The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
By: Rick Poynor | October 1, 2012
Why is today’s rebellious design so well behaved?
Five years ago, the British magazine Creative Review published an article written by its editor, Patrick Burgoyne, with the arresting title “The New Ugly.” The possibility that ugliness in graphic design had once again become a burning issue grabbed my attention, but I wasn’t convinced that his examples—the 2012 Olympics logo and a couple of magazines, Super Super and 032c—amounted to a significant or compelling trend. (We’ll pass over the enduring mystery of why the Games’ organizers felt it useful to saddle an event supercharged with international goodwill with a graphic device of such grotesquely unlovable ineptness.)
Something curious and misshapen was stirring in the undergrowth, though, and the publication this year of Pretty Ugly: Visual Rebellion in Design (Gestalten; $55) confirms that a tendency that would once have caused dismayed design industry leaders to throw around epithets like “garbage” is now well entrenched in parts of Europe. The book has a sprinkling of Anglo-American designs, but most of the evidence comes from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Bulgaria, and most of the work was created in the last few years by studios founded as recently as 2007 and 2008. Few of the names—Helmo, Antoine + Manuel, Jurgen Maelfeyt, Cox & Grusenmeyer, Bureau Mirko Borsche, Anymade Studio, Noviki, Poststudio—are widely known. Although they are not featured in the book, the Finnish designers Kokoro & Moi, who designed Print’s oddball “Surprise” issue last year, are part of the same trend.
For anyone who remembers the last great splurge of “ugly” design in the 1980s and early 1990s, none of the work in Pretty Ugly will come as much of a surprise; nor is it likely to cause the same kind of controversy. There will be no Randian outpourings of scorn this time, no paroxysms of head shaking, finger wagging, and sighs of “What are we coming to?” in response to this collection. Whichever way you read the title—as “fairly ugly” or “attractively ugly”—the wording freely admits that this is a more tractable and agreeable kind of unsightliness, while the subtitle’s claim that this work is a “visual rebellion” is sweetly disingenuous. The real rebellion of the contemporary era happened a long time ago—in graphic design inspired by the 1960s counterculture, by 1970s punk and politics, by 1980s deconstruction, by 1990s grunge. Today’s graphic design culture, an enlightened play space in which a book like Pretty Ugly is not remotely disquieting, is the beneficiary and product of all of these rebellious influences, and aesthetic pluralism has been our “condition” for years. Whether designers choose to exploit this openness is up to them—many don’t, and from the mid-1990s, plenty retreated into neomodernist visual certainties. But even so, anything is now theoretically possible, on a stylistic level, in graphic design.
In 1993, when Steven Heller wrote his notorious essay “Cult of the Ugly” for Eye, we had not come so far. Many of the big challenges to design-business sobriety, from psychedelia to punk and the new wave, had happened in areas of musical subculture that were marginal to mainstream design. A shared sense of what decorous professional graphic design should be still existed, and Heller was determined to defend it. As then-editor of Eye, I was happy to run his piece in the interest of provoking debate, though I admired and had published a lot of the design under attack. Heller’s argument required something of a balancing act. He knew that dissonant forms could be powerful devices—from futurism and Dada to 1960s newsstand magazines and Swiss punk. “When Art Chantry uses naive or ugly design elements he transforms them into viable tools,” Heller wrote. What Heller objected to was what he saw as visual chaos born of self-indulgent excess, and he feared that this hip “style” would be applied without discrimination.
In Heller’s definition, “ugly design, as opposed to classical design (where adherence to the golden mean and a preference for balance and harmony serve as the foundation for even the most unconventional compositions), is the layering of unharmonious graphic forms in a way that results in confusing messages.”
Heller misread some designers he later came to appreciate (notably Ed Fella), and his essay ignited a firestorm of complaints. There was truth in his predictions, though, and a vast amount of poorly conceived ugly design ensued. Recently, I went through a box of samples in my attic that designers around the world sent me at the time. I threw almost all of them away because I knew I could never do anything with them, and they weren’t worth keeping anymore. Clearly, as Heller maintained, there is a vital difference between “good ugly” and “bad ugly,” and that difference must lie in qualities of formal resolution—the presence of an underlying order, even within work that might appear “confused” to the uninitiated—as well as in a design’s integrity of conception and purpose.
One of the most interesting issues Heller raises in “Cult of the Ugly” is just as relevant to the design in Pretty Ugly: Do the social and cultural conditions of our time involve the kind of upheaval that can often lead to “critical ugliness”? In the case of 1990s design, Heller felt that the work lacked sufficient justification. This conclusion was inevitable if one applied the yardstick of historical crisis, such as war. But 1990s ugly design was still a response to its time. It first anticipated, and then gained added impetus from, new technology that gave designers much greater control of production and, with it, the possibility of experimenting more easily with form. It also reflected wider trends in postmodern culture under late capitalism: an ever-increasing emphasis on the visual realm, a relentless questioning of old ideas and assumptions, and a defiant assertion of new forms of identity.
The compilers of Pretty Ugly—the book is weirdly attributed to their website, TwoPoints.net, in a tiny credit line inside—make no reference to the history of ugly design or to postmodernism in their ultraminimal text. But it’s hard not to see the work as bearing many of the same characteristics. Just consider the section titles: Deviant, Mundane, De-constructed, Impure, Mishmash, Deformed, and Neo-artisanal. If we take the most obviously secondhand of these, “De-constructed,” the editors explain this as “de-constructing our cultural heritage: breaking it down to its basic elements until it can be constructed as something new.” This kind of knowing appropriation and repurposing is the essence of the postmodern design method applied and critically elucidated 20 years ago. The same could be said of the impurity that comes through mixing disparate sources, or of the “mishmash” effect of allowing several narratives to exist simultaneously in a design.
The complexity and awkwardness of form is a means of projecting the authentic human element in design work, and though this might seem too mild an aim (when compared to full-blown activism) to deserve the word “rebellion,” it is certainly a vital gesture of defiance against the curbed ambitions and conformity of so much market-led design. “For us it’s clear that we don’t use these kind of elements to shock people,” the Belgian designers Ines Cox and Lauren Grusenmeyer say in the book. “In most cases it’s rather a natural visual outcome of an idea. We use certain aesthetics because they communicate an idea in a certain way. It is intentional, yes, but we don’t measure according to ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ ”
However ungainly the examples in Pretty Ugly might look to some eyes, this is a perfectly standard and unimpeachable rationale for communication design. I can imagine that there are still plenty of Swiss-loving gridniks who would find this work not to their taste, and it will probably be a bit too retinal for conceptual minimalists, although the uglies share the same background and influences—people like Mevis and van Deursen, Experimental Jetset, Julia Born, and Jop van Bennekom. I would lay money that this is one of those exercises in catchy naming where the participants don’t especially like their designation and don’t see themselves as being engaged in “ugly design” at all. I enjoy a lot of the work and embrace its visual energy and willingness to use graphic form. At this point, though, “ugly” is just a red herring. That was yesterday’s battle, and it doesn’t need to be fought again.