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The Culture of Dummies:
A Mapping of Tutorialism

Over the past year, I have observed a flow of crude visual output, making debuts on several platforms ranging from social media and websites to billboards. They are what is technically known as kinetic typography, i.e. a fancy term for moving text. These images and clips appeared visually striking and had bold typographic treatments; contrasted with black/white backgrounds and, in some cases, wrapped around an arbitrary geometric 3D object. The swirling visuals had a hypnotic trait in that they were animated in space. They were either rotating, moving across the screen in delayed intervals, or maintaining a POV that granted a deep sense of immersion. With the visual’s design and aesthetic direction geared towards a distinct all-embracing feel, the viewer gets an Op Art-esque treatment to the moving typography.

tutorial
A screenshot from
a Youtube tutorial

The Op Art movement arose in the early 60’s. It used a framework of purely geometric forms as the basis of its effects. It also borrowed inspiration from color theory and the psychology of perception. It was primarily concerned with creating optical illusions through the use of certain visual attributes, thereby tricking the viewer’s eyes to perceive depth or an illusion of movement.

Time Magazine, where the Op Art term was first coined, claimed that it simultaneously pulled the viewer in and attacked their eyes. This movement is also considered a form of Kinetic art, wherein artists began exploring the idea of how time can potentially be experienced in an art piece. Op Art had strong and fresh visual results, alas, short-lived. By the end of the 60’s, it gradually integrated itself into pop art and minimalism. But its influence can be discernibly observed to this day.

Blaze 1964
Bridget Riley

Untitled 1965
[Fragment 5/8]
Bridget Riley

Above are a set of visuals, one taken from YouTube and another from Bridget Riley, a prominent figure from the Op Art movement. By a simple juxtaposition of the two, one can see the resemblance these visuals have to Op Art. An art enthusiast with an eye for design can easily bridge the connection between the two. However, upon further inspection, this resemblance is not the result of a deliberate decision that said designers came to revisit the Op Art and Kinetic movements. It was not by the natural means of drawing inspiration from the movements, examining the visuals further, and consequently, experimenting with the visuals in a modern context, on Adobe After Effects. It is rather sobering that this familiarity we are noting is the mere doing of these designers following the same YouTube tutorials.

These so-called “designers” have entered a rabbit hole of uniformity. On the one hand, there is the designer that put together the tutorial and curated most of the design choices that brought about a particular visual aesthetic, leaving countless designers, on the other hand, to use that same tutorial that may as well be dummy text – filling in their material and claiming it as their own. This is evident in a tutorial posted around a year ago on a YouTube channel called Dope Motions. The channel is owned by Nikhil Pawar, a Motion & Graphics Designer, according to the About section on his website. He released a series of tutorials demonstrating how the coupling of particular After Effects functions can lead to the creation of several visual languages.

Throughout the past year, a few more tutorials of the same nature were released by the same channel, now, with packs of ready-to-use templates available for purchase from a variety of websites.

What struck me was the heaps of young designers racing to imitate these tutorials, only to produce carbon copies of the original visuals. To make matters worse, the outcomes are then shared as novel design experimentation or as actual work.

Similarly, contrasting colors have shown a recent spike (coincidentally, the black and white trend is gradually dimming) following the introduction of a new flow of tutorials involving C4D and AE from a channel by the name of madebytiger. It goes by the same concept, except it features more 3D objects from C4D, pop colors and better lighting.

screenshot of a youtube tutorial
Youtube tutorial
Madebytiger

The same approach can be seen, but with more technical sophistication. Presenting bold typography and 3D effects, these tutorials have shown to be useful in my experience; upon watching a few, I have grasped a great deal of technical prowess and seen the untapped potential of After Effects and C4DI took the liberty to interview Tiger Zhang, the Boston-based designer behind the channel madebytiger, to gain insight into why he is creating these tutorials.

Q: What made you start creating these tutorials in that specific visual aesthetic? What was your inspiration behind it?

I shared my short videos about kinetic typography, and viewers asked for the tutorials in the comments. So, I started recording videos when designing the kinetic typography in After Effects or Cinema 4D.Frank Gehry’s work inspired me because there is movement in his architecture.

building perspective
MIT Stata Center
Frank Gehry

building

building architecture
Lou Ruvo Center
Las  Vegas
Frank Gehry

Were you influenced by the Op Art movement from the 60’s?

I got insight from Op Art. The tutorials that I uploaded to YouTube are my experiment projects with the question of how I can imitate a three-dimensional environment in two-dimensional form.

