Pretty Ugly or plain ugly?

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?

Poster for one of a series of weekly film nights run by artist Wim Lambrecht at college Sint-Lucas Visual Arts Gent from 2007 to 2008. Designed by Raf Vancampenhoudt with Joris Van Aken

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.


From a series of posters for the Symphonieorchester Des Bayerischen Rundfunks by Bureau Mirko Borsche using a mixture of classical serif type (to represent tradition), and the angular bespoke face Andri12000, representing the orchestra’s modern spirit and the musicians in evevning dress

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.

Untitled. Design: Andrea Crews. Photography: Simon de la Poife, 2010


“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


Die Neue K is the free quarterly newspaper of the Royal Academy of Art at Leiden University. Design: Rob van den Nieuwenhuizen ( of Drawswords in Amsterdam) with Mattijs de Wit


Contribution to the My Monkey, My Network group exhibition organised by arts group Le Club des Chevreuils in Nancy, France, designed by Pierre Delmas Bouly and Patrick Lallemand of Lyon-based Superscript, 2008


“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?


German design studio Vier5 was one of the early pioneers of the Pretty Ugly, particularly in its work for French arts centre CAC Brétigny, including this 2003 poster for a show by Dutch artists, designers and architects Atelier Van Lieshout


Also by Vier5, the poster for last year’s Chaumont poster festival


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.”


Spread from Super Paper, No. 21, July 2011, a publication on Munich nightlife by Studio Mirko Borsche

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.


Horst is a German magazine focused on the lifestyles of modern gay men. Design: Mirko Borsche. Cover photograph: Alex Klesta. Illustration: Gian Gisiger

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?

Proposals for signage using the new Stedelijk Museum identity system

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?


Pretty Ugly: Visual Rebellion in Design, edited and designed by TwoPoints.Net, is published by Gestalten, €35



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CR in Print
The June issue of Creative Review features an interview with the editors of new book Pretty Ugly: Visual Rebellion in Graphic Design. Plus a profile on multi-award-winning director Johnny Kelly, a look at the latest techniques in movie marketing, the mission to cross CGI’s Uncanny Valley, a review of the Barbican’s Bauhaus show, logos by artists and much more. Plus, in Monograph this month, we look behind the scenes at the making of an amazing installation for Guinness, carved from solid wood.

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  • bill Swift

    Nice. Designers finally tired of the tediously restrictive Swiss Graphics aesthetic.

  • What a really interesting read. I think it’s very much like art, if your remove the context and academic standing of the designer you essentially left with something ugly, indistinguishable from the inexperienced. To intentionally create something ugly is an artistic practice not one of design.

    Design, unlike art, is more than emotional stimulation and reflection, it’s about communication followed by response. So if these pieces function then surely they have a place?

    I think that the appreciation of design is a learned behaviour so over time consistency and good standards of design practice become increasingly ignored much like Facebook adverts. ‘Bad’ design may well offer the stimulus needed to rengage audiences (until we loop back round to wanting ‘good’ and ‘standardised’ design again).

  • Calling something a ‘rebellion’ immediately makes me suspicious – a rebellion against what? mediocrity? – hardly – you challenge mediocrity with new and creative thinking, not intentionally ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’ work – anyone can do that, so hardly a rebellion

    The examples are definitely Art, and have a value as such, but they are not Graphic Design, or indeed any form of Design.

    For me, Art is the free expression of an individual’s ideas or beliefs through any medium and Design is about problem solving in the wider world, these are former and not the latter.

  • Anis

    seriously “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,”come on Context driven design? a rubbish tip is pretty much context design.

  • It looks more like art than design, plus in context it still looks like it’s well considered. Apply the same aesthetics or principals to a commercial project and it starts to loose conviction.

    Which is why (I believe) both the Olympic 2012 logo and Stedelijk Museum identity continue to split opinions.

  • julien britnic
  • iamcallywally

    Some of this is alright, some of it is horrible. The top piece literally does look like a child has been let loose with WordArt on Microsoft Publisher. It may be being “ironic” or “rule breaking” for the sake of it, but the point is, it doesn’t look good. Some of the other pieces aren’t too bad though, in my opinion.

