Michael Bierut | Essays

How To Be Ugly

Mike Meiré
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?

Mike Meiré

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.

Mike Meiré

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.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Graphic Design, History

Comments [83]

Seeing what happened to wacoms logo, and the design used here... What is happening to design? Ugly is what. Ive gotten into the clean look. The use of negative space to make an impact. But this is 360 from what schools will teach.

Complimentary's for a cover page? Something has gone wrong I think. Even the type face in the page spread that is all red seems off. I swear, I saw the same selection on some freshman's myspace while i was in the library reading some magazine on photoshop or other adobe tech.
Karl Hotovec

There is bad ugly and there is good ugly.

This seems like misguided ugly to me.

Tibor with his helpers did ugly good.

I miss good ugly.

Maybe amateurish work contains some honesty that we are not able to capture as professionals. I think there's a lot of graphic design work to be done that is better left to non-professionals. Look at the Shopsins menu for example, which no professional could ever hope to improve. Sure, it's ugly. But who cares?
Ryan Nee

Irony is overrated.

Ugly is just plain ugly.

And when wrapped in irony, ugly is annoying.

I say "pain in the ass."

Perfect. When do we get to use Comic Sans again? It has been too long!
Ben Weiland

is this why london's new st. pancras station announces itself in impact?

It think it's natural for some kinds of graphic design to follow trends. Trends are fresh and inspiring to me because they are reactions to a current situation in society -- especially when executed by talented people like Meire. Some sacred rules of visual communication are still intact in his work... there are heirarchies of information, visual elements balancing each other in surprising ways,text and image perfectly complementing each other. I guess he hasn't followed all the rules, but isn't that the last rule of design: Don't follow the rules?

Whew... for second there I thought you were going to (try to) justify this...
ed mckim

I love Mike Meiré's work.

The one word that is missing here is discipline. Once treasured, society now shuns any habit forming creature.

I subscribe to 032c and I'm very glad the cover is still beautiful.
Rocco Piscatello

Like in everything else, the pendulum has to swing and where else than fugly?

(loved the reference to missing cat-notes, a seldom used source of inspiratin)
Peter Sjöberg

With friends like these who needs enemies?

Yet another professional designer telling the world that they don't need to hire a professional designer.

There will be no public outcry.

Great article Michael.

The reaction of designers to this kind of work says a lot (to me at least) about the dogmatic nature of graphic design education.

Dear Michael Beirut,
I am the editor and creative director of 032c Magazine. I normally subscribe to the British monarchy's motto "Never explain, never complain", but it would be very nice if your review was at least correctly naming the title. It is not 032, it is 032c (www.032c.com). If you decide to outline the aesthetic of a magazine, then it will be helpful (I just assume, assume...) that you actually judge the real magazine and not base your impression on 5 screenshots from another design website. I am very happy to send you copies to check out. I do believe that the design of Mike Meire for 032c is about so much more than just stretched typography: It is a brutal AND confident proposal to present content in our age (and you will much better understand how dearly we value content when you actually read the magazine). Thank you.

Joerg Koch

This is like a litmus test for insecure designers or trendhoppers: "Is it now right to be wrong? Now what do I do?"

The trick is to surround [ugly work] 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.

In one sentence Michael sums up the hipster-attitude that characterizes late '00s cool. Ever seen the mannerist tendencies of fixed-gear bicycle culture? Ugly and Wrong reign king and queen. This attitude is irony and detachment taken to the breaking point.

Great links in the article too.

"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."

That quote makes it sound like the designer's entire idea was to produce something new and different.

Unfortunately, the work shown here doesn't fulfill that agenda. Take the Axis of Evil spread. It employs utterly conventional design ideas and thinking. I can almost hear the designer's process: I'll make a literal axis in the composition and put asymmetrical--yet balanced--type on either side of that axis; I'll make it red since the text mentions red and I'll use jarring acid green type against that red (that'll make it uncomfortable and convey evil). Finally, since it is about evil, I'll just make the typography really ugly. Perhaps the only new thought expressed in that spread is the ugly typography. Otherwise, it seems like the most basic design exercise.

