The New Ugly

Following all the debate generated by our interviews with Super Super’s Steve Slocombe and 032c art director Mike Meiré, here is the piece from the current issue of Creative Review which draws on those sources to set the work into a wider context
Stretched type, day-glo colours and a flagrant disregard for the rules: are we witnessing a knee-jerk reaction to the slick sameness of so much design or a genuine cultural shift?
In the early 90s, the mother of all rows blew up between, on the one hand, the traditionalist school of American designers led by Massimo Vignelli and, in defiant opposition, the avant garde of Emigre and the Cranbrook Academy of Art. The catalyst was an essay in Eye magazine by Steven Heller entitled Cult of the Ugly, in which the world’s most prolific design writer took Cranbrook and its students to task over, as he saw it, their gratuitously ugly output. Well now, it seems, ugly is back.

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Following all the debate generated by our interviews with Super Super’s Steve Slocombe and 032c art director Mike Meiré, here is the piece from the current issue of Creative Review which draws on those sources to set the work into a wider context

Stretched type, day-glo colours and a flagrant disregard for the rules: are we witnessing a knee-jerk reaction to the slick sameness of so much design or a genuine cultural shift?

In the early 90s, the mother of all rows blew up between, on the one hand, the traditionalist school of American designers led by Massimo Vignelli and, in defiant opposition, the avant garde of Emigre and the Cranbrook Academy of Art. The catalyst was an essay in Eye magazine by Steven Heller entitled Cult of the Ugly, in which the world’s most prolific design writer took Cranbrook and its students to task over, as he saw it, their gratuitously ugly output. Well now, it seems, ugly is back.

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Exhibit A: Wolff Olins’ 2012 Olympics logo. When finally wheeled out to confront an ever-more-hostile national press, 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 addition, Wolff Olins’ chairman Brian Boylan claimed success for having “created something original in a world where it is increasingly difficult to make something different”. In other words, when we are surrounded by logos created to a slick, if mediocre, aesthetic standard, the only way to stand out is deliberately to reject those standards.

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Which brings us to Exhibit B: the magazine that seemingly influenced Wolff Olins’ thinking – style magazine and New Rave progenitor, Super Super. Launched early last year, its art direction has been likened to “a clown being sick”. Its wilfully distorted typography, day glo colours and total rejection of the holy tenets of magazine design are enough to give more mature art directors a fit of the vapours. It’s MySpace made flesh, with all the clashing cacophony that concept brings to mind.

And yet, according to its creative director, Steve Slocombe, what underlines the magazine is “harmony”. “There is nothing in Super Super that is empty or frivolous,” he insists, “everything is there for a reason.”

When it comes to style magazines, Slocombe has form, having previously been editor of Sleazenation.. His last issue there (May 2003 which, incidentally, got him the sack) introduced the freeform approach that Super Super has taken to such troubling extremes. But, he says, it was a period working for photographer Wolfgang Tillmans that most influenced his approach. A fine art graduate from St Martins, Slocombe’s role included helping Tillmans install his shows – a process that was, in itself, an artistic exercise. “We’d get a plan of the space and we’d turn up with work in all kinds of different sizes and respond to the space, arranging the work accordingly: it was an organic process about what work would sit best in certain situations,” he explains.

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This, then, is the approach that he brings to designing Super Super. There is no predefined grid: Slocombe starts with the images (which may or may not be in focus) and arranges them so as to maximise the space, just as he and Tillmans would on the gallery wall. There are some rules: copy is set in blocks either 90mm or 40mm wide, at 10 point on 12 point leading or eight on 10, using either Helvetica or Times. But word and image rarely line up: “Things feel a lot more human if they are a fraction out,” Slocombe claims, “it’s about a sense of harmony and rhythm.” It’s what sets Super Super apart: “Magazines had become very machine-like, very impersonal. Super Super is very human. It speaks to the reader very directly, removes the barriers. The values of the magazine are to be fun, to be positive, to say ‘have a go, you can do this’.”

While other magazines may seek to manipulate pace by contrasting full-bleed images with more detailed spreads, Super Super tries to cram in as much as possible onto every available inch of space. The reason, according to Slocombe, is that its readers (typically aged between 14 and 24) are part of the “ADD Generation”. Their alarmingly short attention spans mean that they cannot be guaranteed to look at more than one spread in any particular issue, he claims, so each one has to embody all the values of the magazine. And, he says, they have a completely different idea about colour. If you are 30-plus, white may embody sophistication and expense, but to the Super Super “reader” it is colour that does this – bright colours and lots of them.