Do you intend for your tutorials to be replicated exactly as they are? If not, what is the purpose of your tutorial?

No, I do not. Through my tutorials, I hope I can show that the combination of typography and motion design can deliver more value and express emotions to our audiences.

Is there anything you would like to advise people watching your tutorials in terms of how they should include that in their workflow?

I think technologies such as After Effects and Cinema 4D are easy to learn. The tool is not the answer, the designer is the answer – so, stop following the herd.

In a humble 4 questions to Tiger Zhang, one can deduce the intention behind these tutorials and better understand the inspirations he drew from.

Taking a glimpse at the lackadaisical attitude of today’s designers, one can easily speculate that this technology will gain traction and give rise to a new trend. The culture of mimicry will transpire leading one to anticipate the impressions of seemingly identical designs.

Now, let us examine what it means to imitate with little consideration, curiosity to investigate, or desire to build on technical skills learned. To begin with, this suggests that the mere act of following steps has the capability to produce work that possesses aesthetic or conceptual properties. On the contrary, it can be the dreariest, if not the most degenerative, activity a creative can perform. It may as well be done by a computer programmed to follow the same sequence with the permission to alter a few extra variables. The product would be roughly the same.

What is the value a designer brings to the table when sharing such work? What is the work’s inherent worth? The posed questions deserve some reflection. It is a cynical reality in which the creative industry is a passive bystander to these primitive propositions, only to be met with praise that is, quite frankly, out of place. In fact, it reflects a deeper flaw in the grounds upon which one defines ‘design’ and how the field respectively measures creativity.

With the lack of better education and the deficit in design criticism, both internal and external, these templates are deemed the one-stop-shop for a creative process. The outputs they create, unobstructed by much-needed criticism, subsequently leave unrelenting scars on our design history. The widely accessible blueprint opens the door to the general adoption of this practice, giving it false credibility as a means of creation.

A few keywords that could define this new wave are: Skimming, scanning, hover over, scroll, and swipe.

All terms that deal with the surface-level inspection of the subject in question.

All too often, designers look to the work of others as the source of inspiration while scouring the internet for visual references. Rarely was the source of inspiration art itself. It comes as no surprise that this practice was adopted by many designers in Egypt, dictating a style that appeals to anyone without the exposure necessary to detect the banality of the work in the eyes of designers and non-designers, alike.

It is crucial to highlight the risks that the lack of sufficient internal design criticism have posed, leaving visual culture to a roll of the dice, perpetuating poor critical thinking and peer reviews with no substance.

Instead of shaping a designer with a clear-cut, distinct style, it is leading to the prototype of a designer with short bursts of style that come and go with the seasons.

Design criticism is a dodged practice in Egypt and more often than not, it is taken as a personal attack, rather than professional, constructive feedback. One reason I wrote this essay is to break the taboo of design criticism and normalize it as a practice that I believe is to the benefit of visual culture. Another reason is in efforts to develop the healthy practice of critical thought, analysis and understanding of design. Through this, I aim to question myself and challenge my own thought processes and practices.

I believe that design criticism is aimed at untangling the mysteries and intricacies of design for oneself, first and foremost – given the designer harbors a keen sense of curiosity. Secondly, for the community of design in creating a healthy discourse surrounding given topics. And lastly, for the public, in making design more understandable and accessible to the untrained eye.

Going back to the matter at hand; in parallel to Op Art, where patterns, shapes and colors were selected for their illusory qualities rather than for their substantive content, there is the general aesthetic treatment of these tutorials. The designers originally producing these tutorials know the exact reason behind every choice made, be it the high contrast, the bold typography, or the particular shapes. They are carefully designed to attract the viewer’s attention, even hypnotize, as they reveal themselves on the thumbnail of a video on YouTube.

And so, designers fall prey to the allure of the visuals, follow the allocated steps and possibly pick up a few pointers about the software. The designer produces a work and plays with a couple of trivialities to more closely represent their identity, and proceeds to share it with their ecosystem. Some may credit the source where they arrived at this visual style from, while others hope that this aspect goes unnoticed, as they edit “Your Text Here” to “Summer Vibes”, or appropriate Arabic text as an effective concealer.

One of the arguments in favor of this practice is that it is considered as experimentation, and therefore, should be tolerated under that. The fact of the matter is, it should not be.“The word ‘experiment’ has come to justify a multitude of sins”, as Steve Heller, the design critic, pointed out. He was referring to the indifference that arises as a result of inadequate definition of ‘experimentation’ in university projects.By definition, creative experimentation is the process by which a designer engages with an idea in exploration of its full potential, through the utilization of the tools available at hand or new ones.

