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Books of 2012 — Pretty Ugly
Author: Heath Killen

This week I’m sharing my favourite design books from 2012. Featured yesterday was Concrete, and today it’s Pretty Ugly which comes from German publishers Gestalten and Barcelona based design/editorial duo TwoPoints.Net. In many ways these two books could be considered polar opposites. Concrete explores stark, formal beauty in the physical environment, whereas Pretty Ugly celebrates colour and detritus in mixed-media, as well as the pure joy of experimentation.

I found Pretty Ugly to be an exciting book – which is not a quality I often find in graphic design publishing. There’s an energy running through it. A propulsive spirit and a genuine sense that it is capturing a snapshot of the times. The book examines emerging visual languages that meld (among other things) 90’s desktop publishing aesthetics, amateur and non-design vernaculars, digital artifacts, glitches, and distortion. One gets the feeling that this collection of work is the result of a natural synthesis of network culture, as much as it is a conscious rebellion against the established “rules” of design.

The industry has been down similar paths before, but Pretty Ugly certainly feels new, and of the now. The advent of desktop publishing itself resulted in the emergence of some similar ideas, and we can trace the roots of this type of work all the way back to the early 20th century, but whether it’s the technology or the theory behind it all, there certainly does appear to be something happening here, and there’s a fearless exploration of new visual ideas that’s pushing things forward.

The book doesn’t stop with graphic design either. It also features products, furniture, art, and photography – all of which share a similar spirit of looseness and fun, as well as the embracing of imperfection. Much of this work is provocative, but it’s not juvenile. It’s instead a valid interrogation of language and form. One needs only visit the portfolio sites of some of the featured studios to see these designers are highly skilled, and capable of working the more “formalised” styles they are critiquing.

The curation of the book is well considered, resulting in a surprisingly broad range of projects and styles. Beyond the images (all large and well reproduced) there are some good interviews with select designers, as well as a small but detailed rationale accompanying most projects. Also impressive is the books design, which itself is “pretty ugly” and really makes the publication feel unique. It’s also worth pointing out that the cover image is taken from a collaboration between Australia’s own Jonathan Zawada and Shane Sakkeus, working under the name Trust-Fun.

Clearly, this work is not going to be to everyone’s taste. The willingness to sacrifice type legibility, blow up 72dpi images for print, and transform grit and compression artifacts into a deliberate style, I’m sure will send shivers up the spines of many. I’m also certain some of this work is produced in a wilfully jarring and delibertately “bad” way – but to me this is not anti-design, this is simply design created in a particular cultural context, and it is deserving of that consideration at the very least. And as we begin to see elements of this “movement” filter into the mainstream, it becomes more important to seriously evaluate what’s happening here too.

Something must also be said for the the fact that much of this work actually has the power to capture attention and leave an impression too. Many designers talk about “cut-through” and signal-to-noise ratio, but the designers showcased in this book really display the courage and insight required to genuinely reach and challenge an audience. It also proves that to achieve this, the work doesn’t have to be confrontational either. Much of this work is simply humorous, or silly, and we could certainly do with a bit more of that too.

Whether this collection of work truly is tapped into the post-millennial design zeitgeist, or just rabble rousing among bored graduates, remains to be seen, but in terms of design books that genuinely had something to say in 2012, you’d be hard-pressed to find one more enjoyable and worthy of your attention, than Pretty Ugly.