Ideology and Themes in Practice: JoJo's Bizarre Adventure
Updated: Feb 16, 2019
If someone asked me to briefly summarize what happens in the manga series JoJo's Bizzare Adventure, I'd say that it's a series where beautiful men fight each other in a constantly escalating battle to outsmart each other with their supernatural ghost powers.
While that captures what happens generally in the series' plot, it doesn't articulate what the series is really about. As a fan, what keeps me coming back isn't the character designs or fight scenes; those are just the initial hooks that turned my head. It's the vibes, the messages about duty, continuity, and passing the torch to the next generation that made me a fan. While it's a mostly ridiculous work through a Western eye, its messages about humanity and the lessons that it seeks to teach about the wider world are universal. Its themes are universal.
In his book "Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga", Hirohiko Araki, the creator of "JoJo" notes:
"It's the theme that connects a story's characters, setting, and plot... Any superior work is backed by a strong theme... Themes in another sense are how the creator views the world, and what he or she considers ideal ways to live."
And while plot and character development seems to be getting special attention in the last 20 years of Western film and television, I agree that theme is the most important facet of any creative work. It is the foundational skeleton necessary to hold up other facets such as plot, setting, and characters as a united, coherent work. Think of a book or movie that has moved you emotionally. The theme is the message about an ideal world communicated by character dialogue and plot twists. It does not dictate how things happen, but it does dictate what gets conveyed as its main messages throughout the film. The Shawshank Redemption is less powerful as a series of events than it is as a vehicle for the sentiment that "common decency can redeem any man". Star Wars is so successful because its themes about a hero's destiny and rising up to the responsibility of that destiny are relatable and empowering to anyone. Themes are the powerful forces that convey the artist's values to the viewer, and dictate the tone and message of how things conclude.
The notion of a theme's power to navigate uncertainty with a clear vision of the emotional conclusion should be more applied more in design. If themes are notions of an author's ideal world expressed in creative works, then ideology is the author's deeply rooted beliefs that inform themes expressed in art. I deeply believe that if we synthesize the power of themes into our ideology as designers that we can be collectively prepared as professionals to confront uncertain times.
While everyone has some sort of ideology that informs their decisions in everyday life, it's rare that we have an opportunity to pause to think about what we really stand for. It makes sense. We've got full-time jobs, school, kids, bills, organizations we're involved with-- circumstantially, we don't have much time during our day to pause and ask "what is truly important to me?" Due to the pace of life, in practice, I think the closest thing that we collectively have to ideology in the US is a sad reaction to large-scale tragedy, and everything else in the realm of sociopolitical life is too hot to touch in casual conversation. However, that's inherently reactionary, and it doesn't proactively engage with both urgent realities and what a more ideal future 'looks like'.
And that is the greatest value of explicitly defining your own ideology as a designer: your focus is always on a vision of what a more ideal future looks like, and that focus makes that vision more rigorous and detailed each time you engage with it. It sets a clear, ambitious goal for yourself in defining ways to live. It is proactive because it dictates your actions at all times in pursuit of a vision. The more you engage with a notion of an ideal world, the more you naturally start to consider novel ways to get there. Ideology could also be thought of as one's moral compass, and even when there's an ambiguous problem, and the roadmap to a solution is unclear, you have a system to approach the unfamiliar, and a clear vision of what a better world looks like.
As an example, here are the core values that make up my design ideology:
1. I want to help decrease feelings of social isolation and alienation in society.
Social media platforms are blamed for hurting users' mental health, and I think it is due to how they are designed, not inherent to the medium itself. I want to be a part of movements to change social media to alternative models not so focused on posting.
2. I want to treat people the way they want to be treated.
When researching communities that face problems that need addressing, I want to treat them with the reverence and respect they desire. Some designers have a tendency to look down on others due to the field being en vogue, but I truly believe that the people who live with a problem have the most insight into solving the problem.
3. I want to focus on addressing urgent needs of the working/middle class through technology
A good amount of tech solutions coming out of Silicon Valley like UberEats and Bird scooters come from a certain class perspective, and I don't think tech is being harnessed to its full potential to increase all peoples' happiness and prosperity long-term.
4. I will not work for a company that manufactures military-grade weapons.
I don't want to be directly involved with designing systems used in military operations, sorry.
These are the principles that will guide me in both my job search and my work moving forward. It's a living list, so I'm sure they will change or expand with time. However, these will serve as the basis for decision-making in my professional life.
On a larger scale, explicit acknowledgement and formation of ideology is essential to being able to lead and design proactively. One's ideology has a clear notion of the ideal conclusion, but the ways to get there are negotiable. It keeps long-term goals in focus. In times of uncertainty, when insight from experience can only take a team's efforts so far, ideology, and in this larger context, themes, and articulating values that imagine a compelling ideal world can light the way. And I think more designers need to think carefully about their own ideologies to ensure that they are happy, and effective in their work. Core values and ideology help me to measure what sort of impact companies seek to make, what they envision the ideal world to be, and how they'd like to get there. With that in mind, the sharpening of my portfolio will be focused around matching with companies that have a clear ideology, and have a clear vision to bring it to life in ways that resonate with my own.