“No one loves authenticity like a graphic designer. And no one is quite as good at simulating it” Michael Bierut

We’re all authentic. Instagram vignetting, print textures, Superdry tee’s imitating vintage americana logos, the whole concept of vintage in fashion, any tattoos not picked up from the army, navy or prison, digital SLR’s that look like 60’s film cameras, clothing that has been ‘distressed’, those retro Nissan Figaro cars …

Contemporary culture seems to be obsessed with authenticity, with being ‘real’. With many fields of design this predilection manifests itself as merely signifiers of authenticity, the appearance of authenticity. Much of the ‘authenticity’ we see around us is smoke and mirrors, a coating of signifiers, the veneer of authenticity, an outer shell of illusion.

Rollieflex digi camera photo by Silvio Tanaka, jean photo by Celia Hippie, tattoo photo by Patrick Carey and Nissan photo by MIKI Yoshihito, all images reproduced under Creative Commons license

Should not the aesthetic of any design be the result of a great concept rather than applying a link of paint after the engineering has been done? Or am I being pedantic? I understand that there are cases where it is perfectly acceptable to simply add a style to something; in the case of game design when thematic elements are added to a game mechanic – perfectly reasonable. You want to add a bit of fake texture to the digital print of anthropomorphized vegetables you’re flogging on Etsy? Go ahead. My beef is when the skin is all that there is, when the signifiers of authenticity are the only meaningful content.

As a designer should I be bothered about being authentic? After all I can fake it easily enough. And what does authenticity even mean? The definition that most would use in relation to art and design is authenticity of expression – in Aesthetic philosophy authenticity of expression is how genuine a work of art is, how committed an artist or performer is, how true they are being to their own beliefs and culture.

There also exists a very different meaning of authenticity within the realms of philosophy. One very different than that of Aesthetic philosophy. In Existentialist philosophy authenticity is the realisation that you are responsible for yourself and that in any situation you always have freedom of choice – recognising and acting on this freedom is what makes a person authentic.

This definition by Emmy van Deurzen & Martin Adams might help explain authenticity in the Existential context :


“Authenticity/Inauthenticity do not refer to what is real or genuine but instead to our ability to own and be the author of our lives in full awareness that it will end and that it is up to us to make something of it.”


Image by Cea, reproduced under Creative Commons licence

Harsh. But true.

So as a designer how do these definitions of authenticity inform my approach to design work? I see the desire to innovate as an authentic act, I want my work to be genuine, both in concept and execution. And as a designer I try to look for inspiration from areas beyond my profession, to escape from the label ‘designer’ and experience more from outside the design filter bubble and inform my work with my experiences. To be authentic in the existential sense is to rise above the expectations labels give us and by doing this we transcend being a ‘thing’ (a designer) and realise the extent of our ability to make free choices beyond what others might expect, beyond the labels put upon us. Very deep, very existentialist.

When talking of authenticity it is hard not to talk of originality. If authenticity is all about being ‘real’ then originality is about being ‘new’ and ‘first’. Originality in our world today is a confused affair, if it even exists at all. We live in a postmodern age where ‘things’ no longer seem original, rather their context or use supplies the originality. According to the philosopher Barthes artists no longer create original work as all art is a regurgitation of what has gone before. Even those purist Modernists were echoing tropes of the past.

When I think of Barthes and his rejection of originality I immediately think of Duchamp and his ‘ready mades’ – his urinal and bike wheel. But Damien Hirst also comes to mind. His shark and his diamond skull – nothing original in preserved sea life or decorated skulls but their context as ‘art’ removed from mere decoration or ritual and placed in a gallery setting is what lends Hirst’s art as original, even though Hirst’s repeated themes of death and commodification are hardly new …

Duchamp urinal photo by Steven Zucker, reproduced under Creative Commons license

Bringing this meandering ramble back to design rather than art, You could look at the smartphone as an example of postmodern originality (bear with me, I am simplifying here). The smartphone is a cultural game changer, permanently altering the way (some of us) live our lives. Very original and new. The smartphone bundles a load of utilities into one device, but many of those utilities we are already familiar with – their new and shiny context, all grouped together in a mobile device is what’s new. A calendar on a smartphone is based on (and looks like) the calendar I have pinned onto my kitchen wall. The email functionality on my phone is not miles away from my desktop email programme. The smartphone is original. Many of the tools that make up a smartphone are not. Even how we interact with our phone is based on metaphors no matter how ‘flat’ the design is supposed to be.

You could say that what we do with our smartphones is not new – making a call, sending an email, playing a game, taking a photo, updating a calendar … but how we do these things has changed; we now make these actions on the move, on our accessible portable hand-held (or hands-free) device. The smartphone has altered the behaviour of its users, who complete familiar tasks in new ways.

Of course designers chasing originality in our postmodern age can be a fruitless task. Especially for designers like myself, user-centric designers who rely on the recognition of conventions, the concept of originality can seem irrelevant and an exercise in tail chasing. But despite the need to rely on conventions there is still an important need for innovation: to introduce new ways of interaction, new conventions. New technology and new behaviour demand it. And if I can go back to my smartphone analogy – there are opportunities to present familiar actions in new contexts. And in the area of conceptualisation there really is no excuse for plagiarism and lazy thinking when it is entirely possible to aim for originality. Or like Duchamp, change the context. And even if you fail remember the Existentialist view of authenticity. It’s the intent thats important. You at least have to try.

So, I guess what I am trying to say is that even within our postmodern, convention strewn world there is still the ability to be original, new and first even if the concept of originality has somewhat shifted. And don’t fall into the trap of dressing something up in the trappings of authenticity. Don’t fetishise the past. If authenticity rather than pastiche is what you are aiming for then try to be … authentic. And don’t rip – as a designer (or a thinker), aiming for authenticity and originality however the philosophical meaning is a reputable task.

I am no way an expert in existentialism, but these books have made things a little clearer for me. For a contemporary introduction to Existentialism I would recommend How to be an Existentialist by Gary Cox. Cox writes clearly and with humour.

Existentialism And Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre is a good introduction to the writings of Sartre, it is a transcript of a lecture he gave so is quite a slim book – his magnum opus Being and Nothingness is quite a beast and so far I have only used it as reference.