All around the world, things are looking more and more the same. Coffee shops, Airbnb listings, and boutique hotels feature the same subway tiles, brass fixtures, and neo-Scandinavian minimalist furniture, regardless of what continent you’re on. A few years ago, Kyle Chayka in The Verge coined the term ‘AirSpace’ to describe the eerie sense of visual sameness invading built environments across the world, helped along by Silicon Valley forces like Airbnb and social media feeds. A few years on, the AirSpace phenomenon still exists, but it is slowly being eclipsed by new singular trends in visual design.
The Atlantic declared in April that the “Instagram aesthetic is over”—noting the recent trend towards messy authenticity, DIY photography aesthetics, flash photos, longer captions, and double- (or triple-) posting. People grew tired of hyper-staged photos, saturated colours, and the culture reached its aesthetic tipping point. But even these more ‘authentic’ trends, many of which were generated grassroots-style by Gen X digital natives, are already being co-opted and expanded on social media by major brands like Balenciaga, Off-White, or Vetements.
The AirSpace phenomenon was undeniably real. But a few years later, it’s obvious that it was not permanent. So why does everything still look the same, even if it’s a different flavour of ‘same’ than it was in 2016? The simplistic answer is that design is a pendulum, and humans are drawn to trends. But a closer look at the platforms that enable today’s culture industry underlines how technology is restricting our choices to an ever-smaller set of ‘accepted’ visual styles.
Visual design trends in the world of branding and lifestyle startups are following a similar trajectory. Successful companies in the early and middle 2010s ushered in a conservative mix of sans-serif fonts, pastel backgrounds, still-life stock photos, and hand-drawn icons. In an age of globalisation and complexity, consumers craved simplicity, and minimalist design became a product that was as important as the actual products and services sold by these companies.
Apple followed the trend by eliminating skeuomorphism from iOS, trading in ‘kitschy’ textures and gradients that approximated real-world materials for a flat, monochrome standard. Soon, every new digital brand or company was copying these aesthetics. When a startup could utilise a stock image platform like Unsplash and a minimal template from Squarespace to design their homepage, for example, what would justify the cost of hiring an actual photographer or web designer to create original content? Once again, an aesthetic singularity was reached, and consumers demanded something else.
The redesign of the Chobani yoghurt brand in 2017 signalled a cultural pivot towards a new visual maximalism. Gone were the angular sans-serif capital letters of the Chobani logo, replaced in favour of a vaguely 70s chunky serif, with a mood board featuring colours like ‘milk chocolate,’ ‘geranium,’ ‘rose apple,’ and ‘natural’. The ecstatic online reaction to the rebrand of a yoghurt company would have been impossible to predict—but consumers had grown tired of cold International-style minimalism, and the visual warmth conveyed from the rebrand was a timely reprieve after the uncertain year of Trump and Brexit. Other brands also introduced expansive colour palettes, maximalist designs, and serif fonts in their logos—like the Dropbox and Medium redesigns of 2017, and the new masthead for The Guardian, introduced in 2018.
Instagram, arguably the primary outlet for creative content on the internet today, has grown from its launch in 2010 to a platform of 1 billion monthly active users in 2018. This network effect continually reinforces its primacy—the social network with the most users, in turn, becomes the most valuable, and generates even more users by already being the largest network. But while this vast expansion has connected a billion people to a global creative network, this increase in access does not correlate to an increase in aesthetic diversity or heterogeneity. Much like the law of network effects makes the largest social media network also the most valuable, the algorithms that govern how content appears on a news feed or on a discovery page prioritise the most successful content over all else. And in a world where even social media is a market economy where everyone competes for likes, individual users must imitate established visual trends in order to expand their reach through the algorithms.
New ventures, whether they be aesthetic, artistic, or commercial, must be primarily concerned with economic viability from the outset in this age of ruthless late capitalism. Because they must be focused on economic viability, they therefore adopt the values and aesthetics of the most successful previous ventures. Take a look at some of the most aesthetically ‘innovative’ companies of the last several years, like Warby Parker and Allbirds. These are not particularly innovative companies. These firms took established market ideas like vertical integration, direct-to-consumer sales, and minimalist design, and applied them to new lines of business. Their visual aesthetics appeared to be unique to the industry when they launched, but now they are lost in a sea of design sameness imitated by firms across many industries. But when this visual sameness means better sales, it means the company has a better chance of surviving. And thus we return to the primary catalyst of our cycles of aesthetic sameness and trend changes—the primacy of the profit motive, and the welding together of aesthetic taste and the need to make money with as little investment as possible.
