Alexandra Lange | Essays

The Charismatic Megafauna of Design

Mal 1956, a new polyethylene outdoor chair designed by Niels Wildenberg (via New York Times)

I recently read a fascinating interview on the National Geographic NewsWatch blog with David Hancocks, the dean of zoo design. I was very interested in what he had to say about the shape of zoos to come — I feel like there has been a revolution within my lifetime, from the depressing concrete cages of the Boston Zoo to the African savannahs of the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro — but more intrigued by his casual use of the term "charismatic megafauna" to describe the elephants, lions, tigers and bears that no zoo thinks it can live without.
Zoos seem completely preoccupied with charismatic mega-fauna. They believe that without their traditional big animals people will stop visiting: “How can we call ourselves a zoo if we don’t have an elephant?!” It is to me clear evidence that despite what they say, zoos see their major role as places to simply put animals on show.
Hancocks's argument is that zoos must better serve education and conservation purposes, and need to focus their monies and their research on smaller, odder, local, less photogenic and less mammal-centric species. Zoos need to educate the public to be interested in more different types of animals, and that's their challenge for design, research and marketing, for the next ten years.

I looked up "charismatic megafauna" on Wikipedia, and found that entry equally intriguing:
Charismatic megafauna are large animal species with widespread popular appeal that environmental activists use to achieve conservation goals well beyond just those species.

An editorial in The Economist magazine suggests that charismatic megafauna are particularly subject to taxonomic inflation, in that taxonomists will declare a subspecies to be a species because of the advocacy benefits of a unique species, rather than because of new scientific evidence.
The Economist's example is the panda: while the public is cooing over Ling Ling's reproductive health, her habitat, and the fauna that live there too, are saved.

Milton Glaser, Dylan poster (1966)

Don't we have charismatic megafauna in design? I'd been thinking about this when Mark Lamster tweeted the chair above from the "Home" section, and his Twitter stream went wild. He was rolling his eyes at the re-use of the form, however acknowledged, but the RTs took it seriously. I had noticed in the past that just inserting the word "Eames" into a blog post (as I have here) exponentially increases its popularity. Eames is charismatic, Eames chairs are charismatic, but the Eames Lounge Chair is, I think, the most attention-seeking of the lot (YouTube of its introduction on NBC in 1956). From its earliest days it was designed to split the perceived difference between the modern and the comfortable, and it remains in that niche: a modern chair anyone can love, and that goes with any decor. I've never liked it personally, due to its elephantine qualities. Womb chair FTW.

It would be easy classify starchitects like Frank Gehry and stardesigners like Charles Eames as c.m. But I think that's too simple. It is more critical to identify specific buildings, specific chairs, even specific posters or logos (Milton Glaser's Dylan might be a candidate, as is Paul Rand for IBM) that receive outsize and ongoing attention. On Frank Lloyd Wright's recent birthday, I lost count of the number of Happy Birthday tweets that included a link to or mention of Fallingwater. Fallingwater is charismatic megafauna, a building whose wide distribution and recognition supports the larger field of Wright house museums and preservation efforts. It's an excellent, pathbreaking building. But by acknowledging it as such, can we also expand the conversation, using a design like the Lounge Chair, or the Guggenheim Bilbao, or Case Study House #22 as the attention-getter. Then we can consider what other designs and designers might be saved, exhibited and promoted under their umbrella. For better or for worse, the ubiquity of the iPod has brought Dieter Rams's work and philosophy out of history and into the present day for many interested observers. A documentary like "Helvetica" makes books like Just My Type (again, for better or for worse) and widespread joking about Comic Sans possible.

American Architecture series stamp (1982)

Hancocks's challenge to his colleagues in the interview also has parallels to the state of design exhibition and media coverage today, and the paranoia that a day without Apple is a day without readers or visitors (or disappointed readers or visitors).
The heart of the zoo problem lies in the fact that their basic assumption is that they put animals on show. This is why, for example, they are paranoid about the animals always being on show: everything they do highlights this assumed need — they put a tiger photo on their adverts, and show a tiger on their brochure, and mark an area on their zoo maps with “tiger,” and put direction signals around the zoo pointing to “tiger,” and put a graphics panel on the path all about tigers, and then they seem surprised and indignant when visitors who are exposed to all this and who don’t then actually see the tiger get upset about that. Instead of rethinking this self created dilemma, zoos respond by making damn certain that their tiger (or gorilla, or elephant, or rhino, or whatever) is not going to get out of view and will be visible to all paying customers at all times.
I would love to get more nominations for charismatic megafauna from any design field. What object appears in every design museum exhibition? What building image always illustrates an architect's career? Which graphic stands for all of Russian Constructivism, over and over again? And how, having identified these beasts, can we expand the pool of imagery in order to expand the parameters of discussion. How can we allow the public to see design as part of a complex environment rather than a string of greatest hits?

