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When “Ugly” Reared its Head

Twenty years ago an essay about postmodern graphics sparked the last great style debate in design history.

By Alan Rapp, Superscript August 28, 2013

In summer 1993, Steven Heller wrote an essay called “Cult of the Ugly,” criticizing what was becoming a dominant style of graphic design that he characterized as "ugliness in the service of fashionable experimentation” and “self-indulgence that informs some of the worst experimental fine art.” In the piece, published by Eye magazine, Heller called out several graduate schools, publications, and designers by name with extreme vitriol, arguing that, heavily enabled by new access to desktop publishing tools, they were propagating an “already ossifying ... 1990s design style” characterized by postmodern “stylistic mannerisms.” 

The backlash against this piece by the instructors and designers in Heller’s sights was swift and forceful.

Title page spread from the 1993 How Design Conference program, designed by Carlos Segura.

To those that weren't there at the time, this controversy over design style may seem inconsequential; it certainly was academic, in that the design academies of Cranbrook, Cal Arts, and RISD were cited as the influential “hothouses” of this work. But the subject was so charged at the time because working designers of all stripes had a huge stake in this debate; it underscored the epochal shifts that design was undergoing—technologically, stylistically, and as an industry. The 20th anniversary of this essay arguably marks the last great style debate that design has known. Alan Rapp sat down with Heller to review the legacy of this piece, and how it has affected design discourse and his own career as a critic.

The Books

Looking Closer 3: Critical Writings on Graphic Design Michael Bierut
Jessica Helfand
Steven Heller
Rick Poynor

Alan Rapp: Tell me about the specific circumstances that prompted you to write “Cult of the Ugly?” Not just the artifacts you named—Cranbrook's edition of the student-designed publication Output or Segura's program for the 1993 HOW conference—but what else were you seeing that caused you to respond so viscerally?
Steven Heller:
First of all, at that time I was quite close to Paul Rand, who had just published a couple of career-capping books, the third was on its way. You might say I was under the influence of Modernist nostalgia, if not dogma, about the "right way" to design. In any case, I had urged Rand to write a screed about the "new new typography" in the AIGA Journal, which I edited, for which he was immediately clobbered as out-of-touch and reactionary. I felt the obligation and need to support him in some fashion. Call it loyalty to a person with an ideology, rather than the ideology itself.

Of course, I was seeing a lot of the Cranbrook-styled "visually linguistic"—as I call it—typography. At first it meant nothing more than a Declaration of Independence of a new generation from the old. There was a post-modern dance going on, that included retro, vernacular, Emigre, Cranbrook, and, of course, David Carson. Also, Rick Valicenti was actively busting rules that seemed to emerge from April Greiman and Dan Friedman via Wolfgang Weingart. It was actually very rich "experimental" territory—more than today.

But the more the computer was involved the more anarchic was the output. Hence when the publication called Output was released I saw it as a great opportunity to launch a few critical barbs at the devolution of the newly evolved style. To be honest, it was as much to provoke as it was to stoke some flames. A few years thereafter I did a book called Faces on the Edge celebrating to a certain extent the new expressive, raw and "ugly" styles of fonts. Was it hypocrisy or enlightenment—maybe both.

Interior spread from the 1993 How Design Conference program, designed by Carlos Segura.

AR: When did it become clear that your piece had touched a nerve?
Rick Poynor [the founder of Eye, and its editor at the time] was very willing to run this piece, which we had talked about months prior to it running. I'm not certain that it is what he had in mind, but it was always meant as a means to address the lack of "design criticism." I kind of recall some rewrites to remove some ad hominem remarks. Anyway, the minute it was published there was backlash from the Cal Arts/Cranbrook Axis. And it steadily grew in intensity and vitriol with Emigre devoting at least two, if not three, issues to various rebuttals, including an interview with me by Mike Dooley. I thought I was being reasonably balanced in the interview, but it seemed to fan more flames.

AR: Did this essay polarize the community, or did it just define the camps that had already been forming?
Hard to say. I'm not sure that the majority of designers much cared one way or the other, other than as a matter of taste. Polarized, I'm not sure. But there were camps, which seemed to divide in a generational way.

A page from Cranbrook's edition of the student-designed publication Output.

AR: Even though your rhetoric was very strong—the essay starts by putting the Cranbrook students up against Voltaire and Paul Rand, after all—with the benefit of hindsight it also seems clear that you were also struggling to describe and codify the conditions that were giving rise to this kind of work. So if you could put aside your aesthetic evaluation, what in design education and practice do you think was, and maybe still is, relevant?
My rhetoric was rhetorical. Remember there was not a whole helluva lot of criticism back then. It was just starting to bubble with [Heller’s column] “A Cold Eye” in Print, and columns in Eye. Writing on design was just beginning to burgeon. I was looking for a critical voice. I believe I helped launch many through “Ugly.”

But to your question: I think the understanding of type as a filter for language is important. The journal Visual Language was key in this exploration. Cranbrook was an academic hothouse for it. Then it filtered its way into the mass market. It was an evolutionary process and this kind of thing is always relevant.

AR: What was the personal fallout? Did you lose friends or make new enemies? Do these divisions carry over today in any important way?
I never realized how many people were impacted by “Ugly” until they all came out of the woodwork. Many took it quite personally. And for the first year after its publication I felt ambushed (I guess the way I must have ambushed them). The plus side is I did make many acquaintances who became, in one way or another, lasting colleagues. I won't name them all, but I have incredible respect for most of those I directly or indirectly critiqued.

Katherine McCoy's “See Read” poster for Cranbrook Graduate Design, 1989.

AR: You've said before that the merits of this debate may be relative or overblown—but what should we be debating in design today? Or, why aren't we really debating on the stylistic level anymore?
I think the argument got out of hand in a personal sense, but in a professional or intellectual one it was useful. First, a lot of this kind of debating played out when blogs like Speak Up and Design Observer began running "comments." That early 2000s period was very fruitful for the so-called "new discourse." People began writing more (not always great stuff) critiques. It made the "fame" of some of these writers too. Criticism turned a corner then. Of course, there are still blogs, but not as much "conversation." The discourse is commanded by a few steady voices. What should we be debating now? There are many aspects of design, especially now that the web and mobile are determining certain aesthetics, which should be scrutinized. Style, which what “Ugly” was really all about, is a thin topic, but consequence of design is something to be addressed. Of course, there is room for the superficial too. Design is also about surface.

“Cult of the Ugly,” was at the very least, a catalyst. For that I am glad. I still get students contacting me about the essay. I'm glad to have it in my portfolio. But time has passed to the point where many of the tropes I found "viscerally" annoying then, are either gone (like the mullet) or integrated into our visual vocabularies.

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