A review of Karim Rashid’s Design Your Self (2006)
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97: Wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now. (‘Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young,’ by Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune, 1997)
If you lived in the Western world and had access to a radio circa 1999, you know these words. Baz Luhrmann, an Australian screenwriter, director and producer, took a ‘theoretical’ commencement address from a Chicago Tribune columnist and made it into a ‘song’ of sorts: read in an authoritative male voice, the track dispenses a broad range of advice over a version of the song “Everbody’s Free (To Feel Good)” by Rozalla. Definitely a ‘novelty’ single, it reached #1 in the UK and Ireland and a respectable #45 in the US.
Industrial designer Karim Rashid‘s Design Your Self, whether intentional or not, has the same thrust throughout its roughly 325 high-gloss pages of advice. Clearly not content with a single role or type of work, Rashid-as-author dispenses advice on the four key areas of life. The sub-title is, “Rethinking the way you live, love, work, and play.”
The book’s tone is a benign imperative: “Create large white spaces,” “impose order,” “drink plenty of water and use a humidifier,” “sex toys are great,” “simplify where you can.” It took me a lot of conscious effort to move beyond the imperatives, handsomely summarized on colourful pages with designer-ish fonts.
When I did manage to set aside my indignation at page after page of being told what to do and how to live, I initially learned that Karim Rashid is quite a good writer. While it’s definitely not particularly artistic prose, it is head-and-shoulders above almost every self-help book I’ve ever read. Most explanatory passages are crisp and economical, with perfectly serviceable (and sometimes slightly quirky) anecdotes from the famed designer’s hobnobbing life.
About 100 pages in, another realization: the reason I didn’t set it aside (and I set books aside readily when they irritate me) was that Rashid actually made sense in large stretches. It’s a strangely all-encompassing work, this; as wide (or wider) in scope as Emily Post‘s famous instructions about manners, he sets out a comprehensive guide to living in this 21st century, urban, technology-savvy, media-saturated multi-culti world of ours. Design Your Self‘s surprisingly broad range of topics also ensures that it never runs out of subject matter and, therefore, doesn’t become boring. (It’s quite possible to read it in the same way one might watch a horrible accident being narrowly averted: “Can he do it? Will he be able to turn the wheel before he hits the guard rail…?”)
Design Your Self is the ultimate reference to a kind of celebratory cultural relativism and as such will be deeply irritating to anyone with a more conservative outlook. Searching for its roots is, of course, not particularly hard – at least not if we speculate a little. Rashid was born in Cairo and grew up in Canada during the crucial Trudeau decades. There’s a generation of Canadians who came of age in the 70s and 80s who, naturally and quite fervently, believe in a tolerant, let’s-all-get-along, economically productive, inclusive society. This book is one such person’s attempt at imparting that world view to the next generation.
Rashid’s father was a non-practicing muslim (as he recounts in a passage about accepting yourself and others), and one gets the impression that his world is a deeply materialistic place, a place where spirituality of any kind has little place (key quote from the section about managing your own death: “Why can’t someone order a casket from Gucci or Prada?”). This seems fitting for a pontificating industrial designer, on one hand: this is a man who makes things, after all. Famous, iconic things. Things we might admire in a catalogue or exclusive storefront window.
On the other hand, it’s clear that Rashid is driven to communicate more than just advice and instructions. His is a thoroughly materialistic ethics, presented in perhaps the only way that such a project can be presented in the 2000s. Rashid’s desire is, I think, to intervene in the increasing occurrence of young people who simply don’t appear to have any idea how to do things, how to live. He does this in a way that is reasonably dignified – not preachy, not against a millennial backdrop of impending doom, not as the wise words of an old man (Design Your Self was published when he was 46). He offers advice based on reason alone, strange as that may seem.
If you can suspend your disbelief long enough – and, perhaps, skip over the portions where he tells you that black is out and that you should wear white and pink – there’s actually a lot to learn here. A little is about design and how one might structure one’s surroundings and activities; a lot is (old-fashioned) common sense, brought into the 21st century by a smart, accomplished and charismatic man.
It’s the sort of book you might find in a second hand bookstore on a Saturday afternoon, and before you know it, it’s Sunday night and you’re lounging on an orange couch with rounded edges in your newly remodeled loft apartment wearing white jeans and silver sneakers, wondering whether you should really have ordered that Gucci casket after all.