On any random given day, if you walked up to me and asked me if Kanye West was a good designer, my answer would be a resounding NO. By my own personal standards, Kanye West’s designs are odd to look at, make me physically uncomfortable, and have me wondering if the prolific artist even knows anything about aesthetics… then it occurred to me. In a world where attention is currency, the fact that I’m sitting in front of my computer on a Saturday night writing about Kanye’s designs obviously means he was really good at garnering attention and being the topic of conversation. To a brand, that’s as ‘good design’ as it can ever get.
As designers, we’re instilled with a certain set of values that make us prioritize the consumer. Our immediate focus is always to solve the consumers problem, and a product that does so is objectively ‘good design’. However, what we’re never taught is that our client – the person who actually pays us the money – is a consumer too. If your product makes life better for end-users but bankrupts the company selling the product, is it really a good design? Good design has multiple stakeholders – you/your team, your client, your planet, and your user. Everyone should stand to benefit from your work. That core belief is what made me question Kanye’s work much more objectively – just because I absolutely hate the Yeezy shoes and slippers doesn’t take away from the fact that they’re WILDLY successful products… which means customers love them, the brands benefit from them, and so does Kanye. Much to my disappointment, that’s a Win Win Win. However, we as designers aren’t wrong for looking for logic in Kanye’s work, but more on that later. First, let’s just try and ask ourselves a pretty crucial question.
Is Kanye West REALLY any different from other designers?
Try to think of as many famous contemporary designers as you can and most of them should have one thing in common – eccentricity. The kind of eccentricity that also ends up reflecting in some of their best work. Gehry’s design of the Bilbao Guggenheim is visual madness, as is Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. Karim Rashid has made some questionably odd-looking (yet iconic) products in his career, as has Philippe Starck. Why do we laud their work as hallmarks of great design but look at the same level of creative eccentricity in Kanye as the mad ramblings of a non-designer? Well, I think I answered our question right there.
There’s a weird elitism at play here. Kanye’s designs don’t receive the same treatment as Gaudi or Karim Rashid because Kanye never went to design school. Try and put that rather odd distinction aside and your argument really falls apart, doesn’t it? We really don’t cut Kanye the same amount of slack because he’s also a controversial figure in real life and since he’s more primarily known for his music, it’s natural to think that design is some sort of ‘side gig’ for him. BUT… apples to apples, how much more different is Kanye’s design aesthetic from, say, Luigi Colani or Zaha Hadid? Don’t the Yeezy line of footwear looks just about as awkwardly organic and alien-like as Zaha Hadid’s own architectural pieces? I dare you to look at Qatar’s Al Wakrah stadium and tell me it doesn’t have the same alien-ish form language as the Yeezy Foam Runners. Or at Colani’s approach to form generation and tell me that it’s just about as bizarre and visceral as West’s. Kanye isn’t a ‘designer’ in the puristic sense – he probably doesn’t stick to a rigid design process. He probably doesn’t use Photoshop or Autodesk Fusion 360, and I bet he doesn’t quite know a thing about 3D printing. He doesn’t have clients from hell who ask for 20 iterations before selecting the first concept direction you had originally showed them, and even though this hurts, he probably doesn’t have to follow up for payments. However, he’s incredibly expressive, knows how to create iconic products, and from whatever I’ve found online, his shoes tick all the right boxes – they’re comfortable, durable, and people love to wear them. So why do we hate them?
To understand Kanye, you first need to understand the cultural crossroads we are at.
Remember the Sony Playstation 5? The Cybertruck? The ‘Cheesegrater’ Mac Pro? Dyson’s air purifying headphones? They all had one thing in common – they were deeply polarizing. Everyone had an opinion about them, and just like putting pineapple on pizzas or arguing whether a random dress was white and gold or blue and black, they had the internet up in arms. Similarly, you either like the Yeezy Foam Runners or hate them – there’s no in-between. That seems to be the cultural pitstop humanity is currently at.
I’ve often wondered what design movement we currently are in. Looking back at the past, you had movements like Art Noveau, Art Deco, Dadaism, Bauhaus, Memphis 2.0, Blobject, and most recently, Minimalism. So which movement are we currently in? Based just on the past couple of examples and also just the cultural moment we live in, I like to dub this phase ‘Polarism’. In a world filled with seven billion people, it’s practically impossible to please everyone… so the best you can do is garner a reaction – positive or negative. Our internet-connected world also has a tendency to jump from one subject to another at lightning speed… so a good design by that very standard is a design that occupies neural space for as long as possible – and the chances of something lingering around in your head are only maximized when the internet is debating/arguing about it. You’re forced to pick sides, and you’re forced to vehemently defend your side with the kind of mad fervor often reserved for religion or politics. As bad as that sounds, you have to admit that it’s kind of genius too.
This isn’t to say that every single designer must try to execute some Machiavellian plan and divide the internet with everything they do. I strongly disagree with this approach, and to be brutally honest I don’t think this is what Kanye is trying to do either. His approach to design, just like with his music, is to create something iconic that gets everyone talking.
A Design Analysis of the Yeezy sliders.
The original idea for this piece came from my good friend John Mauriello, who created an incredible video on exactly the same topic, where he analyzed Kanye’s work from both micro and macroscopic views. The video’s right up here for you to watch if you’re interested in hearing what he has to say. However, without further deliberation, let’s quickly perform a design analysis on Kanye’s work.