    People can go for whatever aesthetic they like – many choose to go for Swiss style, which is traditionally clear and bold, and therefore good at communicating certain messages. Equally, more experimental styles allow people to be a bit different. Trial and error, I guess.

  • So bad its good?

    Nice to see this covered here, I thought much the same when seeing the (awful) Stedelijk identity for the first time. ‘Good design’ has always been subjective, but to me this kind of anti-design only works when done intentionally and with a rationale or clear purpose (ie not just rule-breaking or taste-ignoring for the sake of it.

    I don’t mind a bit of visual rebellion or anti-establishment reaction now and again, but this just feels a bit rubbish (apart from the Die Neue K newspaper) – But maybe in 10 years we’ll all be lapping it up?

  • Kris Ellis

    The irony of this work is totally lost on me I’m afraid. If it is indeed an exercise to make us revisit and redetermine what makes good design, then thank you, I have. Now please stop.

  • stu

    Perhaps those pushing this style appreciate that for every Yin there must be a Yang, and have taken it upon themselves to provide it. With no villain there can be no hero. Without ugly, there can be no beautiful.

    I thank them for their sacrifice.

  • Computing (duplication platform) +
    Internet/web (distribution platform) +
    Social media (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr, Pinterest etc.) +
    DTP (desktop publishing) i.e. technological capacity not historically affiliated appreciation +
    crowd sourcing, £50 logo +
    Fffffound (et al) +
    Coffee table books that lack critical insights/positions and proffer instead opinions and ego +
    An ideological backdrop that measures everything to gauge its value that results in a turn towards bland market researched responses that guarentee returns on investment + (Gap logo resurrection)
    Acceptance of Neo-liberal agenda +
    Increasingly precarious and competitive jobs market +
    Politically confused time +
    Formulaic understanding of design — this IS the way to do it, despite being presented in an increasingly patronising manner


    Thoughtful Reaction:
    Intelligent designers producing work informed by a knowledge of history and academic arguments to show the world that access to the above does not make one a designer. An understanding of the wider aesthetic context does. To repeat the past is to be lost in the present. Such work is an attempt to cultivate a new appreciation for the craft and history of graphic design. To elevate the role of the designer beyond the artworker and towards the visionary. A confused but modernist utopian vision is buried in these design and will, I suspect, emerge in the next few years.

  • André Felipe

    In my opinion, things go further than ugly. If you look carefully, those pieces are challenging and compelling to the viewer, what makes the pieces good exemples of fresh, contemporary design. For further reference, I recommend grabbing a print copy of 032c magazine –, one of the most brilliant and successful exemples of this trend.

  • I would like to add, rather than Pretty Ugly (which highlights its own uncritical binary) I would propose we call this aesthetic ReModern(ism). That is a modernism that takes into account the criticisms levelled against it by post-modernism but REflectivly folds them back into its faith in modernity, rather than simply reject it all together.

  • Matt

    I dunno what to think about all this as a whole but I’m pretty into the Drawswords newspaper, and the example underneath it. I can take or leave the rest..

    I discussed this book with a couple of interns a few weeks back, the trend seems to be spewing out of art schools and young studios at the moment. This style, could work more as a influence in the future, inspiring layout or typography decisions, without being all out mental. Perhaps thats against its point though, if it has one..

  • graham wood

    its like ’92 all over again. or 76. or 68. etc.

  • As I have had Maureen Mooren as a teacher, as well as Daniel vd Velden as guest Lecturer, amongst some other dutch dons of this ‘movement’ I can only say that this has nothing to do with non-design. It is designers deliberately kicking the notion of good design (however narrow that may normally be defined) and the living corpse of modernism in the gut. It may be a way to rid oneself of the historical ballast, finding new ways of expression, but it has also become a goal in its own right, a style, a new ticket to cool for those in the know.

    The teachings and the works created by these teachers often provoked me to try to create beautiful things, as an act of rebellion against this deliberate and high-nosed ugliness. Basically it is all about being slick and clever enough to sell a client something that looks like sh*t, and at the same time making it clear this is the epitome of cool and modern design.

    Now design has not to be pretty, it may provoke reaction, and ugliness can be part of a message, but as a style in it’s own way, its just what it looks like, namely sh*t.

    The emperors new clothes it is.

