Calling Back The Cult of The Ugly

Essay on Graphic Brutalism
Words and visuals by Simen Røyseland @royse.land
First published in Volume Thirteen


It has been called the New Ugly, though most often, it’s termed as Brutalism. Graphic Brutlaism is one of the latest shifts challenging the established order in the field of graphic design and, as in the case of most emerging trends, opinions about it differ widely. Is it here to stay, or is it just another passé?

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Although some call it pretty, exciting, and interesting, words such as ugly, harsh, and busy are hardly rare in the context of Graphic Brutalism. It is often met with head-shaking and disapproving looks. Others seem to appreciate it because of the simple fact that it is something different from the bland minimalism that has permeated visual culture in the last decade or so. But how do we define it? Does it have any communicative value? Will it have an impact on the field of design as a whole, or have we, as some believe, already reached peak Brutalism?

A Trend by any other name
It’s interesting to note that two of the trend’s most popular denominations refer back to earlier, defined styles. The first is a throwback to the controversy surrounding the so-called Cult of the Ugly in the early 1990s, from the latter to the mid-century Brutalist movement in architecture. When a trend is named after influential styles from the past, there is an important inherent heritage that cannot be discounted in its discussion. More on that later. But for the sake of clarity, this essay will refer to the trend as Graphic Brutalism.

Defining The Undefinable
The ambiguity around its naming has already introduced the difficulties that come with discussing what is still an emerging trend. Naturally, defining it will be a whole other matter. There have been some attempts to do the same, though. An oft-quoted description is from the website Brutalist Websites—a curated site that delivers exactly what is promised by the title. In an effort to identify the circumstance that resulted in the outcome that is Graphic Brutalism, they write, “In its ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy, brutalism can be seen as a reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism and frivolity of today’s design”.

Some will say that it is a form of maximalism, with a non-symmetric layout and intentional breaking of the grid. Typography is stretched and warped, and Photoshop effects such as Drop Shadow and Bevel & Emboss are again permissible, even appreciated, and the same is the case with contrasting colour gradients. Others will say that anything that doesn’t look too polished seems to come from a more genuine place, and it may be argued that this lack of refinement is a staple in Graphic Brutalism.

This matter can be discussed in further detail, but in the end, all the parts that would eventually constitute a definition would probably accumulate until it is nearly impossible to identify an inherent trend or style.

Others will say that anything that doesn’t look too polished seems to come from a more genuine place, and it may be argued that this lack of refinement is a staple in Graphic Brutalism.

However, it is apparent that there is an increasing desire among designers to eschew the conventions that are commonly regarded as best practises in contemporary graphic design. We are not talking about what is beautiful or not, as these notions are not constants, but we are speaking of ideas that fluctuate throughout the history of visual culture. The aim, it seems, is not to intentionally create something displeasing, but to present a contrarian perspective to current aesthetics.

The New Ugly
With this as a premise, it feels natural to draw comparisons with the post-modern design movement that created controversy in the early 1990s. Young designers had begun to break the conventions of visual language, and in several graduate schools, notably Cranbrook Academy of Art, CalArts, and Rhode Island School of Design, the focus had shifted from teaching what were accepted principles of design, to facilitating experimentation. This was poorly-received by many established designers. Among them were Paul Rand, who, in his 1992 essay entitled Confusion and Chaos: The Seduction of Contemporary Graphic Design, wrote, “Today, with emphasis on self, on style, rather than on content or idea, and in much of what is alleged to be graphic design, communication at best, is puzzling.”

The controversy intensified with an essay in the Eye Magazine entitled Cult of the Ugly. In the essay, design writer Steven Heller lambasted what he considered to be the self-indulgence amongst aspiring designers that informed an unwanted ambiguity and ugliness in what was the cutting-edge visual trend of those days. I ask you to read the following paragraph of that essay, and see if it could be a contemporary critique of Graphic Brutalism as well: 

“Ugliness is valid, even refreshing, when it is key to an indigenous language representing alternative ideas and cultures. The problem with the cult of ugly graphic design emanating from the major design academies and their alumni is that it has so quickly become a style that appeals to anyone without the intelligence, discipline or good sense to make something more interesting out of it.”

Do the brutalists of today fall into the former category in trying to express alternate ideas and visual linguistics, or do they fall into the latter, failing to display intelligence and discipline in their use of so-called ugly?

I would argue that Graphic Brutalism is not only aesthetically similar to the work Heller directed his criticism towards, but that there are also similarities in the underlying ideas. The question is: Do the brutalists of today fall into the former category in trying to express alternate ideas and visual linguistics, or do they fall into the latter, failing to display intelligence and discipline in their use of so-called ugly?

An Architectural Legacy
We cannot discuss Graphic Brutalism without mentioning the architectural movement that inspired its name. Some have tried to compare them visually, in as such that if you describe the architecture as raw, rough, and unpolished, it could similarly be a characterisation of Graphic Brutalism. But apart from style, it might be more appropriate to compare the ideas that prompted the two styles.

After the age in which International Modernism had dominated public architecture for decades, with a focus on standardisation, order, and modularity, brutalist architecture sought to bring a new perspective to the craft, one based on subjectivity, novelty, and obstinance.

The comparison between architecture and graphic design is, of course, not without its pitfalls, but with regard to the way that their projects are tied-up with clients and the public, the work of an architect and a designer have some distinctive similarities. With this is mind, I will cite some words by cultural commentator Jonathan Meades, who, in the TV-series Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness, explores the brutalists’ ideas of individuality.

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About the relationship with the client, he says: “They have been habitually regarded as transgressive, for they show the architect not as a servile technician or social worker, but as a maker, an artist. An artist creates what he regards as necessary, he creates in order to achieve something which did not previously exist.”

And on the opinions of the public: “It's evident, that if an audience is asked what form a new housing development should take, it will reply like 'A' or like 'B', something with which it is already familiar, something it understands, not something new, not something which is yet uninvented. The consensual cannot help but be feeble.”

Arguably, notions such as these have been suppressed by the hegemony of Apple and Google’s design. Is it far-fetched to say that their obsession with design systems, modularity, and homogeneity can be the cause of the rise of Graphic Brutalism?

Aftermath
It’s roots aside, will Graphic Brutalism have an impact on the future? Some say it will wither, soon to be thrown onto the proverbial garbage heap together with everything else that is easily dismissed as passé. However, considering that its rise coincided with Normcore—which also questions what is visually pleasing by utilising what has previously been considered ugly—one can argue that Graphic Brutalism is a manifestation of its time. So if the Seinfeld Look is here to stay, then why not the resurgence of Bevel & Emboss applied to Times New Roman?

In an interview from 2013, Steven Heller somewhat recanted some of his statements from the infamous Cult of the Ugly, saying, “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.”

It is speculation at best, but, if nothing else, could the design-cultural tendencies that emerge from the Brutalist approach contribute to elevate the designer’s position? For the designer to be something more than someone who wraps the message in a nice, ready-to-consume form? Where the individual designer’s subjectivity is allowed to shape the creative process in consonance with their peculiarity, intuition, and preferred style of expression? Maybe. What remains to be seen is whether this change would be welcome, not only by clients or the public, but by the designers themselves.