Mike Meiré, 032c, 13th Issue, "Energy Experimentation," Summer 2007
I'm no purist when it comes to graphic design, and I thought I had seen it all. But that was before I saw Mike Meiré's redesign of German culture magazine 032c.
Am I easily shocked? No. But with 032c, Meiré builds a whole publication around what I now realize is the last taboo in graphic design: the vertical and horizontal scaling of type.
Dear God in heaven: at long last, is nothing sacred?
If you're unfamiliar with the work of Meiré und Meiré, you might just assume that 032 was simply the output of a naive amateur. But Mike Meiré is a great designer, and he's been responsible for some extraordinarily beautiful magazines, including the innovative business journal brand eins and its predecessor Econy, both models of taste, precision and understatement. Meiré knows exactly what he's doing, and what he's doing with 032c is telling the world that we can take taste, precision and understatement...and shove them.
Behold the style pendulum in the midst of another swing. The fits, literal and otherwise, that attended the unveiling of the London 2012 Olympics logo were a clear signal that ugly was getting ready for a comeback. It only took a day or two for the backlash to the backlash to set in; as the folks at Coudal told us, what we were witnessing were the birth pangs of the New Brutalism. And lest anyone write this moment off as a mere anomaly, Wolff Olins, the design firm that created the 2012 campaign, quickly followed it up with the jammed-together-on-a-stalled-downtown-No. 4-train-at-rush-hour New York City tourism logo, as well as the hey-mom-when-did-you-learn-Photoshop Wacom identity, both of which extend New Brutalism, or (in the case of Wacom) just plain ugliness, to new levels. When similar symptoms are detected at both hyper-trendy German culture magazines and massive corporate identity consultancies, a trend might be said to approach pre-epidemic stages.
"Ugly is back!" With these words, Patrick Burgoyne confirmed the diagnosis a few months ago in Creative Review, recalling the "mother of all rows" back in the early 90s that attended the publication in Eye of Steve Heller's now-legendary article "The Cult of the Ugly." As for this time around, Burgoyne asks, "are we witnessing a knee-jerk reaction to the slick sameness of so much design or a genuine cultural shift?"
Whether reactionary spasm or irrevocable paradigm shift, if history is a guide, once the game is afoot, scores of designers will be eager to get with the program. Obviously, doing ugly work isn't difficult. The trick is to surround it with enough attitude so it will be properly perceived not as the product of everyday incompetence, but rather as evidence of one's attunement with the zeitgeist.
This is harder than it looks. Breaking rules is reactive and, perhaps, needlessly provocative. One approach is to declare a complete ignorance of the rules, and cloak oneself in a aura of Eden-like innocence. David Carson provides a classic example with his monologue in Helvetica, recalling his unawareness, at the outset of his career, that some guys had spent a lot of time setting up a bunch of standards or something. Rules? What rules? Burgoyne updates this approach with his "charitable" explanation for the design of the truly alarming magazine Super Super, the appearance of which has been likened to "a clown being sick." Creative director Steve Slocombe's lack of formal design training, he offers, "has left him unencumbered by the profession's history and therefore more able to seek out new forms of expression."
That's one way to put it. Not everyone, however, is so blissfully unencumbered. The alternative approach, then, is to elevate differentiation to the end that justifies all means. If you can't ignore the rules, break them. "We have created something original in a world where it is increasingly difficult to make something different," announced Wolff Olins chairman Brian Boylan in the midst of the brouhaha surrounding the London 2012 launch. "I became a bit tired of all these look-a-like magazines," said Mike Meiré in Creative Review. "They're all made very professionally but I was looking for something more charismatic. I wanted to search for an interesting look that was beyond the mainstream."
At all costs, however, onlookers should be a reassured that the results, no matter how careless-looking, were achieved through the same painstaking attention to detail that one would associate with more conventional solutions. Maybe even more! "It takes perfectionism to get this kind of design just exactly not quite right," said Hugh Aldersey-Williams about the work of the late master of anti-design Tibor Kalman, whose former employees all have stories about spending endless hours on deliciously bad letterspacing. Similarly, when Meiré was asked about the stretched headline type in 032 — a typographic effect seemingly mastered by everyone in my neighborhood who has ever lost a cat — he answered, "This was actually the hardest job to get right."
When ugly is done properly, the conventional-minded are properly outraged. This should never be admitted as the goal, however. "This is the most appropriate way to communicate to our audience," offered Super Super's Steve Slocombe. Or, as Mike Meiré says, "It is what it is." But finally there may come a stage when the public's outrage is too much to ignore: at that point, claim that this was precisely the plan in the first place. "Its design is intentionally raw, which means it doesn't immediately sit there and ask to be liked very much," said Wolff Olins's Patrick Cox of the 2012 logo. "It was meant to be something that did provoke a response, like the little thorn in the chair that gets you to breathe in, sit up and take notice." And what say you, Mr. Cox, to the inevitable complaint is lodged that a four-year-old could do it? "When people are saying that a child could have done it, or are coming up with their own designs, that's what we want: we want everyone to be able to do something with it." Check and mate.
So The New Ugly may be here to stay for a while. If you're familiar with art and design, you know the perils of condemning the shock of the new. After all, no one wants to risk being one of the bourgoisie sneering at the unveiling of Les Mademoiselles D'Avignon or booing at the debut of Le Sacre du Printemps.
But only some of the time does that little thorn in the chair turn out to be a Picasso or a Stravinsky. Most of the time, it's just a pain in the ass. Until further notice, be careful where you decide to sit.