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Business, History, Media, Product Design, Technology, Theory + Criticism

Comments [10]

Glass House, Bilbao, Ronchamps, Sistine Chapel, Rockefeller Center, Penn Station, The Lawn, Mt. Vernon
john massengale

Charismatic Megafauna =

I would nominate Sticky Fingers, the 1971 Rolling Stones album designed by Andy Warhol. You can still own an LP for about $16.50 on ebay with a working zipper!
Carl W. Smith

Really enjoy your writing and this insightful piece but I don't think the Megafauna helps the discussion - just like zoos they don't get past the megafauna- once we establish those elephants in the room we never get past them. Onward and upward

This post reminded me of an article by Steven Heller in The Atlantic, titled The World's Best Design Magazine?. In it, Heller writes about the German magazine form and includes a few quotes from its editor-in-chief, Gerrit Terstiege. Such as this one: "Speaking of chairs, it doesn't get any better than Eames. Speaking of posters, it doesn't get any better than Glaser. But of course, design doesn't stand still."
I wonder if he would chose, like you did for this post, Wright when speaking of buildings.
I find it troubling that anyone, but especially design magazine editors-in-chief, could say, even in passing, such a thing as "it doesn't get any better than". That's either extremely conservative, short-sighted, naïve, lazy, chummy or opportunistic and design writers, critics, curators and editors should be neither.
Sadly, it's exactly this kind of thinking that has created the notion of the charismatic mega-fauna of design – Is this just a new term for sacred cow?
Yet precisely because design doesn't stand still and that the world is now a more complex place (notice how the three cited specimens are all white, American men all born before the Second World War) we should not be looking for or nominating more people to overrate, deify or render irreproachable. Let's just treat all species and sub-species of the design world – be them tigers, dodos or bees – with the same attention and curiosity they deserve and move on.
Frederico Duarte

I'm actually quite impressed with the zoos I have been to lately--some market their environments (jungle, swamp) more than specific animals--the good ones anyway. The concrete cage will hopefully become a thing of the past. Except for the tigers, of course, who seem to always get stuck in bad conditions.

As for the megafauna of design, i'd say that maybe the reason we still look back at Eames and Wright is because their work was extraordinary and new and today's design is so flimsy and superficial (the stuff that gets attention, anyway). Designers are so caught up in trends like "branding" or fake intellectualism or what their work looks like in a magazine that they lose any emotional resonance--in short, they are not that good.

Of course there are popular topics of conversation in every field. Lebron James gets a lot of attention because he's really good at basketball. But if we are still talking about him in 50 years I will assume that the current state of basketball is terrible.
R. Mackintosh

I nominate Marcel Breuer's Wassily Chair, for generating ongoing discussions on form, materials, and manufacturing. And in expanding that discussion, I would like to know why the common lawn chairs that I grew up with -- also using tubular metal and stretched fabric -- were so darned ugly.
Daniel Green

Hello i want to say that this article is amazing, nice written and include almost all significant info. I would like to see more posts like this .

Here’s an interesting difference between charismatic megafauna in nature and in design. In nature, pandas will always beget more pandas. In design, however, charismatic megafauna often give birth to artifactual zombies: strange, lifeless creatures that proliferate endlessly and never die.

Besides my earlier reference to the Wassily Chair spawning ugly lawn chairs, another example is Wright’s Usonion House. Instead of it delivering to us a legacy of affordable homes with flowing interiors, it seemed to have given birth to boxy ranch houses that are ubiquitous to suburbia.

We wouldn’t accept a zoo that was stocked with guys running around in tacky panda costumes, but we seem to have no problem with the parallel in design.
Daniel Green

On more follow-up:

“Mommy, is that a REAL panda?
“Why, yes, dear, I think it is…yes, I’m SURE it is.”
“Then why does it have a zipper up its back?”
“Well, I don’t—”
“…and why is the side of its head dented in?”
“Well, dear, I really don’t—”
“…and why is it scratching itself like Daddy does—”
“You know, dear, I think it’s time to go visit the water buffalo.”
“Mommy, is that panda showing us the naughty finger?”

* * * * *

In the context of charismatic megafauna, maybe the public needs to be more critical of the design they accept, as well.
Daniel Green

Nikolaus Pevsner got the ball rolling with our "star system" of design phylogeny in the 1930s. Obvious, but troubling approach.

Zoos are an outdated metaphor in an era of eco-tourism. If you want to see tigers, you need to visit Suderbans, the tiger preserve straddling the India-Bangaladeshi border.

Historically, mega-fauna are always the first species to become extinct.

david stairs

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