Jessica Helfand | Essays

The Propensity for Density

T-Shirt Detail, 2006. Designer unknown.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, we stayed with a friend whose remarkable art collection included work by Robert Mapplethorpe, Joel-Peter Witkin and the painter Squeak Carnwath, prompting more than a few questions from our children. Fortunately we are no strangers to such queries, having survived the Diane Arbus show at SFMoMA a few years back, when the smalls were even smaller. This time, however, our children seemed more curious about what made these pieces 'art,' resulting in lengthy conversations about interpretation, which quickly led to the question of how hard someone should have to work to 'get' something. Like most children, ours haven't been on the planet long enough to possess the references necessary to read, let alone appreciate, certain works of art. But increasingly, the effort to make viewers work harder to 'get' what's going on is on the rise.

And nowhere is this more prevalent than in design.

Several years ago, I watched a graduate student present her body of work to a posse of selected critics with the disclaimer, "I think I'm on the right track, but I'm not sure if it's subversive enough." Since then, I've seen subversive yearnings replaced by a widespread belief in complexity as the new Holy Grail. The result is work that, while often visually striking, is often layered, quixotic and dense beyond belief.

It is possible, even likely that the tools we use make for more polished products and cover their tracks so slickly that the once-exposed process is rendered obsolete. When I was a student, we showed "process books" along with our finished work, sometimes to apologize for the inadequacies of the final solution by showing how much work we'd done along the way. I have no doubt that process books are still employed, but beyond their occasional appearance in the classroom, their function (let alone their impact) appears to be minimal.

But tools aren't the only culprit here. In Eye's recent issue on ornament in design, Alice Twemlow speculated on some of the cultural reasons for the recent popularity and widespread prevalence of decorative excess. To many (most?) of us, it comes as a welcome visual language in the wake of so many years of modernist restraint. It's like design's been on a diet and finally gets to eat that giant cheesecake: shifting notches on the belt buckle, we're so happy for the sugar high that we don't realize we're slipping. And slipping we are.

Regarding ornament, we've come a long way from the didacticism of Owen Jones, whose nineteenth-century classic, The Grammar of Ornament, advised strict adherence to an underlying geometric rationale. Such a formulaic approach to making work might be said to have persisted through the early years of modernism, a time in which grid systems (and a liberal use of sans-serif fonts) were approached in a similar manner. Today's decorative leanings, however, appear to lean less to the geometrical than the overtly botanical. I've participated in judging several juried exhibitions this year in which I've seen a preponderance of twisted and winding viney things, which I've taken to referring to as "thornament." At the high end of "thornament" is the work of Canadian designer Marian Bantjes, whose whimsical use of line is balanced by her disciplined use of typographic form. (Bantjes recently collaborated with Stefan Sagmeister on a site-specific project in Berlin that, serendipitously, actually incorporates real vines.) Without skill and an underlying sense of what's being communicated, thornament, like ornament, is just a muddle. "It makes me nuts only in that it makes something that's very easy look very complicated for no particular reason," notes Bantjes. "There's a huge amount of what I'd call barfing on the page."

Barfing on the page, indeed. And where does it come from, this inability to stop, to hold back, to self-edit? I blame the culture of easy-access: Flickr, Photoshop plug-ins, skateboard culture, IM'ing, DJ mash-ups, and the failure of the slow food movement to gain any traction in the design press. Funny, yes, but I'm actually serious: many a cultural historian has tried, and will try to excavate the provenance of design work that is pictorially layered and comunicationally dense, and they should, because it's everywhere. It's on T-shirts at Old Navy and in classrooms at every design school I've visited in the last two years. It's on packaging and in posters and pushing its way through publications and the somberist of annual reports. Some of it is breathtakingly beautiful, compelling, even entertaining. But most of it is excessive, indulgent and impossible to parse. Of course, one might argue that such density makes you slow down and look harder, experiencing deeper meaning as a result. (In this case, maybe the slow food movement has gained some traction.) On the other hand, it's a can of worms, particularly because it's so easy to hide behind it — and even harder, in many instances, to "get" what's really going on. Long term, that's going to present some serious obstacles for design.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design

Comments [45]

Excellent post. The one question I might ask: are these problematic works truly "communicationally dense," or is there only a very small amount of signal surrounded by a terrific amount of visual noise? Pretty noise, stylish noise, but noise nonetheless?

And what's the point? Is it to show us how deep and complex the artist is? Quite often pieces like this betray a sort of faux-naîveté at the same time - so they're both "barf on the page" and not particularly well-crafted, at least in my experience. I suppose it's emblematic of certain visual trends at the moment, but if the New England Journal of Medicine wanted a new newsletter layout from them, how does that help?

