The Balm of Camp

What the most historic event in fashion taught me about designing more meaningful software

What the most historic event in fashion taught me about designing better digital

At any given time, at least a hundred notifications line up in my digital queue, promising me a better life beyond the click. More beautiful homes–”This Dreamy Surf Town Hideout Just Hit the Market,” more brain power–”Your learning breakthrough starts here,” more social–”You Don’t Want to Miss This Summer Fun!” and more fitness–”The only one who can tell you ‘you can’t’ is you. And you don’t have to listen.” Being a product designer myself, I skeptically skim through the noise. But more often than I’d expect, I find myself meandering right into these mousetraps. Then I really surprise myself when I buy. Though I didn’t see it coming, I’ll bet there’s a maker on the other end of that message that knew. She knew about the product and every part of its brand experience, then figured out exactly how to nudge people like me straight into action. Sadly I’m not as unique as I think I am; I’m just a compilation of the archetypes, the recurring themes in our cultural mythology that designers, writers and many makers know well.

Some makers tell stories, some design cars, others fashion clothes. Some of us are designing interfaces to make the machines greet us more gracefully. All of us watch closely to observe how our craftsmanship might elevate our people’s experience. As humans, some of our defining traits stem from the masterful making of things then sending them off into society by way of storytelling. What do these products and stories do for us, beyond their surface utility? A lot actually. These products and experiences are tools that transport us to our future selves. Cultural products speak to our aspirational tendencies. Deep down, they promise success and happiness, even heroic adventures.

My work as a product designer focuses on creativity and its impact on community. I’m particularly intrigued with products that tap into a cultural story and get carried forward through commerce and media. The ones we hear about have successfully woven a rich fabric of meaningful connections to achieve maximum impact. How does it all come together? And why do we care?

Being quite new compared to other creative disciplines, digital design realized its objective power right away–lots of info, processed very quickly can cover a lot of ground. More recently, we digital product designers have begun to grasp the superpower of emotional connection through the more subjective inner worlds of our consumers. Though qualitative research to understand why people do what they do is a mainstay in successful product design teams, we’re still often missing a link to identify our consumers’ latent needs and the underlying motives that make them meaningful. More mature design practices know all about this. Looking to fashion and theater, they’ve opened my eyes to another universe of deeply moving cultural communication. Through their stories and products, they’ve long been leveraging these connections to make things that matter. They are modern day mythologists.

We got a glimpse of such mythology in action when the Metropolitan Museum of Art launched its latest curated fashion collection the first Monday in May–Camp: Notes on Fashion. The Met Gala set forth a look, as championed for the rest of us by the stars who’ve joined the Camp in full regalia. They move in fits and starts along a red carpet, and we see through media’s lens how themes take shape from the visions of design masters and the beautiful people who embody their message.

Whether or not we’ve intentionally adopted style as a tool in our own social presence, we’re all impacted by the judgment that comes with what we wear. Cindy Sherman, an artist well known for using dress-up to transform herself into characters–the women of vintage Hollywood, aging socialites, circus performers, pin-ups and milkmaids–plays with concepts both campy and creepy to explore society’s assumptions. We see these tropes and immediately connect with their intriguing resonance. Though Sherman is often the subject of images, she edits out those that capture her essence, opting instead for the look that represents the iconic idea she’s going for–only the symbol is worth sharing. In her recent feature in The Gentlewoman she remarked, “And the one thing I’ve always known is that the camera lies.”

The Met’s Costume Institute Curator Andrew Bolton also knows there’s more than meets the eye. He themed this year’s event in response to Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’.”

Among my favorites of Sontag’s 58 notes is this one:
#10. Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.” To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.

Sontag’s sentiments on Camp make this year’s theme particularly compelling for those of us with a love-hate relationship with fashion. She explained, “I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.”

Our relationships with products are similarly complex. From fashion and beauty to our phones and smart homes, these things mean more than function and form. Most of our things have a job to do. There are additionally many nuances in how and why they do what they do. While some keep it basic and utilitarian, others imbue the job with luxurious experience. Our interactions with these things also impact many levels of how and why we do what we do. When we get deep, we realize that our relationships with things contribute to our identity altogether. I learned this from a market research report when working on software for the Moto Z phone. Consumers felt that their phone was an extension of themselves. Digging deeper into this phenomenon, I found Russel Belk’s research exploring collections, possessions, and the extended self, 

“From the small boy to the connoisseur, the joy of standing before one’s accumulated pile and being able to say ‘this belongs to me’ is the culmination of that feeling that begins with ownership of the first item… they become us.”

Style is having a cultural moment that’s become very much about an experience beyond the simple presence of a look. We can get creative with our sense of self and mindfully map where we fall into the social order. The style industry banks on this. We gather what we need to create a presence, hone our stories in social experiments amped up by our digital reach, then watch where they trend. Most of us can’t stop watching the rising stars in our circles–the hood favorites, pros on their rocket ride, the pop culture ascent. Why? Since the Greek Gods, our icons inspire us to connect through stories that resonate with our deepest desires.

Those desires are our beacons, they guide us to the life we most want to live. Mythology and literature professor Joseph Campbell famously taught us about this ideal path into our human experience. He wrote, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.” That’s the magic of mythology, that these beautifully crafted stories, characters and artifacts we can’t stop thinking about, they are the media that move us along our path. As such, our most iconic brands, media mavens and all the things we buy from them just keep showing up, pointing us in the direction of our wildest dreams.

The Costume Institute’s spring 2019 exhibition CAMP: Notes on Fashion examines how irony, humor and exaggeration are expressed in fashion, at The Met Fifth Avenue May 9 - Sept 8.

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