As new thoughts go, making ugly type isn't really much of one. And if a freshman design student produced that spread, he'd probably be sent back to the drawing board. There's a germ of an idea, but the execution is appalling. In its attempt to be new and different, it just ends up looking horribly self conscious and trite. I think that's what makes it "ugly." It just screams: "Look at me trying so hard to be different!" That effort almost always fails. Because, if the primary idea is "let's be different," there's just not enough substance to make it anything other than self conscious.

Of course, this is the risk you take if you set out to be a rule breaker and willfully try to create something dramatically new. You might successfully produce something fantastic, groundbreaking and trend setting. Or, you might just fail and end up with self conscious and ugly. I'm glad that some people are willing to take this risk. But, I sure hope that this sort of ugly typography does not become trend setting.
Rob Henning

All of this virulent dissent for something done purposely, but none for the leeching of style or cliched aesthetic run amok?

Why not cry foul on Charles S. Anderson for co-opting the artwork of an earlier century and not creating anything new? Or dissent towards the Midwest for continuing to rest on sensible, but regurgitated identity design from the 50's.

If you haven't rushed to the dictionary yet, innovate doesn't mean to necessarily make something better it means make changes in something established.

Short-sighted, brash, irresponsible or not, let's applaud him for taking chances and for assaulting our sense with all that is "bad" about design. While we're at it lets take Dot Dot Dot to the shed. Oh wait that's sacred isn't it

Also see further civil unrest here on Design Observer


dear michael.

love your headline. it also indirectly reflects a cultural precision that nowadays only new york is able to deliver. - from a graphic design stand point - to me - it often seems that new york is the truly old world with a high estimation for the old values and with a very classy - yet/and slightly traditional eye.

do not know why that is. maybe because in new york you have this incredible atmospheric density combined with a somewhat strict hierarchy of taste that you really really do not suffer fools lightly.

it is truly the old world it seems. and no studio in zurich today can compare with this.
and of course i love it.

meire of course is always good. sometimes a little bit repetitive and sometime a little "it is what it is"-ugly and i guess in a way he will even like your post.

it is true though - at least it rings true to me - that many things, too many things in european graphic design are possible these days (wolff olins all the way - interesting but essentially not good)

looking for gravitas? - go to the us!

who would have ever thought that...

Producing something really ugly can be great fun, but are you going to put it in your portfolio? And will it do you any good there when it's time to get your next client or job?

And if this is the new brutalism, I think we should take a look back at the old brutalism, particularly the building at Yale where Michael's architecture friends have to work, and jump off this train before it starts rolling.

Pfffft! Ugly is back, only if you know it came from someone who you think is a talented designer or knows exactly what they are doing. I'd so much love to be able to remove the authorship of the work and see how it immediately deflates this kind of critique. How confident would you be in differentiating the experts from the novices?

Way back in the early 1980s, right before the personal computer became everyone's graphic design tool of choice, phototypesetting allowed art directors to request horizontal and vertical scaling of type from their service bureaus, and even, gulp, slanting type towards the left rather than the right... I still remember some of my university profs bemoaning this turn of events.
Ricardo Cordoba

I had two reactions to this:

Can any of us who is over 25 even begin to understand the aesthetic values of a generation being quite literally raised on the clown-vomit bling party of MySpace? And can we condemn what we don't understand?

On the other hand: If their only "rule" is to break all the rules that came before, they haven't defined a new movement, they've only shat on someone else's.
Vincent LaConte

I just finished redoing the splash page of my website : whaleroot.com : afterwards I went straight to D.O. to see if there was a new article.

Very uncanny.

i am pretty surprised, almost shocked by mb's view on the magazines. first of all i think the ugly discussion is fun but way off relevance. the three mentioned magazines have their tasks and cannot be solely judged by comparing few aspects of their typographical design. the designer's position is also a parameter left out completely.

there's a fanzine wildstyle but glossy music and party (and fashion - look at the ads) magazine with the ridicolous (but cool) name supersuper.

there's the arty 032c, which finally got a new face surprising new direction and its fitting the issue's topic well.

there's also another magazine. the i am disappointed by the redesign, its less fun, and less motivating to flip and read. the atmosphere is arty, strangely calm and for some reason i don't like it anymore despite the still-well chosen and produced content (and the table of contents). but it has nothing todo with ugly design at all.

all three try to tell their stories as intense as possible, which for me is one of any editorial designer's aim (and duty), the latter failing a bit, becoming too static and weird. (not meaning exciting weirdness).

but still, the discussion is fun, and also setting historical viewpoints.