Capitalism promised us an explosion of individual choice, but it has only given us a series of aesthetic singularities, fused to the primacy of the profit motive and irrespective of true creative expression. How can we break the cycle? We can start by reducing the power of dominant social media networks to shape our aesthetic taste and creative production—through creating digital design explicitly designed not for social media, and by re-investing in non-digital mediums. Physical zines and art, even experimental websites, can be methods of creative expression that are radically detached from social media, and these mediums have the potential to facilitate bespoke visual aesthetics that cannot be whitewashed by ad-supported platforms and discovery algorithms.
Next time the urge to create something hits us, we should consider putting down our apps, and picking up a pencil instead.
Can’t decide where to go for your next summer vacay? Why not let your DNA dictate your next destination. From learning which strain of weed to smoke to what music you should listen to, Airbnb and 23andMe are the latest in strange collabs with DNA analysis. On May 21, the global hospitality and homestay service and the world’s first at-home DNA testing kit announced they are making a foray into the ever-rising demand for heritage travel. They’re now offering users the chance to go from a curious trip down ancestry lane online to a literal trip down ancestry lane.
Heritage travel has been hotter than ever due to the ease of technological access to our past and the opening of the genetic market. More enriching than your regular escape to Ibiza, heritage holidays provide an emotional experience to explore your ancestral roots as well as take a week’s worth of Instagram-worthy photos. Before, these excursions were meant for religious purposes such as pilgrimages to Mecca for Muslim travellers or a Jewish birthright trip to Israel, but according to Airbnb’s consumer trends spokesperson Ali Killam, heritage travel has been a top travel trend since 2014.
After filling your genealogy reports on 23andMe and sending it in, you will be able to click through Airbnb homes and experiences that reside in your ancestral homelands. According to 23andMe, users have at least five (out of eight) different origins within their report, which leads to ample options for your travel itinerary. Compared to sifting through dusty records and studying family trees, it’s a unique and easy way to learn about your heritage. Not to mention an offbeat approach to your vacation plans inspired by your genetic code.
According to press releases on Airbnb and 23andMe, their aim is to provide “an exciting opportunity for customers to connect with their heritage through deeply personal cultural and travel experiences.” Although some see it as a unique escapade, others find this partnership uneasy. Using DNA to capitalise on emotional experiences may feel demeaning and diminish the significance heritage trips could actually be. Not to mention the level of legitimacy of your genetic reports and the authenticity of these travel options.
As we become increasingly wary of how our data is used the thought of our genetic data used for ulterior motives comes to mind. This slightly whispers back to U.S. President Roosevelt’s 1942 order for Japanese Americans to register their identity and begs the question: Could this be a new form of racial registration but with a different face? The ethical implications of having your cultural and racial identity monetised should also be questioned. If it is used as a cultural or racial registry, this not only affects the people who have done the test but also their relatives—which was proven through the capturing of the golden state killer, where police found him through the genetic code of a relative who used 23andMe. Although both parties have stated they won’t be sharing personal information with the other, being sceptical seems like a safe option.
Or maybe we should just take this collaboration at face value. As one Reddit user asks in the 23andMe thread discussing this topic, “Why are you complaining?”. There also are some positive implications that could come from this new way of travelling. People who are adopted or people from disconnected communities from their ancestral home, such as the African American community, could learn more about their geographic history. For those who have no idea where they came from this may be a stepping stone to their personal journey, but then again, how personal can you get with a pre-packaged holiday?
If both companies communicate this collaboration as a way to explore your roots from a physical standpoint then it may not seem so contrived. Instead, it seems that Airbnb and 23andMe are trying too hard to pull at your heartstrings and not telling it like it is: a fun new way to pick your next travel destination.
Your approach to this new way of travelling now depends on how you perceive society. Some may think, as we have already given up so much of ourselves to digital data, what’s one more thing? Others may see it as another way for companies to use and sell our data. So where exactly is the limit? Just like many other questions, there’s no right answer just yet. We’ll find out in the future. In the meantime, hopefully give your long lost cousin a good Airbnb review cause you know, ‘family’.