Thanks Jessica for bringing this up. This is something that I've struggled with. I got my BFA in Northern California, so I was steeped it that street aesthetic of clutter and layering. I love it. It has a clip and sketchbook quality too. Much of my own artwork borrows from it (but not always) and I know my personal space (my house, my cubicle at work) is full off toys, pictures, books -- carefully chosen visual clutter. (And yes, it's hard to keep clean.)

But, and its a big but. I LOVE minimal touches too. I love picking up mid-century magazines and books, beautifully designed using strict grids. And when I DESIGN things. I tend toward this aesthetic. I tend toward simplification. (Not always mind you. Alfred Loos wouldn't love it.) But I envy those that think like printmakers and fine artists when designing. And it sneaks in to my design work on occasion.

It's a tough debate that I struggle, and I certainly know that my work doesn't qualify me for jobs at hip/urban agencies, because its not "street" enough. So it makes feel a little bit outside the cool kids club. That perhaps is where the struggle lies. If I felt like a street aesthetic was authentic for a gay white 30-something male, perhaps I'd be able to play that card better.

Before anyone else drags Adolf Loos into this (as is inevitable in this topic) I'd like to offer my read of his classic Ornament and Crime and consider how it relates to this current wave of ornamental work. The text is often caricatured as a reactionary screed, but in fact Loos makes a fascinating argument against ornament in economic terms. To him, ornament represents unecessary extra work imposed upon the designer or craftsperson. He argues that the working designer should be able to go home and relax when the chair is fit for sitting instead of having to stay late at work just because wealthy people like to have flowery things on their furniture.

And has the designer's lot in life improved much? Searching through stock libraries and micro-adjusting bezier curves might be even more time consuming and soul-destroying than carving filigree. I'm not advocating for sheer laziness, but at least Loos' perspective is based on an economic and social critique. Much of the new dense design is accompanied by little more than a shrug.
dmitri siegel

Dmitri, as you seem to be advocating the sensibility of this summary of Loos ... well, it is quite frankly hilarious. Hilariously absurd, that is. By the same logic, we should all eat only raw vegetables and pan-seared meat, sit on benches, grow only wildflowers ... etc. because anything else only takes too much time and is not worth the effort.

As for "soul-destroying" tell it to the mediaeval monks.

I think that Jessica is making a point not so much on "to ornament or not to ornament," but on "how, why and where to ornament?" There is no doubt in my mind that "squirrely shit" (as i like to call it) can add to a message, compel, or create yes, even depth. It can also obscure, repulse, or—paradoxically—render a message or design shallow and meaningless.

Ultimately I do think it comes down to craft. There is as much, or more, poorly done minimalism as there is poorly done ornament. And I like to believe that most people somehow manage to respond to the inate craft of something, whether they know or understand it or not. Actually, I have to believe that.

So the problem is not, in my opinion, too much time spent fiddling with bezier curves, but not enough. I think what Jessica is witnessing is a kind of industrialization of ornament, where the machine is splurting out the goods on the page in a frenzy of mindless manufacture.

Ahhh, this is all very Victorian, isn't it?
marian bantjes

Ms. Helfand addresses a timely and interesting topic; however, she should more clearly distinguish between complex, heavily layered design and ornamented design. The former suggests design with a visual hierarchy of ideas, represented by a multitude of relative and relevant forms. Although this type of work at first may appear dense and complex, each visual form has utility and function. Each form adds meaning and communicates ideas in a specific and controlled way. A visually literate audience should be able to understand and interpret these ideas, in the same way a (simply) literate audience interprets linear themes in written text.

Design using ornament, on other hand, is less about employing form as a meaning making device and more about decoration. The idea of ornament, as something that is simply nice to look at, suggests a form that adds no communicative value to design. In this respect, I agree with Ms. Helfland's point concerning over-complexity. However, rather than regressing to the overt simplicity of modernism, I suggest and urge viewers and makers, to be more sensitive toward the distinction between forms that make meaning and those that merely decorate.
mrs c

Maybe this is a bureaucratic interest, but I'm curious about the origins of the "thornament" trend. It's something that's being happening very clearly in the UK, particularly in women's clothing, since at least mid-2004. Somebody out there can probably trace it to an original piece with a graphic floral silhouette in 2003 or something...

Marian: I'm glad you can appreciate humor and absurdity. Good for you! Your description of a world full of wildflowers and sturdy benches and organic food (pan-seared tuna was it?) sounds pretty good to me. Of course, I can't take credit for the ideas. I am merely summarizing a text which is very often mischaracterized (I think to our field's detriment) in disussions of ornament and decoration. If I am advocating anything it is for critique that moves beyond technique. (Which, by the way, Jessica's post does nicely).