I've seen the pendulum swing enough times to know what's going on here. Frankly, as a stand alone, single issue of a culture mag, this issue of 032c works rather well. How better, in this current state of rigidity, to rebel and deconstruct? The look employed here, which resembles headlines and subheads taken off a cinematic format and hastily condensed to fit your crappy little 13" teevee tube, layed over a combination of institutional backgrounds and interesting photography, works rather well in framing the content of this specific issue.
No matter what your opinion of this aesthetic, and I hope everyone who commented took the time to look at the issue as a whole before speaking up, as a framing device, Ugly works. Ugly can be powerful. It worked for punk rock, and for 'zine culture, and later for Raygun and the genre it spawned. And it works here.
It would be illogical for this imprecise application of typography to continue for too many issues, it would become tiresome quickly. As much of a advocate of ugly as I am, I know also that the best thing about Ugly is it's impermanence.

Dear Joerg Koch,

My piece was meant to be less a critique of 032c — I fixed the name in the article, so sorry — than some general observations about the kinds of rhetoric that tends to surround this kind of work, whether it's characterized as confident brutality, outright ugliness, or any combination thereof.

As I hope I made clear, I am a fan of Mike Meiré, and have no doubt that he achieved exactly the effect you both wanted in his design for 032c.

Michael Bierut
[email protected]

I personally enjoyed how Michael misstated name of the magazine, then how the magazine's creative director replied with a correction, yet misspelled Michael's name in the process. On purpose or by mistake? You make the call.
Ryan Nee

'Good Ugly', or 'Nu Naive'? :-)

Illustration has for many years had it's school of followers that seemingly can't draw, but who actually can! Gasp!
Time for the typographers to step up. Find those old Macs you nearly threw away and fire up the LetraStudio!
Gary Cook

::rolls eyes::

I'll be over here waiting for the pendulum to swing back. The only ones who find squashed type disturbing are designers. No one else notices, at least not in any significant conscious way. They're surrounded by stuff like it, numbed to it. I find this sort of echo chamber design to be too navel-gaze-y and one-dimensional for my tastes. I'd much rather create a compelling experience for non-designers through my work than playing some silly game of inconsequential taboo breaking. Scaling type is the big visual cultural statement that 032c and Meiré want to push? Hmmm.

But here I am writing about it, so I guess they win, don't they?
Chris Rugen

There is no 'bad ugly' and 'good ugly'. Those phrases are purely semantic and really bear no relevance. If it is 'good ugly' is is actually just good.

I like the pressure that Jan van Toorn applies to his contemporaries: the responsibility of the well-seasoned designer. Sure, once you've learned your history, made your mark and succeeded in the business, you have a 'right' to get ugly work through the door. And then you can defend it by saying you were bored. But you should then be held responsible for the onslaught of young/uninformed designers that will follow you. And if this becomes the trend - design will bleed for it, sadly.

The worst characteristic of this new trend is that it is a trend. The London 2012 logo has been forgotten in the consumer world. This magazine will be forgotten. The only striking element in these designs is audacity. Not beauty. Purely phasic. There are thousands of ways to create good art while breaking rules - the aforementioned examples are unfortunately not doing so.
Rowen Frazer

I respect the desire to expand beyond the modern design trends but some of the products of this New Brutalism remind me alot of the horrible designs that came out of my freshman 2D design class in school. Graphic Design is supposed to invoke a specific response in the audience is it not? I personally dont think the clients that are paying for this, "New Brutalism" intend for the audience to cringe. . . do they?

clown vomit bling party

Love that description. Ugly gets more in every year. Kanye dresses like Urkel.

