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Let’s Talk About Timeless Design

I have a pet peeve when it comes to describing design (or any kind of creative work). The word “timeless” makes my skin crawl, like that scene in Indiana Jones where he has the snakes and creepy crawlies all over him and he’s all like “Oh God! Snakes!” but you totally saw it coming because he said he hated snakes maybe ten minutes before that.

Allow me to complain in bulleted points:

  • I read an iPhone app review earlier this week that said the app’s design was “timeless.” And I went, “Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha.” The app was quite pretty. And Lord knows there’s plenty of good things about iPhones, apps, stores, and design. But an iPhone app is about as timeless as an ice cream cone given to a chimp on a hot day.
  • It irks me that we’re throwing around the word “timeless” all willy-nilly. At this point, “timeless” is hyperbole for something with a shelf-life of a couple years. This bag of Doritos? Timeless.
  • Our sense of time is all out of whack. When people link to older blog posts and articles, they’ll maybe call it “timeless” or say some other inane thing like, “Old, but good!” Two years old isn’t old! A two-year-old can’t even wipe his own ass.
  • Let me let you in on a little secret: if you are hearing about something old, it is almost certainly good. Why? Because nobody wants to talk about shitty old stuff, but lots of people still talk about shitty new stuff, because they are still trying to figure out if it is shitty or not. The past wasn’t better, we just forgot about all the shitty shit.
  • Ironically, most timeless design looks like it came from the 1962 Graphis Annual. It’s good stuff worth mimicking, but it sure isn’t timeless.
  • I think “words” mean “things.” So when you say something is “timeless,” do you really mean it is not affected by the passage of time or changes in fashion? Would it spoil your day to say that timeless design is currently in fashion? (That doesn’t even make sense.) Regardless, perhaps you truly mean to say that a design is fundamentally sound, or that it is sturdy, or well-built. All great things.
  • Why is timeless design always the goal? What’s wrong with making something look like it was made when it was made? Why do designers all of a sudden want to exist outside of time, like Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap? We’re already thirteen years into the 21st century, and I still don’t know what the hell is going on. One day you’re playing laser tag, the next Google’s making spy glasses to secretly record video of all your hot air balloon rides. Other people: can you help me understand what is happening in this world of ours? I want to know what technology is doing to my brain. How do I stay human in a digital world? I want to understand what all this technology does to my expectations of myself, other people, and the world. None of this is timeless. These problems are right now.
  • Some might say that this blog’s design has some “timeless” qualities. I will let you in on a secret: I am lazy. I want to make as few decisions as possible, but I want those choices to be good ones. I don’t add cruft, because I’d have to make the cruft so that I could add it. And then I’d have to decide where it would go, when all I really want to do is find that chimp with the ice cream cone and hang out with him.

Thank you for reading my measured critique, and have a timeless day.