Like many 19th Century ideas, Loos' are absolutist and so they are easy to make fun of, but I think doing so is unproductive; just as it would be unproductive for me to mock your quaint notion that "most people somehow manage to respond to the inate(sic) craft of something." Rather I'd like to point out the connection between your very provocative insight about the industrialization of ornament and Loos' economic analysis of ornament. Isn't what you are calling craft largely defined by work? Loos took an ideological stance against this work because of its social cost, and you are defending it on aesthetic grounds, but it is safe to say you are playing on his turf.
dmitri siegel

Dmitri, you are using a dead man as a shield. You seem to have aligned your opinions with those of Loos, so I will address you. Yes, craft takes work, but it also takes skill and experience. I can carve away on a hunk of stone for the rest of the year, but the result will hardly be well-crafted. Time spent does not equal craft. What you find a fascinating economic argument supposes that aesthetically "simple" things are fast and efficient, and therefor more readily accessible to the proletariat [yes, I intentionally used that word]. To me, this tedious argument is flawed by the facts that true craftspeople are quite efficient in their use of time (due to knowledge and experience), that aesthetically simple things require as much craft as complicated ones, and that mass production practically negates any "inefficiencies" of extra development time spent up front. The "social cost" is non-existent. That aspect of the argument is old and ... dead.

Furthermore, to look at anything from a purely economical perspective is the truly soul-destroying argument. Why do you think I mentioned the mediaeval monks? Where does that embellishment come from, and what purpose does it serve? How about cathedrals, with their vast, vaulted ceilings, carved stonework and intricate stained glass windows? Why do this, when surely a simple form would suffice and be more inclusive to all? Hmmm ... perhaps because it's "inspiring"? Perhaps because it persuades? And more importantly, I am not a religious person, but I do know a little something about love and the acts of painstaking labour that love can invoke. The mediaeval manuscripts, the cathedrals, the wonderful Islamic texts, are offerings of love to God, and in turn they inspire love in those who see them. They are very persuasive. There really is something about excessively well crafted material that stabs at the heart ... of most people, not just the rich, not just the educated. This is defense of the spiritual, not the aesthetic.

If something has been obsessed over and lovingly detailed whether in filigree or finger-joint—or even rendered quickly by an expert hand—we can see it and appreciate it for its craft; and if it has been slapped together, prepared without thought or barfed onto the page, we can see that too, and feel disdain.
marian bantjes

The issue is not the technique you use, you can have moral hangover by choosing easy path such as disgustingly opulent designs that lack meaning and do not communicate anything(apart from opulence), but the issue is if you are conscious. Jessica blames easy-access and I blame lack of idea and lack of moral responsibility. Since software was easy accessible and easy to learn the design (in popular way) depends only on software skills not on conceptual skills. Since you know how to use Photoshop, illustrator etc you are a designer that has "all" assets to barf on the page. Yes indeed we've come a long way from golden division, Fibonacci etc. Unfortunately for masses of designers theory of composition is the last thing to be learnt while there is still plenty of software to be skilled. The tools are overtaking creativity and when there is nothing to say it is better to shout. Is it how the web 2.0 is going to be? Probably, there is another issue: the graffiti generation and their five minutes they have right now and they are shouting the loudest. I just hope that this like any previous trends will fade out. Just the idea will remain to be used in conscious way.

Marian, I think you might have unwittingly touched on the root of some people's like or dislike of so-called "hyper-ornamented" hand-crafted style. As you note, it is an expression of obsessive love of something, akin to (or literally induced by) religious fervour. It implies the loss of one's rational senses...which flies in the face of some nation's rational, efficient, Calvinist mindsets. Or, it may jibe well with the mystical leanings of Catholic (or formerly Catholic) nations...

I liken it to the strange popularity of Dunkin' Donuts - they of the million varieties, bright colours and baroque decorations - in Quebec vs. the domination of plain, brown, Protestant Tim Horton's donuts everywhere else in Canada.

Marian: What you call hiding behind a dead man I consider basic intellectual honesty. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned but I still think that a close reading of an enduring text is more relevant than the opinions of a graphic designer with an internet connection. (I'm talking about me not you.) For example, your argument that there is an inherent spirituality to craft could have been lifted directly from William Morris. This doesn't make the idea "dead." And when Jessica positions her argument vis-à-vis Owen Jones and Alice Twemlow (whose reading of Loos is spot on, by the way) it becomes more "alive" to me.

