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Creative Review: Pretty Ugly

In 2007, CR’s Patrick Burgoyne wrote a piece for the magazine headlined The New Ugly. In it he suggested the emergence of a new wave of graphic design that knowingly broke the rules in an attempt to seize the attention of jaded audiences. This month sees the publication of a new book, Pretty Ugly, that documents the work of a group of designers who share many of the attributes and aspirations noted in CR’s original piece. Patrick Burgoyne talks to the book’s editors, Martin Lorenz and Lupi Asensio of TwoPoints.Net, about where this movement has come from and what its legacy may be.


PB: Can you explain the idea of the book and why you have put it together?

We realised that the New Ugly had become an interdisciplinary movement, embracing fashion, product and graphic design. We wanted to publish a book about this movement before it became just a stylistic trend, emptied of all meaning.

When we were putting the book together, we were aware of the reflections on the movement by Steven Heller, Michael Bierut (on Design Observer) and you. Your piece cited Mike Meiré’s redesign of 032c, the cultural magazine from Germany, in which he used stretched Helvetica (now it would probably be Arial) in the headlines, something that was done a lot in the 80s, but forgotten since. This simple gesture shocked designers who thought they had seen everything. Meiré seemed to have found the last sacrilege in graphic design.

In the beginning, the New Ugly made strong reference to the design of the 80s. Now, in 2012, we have witnessed the New Ugly becoming something unique, not just an 80s revival, something we call the ‘Pretty Ugly’.


Can you describe the qualities of Pretty Ugly? Or give me a definition?

The Pretty Ugly doesn’t really fight against anything or anyone anymore. 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.

There are obvious aesthetic qualities connecting the work: 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’.

But behind the aesthetics there is more than just visual rebellion. We see a shift in the role the designer plays in the communication process. Design has been seen as the vehicle between sender and receiver. An invisible servant of information. Today, the designer has a voice which has become an important part of the communication process. Often we even see attempts to visualise the design process itself in the work.

This is symptomatic of the world we live in. We have relationships with people, firms, institutions and organisations, interact and grow with them. Their identities are not single messages anymore, they are living organisms that evolve. Design is not about visualising a single message anymore, it is about creating a system, a vocabulary that gives flexibility to the communication. Design isn’t a poster, design isn’t an icon or a logo, it isn’t the visual representation of something, it is a structural value that unfolds in a multitude of actions/items on a multitude of platforms. Design isn’t static anymore, it is a flexible process that reacts and adapts to its context.


The rise of authorship, entrepeneurship and responsibility have been pretty common themes in design for well over a decade – surely you cannot claim that they are unique to Pretty Ugly designers?

Although design entrepeneurship has existed for a long time, designers who are part of this movement find in making their own products an easy way to explore the Ugly territory (rather than wait for a client open minded enough for this kind of aesthetic). Pretty Ugly is about doing things with the possibilities you are given. It is about making experiments, producing and distributing them yourself and not about waiting for a client to call you. That this may result in a newly felt responsibility for our actions as designers and citizens is, I admit, a hope we have.

 Is Pretty Ugly perhaps a reaction to the ‘de-professionalism’ of design and the threat posed by crowdsourcing sites and competition sites such as which are undermining the profession? Are designers saying ‘these rules that you taught us are not going to provide us with a career so we are just going to ignore them and have some fun’? It feels a little bit ‘end of days’ – is this movement a fresh new phenomenon to be celebrated or a symptom of a profession in crisis?

We wouldn’t say that our profession is in crisis. Maybe the definition of what design used to be is experiencing a crisis and design education has to adapt to the new situation where, as we have said, the designer is becoming a co-author of the message.

We wouldn’t establish a link between crowdsourcing and the designers we feature in the book. In order to be able to break the rules you have to know the rules. It is quite easy to recognise the difference between a good designer and an untrained designer doing ‘bad’ design. The good designer doesn’t copy or imitate, he or she tries to evolve design and you can only evolve design if you know your design history.

We admit that there are a growing number of young designers imitating the style and aesthetics of the Pretty Ugly, not knowing what they are actually doing. They convert the movement into a trend, which will eventually cause its death. That’s one of the major reasons why we wanted to publish the book this year. Right now there is still plenty of interesting, innovative work. In two years, if not earlier, we will be all bored by it and move on.


Most of the work seems to come from Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, France and Switzerland – why do you think that is?

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 Deurssen) were all very influential. Many of the the designers featured in our book studied at the design school Werkplaats Typografie, where Armand Mevis teaches.

German designers also badly needed space for free experimentation. Germans by their nature like to judge and establish rules for good and bad, right or wrong. Their whole design history is marked by that attitude – see Die Neue Typografie. Pretty Ugly, a movement that questions any kind of rule, created space for innovation and German designers are enjoying that space now, … until someone comes and ‘writes’ a Manifesto for the Pretty Ugly too. So, let’s be careful.


Be honest, some of this stuff really is ugly – Tschichold et al may have been didactic but aren’t there some universal truths that make for good communication?

Remember your article The New Ugly, in which Steve Slocombe says that the design of Super Super magazine caters for its readers way of reading. He claimed this age group (between 14 and 24) are part of the ‘ADD Generation’, meaning that they are not used to traditionally linear reading with large amounts of text but prefer to ‘click’ on small bites of information.

What we think is that, indeed those universal truths exist, but communication is changing so fast that Slocombe’s point might be important to consider. Call it “ADD Generation”, e-natives or whatever, the new way of ‘reading’, not just text but information in general, needs to be addressed by communication designers.

However, for some projects you can’t be trend oriented. You can use it for campaigns, temporary identities and so on, but it’s not a good idea to create a corporate identity that is supposed to last 10 years based on a colour or typography that is cool at the moment.


Do you think Pretty Ugly will have any lasting impact on design, or will it simply be a passing trend, a reaction to the status quo?

The aesthetics will change, but we hope that some of the attitude will survive. We need more brave designers who are able to think out of the box. Mainly for three reasons: First, responsibility. A designer that sees him or herself as a co-author of the message begins to feel responsible for that message. It was easier to hide yourself behind the client’s messages when the designer was invisible. Second, initiative. Becoming a co-author instills entrepreneurship. Instead of waiting for commissioned work, designers nowadays are taking more initiative and inventing their own products or projects. Lastly, flexibility. A movement that understands design as a process is more flexible. It can more easily adapt, adjust and improve.

What about the reaction of the mainstream design industry – do you think they are hostile to Pretty Ugly? Some the I have talked to are very confused by the work!

We will see. For now it’s just the fashion, music and art industries that are making use of the Pretty Ugly. This could either mean that the Pretty Ugly is seen as a momentary phenomenon that has no place in long term or more commercial projects or perhaps that we are still not ready for it.