This essay was first published in 1994 in Emigre #30.
Steven Heller’s critical article “The Cult of the Ugly,” published in the British design magazine Eye, has received (and is still receiving) more response than any other article published in Eye. Since some of the criticism in the article was directed at our own work and the work that we published in Emigre that we feel is quite significant, I tried to write an enlightening response to Eye. But after several tries, I gave up. Time and time again, I found myself defending our designs against what I felt was the result of a misunderstanding of our work. This misunderstanding, in turn, is often the result of a complete ignorance of the context in which the work is created.
Don’t get me wrong, though, I love the criticism, the trashings, the misunderstandings, the arguments and, ultimately, the attention that our work and the work we publish receive from Steven Heller, Paul Rand, Massimo Vignelli, and Henry Wolf . . . I like to think it makes us smarter and better and it gives us great exposure.
It’s curious, however, how much of today’s design criticism focuses on work done by these so-called “young turks,” who some think are purposely steering graphic design off the deep end. If the old curmudgeons are really concerned about the future of graphic design, instead of resenting sharing the spotlight with a few new faces, they could find plenty of other graphic design work created today that deserves harsh criticism. So instead of trying to explain the virtues of our work, which is no easy feat, I’d like to turn the tables.
For instance, instead of picking apart P. Scott Makela’s multi-media design conference poster to comment on the state of graphic design in America (see the AIGA Journal, Volume 11, Number 4, 1993), Henry Wolf would have done better by commenting on the very pages of the journal in which his article was printed. P. Scott Makela’s poster was a one-shot deal, here today, gone tomorrow, and was sent to a limited number of people. The AIGA Journal on the other hand, like Print magazine — another good candidate for some serious design criticism — have been published for years and will most likely remain with us into the future. They are as much a part of the future of graphic design as P. Scott Makela’s poster. Yet these two magazines, published for the betterment of graphic design and which feature some of the above-mentioned designers/critics (e.g. Heller, Rand, Vignelli, Wolf) either on their advisory boards or as contributors, look amateurish, tasteless and bland.
Look at the AIGA Journal’s logo. After two years of art school, I was already skilled enough to see that that combination of letters in that typeface in all italic caps would be impossible to kern perfectly (“perfect” in the traditional typographic sense, which I assume is what the designer was striving for). What you do in such a situation is pick another typeface.
On the other hand, the AIGA logo, on this particular issue, looks pretty good compared to the extremely poor execution of the overall cover design. I’d much rather spend extra time deciphering dense layers of type and image than be smacked over the head with such a cliché. And the logo and cover designs are only a foretaste of what one can expect in the inside. The layout of the AIGA Journal is the kind of graphic design that has given Modernism (or is it Classicism?) a bad name, something that definitely belongs in Mr. Wolf’s “thumbs down box.”
In regard to Print magazine, it amazes me that with all the effort that Print has spent on designing a custom font, they would have so little design sense when it comes to the magazine’s overall layout. Having Sumner Stone design a font for Print is like “sticking a beautiful flag on top of a dungheap,” as the saying goes in Holland.
I understand that legibility and perhaps even a certain level of typographic neutrality are what both publications strive for in their layouts, but that does not mean that the results should be bland. Yet they are. The designs of both Print and the AIGA Journal, the two leading and most influential design publications in America, are unimaginative, uninspired, inelegant and unrefined. What does that say about the state of graphic design in America?
For this issue of Emigre, Michael Dooley traveled to New York to meet and interview Heller, one of America’s most prolific graphic design critics, to talk about the Eye article and other topics concerning graphic design. In addition, Dooley spoke to Edward Fella, Jeffery Keedy and David Shields, three designers whose work was among the pieces selected by Eye as examples of “Ugly.”
This issue also features a number of personal letters that were not written for publication, but which were so insightful that I spent weeks twisting arms to convince the letter writers to let me publish them. Poignant and frank, these letters are proof that there is a design community out there that is really paying very close attention to every single thing happening in graphic design.
I hope that with this issue, we’ll keep these fascinating debates alive.