That said, in my opinion the rise of density relates at least in part to the ascendancy of design-related fields in our economy (feel free to tune out now). I don't think that the general audience is getting a sense of inspiration or love from the Microsoft ad. Density is attractive to people because it looks like more design and we are in a period when design has currency. People are drawn to the miasma effect of ornamental work partly because our society (and yes, our economy) is becoming more centered around the production and consumption of design. (I would even argue that the trend is toward doing the two simultaneously, but that's another story). Technologically engineered visual complexity aligns with societal values, and this is good news for designers. The labor of design is becoming more valued. Hence, bravura displays of what Twemlow calls "exaggeratedly useless work" signify economic power, just as cathedrals are symbols of power. This is not an argument against ornamentation.

I know what you're thinking: but the Microsoft ad is "bad" decorative work! Well, at the moment the trend toward ornamentation in general is more interesting to me than distinguishing between good and bad. Maybe that's because the editors at Eye (I think you would agree) have already done such a good job of that. I am grateful for such distinctions, but they don't satisfy my curiousity about the two questions at the core of this post: why ornament? and why now?
dmitri siegel

I am no expert, far from it, seeing as how I am still an undergraduate, but I've seen and have been involved in this "thornament" fad-wave. At first it was an interesting touch but now it is everywhere and overused. It reminds me a lot of Mannerism and its decadent, post-Renaissance, "overkill" stylings.

But it seems to me this over-ornamentation (currently through botanical images) is simply another one of those fads: like outrageous/decorative/outerspace bad typefaces from 8 or so years ago and then the amazingly bad and excessive use of geometric shapes 2-4 years ago. I blame this quick use and misuse/abuse of these trends on the Internet, since the "cool styles" seem to get passed onto less-skilled users faster. Am I warm, or am I totally off-base?

I think Marian has nailed it in her comments that suggest that complexity and minimalism are neither good nor bad; rather, we need to aspire to a level of intellectual and technical craft and purposefulness in our work, whichever direction we take. Not all aspects of design need to "communicate" a message. That is a tiresome argument indeed. Imagine analyzing every house, chair, or cathedral for its "message"? Well-considered ornament (and any well-considered form) contains its own meaning, derived from its structural characteristics, historical embeddedness, and so forth.
Ellen Lupton

"why ornament? and why now?"

In stressful, bleak times (like now), ornamentation can offer us fantastical elements that whisk us away from reality.

Marian's reply about the work of the medieval monks is great. And in a way supports this notion of a "break from reality". Times weren't that good back then either.

Although, if once we discover a purpose for this ornamentation -- even if it is spiritual, inspirational, motivational, etc. --, is it still considered ornamentation???
Steve K.

If anyone wants to look at some gorgeous scans from The Grammar of Ornament, go here.
Josh B

Well-considered ornament (and any well-considered form) contains its own meaning, derived from its structural characteristics, historical embeddedness, and so forth.

So then it is communicating something. Whether it means to or not, whether explicitly or not, it is communicating something. You can argue the merits of what it is or isn't communicating, but a dull house on the corner is communicating just that.

All this "barf" is probably a direct reflection of the state of the world today.

Many people think that painting, design reminiscent of the Renaissance, people thought Picasso .


All this "barf" is probably a direct reflection of the state of the world today.

Oh, come on, give me a fucking break. A "direct reflection"? I'm not saying the world isn't in a sorry state, but I'm pretty sure ill-considered forms and half-assed trend following have been around a lot longer than W. has been in office.

To return to Dmitri's question of why ornament and why now:
From my perception, in the early nineties, when computers really started to take over and there was this huge fear about whether designers would become obsolete, the way the industry responded was to redub themselves "branding strategists," and to emphasize the dollar-added value that Design could bring to your company. We became more than just form-makers; we became capitalism facilitators.
This inevitably led to the big backlash articulated in the First Things First 2000 manifesto and in the rise of AdBusters. Subversion was the first and most obvious way designers tried to fight the good fight, which Jessica alluded to in her original post, but anyone could (and did) tell you that subversive design isn't exactly marketable.
Now, there is a great mass of liberal, young, visually-intelligent designers that are coming out of school, and wondering how the hell they are supposed to turn a buck. A lot of these kids are very good at drawing and many have become excellent screen printers or motion graphics people (turning back to production methods that require a specialization of skill and craft). These kids don't see themselves as capitalist hype-men; they just want to make a living doing something fun and visual. So ornament, then, becomes a way out for designers. Ornament is something to sell, it is fun to make, and, in the best cases, it requires real skill and hard work. And, as Marian said, it can delight the viewer in an inexplicable, but very real way.
Ahrum Hong

I honestly don't think this post is asking "Why ornament? Why now?" Jessica as good as answers that question in her post: busting out of modernist restraint. This is both a visual and expressive relief to some, a natural swing of the tides of fashion, and also visually persuasive in that in a sea ofclean and simple, ornament stands out and takes our attention; just as when there is a sea of the ornamental, the simple will stand out. Back and forth it goes.