The world will get uglier as imitators without panache wrap themselves in just plain ugly. The joke will be on them, naked emperors all of them.

But it's hard to imagine the world get any uglier than when the first wave of desktop publishing replaced the plastic signage on most small businesses with compressed and extended type.

Of course, that's the world some of these kids grew up in, so maybe this is just the inevitable result.
Kevin Steele

Punk was ugly, too. This is no Punk movement, far as I can tell.

If this is "breaking taboos", then color me deeply unimpressed.

I still have tons of copies of Raygun Magazine back from when I was a subscriber. That, friends and neighbors, was breaking some rules -- "let's make a rock magazine where you can't read the articles". But breaking rules with a reason and doing it well. These 032 spreads are not ugly enough, not amateur enough, not nearly "brutal and confident" enough, despite whatever Koch asserts above. And anyway, come ON. It's a magazine, dude, not a political manifesto. The Time of the Magazine that Changed the World has been long over.

The spreads look amateurish and uninteresting and just bad. Exactly like all of Wolff Olins' "work" of late. Personally, I hope Wolff Olins will be banned from doing any further work in New York as they have subjected me to enough of their crappy hideousness already. I suppose if you want to be at the head of the Amateur Bad Movement, then great, rock on. There are plenty of astericks in art history of interesting if ill-conceived "movements" and surely the Cult of the Ugly will be another. But it's worth noting that the most enduring art tends to have beauty in it. Not as an ironic reaction against something but some simple intrinsic beauty, even if raw and rough. This ain't it. And in ten years we'll all look back at this crap and wonder what the hell they were thinking.
Christian in NYC

It reminds me of the student in college who put garbage up for crits, then explained it all away as "pushing the envelope". Snore.

Magazines are retarded anyway. What an awesomely bad way to lose money. If I tried, I could probably name a hundred blogs and or websites that provide equal or greater content than this rag.

New Brutalism, you say? I thought Brutalism was all about clean lines, dense, measured patterns, 90-degree angles, and impressive, crushing, weight.

Brutalist buildings looked great with Helvetica signage.

Just sayin'.

Grazing through the comments, I missed the tone of amusement and gentle caution I heard in Mr Bierut's essay.

Instead, a broad swath of polemic: Is ugly good? Is ugly bad? Is ugly sometimes good? Is ugly harmful to our children and other living things? Not so much about propriety: that is, whether Mr Meiré satisfied 032c's design brief.

To review: 032c is a German fashion magazine, published twice a year. We can't get it easily here in the outer provinces, so I can't vouch of the content, but I'd be surprised if its circulation is greater than, say, 10-50,000 (apologies and request for correction if my estimate is off).

The greater issue here is propriety: an English-language fashion magazine published in Germany with a circulation of 10-50,000 is seeking a specific audience, and one that is probably welcoming to Mr Meiré's treatment. It is a deliberate provocation aimed at that public -- which includes designers, certainly -- and at least is recognized as such in the reptilian portion of the brains (Dave Hickey's coinage, not mine) of its non-designer readers.

032c's readers will get it, in other words, and Mr Meiré's work will frame their entry into the content in the way that 032c's editors want. What happens after that -- whether the readers read, or develop a habit for the magazine -- is the editors' problem; it's outside Mr Meiré's brief.

Does Mr Meiré's provocation work? I suspect that it does (even if it's not to my taste); but in a fashion magazine, the stakes are comparatively small. They're bigger for Wolff Olins, but the broader marketplace will take care of that: who remembers, much less seeks inspiration from the 1976 Montreal Olympics ID? We remember 1968 and 1972; if the 2012 ID packs the transformative power Mr Boylan claims, we'll find out soon enough.

Adam McIsaac

Well, Joerg Koch and Mike Mieré have clearly hit a raw nerve over there in America. What a fuss about nothing! If you'd seen the first twelve issues you'd have loved them - cool, clean modernist design with white space, sensible typefaces and an intelligent balance of text and image. The design of those twelve issues (published across four years and to two formats) started out fresh and new but had become much copied. It was also a design at odds with its content - 032c is a magazine of ideas (fashion, yes, but art and politics too) and while at first the paradox of an understated, cool design for the title worked, it needed to move on and better reflect its content. A change was needed, and bringing in Mieré was a bold move on the part of the magazine.