The process can involve several different methods; to mention a few: repetition, tracing, juxtaposing, alteration, association, adjustment, filtering down, clarifying amongst others. All of which usually happen simultaneously unless the designer intentionally designates specific attributes to work with.Experimentation, as most skilled designers know, is essential to any successful project. It can often be ugly and messy but other times, deeply intriguing. It is the fuel of the design process. Steve defines its formula as a mixture of elements, to which I will contribute some of my own:
Intuition, intelligence, creativity, discipline, curiosity, and constraints.

Take the Ames’ Guide to Self-Instruction in Practical and Artistic Penmanship as an example of commitment and dedication in experimentation.

inked monograms
Check out the full book
of hand lettering and type experimentation HERE

Another example of this exercise that was made by the Italian designer Bruno Munari, aiming to expand a person’s idea of what a face looks like using variation and repetition. Munari used a familiar icon and asked a simple question: how many variations of the front of the human face can I imagine?

sketches of faces
Design as art
Bruno Munari

sketches of facessketches of faces sketches of facessketches of faces

The results are fascinating, to say the least. Such an exercise was useful in that it involved a process of deep vertical thinking of a myriad of possibilities that could arise from zeroing in on one visual element. It also challenged the normative image of the face in the mind, using repetition to force the brain to find new relationships, juxtapositions and displacements that led to unorthodox results. These results would not have been possible had this exercise not been explored in its totality.

Comparing this definition and execution of the creative experiment to that of following a tutorial, exposes the superficiality of the process and outcome of the latter. So, the main problem of this argument is that it flattens the definition of what experimentation is. These visual reproductions are starved of intention, curiosity, constraints, rigor, or creativity. They are predesigned templates that use dummy text and a dummy visual language that is only intended to showcase a way of working and not to impose aesthetic choices.This fault is not only limited to the definition of experimentation, but, to a disconcerting extent, reflects the state of the Egyptian designer; one that uses pre-cooked formulas, scans visual elements horizontally and never digs into one symbol vertically. The current culture of mockups is one that places more emphasis on the designer’s portfolio than their actual work. It creates fictional parallels of visual outputs: The designer’s portfolio including clean 3D mockups and predesigned templates vs. The actual work. It also goes to say how modern-day Egyptian designers place unwarranted value on how their work performs in the real world as well as their skewed perception of the design process, where it begins and ends.If the presentation of the work in a designer’s portfolio matched that of their acumen in reality, we would witness a much higher-caliber visual environment, but that is a topic to cover in depth in another essay.

“It is said that imitation is a good start, but when imitation becomes the creation, then creativity becomes flat reproduction.”

This phenomenon is not a novel or foreign one. Remember the glitch, warp, slit-scan animated typography? or the don’t blink effect animation?

This culture has existed for years. For the sake of convenience and so that we can reference it back in the future with a name, let’s call this phenomena Tutorialism.

slit scan tutorial
Screenshot from
a youtube tutorial
slit scan tutorial
A reproduction made
by studio Akakir

The aim of this essay is not merely to highlight the problems of the current design scene but also, to give pointers that would hopefully inspire. Taking the example of Op Art, there are several noteworthy pieces that can be studied deeper. The notion of ‘study’ should be treated as intrinsic to the design process and be demonstrated consistently

by the designer.For example, the extraordinary works of artists Peter Sedgley and Victor Vasarely.

an artist working on his art with an airbrush
Glide 1966
Peter Sedgley

Gestalt 4 1970
Victor Vasarely
Dieuzeu 1908
Victor Vasarely

It could serve designers better to feed their mind the works of said artists, to deeply immerse oneself in the study of their processes and examine their mindful choices. It could even serve as a better visual stimulus than the urge to share their easy productions in return for transient external validations. I believe the real validation to be sought is an internal one; one that comes about from the knowledge of having exhausted all the possibilities for the work at hand; that it is thoughtful, experimental and perhaps original.In his book The Conduct of Life, Ralph Waldo Emerson notes:

“the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting”.

Tutorialism is a far cry from real ingenuity in design. It is as uninteresting in its process for the imitator as it is for the viewer. And if it is uninteresting then it is ugly, according to Emerson.Ultimately, these visual reproductions are highly dependent on the lack of criticism from within the field and receive validation from the untrained eye. By flattening the creation process to become a matter of replacing dummy text and dummy visual language, they perpetuate dummy mass visual culture which ought not be tolerated.

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