I think the post is asking "why so much?" and "why can't people learn when to stop?" My answer to that is simply that as designers we've never developed a vocabulary for ornament. People are using something they don't know how to use. It's quite possible that no-one knows how to use it. The responsible use of ornament may well be a lost art.

Some designers are humming tunelessly for the joy and inspiration of humming, some are doing karaoke because it's the thing to do, and others are trying to construct new meaning by emulating and reinterpreting historical fragments. No one knows how to actually make a symphony any more. Unfortunately, without the will or ability to construct some kind of recognized structure out of all of this the result will be, and is cacophony.
marian bantjes

You can't imagine how unbelievably frustrating this argument is to me. I feel like we are totally off topic. This argument has turned into one about ornament, because the notion of "ornament" is in vogue right now, and It's not that I'm uninterested in ornament, because I am. But, could we change focus and talk about the real problems about the work that Jessica has shown and is referring?

This is about the Cool>Everything culture that my generation of designers started in the late 90's and the turn of the century. Our years of assimilating design styles have left us with the inability to solve a problem (not necessarily a classic communication problem, but more complex theoretical problems as well), and instead we solve problems by making the results "cool." In the words of Rudy VanderLans, "It is as if graphic designers all work from the same palette; a broad but finite set of mannerisms that are often applied willy-nilly without any conviction other than a solid belief in good taste."

Mrs. Lupton, I have the utmost respect for you, but the following statement has hit a nerve "Not all aspects of design need to "communicate" a message." You're right, not all aspects of design NEED to communicate, but all aspects do. Anytime something is created or assembled it communicates, either on an abstract level or on a very literal level, and the work of the Cool>Everything generation communicates very little to me, other than "Yo, bitch. I'm cooler than you, yaherd!"

I think the C>E topic is the one that needs addressing. It's a big problem, and a tough one to tackle. For a long time I've been thinking about ways that I could have an impact, and recently, I decided I would design a book about this topic. The book takes a satirical approach to highlighting and discussing the problems of C>E design. I designed it in 24hours, spending no more than 15mins on a single spread. Of course, this was done to poke fun at and entice the C>E culture. However, the text in the book is very direct in explaining the problems of "cool" attitude and offers a few meager solutions on how to get out of it. Enough about the book, I don't want to waste time explaining it further, and boring those who aren't interested (it's at my website if anyone was interested). I'd really like to hear what everyone has to say about the C>E topic, instead of the "to decorate or not to decorate" debate that seems to be occurring.


Oh, come on, give me a fucking break.

Geesh Hong, I didn't even mention Bush or 911. Take a breather man. My comment had nothing to do with that or politics or whatever you wanted to read into it.

I'm quite tired of this "it's all good" attitude and to me, this million layer march that a breed of designers seem to be in love with, is tired as well. It lacks focus and so do many people I work with/talk to each day. Where's the concept? I think Marshall McLuhan was right - the medium is the message, at least with Jessica's examples above.

Yess well,

I think that the vinyl decoration that we see around the floral aspects of things, should be considered a means by which the designer can express his desire to see things grow, which is logical since in this relative new century there are a lot of things that must develop out of the vastly changing social climate which has been part of everyday life around of us. If we did not want things to grow like in the last century, especially in the 70's and 80's than we adhere to the strict swiss standard (which is a country that is very afraid of everything) and we will abolish all ornament.

So we were going towards the end of the century > strict sans, for life as we know it will end.

We are now at the dawn of a new century for mankind > Lavish decoration, since we have new options, fresh chances and multiple future orgasms.

While we all discuss passionately about this topic, it seems to me, most designers do it 'cause "it's cool".

Is my explanation too simple?
Mr. Frankie L


im going to keep my opinions to myself on wether this trend is good or bad, but i wanted to put in a little note that i think ads a lot to this debate.

the microsoft ad is a good example for one reason.
a friend of mine was brought in by microsoft to do the print ads, but when microsoft decided to run this style in their commercials as well, my friend who doesnt do motion was pulled from the job and an agency that can do print & motion was brought in.

the new agency took my friend's concepts and reworked them into motion AND redid the print ads inspired by my friend's style.

so.. these microsoft ads are "second hand barf" which to me seems to be the big issue.

a lot of "design" i see today is people ripping off other people a.k.a following trends.. but what it ends up doing is watering things down.

the microsoft ads to some may look fantastic or whimsical.. but to me they look forced. more than likely.. they were. it's ornament for ornament's sake.

does that make sense?
im not saying there isnt room for this...
(my apologies if i got any of the above facts wrong)

I think the problem Jessica might have lies with use of specific ornaments which have had a mass over-utilization in the past couple of years. I can't quite put my finger on it, but as Potter Stewart said, "I'll know it when I see it" and more often than I not I will see it on advertisements in magazines, CD covers, and t-shirts, things that are purely commercial in nature. (After reading through the comments and going back to edit this, I thought this was a good lampoon).

