Despite being a terribly sad song about Ian Curtis’ problems in his marriage, as well as his general frame of mind in the time leading up to his suicide in May 1980, Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart is considered a pop song that has been danced to, laughed at, cried to, and everything in between by generations of people regardless of how “hip” they are. For some reason, the despair of this song and other Joy Division songs doesn’t deter people from (ironically) celebrating life. Yet most people see goth culture and music as nothing but wallowing in self-pity—but that’s a misconception. Just because reveling in dismay is not the norm in society does not mean that goths are ultimately sad—rather, they are fascinated by the feelings and actions that that reveling can bring about. So, when mainstream audiences throw Love Will Tear Us Apart on at dance parties it’s not because they want to revisit a moment of loss; rather they wish to contemplate—in a subconscious, celebratory way—some potential in how they can construct their lives.
Some of the most miserable people in this world are graphic designers. Regardless of one’s experience level within the profession of graphic design, most hear or know of more horror stories than success stories. Some of them are so desperately in love with graphic design that they will go to outrageous lengths—such as going into massive amounts of debt to attend an MFA program—to remedy their relationship with it. But maybe that’s why the horror stories keep happening with generation after generation of new graphic designers: they keep running away from the profession’s misery towards some better pursuit or a flash of hope rather than wallowing in the despair.
Based on the lyrics found in the first verse of Love Will Tear Us Apart, one might think Curtis was secretly a graphic designer:
When the routine bites hard
And ambitions are low
And the resentment rides high
But emotions wont grow
And we’re changing our ways,
Taking different roads
Then love, love will tear us apart again
In the song Disorder, Curtis seems to remind designers of the desire to flee from client meetings:
It's getting faster, moving faster now, it's getting out of hand,
On the tenth floor, down the back stairs, it's a no man's land,
Lights are flashing, cars are crashing, getting frequent now,
[…] I've got the spirit, but lose the feeling.
For how often designers appropriate the waveforms from the cover of Unknown Pleasures for trivial urban wear and meme-esque ephemera, they certainly have trouble interpreting Curtis’ words or writhing to Joy Division’s melancholic rhythms to build some sort of self-actualization that goth culture stimulates. The band Bauhaus—who should be an easy entry point into goth culture for designers based on their name alone—mixed a myriad of genres outside the confines of punk to create their sound, similarly to the interdisciplinary definition that graphic designers love to advocate for yet never seem to actually realize. So where does this design culture that promotes arrogant behavior and fear of the eccentric come from? It comes from decades-old modernist principles and ethos that, unlike goth culture, are about shoveling self-doubt and anti-intellectualism on its practitioners, clients, and audiences, furthering the voyage on the downward spiral of hopelessness. Designers are taught in their undergraduate studies or graphic design coffee table books that the discipline revolves around a client, and that client will usually suck, but regardless of whether or not the client sucks designers need to translate the client’s message as they see fit while assuming the client’s audience lacks any intelligence to understand any level of wit or sophistication. Designers’ and clients’ lack of faith in people is without a doubt more disturbing than any mascara smeared goth. However, with this bullshit weighing on designers’ minds, graphic design does not need to be rebuilt from the ground up (although it’s education curriculum certainly does): with a designers’ day-to-day tasks shrouded in misery, all they need to do is start generating some sort of authenticity from this gloom like goths eagerly do.
A movement towards authenticity as a designer comes from visually interpreting our personal interests and neurotic human tendencies. It’s an attempt at democratizing graphic design not in how it is made (i.e., platforms such as Squarespace) but in how it’s approached and consumed by a public. And this sort of inclusiveness doesn’t come from a “genius” designer’s ethos or modernist principles that state what is the correct way to design the built world around us. Photographer Diane Arbus once said, “The more specific you are, the more general it'll be,” meaning the inclusivity that modernism says its striving for doesn’t come from creating comprehensive constructs from the outset, rather, as Arbus states, it’s engendered by presenting or formulating our modesty and arcane interests and seeing if anyone responds to or inquires about them. From there we can find the esoteric collectives we all seem to be looking for. Therefore, even if a work doesn’t strike a nerve within any viewer, the act of introducing such eccentric—and in some instances, embarrassing—subjects is a small step toward conveying design that can be trusted, comforting, and participatory when trying to initiate a discourse for and sustained by publics or laypeople, not those in the position to be exploitative.
Graphic designers need not to be afraid of traversing the gothic darkness and eventually through it. Coming out the other side wearing black trench coats, lipstick for eyeshadow, and teased out hair is a statement of who we truly are and that we’re not afraid to show that side of ourselves regardless of what modernism hauntingly tells us to feel or believe to be ideal. But don’t be mistaken by this bold statement: Goth culture is not look-at-me culture. If anything, many passersby are repulsed or confused by goth style, yet they are always asking, “Why do they dress/act like that?” As graphic designers, we can harness this inquiry by stylizing atomized esoteric communities and built environments as human complexities, thus establishing a tolerance and approach towards each other that is visceral, intriguing, and, most importantly, healthy.