Mieré is a fine magazine designer, a grown up with a strong pedigree. Common across his work is a desire to challenge the norm. He has a passion for magazine design and is not afraid to let that passion show. With Econy and later Brand Eins he established new reference points for financial magazines. With the Statements project he created a magazine series that jumped from format to format, from print to video.

Mieré and Koch have made an experiment with the thirteenth issue of 032c. I find it disturbing, running against everything I think is right. But since its publication last summer it continues to fascinate me. It not only breaks the rules of design but also those of publishing - you don't make such an extreme change in a single jump.

It's an experiment! It may not work! But thank you 032c for having the guts to try it.

I wonder what the next issue will look like?



Joe Moran

Maybe it's just Wolff Olins. They also did the new, awful brand for the New Hey Look Its Clever to Drop Text Betwixt a Two Word Organization Name and Call It Cutting Edge Museum.

More than a moment of silence for Honest's elegant and still in its youth logo. You can be sure there won't be an article in the Times in 20 years about how they spend a whole year making one of the letterforms infinitesimally thinner.
miss representation

Sorry, I'm late to this party. I just got back from Saks 5th Avenue. Man you should see the ugly ass shopping bags they've got.
Mark Kaufman

michael, that's just it!!!
almost nothing is sacred anymore.

given the fact that design not only leads popular culture by it's presence it mirrors pop culture as well.

this crystal clear reflection of design sure looks like western civilization at the beginning of the 21st century to me and i think it looks pretty cool and knowing-two of the most essential qualities i dig.

thankfully 032c is no fun-house distortion gilded frame surrounding this mirror.
rick Valicenti

Please everybody, this ROCKS!!! beautiful. Please, jump on the New brutalism band wagon. Makes lots of it, sell it to clients. Saturate. When you do, the industry leaders will follow up with beauty. They will reap the rewards while your pants are down. Ingenious. When quality is a commodity - make it ugly, then reverse when the world forgets what quality looks like. Trends only benefit the setters. Ultimately, design is about producing value and solving your clients problems, beautiful and ugly alike.

If A,
evolution = harmony/break/harmony
then B.
ugly = break
Carl W. Smith

I'm sorry, were you going to talk about *why* the pages shown above are ugly, or are you assuming we simply agree with you? They look no more or less atrocious than 99% of all the other mags I see on the stands...

This read more like a business article than an article about aesthetics.

Great article. Your comment about dissenters to this style being labelled "sneering bourgeoisie" is apt as that's clearly what will be the basis for these designers' defence. But anyone who's old enough can recall the early days of using PageMaker & Quark with 'ransom note' style design & squeezed typography.

What goes around comes around in design, as in everything else. You have to wonder why we have to keep learning & unlearning the same damned lessons, though.
Ray Drainville

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I cringe at and a commend it all at the same time.

We stretch and distort all kinds of things, why not type?

Tom Froese

Mike iz da illest!
Uwe Loesch

This is very amusing. This is of course a design discussion website and one that I've perused for years and not because I necessarily agree with its stance and attitude. Of course everyone is getting carried away by design having consumed the rest of its body and is now gleefully chomping away at it's own neck. Good for it I say. Designers by nature tend towards the autistic, anal and downright nervy. Worriers, the lot of us. As much as we abhor Comic Sans it's the first arrow that mom, pop, and human resources pull out of the quiver. Why the hell not I say, I'm tired of fighting and getting my perfectly kerned knickers in a twist. Are the headlines and editorial designs of o32c legible? They certainly are, contrived perhaps, but make a point nevertheless. As designers we're concerned with the packaging and not with the content. 98% of the time we design pretty boxes and pretty brochures to put the shine on shit. To illustrate the point further the actual hardware used in an Apple computer is pretty generic and cheap crap but the outside is what convinces everyone to pay over the odds for what is essentially a pretty box of shit. That's the bottom line. I think people are slowly figuring out is more important is what's inside, the content. Having read o32c the writing and story ideas are what makes it good and engaging to read in comparison to more sober and boring magazines that pad themselves out in Caslon 540 and Didot trying to attribute some sentimental bygone era of glamor. So with that in mind perhaps this was actually the most straight-forward and logical design solution, putting the shit on shine. If that's the way forward then I for one welcome our meaningful but ugly overlords.
N Miller

