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Must-See TV: Top Design

Unlike some, I don’t get giddy at the mere mention of the word “design” in mainstream happenstances (Target, Intelligent Design, Fast Company’s Masters of Design, etc.), simply because they are rarely a reflection of what we (or at least I) actually do. So it was with more hesitancy than usual that I tuned in to Bravo’s new Realitontest™, Top Design, with its cadre of stereotypical creative characters: The weird hairdos, the unusual eyeglass frames, the hipper-than-thou fashions and, of course, the bitchiness, cattiness and endless eye-rolling of the interior designers flung at each other, at the judges and at the world at large. Despite this, and especially after this Wednesday’s episode, I was left clamoring for more. Top Design exposes the dynamic, the challenges and the process of being a designer and is the closest parallel graphic design will likely ever experience in terms of exposing to a broader audience how it is we work, how we talk about our work and how our work is perceived by our peers and, ultimately, our clients. Oh, and about this week’s episode… it features the Top Design Putdown ever, but I’ll get to that later.

If you haven’t seen the show — and you should — the premise is simple: Contestants receive instructions of what they need to do, with varying degrees of helpful information; they are prescribed a client who they usually meet late in the process; they are given a budget, timeframe and deadline; they sketch, run, huff and puff; then deploy their creativity on empty, three-walled, no-ceilinged, sheet-rocked rooms; a panel of judges (how cool is Jonathan Adler? “See you later decorator”? Hilarious) scrutinize the work; the client is revealed or a curveball is thrown; and a winner is chosen as having the Top Design and a loser is sent home. Other than the winner/loser set up (unless we are talking about spec, but we ain’t right now) this scenario is scarily familiar. Watching the designers pick fabrics, expensive furniture they can’t really afford, wall colors and other accessories is like looking into a mirror where I am picking typefaces, coated or uncoated paper, printing processes that I can’t afford, PMS colors or CMYK breakdowns and graphic mannerisms. But the true magic happens in the “White Room” where the judges opine and question and where subjectivity and taste become the last word.

The judges, Jonathan Adler, Kelly Wearstler, Margaret Russell and a changing guest judge offer the snappiest versions of both a classroom design critique and a boardroom design presentation. The judges present their opinions on execution, style, appropriateness to the brief and client, inventiveness and above all how they personally feel about the room. I would attempt at paraphrasing, but much of the joy of the remarks comes from the body language, tone and infliction of attitude (with a lovable hint of superiority) from the judges — just one minor i.e., Adler’s “You know clients… They can be fickle” remark with a twinkle in his eye was priceless. The interior designers, in turn, pout and sometimes daringly retort with “Oh, I don’t think so, girlfriend” remarks when their designs are poorly received; and they glow and joyfully sweat when judges shower them with kudos. While, as professional graphic designers who are not followed by cameras and don’t have microphones sticking out of our behinds, we rarely stand in a line-up when receiving design feedback some of these exchanges can be painfully spot on. And unlike its Top Chef counterpart, where things can be objectively undercooked, over-salted or sloppily presented, Top Design relies on, and perpetuates, subjectivity and personal taste as the measuring stick of successful design — yet one more parallel that can be hard to absorb as a viewer.

Michael's Design
Room design by Michael. Photo: ©2006 NBC Universal, Inc.

But it was this subjectivity that led to one of my favorite reality TV moments ever. In this week’s episode the challenge was to design a room for a kid. They were only told this after the designers had sketched and bought furniture. Oh my Gods and dropped jaws quickly followed. But it was cherub-faced designer, Michael, who took the biggest fall — even if he still managed to stay on the show. After sustaining a critique that described his room as an “assisted living facility” and was labeled as looking “granny” — I’m so stealing that term — the sharpest blow came from judge Kelly. As the judges were deliberating among themselves, talking about Michael’s room, Kelly delivered the most awesome design putdown I have ever heard, one that, in my publicly-admitted snobby ways, delivers the perfect combination of snootiness and disdain for poor design mockery. Kelly, with her legs fashionably crossed, and looking glamorously fabulous finally said “His room looked like it was put together by a state-appointed designer.”

Brutal. Yet so amusingly real.

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PUBLISHED ON Feb.09.2007 BY Armin
Mike Ziegenhagen’s comment is:

That was indeed a classic line. I can't say that I am totally in love with the show as of yet. My love for Project Runway and Top Chef was more immediate. It may have to do with the fact there is no one that jumps out me as a favorite. Girl with the glasses is the best of an only mildly interesting or talented bunch. Not tom mention that as nice as Todd Oldham seems, he doesn't really seem like he could care less one way or another. He is no Tim Gunn or Tom Calicio (likely spelled wrong).Hopefully we get some forerunners as I am required to love the show. A friend of mine pitched the show to Bravo and is a consultant on it. Therefore I need to find a way to stay excited.

On Feb.09.2007 at 10:57 AM
ege’s comment is:

The best thing about the premise of the show is the surprise detail (who the room is for). They wait to tell the designers this crucial detail until they have already invested a lot of thinking and time into an idea. This happens to creatives all the time. Image you are working on an ad or a logo design for a luxury brand of cosmetics then half way through the process they tell you it will also be used for a line of candy for kids that looks like cosmetics. This example is a bit extreme, but you get my point. We get curve balls thrown at us all the time. Clients tend to never tell us, or just forget to tell us all the details we need to know in order to do a spot on job from the begining. Bravo! Bravo!

