Photo: © Gerhard Kassner

Grant McCracken is many things: consultant, author, teacher, anthropologist and scholar of consumer patterns. He digs deep to find the roots of culture, identifying shifting forms and investigating their origins.

At TYPO Lndon 2012, McCracken declared that contemporary culture as we know it has seen the rise of a new order, one that is far from orderly but filled with chaos, confusion and commotion.

He cites a meeting at furniture company Herman Miller as an epiphanic moment in which he saw the manifestations of this new order at large. During the meeting he spotted a take-away coffee cup, it’s surface filled with feverish notes and sketches. Herman Miller employee Greg Parsons had used this medium to record his ideas and thoughts. McCracken quickly deduced that this is what the world looks like now. In the old order of culture, a designers process would be confined to a note book, considered and clarified before unleashing it to the world. But now this has changed. Order is slowly becoming a repellent to consumers. Culture demands the anti-industrial, the hand-made and unbranded. Order systems are no longer hierarchical with labour roles clearly defined under a clear mission statement. They have become more dynamic with complex adaptive systems. He likens it to a quote by technologist David Wynberger’s where he defines the Internet as ‘small pieces loosely joined’. McCracken believes that consumers now favour items that are bespoke, almost nook and crannyish to industrial perfection. This can be seen in the reincarnation of Rube Goldberg’s cartoons that have once again become popular and influential to contemporary culture. His depictions of complex gadgets that perform simple tasks in indirect, convoluted ways are echoed in the infamous Honda advert and the viral video ‘The Page Turner’ by Joseph Herscher.

McCracken also warned the audience of ‘Black Swans’ in our midst. A ‘Black Swan’ is an event or occurrence with unexpected and unpredictable outcomes. Nokia has seen one in the form of the Apple iPhone. UCLA has seen one in the form of online study courses. An explosive game-changer. Because of this, he believes that strategy is now dead. The future is so unpredictable that the best efforts of many organisations to counteract is more often too late.

So, who does McCracken think can help businesses to survive and make sense of this new order? Designers. He believes the skills no longer lie in the C-Suites or B-Schools of the old business set-up but in the processes and systems of the designer. He stressed their ability to recognise patterns and utilise mood-boards is key, allowing the elements of a problem to speak to each other which in turn filters down into their own imagination and design. A liquid form of intelligence. In this time of turbulence and unpredictable shifts, McCracken advocates designers as ‘the heroes of peace’.

By Deirdre Breen, Graphic Birdwatching