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Pretty Ugly or plain ugly?
Posted by Patrick Burgoyne, 23 May 2012

Skewed, stretched type, clashing colours, too little or too much spacing - across Europe a new generation of designers and art directors is breaking every rule. But is their work rebellion for rebellion's sake or does it have wider implications for visual communications?

The June issue of CR (out May 23) comes with a health warning. It contains content that readers of a nervous disposition and a love of classical typography may find disturbing. Things are going to get ugly.

Back in 2007, I wrote a piece suggesting that something new and decidedly strange was happening in graphic design and art direction, based mainly upon the look of two magazines: Super Super (spread shown above) and 032c. In it I referred to an earlier Eye essay by Steven Heller on what he termed the 'Cult of the Ugly'.

Heller was writing about the work coming out of Cranbrook Academy of Art in the 90s, work that deliberately sought to subvert our ideas of 'good design'. What I saw in Super Super and 032c could, I thought, herald a New Ugly aesthetic in response to changes in the way younger readers consumed information online and a desire to, once again, challenge the status quo.

Five years later comes the publication of Pretty Ugly, a new book that brings together graphic design, imagemaking and product design which very much delivers on that promise. In the Pretty Ugly, type is skewed, stretched and set at unreadable angles; images are distorted with a will; colours clash resoundingly. Some of it is beautiful, some interesting, some just awful.

"It is a new kind of beauty that isn't based upon pure visual pleasure, it is a beauty based upon context-driven design, being transparent with working methods, tools and materials," claim the book's editors, Martin Lorenz and Lupi Asensio of Barcelona design studio TwoPoints.Net, who came up with the Pretty Ugly term to describe the 'movement' and who are interviewed in the new issue of CR.

CR interviews the editors of Pretty Ugly in the June issue of the magazine

"There are obvious aesthetic qualities connecting the work," they say, "intentionally 'bad' typography; using system typefaces like Arial, Helvetica or Times; stretching them; having too much or too little letter or line spacing; deforming type on a scanner or a copier. The Pretty Ugly is a movement against the established criteria of what 'good design' is, in order to regain the attention of the audience and explore new territory. Entering the world of 'wrong' freed these designers and made any kind of experiment possible, without worrying about being thought unprofessional. Mistakes turned into virtuosity, a sign of authenticity and humanity. But it isn't a movement that does wrong because it doesn't know better. This is a highly educated generation of designers using their knowledge to break with what they were given as rules. They use intuition as much as intellect in order to enter new territory that is beyond so called 'professionalism'."

Hmmm, so we are into the "if I do it, it's meant to look bad, if you do it, it's just bad" territory, always tricky ground to occupy. Are we, the humble viewers and readers, meant to know the difference? Is there one?

Geographically, most of the work featured hails from Belgium, France, Germany and The Netherlands. The latter gives a clue as to the work's intellectual origins too. Lorenz and Asensio say "We would guess that many of the seeds of the Pretty Ugly were sown in the Netherlands around 2000, when 'Default Design' was hot. At the time, the first issues of Jop van Bennekom's Re-Magazine using Times and lo-res images taken from the internet, or the work by Maureen Mooren (at that time working with Daniel van der Velden, who is now at Metahaven) and her husband Armand Mevis (working with Linda van Deursen) were all very influential. Many of the the designers featured in our book studied at the design school Werkplaats Typografie, where Armand Mevis teaches."

Perhaps the origins of the work also have something to do with the fact that these countries provide the support for young designers to be experimental - it's a rather different matter if you are leaving college with £20,000 of debt. Commercially viable work, in those circumstances, has its attractions and not too many brands, as yet, are in the market for 3D stretched Arial. Indeed, most of the work in Pretty Ugly is for very small-scale fashion, music or cultural clients, or self-initiated. But as the recent launch of Mevis and van Deursen's Stedelijk Museum identity (below) highlighted (see our story here), it is seeping into the mainstream.

Perhaps even the 2012 Olympics logo was an attempt to pick up on early manifestations of the trend and the intentions behind it? At the time of its launch Wolff Olins creative director Patrick Cox claimed that “Its design is intentionally raw, it doesn’t… ask to be liked very much. It was meant to provoke a response, like the little thorn in the chair that gets you to breathe in, sit up and take notice.”

In the US and UK many young designers have turned toward a retro craft aesthetic and a celebration of archaic print techniques - think of the US gig poster scene, much of the work exhibited at Pick Me Up or the Hipster aesthetic satirised so acutely on this recent Tumblr. In comparison, the mostly Northern European approach of The Pretty Ugly feels much more daring and provocative.

Rather than retreating to the comfort of the past, this work seems calculated to upset as many purist notions as possible. It has great energy and verve, blowing away the cobwebs of the watered-down Modernism-as-style that has dominated our ideas of 'good design' for so long.

But is there anything more to it than empty rebellion? In Heller's original piece, he stated that "Ugliness as its own virtue diminishes all design" but that it is justified if it is as a result of form follows function. If the 'function' here is to kick over the traces and make us re-examine what 'good design' is then maybe it's working.

We live in an age where everything around us is (to an extent) competently designed: groceries, restaurants, magazines, medicines, all researched and marketed to the nth degree. A professional patina applied. Design as service industry. Compared to the buffed and primped identities of most major organisations, the Stedelijk identity feels refreshingly authentic and honest.

But here's the 'Emperor's New Clothes' rub with the Pretty Ugly - if it wasn't by a famous Dutch design studio and for a major institution, would we give it serious consideration? If we saw it on the side of a builder's van would it transform from Pretty Ugly to just plain ugly?

There's something undeniably decadent in a group of highly and expensively educated Western designers producing knowingly 'bad' work. Are young designers, seeing their older peers' work becoming more and more devalued, reacting by saying 'these rules you taught us are not going to earn us a living anyway so let's see what happens when we break them all'? Increasingly we are hearing mumblings about a 'post-design world'. Is The Pretty Ugly a refreshing reinvigoration of a visual communications industry that has become too flabby and comfortable, or the outward sign of a profession in crisis?