I don't fear this pseudo-new-Brutalism, and I don't care for squished type either, but I am wondering when this 'ugliness' will fully enter the mainstream. I blame MySpace and the Web 2.0 explosion, for once again empowering the user with the ability to make whatever the hell they want, with all of the whistles blowing for full speed ahead, and as loudly as possible. ZeFrank charted this ugliness almost a year ago, for heaven's sake, so hell, maybe the ugliness has been and still is fully in our mainstream. Do I fear this ugliness that may take over our visual culture? No. Am I looking forward to seeing some young-Turk of a designer state that their websites are 'The end of the web'? No. What I really really fear is that acid wash will come back into style because somebody (or somebodies) will view it as 'retro' or 'geek chic'. Then again, I could sure make some good money by selling all the jeans in my father-in-law's current wardrobe.

I give!
No longer will I stretch my type.
No Longer will I crop the sh*t out of my type.
I will use proper letter and word spacing .
I will pursue only beauty.
Mark Kaufman

That's what you call ugly? In a world where leggings are back in style and YouTube is more watched then any tv show, I'm still sort of surprised that that's considered ugly. I guess once you get below the radar of high culture things are drastically different, but doesn't design get it's inspiration from somewhere?

That's what you call ugly?

God is in the details, and in this case, the details have been anamorphicaly scaled. I have a hard time even looking at it.

I personally don't consider YouTube, Facebook, MySpace pages, etc... *ugly* because I simply don't consider them. They are like the Google logo to me.

When you cross into the hallowed ground of print design, however, you are going to ruffle the feathers of some of the purists.

We need those purists (kind of like the Matrix needed the Oracle.)

Doug B

OH NO!!! Someone dare communicate in a way you don't approve of! THE WORLD IS ENDING. Forget global warming, the real problem is WEB 2.0!

There's no such thing as bad publicity...
David Smith

at first it was people pimping rides to fit their tastes, now pimping type ???

What I've Learned:
1.Ugly is always ugly
2.Something purposefully done wrong can have just as much time and thought put into it as those things done traditionally "right".

Great article. Great links. I'm not completely convinced of the final assessment but I think he's making a good case for it.
Matthew Griffin

pimpimg cars seemed cool at first, but now its just too much. Its sad that we find ourselves as designers pimping type.

I advocate for TYPE intergrity!

I hardly think that a few magazine spreads in relatively obscure publications is enough to declare that "ugly is the new [insert name of trend here]."

More importantly, though, it seems lazy to me to assert that ugly design is "good" because it merely provokes discussion, which is the excuse that Cox uses in the article to explain away the god-awful Olympics 2012 logo.

Let's not forget that attractive ("traditional?") designs can do that, too, and certainly with less of a risk of backlash.

I'll just point out that Steven Heller is on the same page as me. In "Cult of the Ugly" he concludes with:

"Ugliness as a tool, a weapon, even as a code is not a problem when it is a result of form following function. But ugliness as its own virtue - or as a knee-jerk reaction to the status quo - diminishes all design."
Ryan Eanes

Mr. Bierut. Being a big fan of your design insight, I am surprised to see that you're supporting Coudal's comments about the olympics logo. To me, most of their points were just subjective opinions, rather than observations based on facts. Specifically:

It's not boring. For whom? On what basis?
It's different. I would agree with this one. What's arguable though is whether or not it's different for just the sake of it.
It's reproducible. Isn't everything?
It's flexible. To me its form is more generic than flexible. But that's just a personal opinion. So is theirs.
It's the basis for a graphic system. The only comment I fully agree with. It's got a unique look that allows for multiple applications.
It's timeless. How so? It already looks dated to me.
It's English. Seeing British design or punk in this logo is like seeing Guernica in the Spanish flag.
It's simple. This is really not about "my kid could have done that!" It's more like "if my kid had done this, would any of us have considered it design?" Plus, how can we say this is simple like the Christian cross or the Mercedes mark? Just take a moment and please try to draw this logo on paper with your eyes closed. Now try the cross. :)
It cost £400,000. No comments.
It's unexpected. It sure is...
Onur Orhon

Design is a reaction or reflection of the culture around us.

