The Year the How Design Conference Got “Ugly”

Exactly twenty years ago the How Design Conference distributed a promotional brochure that was just plain ugly. We know it was ugly because Steven Heller told us so. I mean, he really eviscerated the design, in an Eye magazine essay. It “obstructs comprehension.” Its ingenuity is “undermined by its superficiality.” And it’s “an artifact that is already ossifying into a 1990s design style.”


It’s difficult to imagine such strong language in our current, post-critical era. But back then, controversy was the norm. Design and typography were being fought over as if they had life and death consequences. And Steve’s “Cult of the Ugly” was one of the primary flash points: it incited quite a few fierce debates.

The most thorough response could be found in Emigre magazine, a propaganda arm of the “cult.” Issue 30, titled “Fallout,” was devoted to a series of four interviews meant to expand the dialogue. The first was with Steve, and the rest were with three of his targets: David Shields, a Cranbrook student at the time, and CalArts instructors Jeff Keedy and Ed Fella. You can click on each of their names to read their conversations.

Oh, and I was the interviewer.

Segura_ad-1And that debate led to more debates. Again, it was an intense time, with a vibrant spirit in the air. Today’s design dialogues are deathly dull in comparison. Emigre’s following issue was jam-packed with passionate reader responses: the fallout of “Fallout,” so to speak. And Rick Poynor, Eye’s editor at the time, wrote a rebuttal, one that inspired me to send a letter to Eye‘s editor: my reaction to Rick’s reaction to my interviewees’ reaction to Steve’s reaction to “ugly design.” Enough already! Rick never published it.


Among Rick’s points of contention was that I hadn’t interviewed Carlos Segura, who’d designed the HOW material. But there were two reasons I didn’t. One, I wanted to primarily concentrate on perspectives from the so-called “hothouse” schools, the supposed sources of the “problem.” And two, I pretty much agreed with Steve’s assessment of the brochure.

Since next week’s conference marks the twentieth anniversary of Segura, Inc.’s notorious creation, I decided to get in touch with Carlos — better late than never, eh, Rick? — to discuss his handiwork.


In one respect it was groundbreaking: the first How Conference collateral campaign — ads, cards, a notebook cover, etc. — to be fully computer-generated. On a Mac IIci, to be precise, using Quark, Illustrator, and Photoshop. “We encountered many technical issues, all of which sound silly now, since everything is done this way. But back then it seemed everything was going wrong. We finally got it together and made it happen.

“By the way, the typeface designed for this event — called Neo — went on to become one of the first fonts we released via,” tells Segura.

The 1993 conference was held in Chicago and speakers included Michael Bierut, Clement Mok, Alexander Isley, Rick Valicenti, and Marshall Arisman. During one heated discussion a designer called Carlos a communist. “It was very entertaining,” he recalls.

Segura_notebookWhen I asked Carlos about how “Cult” affected him directly he told me, “No fallout, but Steve and I did exchange a few words. All good now. I guess he was right about one thing: it does have a 1990s design style, since I did it in the ‘90s.”

I also wanted to know how Carlos viewed his booklet today, 20 years later. “It’s dated. Like almost everything else humans do. Some date better than others, but I would rather be criticized for trying something than not trying at all. It was just plain fun and I learned a lot — I wanted to conquer the digital possibility — which is why I did it in the first place.”

Below you’ll see the full brochure; what do you think?


Keep Reading: Related stories: “The Fuse Box: Faces of a Typographic Revolution” and “Words — and Images — on Ed Fella.”

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2 thoughts on “The Year the How Design Conference Got “Ugly”

  1. LisaDHolmes

    I attended the HOW conference that year and remember all of the materials… I still have the journal. I didn’t realize at the time that there was so much controversy about it. I really liked the design… instead of sticking with the mainstream design ethos of the time, it was going in the direction of the experimental design like Ray Gun, Emigre and others and I couldn’t get enough of it, so thank you Carlos for giving something a try. Oh, and I guess the design industry did finally make move to computers after all. Remember how much controversy that created?

  2. TimothyOD

    I remember getting this in the mail — I didn’t love everything about it, but I did love the palpable sense that Segura was exploring, playing with the new technology and a tentative new aesthetic. And I completely agree with “I would rather be criticized for trying something than not trying at all.”