To be honest, there are a few things you need to consider while analyzing Kanye’s ‘design portfolio’ if you will. For starters, he doesn’t work alone – he DOES have a design team, led by Nur Abbas (formerly of Louis Vuitton and UNIQLO) and Steven Smith (who previously worked at Adidas and Nike), who help him realize his vision and bring a level of design and manufacturing expertise to the picture so the Yeezy products are still rooted in feasibility and reality. However, to appreciate Kanye’s unbridled rawness, it’s important to also realize that he’s never been restricted the way conventional design teams have. Adidas famously collaborated with Kanye on the one condition that he had complete and full creative control, which sort of creates a unique set of conditions that not many designers today get to experience – loads of capital and zero constraints. It’s natural for designers to dial down their wild ideas fearing client backlash, but Kanye and his team have absolutely no such qualms. This is what unrestricted creativity looks like, and if you hate it, I can’t help speculate that you’re probably a little jealous too!
Kanye’s biggest crime was making design ‘unboring’ again
Back to the footwear themselves. John makes a few rather interesting points in his video which I’m about to conveniently borrow for the purpose of this article. He highlights the similarities between Kanye’s footwear and the Cambrian Era – a 53.4 million year-long period that saw an absolute explosion in marine animal evolution. This was a time that saw probably the wildest kind of animals as nature played the role of a mad scientist, developing some incredibly unique (and terrifying-looking) sea creatures just to see what would stick. You had animals with shells, 8 legs, spiked backs, exoskeletons, the works. All these animals existed in roughly the same era, and provided incredible diversity to the oceans before oxygen levels drastically fell, wiping them all out. Kanye’s works feel like the Cambrian era of footwear design too, with this explosion of a new aesthetic that sort of defies logic, but pushes the conversation forward in unique ways.
I use the term ‘defies logic’ rather loosely here because logic seems to be the only weapon designers have in their case against Kanye. Every designer is taught the Gestalt Laws of Visual Perception – 7 laws that teach us how to guide the eyes of the user, employing different ways to entice, educate, and engage people who come across our work. For the most part, it seems like Kanye’s designs don’t necessarily adhere to these principles strictly. They look like they’re alien objects from an alien world where sense and symmetry have little value – to which my immediate devil’s advocate question is – why does a shoe need to have sense OR symmetry? The last time I checked, the overarching purpose of a shoe was simply to be comfortable, fashionable, and a commercial success.Kanye is an incredibly outspoken person too, as Mauriello’s video highlights a snippet of the rapper absolutely lambasting Lady Gaga who was briefly the creative director at Polaroid. “I like some of the Gaga songs… what the f*** does she know about cameras?!” he asks, confusedly. While he’s absolutely right, he also vindicates himself in the eyes of the design community. A pair of shoes is arguably less complex than a camera. If Kanye was left to his devices to redesign Polaroid’s imaging systems or its camera’s user interface, chances are he’d make an absolute mess of it. That’s an area that requires design expertise, systems thinking, constant reiteration, user-behavior research, workflow analyses, and a lot of UI/UX work. That aspect of design is best left to designers who are trained/experienced in those very domains, just the same way you wouldn’t ask Kanye to design the docking interface on the International Space Station. He isn’t way over his head, because he knows exactly where he brings value.
Kanye’s Creative Process
One of the interesting new approaches Kanye brings to design is his ability to collaborate. Music in itself is a collaborative process and for Kanye, the design process is relatively similar to jamming with other musicians – everyone knows their roles and exactly where to contribute. A drummer doesn’t just pick up an electric guitar on a whim, or worse, grab the microphone and start singing the lead vocals. A band is a classic example of a hive mind that works like a singular organism, with everyone contributing in their own way towards an end goal – and for Kanye, that same approach carries forward to design too.
Kanye being an outsider is actually a great thing in that regard just for all the unknowns he brings. Steve Jobs, an outsider, completely revolutionized the music industry and music ownership too. Besides, design’s inherent role is to support and supplement other professions, so as long as you’re creative (and you’ve got a team that can take care of the complexities), you can design. Sure, there’s also the fact that your designs have to be user-friendly, which is why Kanye doesn’t manufacture the shoes himself but rather has a team of fashion designers helping execute his vision. There’s a collaborative process where art and usability come together seamlessly. It’s pretty much the perfect melting pot.
So… IS Kanye a good designer?
Subjectively? I don’t see myself wearing the stuff he makes, but that can’t possibly be a referendum on his design abilities. I don’t wear wristwatches, but that doesn’t mean Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille make badly designed timepieces. Personal choice is never a parameter for judging something objectively.
Kanye may not be ‘your’ breed of designer, but he’s without a shred of doubt an incredibly talented creator. Sure, you could argue (objectively even) that his brand of design borders more on art than it does on puristic user-centered design…and truth be told, in the fashion industry, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. If Kanye ever designs MRI machines or stealth aircrafts, I’ll be the first one to call BS on his work.
I believe Kanye’s work is marvelous because it makes me question my own approach to analyzing design, and it also lets me reconnect with modern pop culture. Yes, the Foam Runners look weird to me, and maybe they do to you too… but if your only thought is “Why are the shoes shaped like that?” just try asking yourself the opposite question. Why aren’t other shoes shaped like this too? If there’s one single takeaway from this piece, it’s that let’s not equate ‘different’ with ‘bad’.