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The magazine is not, Slocombe insists, anti-design. “That whole argument that you have to be either a follower of David Carson or of the Swiss School is not the debate we have now – I’ll take the best of both and anything else that’s around. The old way of things was movement followed by anti-movement, now the culture swallows the past and moves on instead of defining itself against what has gone before,” he argues. “I’m not against what may have gone before, I just think this is more appropriate for here and now. At the core of the Swiss ideal is efficient communication – well, this is the most appropriate way to communicate to our audience.”

The charitable view would be that Slocombe’s lack of formal design training has left him unencumbered by the profession’s history and therefore more able to seek out new forms of expression: the uncharitable view would be that Super Super is simply a mess, created for young kids who will move on to more sophisticated tastes as they mature. And yet the magazine’s core concerns – of seeking to inject some quirky humanity into a slickly homogenised magazine market, of being true to a vision deemed appropriate to the readership – are shared by a designer with a far more “establishment” pedigree. Which brings us to Exhibit C: Mike Meiré’s recent redesign of German cultural magazine 032c.

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Meiré is renowned in magazine circles for his art direction of Brand Eins, a German business magazine that mixed beautiful photography with classic typography and lots of white space. That was in 1999: since then, Meiré says he’s been waiting for an alternative approach to emerge, but to no avail. “There are so many magazines out there which pretend to be cool, sophisticated or even culturally relevant. They all look the same,” he says. “I became a bit tired of all these look-a-like magazines,” which, through Brand Eins, he helped create. “They’re all made very professionally but I was looking for something more charismatic. I wanted to search for an interesting look that was beyond the mainstream.”

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The result is a magazine that, wrote designer Jeremy Leslie on his blog MagCulture, “uses typography and layouts that are hard to describe as anything but ugly. The pages feel thrown together. When I expressed my confusion about the redesign to the magazine’s founder/editor Joerg Koch,” continued Leslie, “I received a surprising reply. ‘Thanks for your message which made me incredibly happy! This is exactly what we wanted to achieve, this sort of engagement with a magazine where you question yourself if it makes sense, if it is really brilliant or simply daft.’”

Meiré readily admits that “Yes, I did deliberately set out to break rules with this and yes, it is a provocation – but in the first place to myself! If every magazine or every building or every brand or everybody tries to look appealing by using the same idea of being modern, it becomes interesting to go in the opposite direction, because life has different kinds of beauty to present. If people feel confused by it, it is because we are all so used to this kind of efficient, streamlined, correctness.”

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In his original essay, Heller slammed those using ugliness as a knee-jerk reaction to the status quo. “Ugliness as its own virtue diminishes all design,” he said. All three projects cited here could be accused of such a crime. However, Heller also argued that ugliness “is not a problem when it is a result of form following function”. Though none of Wolff Olins, Slocombe or Meiré may feel comfortable with describing their work as ugly, they all lay claim to their pursuit of the latter.

“Making a magazine is about finding the right look for its content, its attitude,” Meiré argues. “To me it’s the only way to create a unique identity. [In doing so] maybe you don’t please the [mainstream] anymore – but you become who you are, authentic in your own way.”

This, it would seem, is the crux of the matter. If all three of these projects, and other contemporary works in the same vein, are merely an attempt to zig while the world zags, to be different for difference’s sake, then they need not detain us for long. If, however, they are the honest result of form following function and thereby represent the visual expression of a genuine cultural shift, then that becomes something altogether more interesting.

Take colour, for instance. Both the Olympics logo and Super Super propose a new relationship between colour and quality. That bright no longer necessarily equals trashy. That a younger generation is inverting the chromatic scale as it relates to notions of quality and class. Super Super claims to address the impact of changing patterns of media consumption on design. This, it says, is what happens when your “readers” are not readers at all but mere “scanners” of content who are as likely to start at page 46 as page one. And all three claim to be fired by a desire to involve their audiences rather than simply presenting themselves to them. Inevitably this would seem to require a move away from the slick and the forbidding, toward, as Slocombe describes it, something more “human”.