In the sense of its use in commercial endeavours, I would say this style is sort of the new "Punch Label" or the new lens flare.

I do think that this style emerged as a trend because when it was originally used (or gained ground) it directly spoke to people who felt like they were overloaded with imagery and information, it was the equivalent of Times Square or Shinjuku on paper. It is lots of bright, shiny colors, unrelated imagery and messages right next to each other: Cup O Noodle soup next to an ad for an action movie next to a neon sign for mutual funds. next to a black and white photo of jeans being sold.

So, someone used it creatively, or correctly and then as anything else, it was bastardized somewhere along the way.

But to able to extrapolate that observation and say "Design is becoming more ornamented" or "Design is becoming less ornamented" is a bit myopic (at best).
Oliver Delgado

Right Oliver,

Basically a technique or approach once
apppropriate, applied for a specific solution;

has its face stolen and used again and again,
despite the fact this isn't the same person.
Mr. Frankie L

I started in minimalism and ended up in the street inspired, ornamental and analogue textures side of the house. I started to feel like I was a faceless, soulless and anonymous designer, I wanted to be more personal and bring some quirks, history and texture (something more real) to the flatness of a Photoshop doc or web page. I'm feeling more inspired, not by the look of David Carson, but his ideas about the role of the designer.

My art & design partner and I started an independent clothing and art product collective with a few local artists here in Tampa and we've all sort of fell into using ornaments and each with our own perspective. I find it to be a hat-tip to a historical time and place in design as well as a kind of absurd statement about the excesses and riches of our culture. Ornament is a lot of things and I too am curious how just within my own small circle of artist and designer friends we will evolve and employ these elements with greater sophistication, craft and thoughtfulness.

For me, it's just another collage element. Sometimes it works visually, or it's a nice reference to another time. It's partners in collage aren't necessarily more important, because the final image is the statement.

If it's not a victorian ornament, maybe it's a nice piece of misprinted ink grunge, masking tape, a spray paint drip, the edge of an old stamp, a cracked piece of glass, a well kerned three letter word, a high contrast/high saturation photo, a well-positioned rule line, a carefully shaped box text; it's just another element to reference in our world. All of these things have a place in time, a place in our culture and a place in our design. Find the context. Find the right place, the right culture and make it the right design for both.
dave rau

i find marian bantjes arguments quite simplistic and anti-intellectual. historically contextualizing phenomena and 'hiding behind dead men" (meaning, acknowledging precedence) is a normal intellectual act whose ridicule usually betrays ignorance. cathedrals were built because people thought they were beautiful? thats partially true, but its also partially true that cathedrals were built because of greedy spaniards and italians who stole gold (as well as culture and land) from natives in the americas. baroque architecture and interiors in europe are evidence of imperialism and exploitation. so i think dmitri's arguments, via adolf loos, are very relevant because in a historical sense, ie spanish cathedrals, ornament is very closely tied to crime.

why ornament, and why now? it seems people are also discussing collage and visual exuberance, all of which have fairly recent precedence, such as cranbrook in the late 80s/early 90s as well as calarts work in the 90s and david carson. a rebellion against modernist restraint? this is such a tiring argument. does anyone still believe that aesthetic rebellion and "personal expression" in graphic design really amount to very much?

in an attempt to contextualize it, i think its again, a reflection of the change of technology. with 3-D printers, video screens, and fairly cheap and replaceable digital printing of wallpapers, ornament is easier to do now than it would have been in the years of 'international style' and requires less exploitation than it would have in more historical times. i think also, the rise in influence of algorithmic thinking and repetition, which is easily expressed and produced via the computer, has a lot to do with it. being able to handover a repeated vector shape to a fabricator is a lot less time and labor intensive than a full drawing.

but ultimately ornament functions as a narrative, to express a relationship between a thing and the world that that thing exists in. previously associated with architecture, i think that ornament is now much more relevant in branding. ornament is a grammar, and easily applies itself to systems. the link between branding and ornament isnt so hard to make if you think that both involve a visual (and usually abstract) system of forms and icons whose placements are strategic, but also reflect in an abstract way a narrative or mood or idea related to the thing (or in the case of the brand, the idea or company) that is being ornamented. the microsoft example of course is very bad example of this. but i think with target and hp, you see very good examples of this.

"this is such a tiring argument. does anyone still believe that aesthetic rebellion and "personal expression" in graphic design really amount to very much?"

