08 November 2006
Rick Poynor
Rick Poynor

Although a flagrantly rebellious design can be just as rigid as a technically perfect one, somewhere in the middle is an innocence of error that is not only charming, but downright beautiful.

While some designers view the kind of design that seems to threaten the unravelling of all design with understandable trepidation, others are drawn to the idea like kamikaze pilots to a battleship. In the punk period, people used to talk excitedly about a phenomenon sometimes called "anti-design" or "anti-style." For the initiated, the rejection of craft rules, aesthetic proportion and stifling good taste was proof positive of the work's authenticity. It wasn't a ruse or an image, it was the thing itself, a genuine expression of what its makers felt.

A few years later, Cranbrook Academy of Art designers such as Ed Fella and Jeffery Keedy used the term "anti-mastery" to describe their aims. This was the intellectual version of anti-design, hip to mind-bending French critical theory, and it was lobbed, as a calculated act of provocation, at the received wisdoms and comfortable complacencies of the design profession. Eventually, the idea filtered down to every Joe Schmo and his PowerMac that there is no such thing as "good design," just your own opinion, and therefore, anything goes.

This wasn't great news for the designer who sincerely believes that "real" design has something special to offer both client and audience. Nevertheless, the idea of a form of design healthily free of the impurity of added professional slickness soon found a place in the design pro's cabinet of styles and concepts. A book about the late Tibor Kalman neatly captures the paradox in its subtitle "Design and Undesign." Just as the famous exclamation, "Thank God, I am still an atheist!" attests to an enduring belief in the almighty, so "undesign" as a design strategy depends on the continuing existence of design to make it plain to us exactly what it isn't.

The great attraction of punk was that it didn't give a damn what the profession thought about anything (it barely understood that there was a profession). One problem with the sundry rejections, repudiations and academic re-evaluations that have followed is that they so obviously do care. This type of work is simply too knowing to escape from the massive gravitational pull of Planet Design. Ed Fella is a case in point. His typographic inventions are some of the most self-aware, deliberate and truly inspired rule-breaking of recent years -sheer unfettered creativity- and in the late 1980s they were so far from registering on the profession's radar that his work did indeed seem to be a profound, semi-secret affront to the very nature of typographic design. When professionals stumbled across it by chance, they didn't know whether to be baffled, outraged or both.

Looking at the section on Fella in Radical Graphics/Graphic Radicals, a recent design book from Chronicle, it was striking how familiar his work now seems. The more we see of Fella's flights of extreme and unpredictable virtuosity, the more we know exactly what to expect. Anti-mastery turns out to be an alternative form of mastery, and now that the initial shock has worn off, it's been painlessly absorbed by a graphic mainstream that apparently regards "radical graphics" as a genre in its own right.

But there is another area of "undesign" that hasn't attracted the same labels, theories or attention, because it is much more ordinary and, as a result, much closer to the heart of our everyday experience of design. What I have in mind could perhaps be termed "flawed mastery," though "imperfect design" would be more direct. Observing my own unpremeditated behavior as a viewer and consumer of things that happen to be designed (as opposed to being a detached design watcher, a "critic") I find that imperfection is a key source of pleasure in design, a quality that often draws me to a thing.

I don't mean to suggest by this some camp or ironic "so bad it's good" way of seeing. Nor do I mean design that is so lacking in saving graces that not even the most dedicated ironist could tease any humor from it. It is something much subtler than that: a line of type slightly smaller than it ought to be; a contrast tried for, but not quite achieved; an area of unwarranted over-emphasis; a feeling that some aspect of the design hasn't been as well-articulated or resolved as it might have been; an air of probably unintentional strangeness in the choice of type, image or the way they are brought together. Any, or all, of these things can result in a design that has about it the almost indefinable quality of animation that the British designer Paul Elliman, who teaches at Yale, once described as the "breath of life."

This is most definitely not the kind of design that wins all the prizes. Whatever their style, award-winners almost invariably radiate the sense that everything has been perfectly judged and is in precisely the right place. However, like the proverbial model with the flawless looks who finds it hard to get a date, because only the most supremely attractive have the nerve to ask her out, absolute perfection is not always the most engaging quality in a design. Designers with a commitment to traditional notions of craft tend to assume that achieving a state of visual perfection must necessarily mean that a design will communicate more effectively. But there is rarely any solid evidence that this is the case, and approaching communication from this angle can often lead a designer to miss the point.

I saw this happen with a favorite British band (not well known) that produces a strange hybrid music that somehow fuses rock, dance rhythms, bright easy listening and hypnotic, minimalist chants and drones. The group has released a series of CDs with bold but slightly peculiar covers. The parts don't fit together, in a technical sense, yet the effect is strong. In one of the best covers, a coiled element spirals up from a sun-like semi-circle on a graphic horizon against a background of horizontal lines. For no particular reason, the title is placed in a ribbon-like device at the top, and the band's name is rendered in an odd, custom-built font whose centrifugal turning movements recall glimpses of washing in a tumble dryer.

There is a design credit of sorts, but it isn't clear who created this or most of the other covers. The following year, the band turned to a design company with a recognizable name and the results were immediately apparent in a CD cover that boasted a series of archly minimalist Op-Art variations on a circle. The record label's daffy molecular logo was re-branded into a cluster of exquisitely balanced blobs and a sinuous "space-age" typeface was pressed into use. Suddenly an operation that had seemed innocently weird now looked like a calculated exercise in pseudo-corporate image-building. No question it was "better designed," but it was also arid and lifeless.

For designers, self-consciousness is an occupational hazard. The designer is by definition someone with hyper-sensitive feelers for what is fashionable in both society and design, and this can be deeply inhibiting. Some of the most engaging instances of flawed mastery and suggestively oblique image-making come from people who seem relatively immune to these concerns. What led the cover designer of a recent book of Jean Baudrillard's photographs to match a widely letter-spaced, modernistic, 1930s-looking typeface with one of the theorist's pictures? For design purists it is an obvious faux pas, yet it makes a much more unsettling and memorable cover image than the standard little dab of Helvetica hiding in a corner that would no doubt have won instant reflex approval from fashion-conscious proponents of the neo-modernist revival currently under way.

Designers who allow space for the wayward, the imperfect and, sometimes, the just plain "wrong" set in motion a process and create the conditions for the viewer to have truly unexpected encounters with design that are one of its keenest pleasures and a large part of its point.

About this article

The above article is reprinted from Graphis magazine, with permission.

About Rick Poynor
Rick Poynor is a writer specializing in design and the visual arts. He founded Eye, the international review of graphic communication, and edited it from 1990 to 1997.

He has contributed to Blueprint, Frieze, I.D., The AIGA Journal, and many other magazines, newspapers, and catalogues. His books include Typography Now: The Next Wave, The Graphic Edge, Typography Now Two: Implosion, and most recently, Design Without Boundaries, a collection of his journalism and criticism, which was reviewed in a recent issue of Graphis. He is a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art, London. Rick's column, "Found Image," is a regular feature in Graphis.

About Graphis Magazine
For over fifty years GRAPHIS Magazine has been the authority on design and visual communication. A lavish showcase of excellent work from the world's foremost creative professionals, it is revered for its artistic presentation, exemplary production qualities, and insightful editorial content. Graphis magazine features an international collection of brilliant examples of graphic design, photography, advertising, architecture, product design, and related areas of creative endeavor.