Who are you, who do you want to be, and what do you need to do to get there? We are constantly pushed to lead the perfect life. The media present us with a picture of an existence in which we’re rich, beautiful, happy and successful. Our identities used to be shaped by our communities, families, and friends, but today, in the online era, we’re expected to write our own success stories on social media platforms.
We design our own identity, create our own image and present ourselves in the way we want to be seen. The various imaginative methods and ideas for upgrading oneself—by dieting to achieve the perfect body, transforming your talents into a successful business, or finding bliss by meeting a new love—are seen as new forms of creativity, or, Self Design.
Designer Mieke Gerritzen created Help Your Self, an inspirational book to design your perfect self and shows you how to get started. At the same time, it reflects on the self-help industry as a relatively new phenomenon.
Celebrating the launch of this publication, we caught up with Mieke Gerritzen and discussed this idea of 'self design', the power of images, virtual identities and more.
What does ‘self design’ mean to you?
A few years ago, I noticed how my friends started doing yoga and meditation, going on retreats and reading self-help books as well as listening to apps like Headspace or Sam Harris–gurus that help you fall asleep or wake up perfectly. I wondered what this meant. Were my design friends converting to a new faith? Or was it time for more self-awareness? And was this a response to developments in society? As a designer I started wondering to what extent this exploration of the Self could mean to creative professions: We know visual design, social design, interaction design, fashion design, gender design, bio design, graphic design, and now we also have self design. Until now we mainly shaped the world outside ourselves. The time has come to look at people themselves as a design object. Developments in technology and our life in the information society have made us physically, psychologically and socially malleable. It is now possible to become who you want to be. That is self-design for me.
Where does self design start? And where does it end?
Self-design is the eternal (never-ending) practice of researching the Self that moves along with the continuously changing society. It starts when you are born, and it ends with death. Although there are many possibilities in terms of design before birth, self design only applies if you are already there. Because it's all about doing it yourself. Even after you die, there are still endless opportunities to design yourself. However, you either organize that yourself while you are alive, or others will organize your continued existence after you die.
In terms of creating a self help book, what does self design solve?
The references I make to self-help books is that those books are mainly marketed as a consumer product. Self-help books can even lead to addiction. If something needs to be solved, you do it yourself. The self is more important than ever, we live in a hyper-individualistic society. More people live alone than in families. More people work as a self-employed person (alone) than there are people working as an employee. Your personal taste and ideas do matter. If there are elections and you have to vote, then your vote is one that you have chosen deliberately and that only contributes to the greater whole in the second instance. It is self-design to understand what your opinion is and not just follow what the group is doing. With self-design you are not working on the ‘me’- era, you are working in? a community of conscious people.
We are constantly over-stimulated with images and information. How do we find value in this massive influx of information and how can self design help?
The media influence has grown so much over the past three decades that we essentially live in it. They are not an ‘extra/something external’ in our lives, the media are life itself. Nowadays people develop their self-image or their image, via Facebook or Instagram through visual culture. But if you don't know yourself well, your self-image is not created by yourself, but by the media channels around you. Are your ideas your ideas? Or are they the images from media that you are striving for? I fear we will need more self-study to counter manipulation- to become who we are or want to be in this complex media society.
In the book you suggest that we are relatively illiterate at reading pictures. How do you imagine we become literate in reading images?
If you are illiterate in reading (understanding) images you have a hard time. Much information comes to us as an image. Even if it is text. We can read images and look at/see language. We must take all forms of information seriously. Typography has a broad meaning in this age of visual culture. All images that have become iconic through fame, rehearsal and recognizability are seen and used as typography. This new meaning of typography adds value to the language with which we communicate. Icons such as a portrait of Barak Obama or an Apple logo or the sound of incoming email are just as legible characters as a word that consists of letters and is (literally) legible. The language of identity now defines our (visual) culture.
How do you see the dynamics between the inner self and the outer self and how can self design influence this?
Feasibility is a connecting factor. We can adapt and change our appearance to the desired result. We can use willpower and technology for that. But technology is also trying to penetrate our body these days. Those are the algorithms that can manipulate you and influence your social behavior. Self-design can help you become less dependent and make your own choices. This is possible if you get to know yourself better, form your own opinion and do not allow yourself (or less) to be guided by external impulses.
How do you see the dynamics between the physical body and the virtual identity and how can self design influence this?
That is a complex area that we still have to investigate thoroughly. There is a parallel (virtual) world in which you can live with a completely invented identity. But that can also be very confusing. You can also lose sense of reality because the virtual world is often more imaginative than reality. We encounter this a lot in the gaming world. We also know the images of gamers who completely neglect their physical life and are actually very destructive. But we are also massively addicted to the smartphone. We are losing focus of the physical, which is now also reinforced by a pandemic because we zoom all day long. I think self-design can be of great significance here. Somewhere we have to find a balance and as humans be able to cope with the forces and powers of communication technology.
The greatest danger is that technology will become invisible. In this sense, we must fight for the right of self-design. Discontent grows and the ability to speak up and stand up for what you believe in is becoming more important as the internet (our outlet) is restricted ,control systems and algorithms are depriving citizens of freedom and phenomena like fake news are becoming mainstream.
The fact that people are followed, directed, filtered, tempted and enchanted without knowing is actually a criminal matter. Humans are being encapsulated/trapped in a technological vacuum controlled by governments and technological monopolies. This development is at odds with the idea of self-design.
What is the future of self design?
Know yourself. If everyone does that then everything will be alright.