Perhaps you recall the "Jazz" Sweetheart (now Solo) cup design from childhood or adolescence, with its distinctive yet understated turquoise and purple brushstrokes. Or perhaps you have seen it featured on one of countless "Only 90's Kids Will Remember..." Buzzfeed listicles. You may have encountered it in memes, on clothing, or referenced in art. Regardless of personal connection or lack thereof, its resurgence in popular visual culture within the past ten years has solidified the graphic as an era-defining icon. This 1989 artifact of digitally-produced consumer design has enjoyed its lasting ubiquity in large part thanks to Web 2.0 culture, where it has been reproduced and reappropriated within participatory digital spaces. Social media platforms with an emphasis on aesthetics such as Tumblr and Instagram helped further usher in a postmodern visual media culture on and offline, which leaned heavily on nostalgia and irony.
Modern digital technologies gave new life to once-arbitrary visual markers from the past such as the Sweetheart squiggle, fostering online community and meaningful artistic expression in the process. How and why do we adopt and reproduce such aesthetics so readily, and what informs their lasting cultural significance? Objects like the Jazz cup point to the level of influence design imparts on our culture and selves, and can be further understood and appreciated through technocultural framework and semiotic analysis. The coziness of nostalgic aesthetics are accompanied by additional implications on technological imagination and reproduction, the inextricability of consumerism and visual culture, and intellectual property in the post-2.0 world.
Anne Balsamo's "Taking Culture Seriously in the Age of Innovation" addresses the ways in which "innovation rearranges culture" (Balsamo 3) and how human making practices and conceptions of technologies themselves are evolving within an increasingly digital culture. Her text argues for the inherent reproductive qualities of innovation in conjunction with the technological imagination, generating cultural sea change in the process. Culturally significant innovations, she suggests, are attributed to their "social elements...the social practices through which technologies take shape, the rituals and habits engendered by innovative devices...[and] the consumption of products" (9). The social qualities of culture assign meaning to objects, more so than the innovation itself. The Jazz squiggle was not particularly "innovative" as a visual or technological object, and certainly would not be considered as such by today's standards. Rather, it is successful as a cultural symbol, which contains social and personal meaning reflective of shared values and experiences.
The Jazz cup design's origin as a mass-produced consumer good is integral to its nostalgic quality and status as a cultural icon. Its symbolic meaning is not attributed to the cup itself, nor the artistry of the graphic. The design is metasymbolic in the sense that while it calls to mind the associated object, the cup's materiality signifies the experiences, emotions, people and places we associate with its former prevalence in our lives. Products as mundane as the paper cup may arguably be the most interwoven to our cultural fabric and identities due to the very nature of their salience in daily life. As an "everyday essential," the Jazz cup is an immediately recognizable, shared memory amongst nearly every American who lived through the nineties. This association of consumption with popular iconography, as represented by aesthetics as simple as two squiggles, speaks to the undeniable influence of capitalism in determining cultural value and innovation. Consumer aesthetics act as a shared visual language, cultivating social meaning and connectedness through common points of reference.
Designers act as "cultural mediators," per Balsamo, producing and reproducing visual icons to which we may or may not assign meaning. Aesthetics are the products and representations of the beliefs, values, and identities of their makers. As for the Sweetheart cup design, it is not entirely agreed upon to whom we can attribute its cultural impact. In light of the Jazz squiggle’s resurrection in the 2010’s, two different graphic designers emerged to claim ownership – Gina Ekiss, employed by Sweetheart 1987-2002, and Stephanie Miller, employed by Imperial Bondware in the late eighties. While the original artist is disputed and unverifiable, both have stated that they did not receive any compensation for its success, even after the company took full ownership of the design as the designated stock image for their paper products. Its acquisition and reproduction by the Sweetheart corporation and later, by the nostalgic, terminally online millennials, calls questions of the technological imagination to mind. Balsamo’s argument that technoculture is cyclically reproduced raises implications regarding the nature of ownership over creative property and innovation altogether.
Web 2.0 complicates constructions of the technological imagination due to the volume and more importantly, accessibility of creative and intellectual labor. Sweetheart failed (intentionally or unintentionally) to document the original artist of the Jazz design, and the re-emergence of the symbol in popular culture bred public interest in designating rightful ownership. The ease of digital reproduction in the modern age consistently results in these types of disputes, whether the creative works in question are appropriated by corporations or other independent artists. As illustrated by the Sweetheart iconography case, capitalism is a vicious force in innovation, reproduction, and ownership of creative artifacts and ideas. It was not the Tumblr or Instagram curator or digital artist, nor their retro-worshipping online aesthetic subcultures, that claimed the Jazz design as their own through reproduction. More fittingly, it was Sweetheart, later followed by twenty-first century manufacturers of consumer goods, looking to cash in on its cultural significance, presenting the real threat to the design’s integrity.
The mystery remains whether Ekiss or Miller defined the nineties with two brushstrokes, but it is undisputed that the image’s timelessness speaks to the power of technologically imagined objects and aesthetics on our culture. We seem to frequently define decades past by their associated visual icons, informed by what and how we consumed. Creative cultural production relies on nostalgic reproduction and references when novelty runs dry, resurrecting these visual artifacts from “simpler times” with modern tools and insights. Anne Balsamo’s technocultural theory affirms that the innovative quality of the Sweetheart Jazz design is its cultural significance – as a generational icon much more than a product. Moving beyond mere reminiscence, however, we must recognize the dangers of capitalist consumer culture’s firm grip on creative production and reproduction in order to keep earnest creative making alive.