Yes! Anyone can be taught to use a tool. Anyone can kern type, draw columns of text, position photos in a grid; the unique and interesting comes only from the individual, the personal expression.

There is some graphic design that I would hang on my wall as art, does that mean it's devalued at a piece of design? Is it less communicative? Less valid? This drawing lines between art and design is tiring. There's an awful lot of room for crossover, and I hope artists and designers continue to merge, share and express thru their own lens.
Dave Rau

While we all discuss passionately about this topic, it seems to me, most designers do it 'cause "it's cool".

Owen Jones doesn't advocate "strict adherence to an underlying geometric rationale". On the contrary, the very first proposition in the Preface to "Grammar of Ornament" is that "whenever any style of ornament commands universal admiration, it will always be found to be in accordance with the laws which regulate the distribution of form in nature." The whole last chapter of the book is intended to show "that the future progress of Ornamental Art may be best secured by engrafting on the experience of the past the knowledge we may obtain by a return to Nature for fresh inspiration."

I'm in the process of digitizing and posting all 120 plates from "The Grammar of Ornament" for use by designers and students. The first two postings are at...

Grammar of Ornament Part One
Grammar of Ornament Part Two

I'll be posting another section this coming week.

It's important not to dismiss early works like this for being "old fashioned" or "out of style" because as Jones also says, "To attempt to build up theories of art, or to form a style, independently of the past, would be an act of supreme folly. It would be at once to reject the experiences and accumulated knowledge of thousands of years. On the contrary, we should regard as our inheritance all the successful labours of the past, not blindly following them, but employing them simply as guides to find the true path."

The answer to the function and context of ornament was worked out back in 1856. I'd encourage you to get ahold of a copy of the book and read what Owen Jones actually wrote. When I studied design at UCLA in the early 80s, the instructors rarely mentioned any design studies or analysis earlier than Munsell and the Bauhaus. I've since found out that there is a LOT more to know about the history and context of design than just the last century.

Stephen Worth
ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive
Stephen Worth


Holy crap. I had no idea this existed. Fantastic reading and an invaluable resource. Thank you.
Ahrum Hong

Unfortunately, I don't have the space in the ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive Blog to include all of the accompanying text from Grammar of Ornament. You might want to pick up the Dover reprint for that. He goes into detail on each and every design on every page, listing the source and discussing the differences between the various time periods and cultures. But when it comes to the plates, the color of a true chromolithograph like in the 1910 edition I'm scanning from is nothing like the later reprints. Feel free to download the high resolution scans and print them out. I'll have another batch posted to the archive blog this week.

Stephen Worth
ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive
Stephen Worth

But what has this got to do with mapplethorpe, arbus or joel peter witkin?
just wondering...

I think the question: but is it art? is one we all secretly harbor from time to time (and children, at least my children, harbor it more often than not) which is to my mind not such a leap from the query: but is it design?

It is also possible that in the wake of postmodernism, our tendency to revel in a kind of pluralistic, sure, why not, anything goes acceptance results in complacency (go on, add another layer!) rather than risk judgment by critique. Ellen Lupton suggests here that everything need not communicate, per se, but the flip side is that somehow, in supporting the culture of clutter that produces the kind of dense imagery I cite in my original post, we are communicating. We're just not really saying anything.

Seems to me the we've got to take some responsibility.

And on that note: in the interest of full disclosure, the image at the top of this post was not, as indicated, a detail from some unknown designer: it was made by me, using all the clichéd images I so often see in such work, including butterflies, typographic arabesques, graffiti, found photography, and yes, botanical detail. I admit I was half-hoping someone would claim it as their own, but failure to do so may prove another hypothesis: namely that, in the end, it's all pretty anonymous.
Jessica Helfand

i find marian bantjes arguments quite simplistic and anti-intellectual. historically contextualizing phenomena and 'hiding behind dead men" (meaning, acknowledging precedence)

I wasn't going to bother readdressing this, but I can hardly let this go. When I accused Dmitri of "hiding behind a dead man," I did so not because he referenced Loos, but because he did so in a way that supported his ideas without actually saying "I too believe this." Then, when I found it laughable, Dmitri was able to say "Like many 19th Century ideas, Loos' are absolutist and so they are easy to make fun of," again distancing himself from the ideas.

I have nothing against referencing history, or acknowledging precendence, but if you believe something, or agree with something, say so and stand up for it (or change your mind) on the merits of your own thinking.

