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The Ugly Debate

April 24, 2010

Steven Heller’s essay Cult Of The Ugly (1993) brought into the open an argument that had simmered for several years between the design establishment and a new wave of young designers, headed by US design schools Cranbrook and CalArts. Influenced by the deconstructivist typography of Wolfgang Weingart and LA-based Mac innovators April Greiman and Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko of Emigre magazine, a new style emerged that favoured randomness, multi-layered images, and type as illustration, rather than the “crystal goblet” of the Modernist ideal. The opening salvo from Massimo Vignelli, in a debate for New York-based establishment journal Print, branded Emigre as “garbage… an aberration of culture”, and Paul Rand followed suit in his essay From Cassandre to Chaosbut it was Steven Heller who unwittingly provoked retaliation from Emigre, as well as Cranbrook and CalArts tutors and alumni such as Katherine McCoy, Jeffery Keedy, and Ed Fella. The debate simmered for several months, with Emigre, Eye, and Print featuring many letters from readers and professionals alike, before the increasing commercialism of the much mimicked “grunge” and “street style” aesthetics prompted a backlash and return to Modernist tendencies at the end of the 90s.

I’ve documented the debate, from the typographic experiments of the early 70s to the resurgence of an “ugly” aesthetic in 2007 (with magazines Super Super and 032c, and of course Wolff Olins’ 2012 logo), in a book and accompanying poster/dust jacket. I tried my best to reproduce the style of the period – irregular placement of text and images, miles of kerning and leading, overlapping and distorted type – and used only Emigre fonts such as Barry Deck’s iconic Template Gothic, and Zuzana Licko’s Dogma, Base 12, and Citizen. Rudy VanderLans famously declared that his only grid would be “four crop marks”. I hadn’t expected designing without a grid to be easy, but didn’t expect how much fun it would be – no wonder grunge caught on so fast! This isn’t the beginning of my conversion to grunge, but it’s been a good experience doing things differently for a while. I’ll post some proper photos of the book itself up here soon, but in the meantime here are a selection of spreads, and an excerpt (above) from the diagram featured on the book’s jacket.

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