There is more than empty styling at work here. Something like Super Super can easily be dimissed as just a few kids messing about, but, as a recent piece on New Rave in The Sunday Times Style magazine noted, that’s pretty much how all trends start. All three projects are well-intentioned attempts to respond to and engage with a shifting cultural landscape. If this is the future, it may not be a pretty sight.

  • Don’t you just love it when a pendulum swings to its zenith.

  • Ben

    “We no longer require you to register and have a password in order to comment, simply fill in the form below.” Yay!!

    The MySpace connection is particularly interesting – the “my eyeballs are bleeding” school of design.

  • jon

    why do people on myspace put a 80% opacity red overlay on text? why? my brothers page makes me to want to psychically act him as its so bad.

  • Dani R

    Beauty is inherently elitist. It is full of rules and codes shared and acquainted only by the initiated. Beauty for being mysterious and enigmatic because no one knows it and when you grasp it, someone else tells you “you are so last season”… well, the TV shot beauty and MySpace and globalization finally killed it.
    Is this really such a loss? I don’t think so. Aesthetics will always be used to separate people so you can bet on a next hype of orthodex old graphic design, and also to create desire out of pure void so it’ll be cheap and fun (like it’s always been). But if ugliness, postmodernism and democratization are the way to do those things so be it, I’m gonna love every second of this trend. Orthodox graphic design doesn’t have any sense of humor and has led to a boring generation of young graphic designers (the ones who praise Pentagram) that made dissidence (a.k.a. createtivity) almost impossible, our very own artistic mix of state police and royal absolutists.
    My closing thoughts: F..k Vignelly, f..k Pentagram and f..k Paul Rand… we may differ on our appreciation of their quality and contribution but I think we can all agree that THEY ARE BORING. We can still learn from them but, we better have fun with our jobs and stop referencing the past.
    Viva lo feo!

  • @Dani: Ha! Right on, fuck Pentagram & Co. , but I won’t hold my breath just yet for a meaningful “people’s aesthetics.” Rather, the ugly approach described here seems to be all about catering to some spazzed-out sense of consumerism. All done with impossibly self-conscious and ironic execution.

    Oh, and: “the core of the Swiss ideal”

    Seriously??

  • Dom

    “Hey let’s undesign!”

    What a load of shite

  • Wouldn’t “The Old Ugly” be more appropriate since this is just early 90s circa-hypercolors throwback?

  • bad design gone bader.

  • Dan Collins

    What jars with me when the aesthetic debate rears its ugly head is the assumption that there has to be a finite answer, and consequently, a situation of us against them. I’m not sure myself about the rise of this, another postmodern style, as I don’t think it makes an awful amount of sense in the long term — what is it aiming towards? If its a case of aesthetic equality that intends to remove elitism then perhaps New Ugly should take a look at itself in the mirror. The Nu Rave culture that inspired this movement is just as elitist as modernism in its own way, in the sense that its a bunch of people desperate to remain cutting edge and cool. The simple fact of the matter is that there are various ways to approaches to design and they should be allowed to coexist, enabling a bright and diverse visual landscape.

  • Dan Collins

    Sorry, that should have read ‘various ways to approach design’

  • Vince Stamper

    If you define yourself by what you are not, then you are giving creditability to that which you seek to escape. Like the punk rock kid’s who were trying to be individuals, but all end up looking like they wearing uniforms (albiet leather with safety pins and anarchy patches) because they were trying so hard to be different that they let what they weren’t projecting define what they were. “Devil worshippers” give credability to Christians by accepting their argument that if you aren’t following God’s rules you must be a follower of Satan.

    If these designers were truly groundbreaking, redefining how we communicate, then they wouldn’t spend so much time trying to create contrast to what they were not.

    An old saying is, “If a student hasn’t learned, a teacher hasn’t taught.” Taking the same analogy, one can measure quantitatively how much a viewer has retained after being exposed to an attempt to communicate. Show me a study comparing what the creator intended vs. how much the viewer retained in both the traditional, and the new formats, and I might pay attention. I suspect that the latter would prevail, and therefore one could prove quantitatively that the communicator had failed.

    If I wanted to listen to a rambling drunk who never got to the point, I would got to the bar, and not read Henry Miller. If I wanted to look at random shapes and bright colors with no intent or meaning, I would give some monkeys some flourescent paint to throw at the wall with their poo.

  • Lol I loved how people get so heated about design.. Just do what you enjoy and make sure its authentic to you and live!