before is not just history, it is the very source material from which we all construct our notions of what can be created and made new.

Ferguson goes on to propose three basic elements of creativity: copy, transform and combine. The order is crucial, as it articulates a journey that begins with learning from the past (copy), moves toward repurposing and improving (transform), and then seeks to innovate or create with a new sum of parts (combine). Not only is this beginning to bring structure to how we might understand the relationship between creativity and the past, but it is also beginning to give shape to how we determine what we call good design.

Adaptive reuse is not simply copying what was; this is plagiarism and violates the notion that using existing work is a creative act. Yet, as Ferguson suggests in his sequence, it is where creativity starts, and many disciplines include copying prior work as a deliberate part of developing the skillset to create. On the other hand, it is misguided to think that any innovative work truly came from nothing before it, or exists as an explicitly new idea. This again is provoked in Ferguson’s sequence that sees creativity culminating as an act of combining (remixing) the past into what we perceive as something new.

“There is no such thing as a new idea,” remarked author Mark Twain in his autobiography, “We simply take a lot of old ideas and turn them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.”

This is not an appeal to disillusionment, but rather a reminder that while innovation and groundbreaking design may feel like the work of enlightened futurists, it is actually thoughtful, deliberate improvement of so much that came before it. Graphic design comfortably celebrates a well-executed homage to the aesthetics and source material of the past. It is all adaptive reuse, and the more we embrace and honour the fertile ground of the past, the better equipped we will be to realise the new work we all crave.