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Spring 2021 ︎  SUNY Purchase ︎(DES3240) Design Issues

Cult of the Ugly

Ask a toad what is beauty…He will answer that it is a female with two great round eyes coming out of her little head, a large flat mouth, a yellow belly and a brown back.

(Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, 1794)


This topic is, at its core, a reading of Cult of the Ugly. Love ya, see ya next week. The article is basically Steven Heller talking about work from grad students that was sent to him. This becomes a larger springboard to discuss the “new” vs. the “old” guard, and kind of humorously points out the illusory war between them. I kinda love how dumb this moment is and that apparently this was the stuff that people got the most fired up about in terms of responses and calls to Eye magazine.

I think this stuff also ties into the cliche watercooler or coffee table discussions of graphic design like...What do you think of Helvetica? And the actual underlying issues related to it. My advice is to think about just those things. Do you have an “argument” when people hate on Helvetica? Does it matter to you? Is the “old” (modernist) guard just yelling on their lawn to an imagined enemy who they presumed left poop on their doorstep? Do you have concerns about ever becoming “old” and out of touch? 

Required Readings/Viewings

Contextualizing readings, not required but helpful if you have the time

    • Emigre #30, Fallout︎ (This includes interviews with Heller, Jeff Keedy, David Shields & Ed Fella, as well as a contextualizing essay by Rudy Vanderlans. A not that it is hopefully obvious the issue looked nothing like how the text is represented on the website)
    • The 11 Types of Trendy Graphic Design Paul Rand Hated︎This is a digitizing of Confusion and Chaos: the Seduction of Contemporary Graphic Design from AIGA’s The Journal, 1992. Not a direct response but you can see their contempt for then-contemporary design pretty clearly.
    • Long Live Modernism! by Massimo Vignelli︎
    • I believe there is a similar response in one of the Looking Closer’s that is a direct response to Cult of the Ugly but I was not able to find it. It is not dissimilar to the tone here.
    • Massimo Vignelli shitting on post-modernism for forty seconds as a setup to say “Helvetica”

    • Changing Out of Your Typogrpahic Sweatpants by James Edmondson
      (from Typographics 2019)︎

      I think about this talk a lot! It’s great how he frames his direct need to support his family with his practice, how he frames the the three “greatest hits” of 20th Century populist type, and how he super simply states the possible dangers there. This is partly to say you should just watch this, but I think it’s a good look at someone who embraces some version of both “sides” without feeling adversarial to the dialog; also he clearly just fuggin’ loves type.

Things we talked about in class

    • Is It Time to Move on From Big Tech’s Colorful Corporate Mascots?︎
    • This came up in class that people really don’t like this style of mascots that is popular for companies to do. Funnily enough just came across this article on AIGA eyeondesign.
    • Wolfgang Weingardt︎ We didn’t talk about this but I had it written down as someone who is associated with “New Wave” graphic design and is postmodern but maybe more clearly a response to modernist work. 
    • Cheryl Donegan: Scenes and Commercials︎ This isn’t exactly it, but I was trying to remember contemporary art that was typically or conventionally thought of as bad or that people are usually non-plussed by. This was an example when I was visiting NY in 2016 while in grad school (fwiw I liked this stuff).
    • The Cranberries︎I think this came up in relation to “deskilling” or approaching something from an unfamiliar perspective that might be considered “ugly.” I don’t know the podcast but apparently it came up that for their first album the Cranberries really didn’t know what they were doing. This was one I found where they talk about the anniversary of No Need to Argue.

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