  • Simon Hep

    Interesting article. This book appears to be making the same mistake as Rick Poynor’s early-90s publications “Typography Now” and “The Graphic Edge” by displaying very experimental yet very skillful Dutch graphic design (Irma Boom, Dumbar’s Holland Festival posters, Koeweiden & Postma… etc in the earlier books Drawswords Studio here) alongside crap with no compositional sense, skill or thinking behind it as though to suggest that there was some sort of equivalence between them.

  • Simon

    I think what’s missing in this article is the notion of context. The works are gathered here only based on aesthetics choices. However they are intended to be shown to very distinct publics. For example, The poster from Raf Vancampenhoudt and Joris Van Aken is designed for a school event, Superscript’s one is conceived as a piece for a collective of Graphic Designers’ exhibition,… Very few of the works are going to be seen in the public space.

  • PatrickBurgoyne

    @ Simon

    Like the bit where I say “most of the work in Pretty Ugly is for very small-scale fashion, music or cultural clients, or self-initiated etc”?

  • Simon


    I missed that paragraph, sorry. I should rephrase it as: “The most interesting bit in this article is the notion of context…”

  • Emily

    I think they’re attempting to do something ” new” but too bad it’s been done a million times before and quite unintentionally. I agree some look more like art the rest look like quite a few unskilled designers portfolio ( sad huh?)


    More importantly, who decided that tiny type in blue would be idea for comments? I have a migraine now. Cheers CW

  • Theo

    Is there actually any writing in this book beyond picture credits? I remember looking at another Gestalten book (about the trend at the other end of the scale aesthetically) called “Naive: Modernism and Folklore in contemporary graphic design”. I was surprised to find that the only writing was a single paragraph on the back! I’d guess that all pictures and no words is part of the cause of shallow design trends. So thank you Patrick for writing about this in a balanced but sceptical way!

    I imagine that an article saying how horrible all this is would just justify that these designers have something to rebel against. Maybe in some countries or schools there are rules to break, but it seems to me in England anyway that on many graphic design courses and MA’s, students can do what ever they want. And students who are into being trendy do things like this because it is edgy and cool. But like you say, this is appropriate commercially for certain cutting-edge music or fashion related things. It’s probably going to become more mainstream until people get bored of it and move on.

    I don’t think its the sign of a crisis in graphic design, but maybe the way the internet is affecting graphic design might mean more young designers are interested in this sort of fringe stuff rather than normal commercial work. As a student myself I come across a lot of other students who seem to prefer mucking around with scanners over solving actual design problems…

  • @Simin dK Absolutely spot on.

    Art not design.

    Some interesting visuals, however they leave no long lasting impression in my mind.

  • >Lil _Pete.

    For me this is some of the most visually arresting imagery I’ve seen in C.R. for a while. Apart from the Olympic and Stedelijk identities which both bore me rigid.

  • RockinRickBuzzin

    Ah! the Typographic and Design ‘Daisyworld’ is ever a joy!

  • Paulus

    My 2p worth: Over the past decade (has it really been that long?) we have seen this ‘new’/ugly approach to designing, and although promising at first it has not developed into anything substantially useful, apart from reflecting on the design culture itself. In the places where I teach students have also come to realise that the ‘quirky’ design vocabulary is only working in its own context, but does not engage with the design problem at hand. Wether it is a music poster, a gallery, a small bakery, a large museum, (why are airports not done like this?) etc. the outcome always looks the same, thus communicate the same (formal) message where – surely – they should not. I would argue that there is such a thing as ‘bad design’. It happens when the form is out of touch with the task at hand and the designer’s value system, and to celebrate this is not really helping to get rid of it. It also does not create a ‘richer’ environment, only highlights opportunities where something more interesting could have been done. The cool-ugly/pretty-ugly/plain-ugly is not an ironic statement, but compares to a cynical statement that – I feel – is symptomatic for having given up. I am aware that these thoughts may be labelled a ‘modernist approach’, but – actually – I think it has something to do with responsibility. Just because I can make something cynical and it will still look ‘cool’ in our current design environment discourse, it still remains cynical and ignores the complexity of responsibilities (plural!) we share when tackling a design task.

  • Stupid.

  • The London 2012 Logo does not deserve to be in the short list.

