From reading Steven Heller’s “Cult of the Ugly” (1993) and watching Paula’s speech regarding “Serious Play” interesting arguments were evoked in the world of postmodernist graphic design.
Several themes of agreement connect between Heller and Scher’s observations:
- Firstly, Heller and Scher agree that experimentation, and fundamentally failure are requirements for progression within design. However disagreement is raised with regard to the necessary components. Heller states that instinct, intelligence and discipline are required, while Scher advocates playing and a complete lack of former knowledge.
- Secondly, Heller comments that students at the Cranbrook Academy of Art have “deliberately given themselves warts”, making their designs ugly by convention in an attempt to follow an alternative approach. Similarly Scher, in her initial position as a designer of music covers wished to fight the tradition of her peers and as a result would experiment with a mixture of various movements instead of following the rules dictating ‘attractive’ design at the time.
- Furthermore the view that previous perceptions of art and design were one dimensional is held by both Heller and Scher. They both saw the necessity to fight modernism, demonstrated by Scher with her reaction to the “helvetica” generation, expressing her view with parody posters.
- While Scher never intentionally set out to shock with her campaigns, this was the result, which she later regarded as positive, equivalent to Heller’s statements that shocking the viewer can result in good design.
- Finally both Heller and Scher agree that once something becomes mainstream, it becomes boring and less effective. The Public Theatre identity campaign by Scher is a prime example, once it became famous, the unique identity dissolved. Similarly Heller agrees (quoting Emerson), as with modernism, that once a design becomes standard, it may as well not be designed at all.
Agreement to postmodernist theory
Both Heller and Scher ask the reader and viewer to accept non-conventional standards.
Through postmodern theory, reality is only a social construct, and therefore subject to change. Similarly Scher points out that what is seen as good within design is flexible, in agreement with Heller and his belief that beauty is subjective.
Postmodernist theory attacks the existing accepted rules, seeking to break all. However unlike other movements, the postmodernists were aware that reaction was entirely subjective, and one could no-longer define beauty. It is impossible to form something ugly to each one of the seven million people on the earth, therefore it is impossible to fully contradict beauty.
By focussing with the extreme of ugly design the viewer is forced to consider, to investigate the possible beauty in ugly design. As Heller shows us ugly forms can result in food design, for example Art Chantry’s Punk Vernacularism.
Various Art Chantry Album Covers
“Extremism gave rise to fashionable ugliness” – Heller
Meanwhile Scher states, we must stop being solemn, resonating with postmodernist theory of disregarding all concepts connected to the solemn nature of capitalism and the narrow nature of the western world. Furthermore Scher wishes to oppose that which is socially correct, necessary and accepted as it is not the best way to form good design. Similar to the postmodernist belief that the socially acceptable modernist design needed changing.
Furthermore Scher shows us serious design is about invention, change and not about perfection. Again aligning with postmodernist theories regarding experimentation.
Scher believed that by fighting Helvetica, she was fighting the fascism of the time, again a fundamental backbone to the postmodernist movement. Hating lead to serious play, which is to Scher her best time of design. Many argue that the postmodernist movement is in fact born out of hate. Hating can bring good design, by truly fighting to oppose something, something new and wonderful can be achieved. Heller finally argues that what was previously considered ugly, can now be beautiful without the oppression, hence with the success of postmodernism.
What can be learnt about postmodernist experimentation?
As both Heller and Scher agree, postmodernist experimentation is fundamentally necessary for advancement in the field of design. Initial attempts by some postmodernist designers sought to deliberately oppose beauty, the Cranbrook Art Students’ Output magazine, cited by Heller.
“Ugly” Postmodern Design
Output Magazine – 1992
However, looking deeper into Postmodernist, it will be understood that the crucial principle of beauty, is that it is entirely subjective, therefore impossible to oppose. Just as Voltaire taught that an ‘ugly’ toad will find beauty with another ‘ugly’ toad, an ugly design will have an element of the beauty.
Those who believe beauty can be entirely disregarded, do not understand beauty. Physical beauty can still be admired in those who are not conventionally beautiful. Architectural beauty can still be seen in buildings which are commonly regarded as ugly. For example, who would admire a multi-story car-park on the surface? However consider the engineering required to hold each story of the car-park together, preventing sagging and structural collapse. Consider the calculations required to ensure the ramps are suitable for all cars regardless of weather conditions, yet steep enough to prevent using extra space for circulation. Beauty can be found in the functionality and necessity of the design.
With regards to failed experimentation, this is of paramount importance for advance of design. If all experiments were successful and led to instant progression humans would have nothing left to discover and would fail to be captivated with experimenting. It is the failure that is often more exciting than the success.
Again, opinions echoed in the work of Scher and Heller, show that challenging the current design paradigm should not only be tolerated but encouraged, as this sort of play can result in serious play.
Scher’s statement that to truly experiment and succeed one must have no idea what they are doing, can resonate with modern designers. By following trends, pre-described rules after learning so much one can only achieve similar to what has been laid before. However by disregarding the trends, and perhaps the best way to achieve this is by knowing nothing of them, truly original work can be created.
Maybe it should be questioned when something is considered a failure in design? If, even something deemed unsuccessful and ugly, paves one part of the path to a successful unique design was it ever a failure?
The modern designer must learn from the values held by the post-modernist, taking a gamble is not a bad thing, only through experimentation and mistakes can anything of value be learnt.
TED, 2008. Serious Play. [Video Online] Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/paula_scher_gets_serious.html [Accessed 28th October 2011].
Heller, S., 1993. Cult of the Ugly. Eye Magazine, 9. Available at: http://eyemagazine.com/feature.php?id=40&fid=351 [Accessed 28th October 2011].