If a designer knows the 'rules' within design, and keep/break those rules well, then let them have their fun.

The last thing we want is mediochre design. That is, unless you want to communicate that.
Edrea Lita

"Never explain, never complain"
I love this. There are no bounderies. Do whatever you like whether you know the rules or not. Prescribe to the unknown and uncomfortable areas of your creative space. These days I am surprised that most of the graphic work I admire in the end are done by the untrained and children. There is nothing like the feeling of the fleeting 40 degree, refreshing, beautiful air touching the inside rims of my nostrils. It keeps me on my toes and my brain vibrating.

The "new ugly" debate serves to reinforce the lack of trust and respect for the design industry held by the general public. If brands are leaning towards an aesthetic less governed by the antiquated rules of design it's because a brand that distances itself from the traditional model is more likely to be perceived as authentic. Formulaic design has created this situation. DEFRA, TAMPAX and the TATE - similar colours, font style. An influential minority of the youth market interprets conventional design as manipulative and they reject it. Anti-design is seen as more trustworthy. What's new about that?

Whilst we're on the subject of ugly reading material ...
Daniel Harding

Not only are we supposed to be afraid to reject the work of the "next Picasso"; but heaven forbid we even think of questioning the work of an actual Picasso. We are conditioned to seek novelty for it's own sake without regard to the reasons for doing so. Dada, for example, was anti-art and should be regarded as such. Ditto for Punk movements etc. This is not to say that certain things could not be learned from such movements, because in their attempts to create disorder, a certain order emerged anyway. (Because we live in a universe of order.) It is interesting though, that these movements from the past are now considered canonical and are often immune from serious critique. This phenomenon actually runs counter to the stated goals of the movements themselves.

If ugly is back...its probably not ugly anymore

There's an infinite number of ways to balance expression and technique. So ugly, under the right circumstances, is bound to make sense. What constitutes "the right circumstances" is another matter. If ugly is deemed the current trend by people in a position to do it, and it catches on, so be it. There will be original ugly, derivative ugly, good and bad ugly.

Picasso made some pretty ugly paintings in the name of Cubism that hang in famous museums. They are ugly, but make a point, and are historically significant.
Marty S

Mike Meiré's design of German magazine is not that ugly to me. It does look very old fashion and unpolished at first glance. But after some scrunity, I found many details are interesting. It may just like fashion in which the same style repeat itself every couple of decades. The new, professional ugly is different from old ugly or amateur ugly.
Jia L

The uneducated don't see things the same.
I'd say that I don't prefer Mike Meirés work but that would just be a daft uneducated reply to my own warped viewpoint. Instead, I wish to step past my first reaction and take a look at past design movements (assuming this one to add to the repertoire book) that have undergone a period of "ugly ducking" syndrome before its acceptance within society.

In the 20th century, around the time of the great depression, European Modernism was not very popular in the U.S. yet nowadays we copy it like it's going out of style! Can you believe a time when san serif type, white space and asymmetrical layouts were discouraged? How is Mr. Meirés work different? Are our eyes uneducated or are they warped in their educational prejudices?

Looking back even further, people attending the Bauhaus looked to grow from the past Arts and crafts movement and changed toward a focus of art and industry to adapt to the changing society's needs'. In 1923 teachers such as Jan Tschichold adopted costructivist ideas based on strict and rigid ideas only to be arrested in 1933 by the Nazis. Is our educational basis or lack therein tainting our abilities to think for ourselves? Can we no longer accept other's designs that are "different" or new?