    All of the other outrageously breaks the conventional rules of design, where are that one has structure & development.

    I particularly am a fan on the 2012 logo, but even if you’re not, you can still appreciate it.

  • Toadspotter

    Ugly is such a vague word.
    People have said this about things like abstract expressionist art when it came out. I think it is not people creating intentionally ugly work but something that appeals to them on some deeper unidentified level and perhaps it is just the jumbled chaos that is left in the mind after inter-web information overload. “Ugly” is another poor attempt to historicise something on the edge of its current context. I think of it more as a media deconstructive trash art style.

  • Really loved looking at the sites of the commenters.

  • These are very different examples, and I’m pretty sure the various designers involved wouldn’t look at the other examples presented here and see kindred spirits as part of a movement. The museum logo and signage is a world away from the WordArt throwbacks. Those just suggest an rather misplaced nostalgia for the early 90s.

    Beyond that, breaking the rules to deliver something fresh and unexpected in a specific context – I get that, and I see it in the orchestra posters and the museum work. Breaking rules for the sake of it? That just strikes me as immature, no matter how ‘knowingly’ it’s done.

  • There is a restlessness in the style. Perhaps it’s largely teen angs, but I think there are examples of it where it is confident and mature (like the Stedelijk ID) and really positive and genuine.

    The idea that it’s purely for a subcultural elite is not entirely true. HORT, for example, have used the aesthetic for a number of campaigns for nike and other superbrands.

    Working in this aesthetic allows you to concentrate on the why and forces you to think about the communication in a highly emotive and visual sense without being limited by a mandate of cleanliness in a finished product.

    Want to make a title pop? Make it a pimple.

  • Mmmm. Challenging me doesn’t necessarily help me choose what to do on a wet Saturday afternoon, it may get me talking about it, but a lot of these images are for selling things. A concept, a museum etc. I love the punkness, anti fashion statement. Very hipster. I saw a lot of this stuff in MAnchester in the late 80s. They were called fanzines, and often cost a pound. For that you got excellent reviews, and lovely ‘dodgy’ artwork. It”s also good utilization of the technology available. But if it was selling chips, I wouldn’t be rushing out to buy them. Excellent article

  • Mike

    A lot of these pieces lack substance and problem solving skills.

  • Having made the De Nieuwe K newspaper (together with Mattijs), I can only say we never intentionally tried to make something ugly 😉

    This is an nteresting read and I find the book quite interesting.

  • None of the ideas here are particularly new though are they. Didn’t ID magazine (and even Face to a certain extent) do the same thing in their heyday?

    When we put the Scrawl books out towards the end of the 90’s one of the trends we were picking up on was the infiltration of amateurism, in our case it was the influence of graffiti and the hand made. Someone here mentioned Fanzines) and the approaches shown above can trace their routes to self publishing and other aesthetic pastimes of the enthusiastic amateur. There is nothing particularly new or challenging in these latest examples to me though, just further confirmation that with out the input of the enthusiastic amateur whole swathes of the arts and creative industries would be a hell of a lot more boring.

  • It’s not April 1st is it?

  • georgevoke

    “This is a highly educated generation of designers using their knowledge to break with what they were given as rules.” – I think this might be the root of the problem for those who aren’t much of a fan.

    Although these pieces have been designed this way and is claimed to be a deliberate and conscious aesthetic choice, to many experienced designers it just looks as though they never really understood the purpose of design itself, from the basic elements of its construction, to its key role in modern society.

    I am a huge believer in design having no boundaries and that successful work should be able to prove it’s own worth, but by the very nature of design, each project has its own motive and as such should be able deliver to it’s brief. This is simply what sets ‘fine art’ apart from ‘design’. As a result of this, I can’t personally see much of a call for the extreme styles of work when given an actual task to perform.

    Always fun to make interesting images though I guess, and to be fair, I’ve always been a fan of, ‘Weird Works’.

  • Well I guess.. To each of its own?

    Trends hit everywhere with tumblr and pinterest, I live in Asia and I am very much interested in this new trend…
    Personally I tried this style and is quite pleased with it. But its true, it needs a rationale to stand. Maybe it wont last very long, why not lets just enjoy this rare , fresh(maybe not), play-around?

    Just my 2 cents