On Feb.09.2007 at 12:29 PM
Danny’s comment is:

I dunno. I was a fan of Top Chef, and we pretty excited to learn about a version that was closer to home (design). The first episode did me in though. It wasn't about design. It was about personalities. And they picked the worst ones possible. Starting with the host. Todd may be a great designer, but he has the on-screen appeal of a brick.

On Feb.09.2007 at 02:46 PM
Tselentis’s comment is:

So glad to see other people giving this show attention. Project Runway had its nice moments, but this show is closer to the client/designer relationship most of us encounter. And, yes, the put-downs are awesome.

On Feb.09.2007 at 04:43 PM
Armin’s comment is:

I do agree that the show is not nearly as good as Top Chef or Project Runway which have been on for 2 and 3 seasons respectively, honing their format. Top Chef was not as popular the first season as it was this second one – surely thanks to crazy boy Marcel. Top Design's second episode seemed much better than the first one, which was stiff all the way through. I think it will get better as the season progresses.

> Todd may be a great designer, but he has the on-screen appeal of a brick.

Snappy dresser though. Not to further expand on my man crush with Jonathan Adler, but he should be the host. He is funny and harsh. AND a snappy dresser too.

On Feb.09.2007 at 04:43 PM
Pesky’s comment is:

I used to like the early Iron Chef program out of Japan staring Chairman Kaga (talk about a snappy dresser, Armin...) - Drama, surprise ingredients, deadlines and cometition against the master chefs: what a combination. Then it became Americanized....now it's like methidone...

On Feb.09.2007 at 06:15 PM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

I haven't seen it yet! It's true...I'm still living the I-don't-own-a-TV lifestyle and love it, but maybe I'll give in. In the meantime, I check iTunes daily to see if its added.

Wish I knew what all the banter is really about. ! thing is for sure, I laughed out load at "granny." Perfect.

On Feb.10.2007 at 12:05 AM
Randy J. Hunt’s comment is:

I spoke too soon! There it is, season pass and all. Thank you lord Jobs :) iTunes comes through.

On Feb.10.2007 at 12:07 AM
Rick Landers’s comment is:

I am truly shocked that some of you are actually giving this show credit. Among other aforementioned cliché personality issues with the show, take a few minutes to listen to the "designers" explanations of why they made their decisions - I have never heard more canned answers and expressions… "out of the box" "dynamic" "makes it pop" its pretty awful. What's worse, some of the judges have used these deplorable phases too which is really shocking, the put downs may be funny, but the short, to-the-point, intelligent responses that you would hope to hear and that would make you think or look at something differently have not really been there.

If there is anything we can take away from this show, it's how NOT to present work and to watch what you say! Quite a few of the "designers" have made self-centered remarks towards their reasoning with little or no respect to the "clients" requests. What a great statement this is for design. Granted, this is the result of editing, but if one of the secondary goals (bitching and drama being the first) is to show the inside scoop on a designers process, this is a big part that is being seriously overlooked. I wouldn't be surprised to hear "well... because" come out of someone's mouth, to which I could only sadly respond with the off button.

On Feb.11.2007 at 02:27 PM
steven’s comment is:

as off topic as possible:

who drew the speak up wordmark? i can't find the name for my life.


On Feb.12.2007 at 06:12 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Steven, it was done by Michael Clark.

On Feb.12.2007 at 06:15 PM
Kyle’s comment is:

I think Bravo is doing a terrific job with all of their elimination-style creativity-based reality shows. It shines a light on the frustration and joy that comes from any creative process, no matter what you call it.

I really hope they're working on a graphic design-themed show... one week of design-by-committee, one week of the high maintenance no budget client, one week with no computers... guaranteed entertainment.

On Feb.14.2007 at 12:39 AM
Teddy Blanks’s comment is:

Can you imagine how boring Top Graphic Designer would be for anyone but us? I can just imagine the 3-judge panel reprimanding a contestant for bad kerning while TV viewers change the channel.

On Feb.14.2007 at 01:04 PM
jac’s comment is:

Can you imagine how boring Top Graphic Designer would be for anyone but us?

Hehe, I think about that, too. I try to imagine how our careers could be glamourized and made interesting for the average TV viewer.

And, well... I haven't come up with anything yet.

On Feb.16.2007 at 12:38 PM
Lila’s comment is:

With how-to shows popping up such as TLC's What Not to Wear, it's only natural that Project Runway has been such a success. I can honestly say the 3rd season of Project Runway was the first time in years that I actually watched a TV show religiously!

I find it interesting how these shows demonstrate color theory as well as other design aesthetics. It's neat to see my friends and family understand the importance of our talents. I think this is because something we all do (clothe ourselves) was being scrutinized.

I think the show isn't going to be as popular as Project Runway simply because most of the issues discussed on the show seem to go over the heads of the average viewer (example: "His room looked like it was put together by a state-appointed designer").

If the awareness of home design as well as visual communication becomes more apparent to the average person, it is then that shows we dream of (Top Graphic Design) have the possibility of becoming a reality.

On Feb.16.2007 at 09:50 PM
Callie’s comment is:

Very interesting. Well, I love Project Runway. Love, love, LOVE it. It totally reminds me of my graduate program. The stress, the impossible deadlines, the assignments that left you tilting your head going "Heh?", incapable of comprehending that anyone would really, actually ask you to do such things. And the personalities! Aaaah, yes. The wonderful personalities. We had one guy who made Santino look like a really nice person. It was priceless. Oh. Wait. No it wasn't. It was hell.

Anyway, there's an idea. Instead of emulating other design shows, why not just film a bunch of graduate students during their tenure? Hmmm, that could make for some informative viewing and good ratings....

On Feb.19.2007 at 11:11 PM