I would be curious to see what people see (or rather don't see) outside of our design community. It seems commonplace for the average Joe to make signage using Microsoft Word and stretching type or image to make things fit to their liking on the page. Where is the cut-off of what they make and what Mr. Meirés is designing?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not comparing a designer to the untrained, I am merely asking what the untrained may see that we perhaps do not. There is a fine line between what someone outside the design community views as ugly compared to that of the trained eye. The lack of education has obviously been a reoccurring problem throughout the history of design.

Interesting topic. While I was reading the article and some of the comments, which were more or less on "How to be ugly," I was asking myself "why to be ugly." An artist does what he/she does to make something "special" as well as of aesthetic value. To be ugly is probably one of the most effective ways of getting noticed and "special" among the more conventional mainstream because it is reactionary, but is there aesthetic value in the ugly, good or bad? I'm sure it exists in the "ugly" work of Meiré. Do we the audience acknowledge that? Yes, at least some of us. Instead of bugging myself with the question how we can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, I'd rather see designers like Meiré orientate the audience's taste toward what they have not been fond of by cooking it with different recipes.
X. Zhang

I was expecting ugly and was enlightened instead. If the 14th issue of 032c (which I just previewed) is anything like the 13th issue, then this work is far from ugly. Yes, the type is shockling stretched from our "moral" and often banal practice, but in the context of the imagery and text dominate pages its unusual and awkward verticality seem to make a congruent fit. Also, it was clear upon viewing that this was an articulate intention clearly by skill/craft and for me further separates it from ugly. Had this been done by one of my Intro to Typography students, the line breaks, letter spacing, hierarchy, and relationship to negative space on the page, in respect to their naive level of skill, would have truly been ugly I can assure you.

So... I received my Emigré catalog in the mail today and did you see the typography on the cover and section dividers? Stretched type! It is all the rage. I guess I'll try double spacing after periods.

jenn stucker

What I'd like to know is:

Do non-designers think it's ugly?

What is ugly?

I love victorian architecture my wife hates it. I think arts & Crafts furniture is hideous, the wife loves everything Greene & Greene, but Queen Anne furniture makes her want to wretch.

Is it ugly to think ugly thoughts or say ugly things?

How about debasing the creative work someone has spent many hours producing, by calling it ugly?

Is the word ugly ugly or maybe just the thought that pushes it out into circulation.

Has readership of the ugly magazine suffered?

If it has then maybe they thought it was ugly, if it has increased maybe they think it Beautiful, or maybe all the snooty, uppity designers that find it so darn ugly ran out to get a copy so they could tell everyone they know what bad design really is.

If it is the latter, then it is a beautifully designed lesson on the purpose of magazine design, which, last time I checked, was to sell magazines.

so again I ask, what is ugly?

I love folk and outsider art, much of it breaks almost every rule of design and fine art. Is it ugly?

Not to me.


The new ugly. I love the ugly because I find beauty in most things. Sometimes an ugly design is a compliment. I agree to some extent that design is like fashion and whatshot or in could be ugly but for some reason the design makes people think. and thinking for the public is ---what we as designers can generate.

The client(s) signed off on it -- job done -- just don't add it to your portfolio if you don't like it.

"Mieré and editor Joerg Koch are having some laughs at the expense of their critics I think..."

Except now, ugly design and layout is something that could be handled just by machines. It should be possible for the new ugly to be totally automated.
The Worst of Perth

michael, i was wondering if i can republish your article in my blog just for educational purposes.. i'm a design instructor from thailand.. cheers

It's been a while since a few people have gotten laid, hasn't it?
Sold Separately

I don't know. Ugly design for a fashion industry that produces a lot of ugly things seems right.


I have a problem when ugly comes off as easy or lazy. In this case, I think it does. Daring ugly is one thing, safe, easy, predictable ugly is just boring. Yawn.


This is an eye-opener. If something this basic can be a source of inspiration, we're real proud to be way ahead.
Sunidhi Garg

This work is only considered ugly because we've spent Careers being told this is wrong.

Some people need to spend more time understanding and less time judging.

I'm pretty disappointed Helvetica was used instead of Arial. If you really want that innocent, virgin designer ugly look, ya gotta use Arial, duh.

Jobs | July 24