My ridicule of the advocacy of Loos' ideas is hardly a betrayal of ignorance: more that I don't swallow unthinkingly every idea of every "great thinker" that finds it's way onto my plate. I absolutely stand by my dismissal of those ideas as presented, while at the same time acknowledging that your additional perpective of the relationship between religion and greed as valid and interesting. It's certainly not something of which I was unaware. But even I, a diehard atheist, am able to recognize that Love of God does some good, and that corruption doesn't necessarily drive every force in the world. To say that "Greed built cathedrals, which were highly ornamental, which in turn renders ornament corrupt, thus supporting Loos' idea that ornament is criminal" is to follow a slender thread of myopic thought, similar to a worm travelling through a tunnel of shit.

The world is too complex for this kind of dogma. I much prefer conversations that have a bit of give and take; discovery and expansion.


Anyone can kern type, draw columns of text, position photos in a grid; the unique and interesting comes only from the individual, the personal expression.

Actually, Dave, you'd be surprised how many people can't do this, or do it well. That's what I mean by skill and craft. When I teach typography I'm always amused by the fact that this is what students have the hardest time with; and when it finally starts to come together how pleased they are with themselves ... not to mentioned how surprised they are that each student has come up with a very different solution within a very strict set of rules.

For the record, I am as capable of becoming weak at the knees over a perfectly executed piece of modernism as I am over a perfectly executed piece of ornament. For me the beauty is in the perfection as much as the form.
marian bantjes

a few thoughts:

marian, i believe i was also participating in a give and take manner as well by offering a different point of view. i dont make the absolutist claim that ornament is inherently corrupt, i only offer that i believe that loos' arguments do have validity, so im not sure whom you are quoting (nor whom you imply is tunneling through shit), as those arent my words. and i dont claim that in the case of cathedrals that ornament is only indirectly related to imperialism; rather, i think, in a literally material sense, that ornament, in that specific case, is directly related to a power hierarchy. where did all that gold come from? i also make no claims that im not taken by that beauty. so i dont think i make any dogmatic claims, as i too believe that the world is too complex and diverse for that.

its interesting to discuss owen jones' grammar of ornament because it is acknowledged that his eclecticism and disregard for cultural context is what many modernists were reacting against as decadence. GOO became a sort of swatchbook for victorian architects and designers that allowed them to pick and choose various designs with no regard for the ideas the ornament carried, nor for cultural context from which they came.

i agree with marian that not everyone can do type well. the reality of being a working graphic designer in america now is that you have to be at least somewhat capable in doing both typographic work as well as more graphic and visually exuberant work. dave rau's comments (valuing the expressive over the 'modernist') reveal one subtext to this thread: that of the visually expressive and the visually controlled as signifiers of two different things: the former as a signifier for the expressiveness of the individual and the latter as a signifier for the oppresive and controlling, but also universal and neutral. in art history, this dichotomy is often found in the argument between abstract expressionists (like jackson pollock) and minimalist / conceptual artists (such as sol lewitt). the former believed that the painter's soul could exist on the canvas, the latter believed that an idea was central (at least in the case of sol lewitt), the physical manifestation less so (this is of course oversimplifying it). the former affirms the importance of the individual, the latter almost extinguishes it and places importance on the idea, or 'universal truths'.

i think that argument is happening in a way here, in that 'ornament' (or visual exuberance) is presented as liberating, as it reflects more personal expression. of course, the argument that is happening here is within the context of design and not art, and in a way is almost reduced to purely what each direction, the expressive vs. the 'modernist', signifies in a purely visual, and superficial, manner. i suppose thats what i meant when i found this argument tiring, as im not sure that its really much of a discussion anymore, as the working world today for graphic designers demands skills that are both expressive and 'modernist'.

its interesting to discuss owen jones' grammar of ornament because it is acknowledged that his eclecticism and disregard for cultural context is what many modernists were reacting against as decadence. GOO became a sort of swatchbook for victorian architects and designers that allowed them to pick and choose various designs with no regard for the ideas the ornament carried, nor for cultural context from which they came.

The only way one could come to that conclusion is to look at the pictures and neglect reading Jones's text.. Grammar of Ornament is packed with information about the context of each design, down to the specific location of the vase, mosaic, building or manuscript it was taken from. The chapter headings don't just analyze the formulas used to generate the designs, they discuss the cultural context behind those formulas.

In the preface, Jones specifically states...

"I have ventured to hope that, in thus bringing into immediate juxtoposition the many forms of beauty which every style of ornament presents, I might aid in arresting that unfortunate tendency of our time to be content with copying, whilst the fashion lasts, the forms particular to any bygone age, without attempting to ascertain, generally completely ignoring, the peculiar circumstances which rendered an ornament beautiful, because it was inappropriate, and which as expressive of other wants when thus transported, [as] entirely fails.

It is more than probable that the first result of sending forth to the world this collection will be seriously to increase this dangerous tendency, and that many will be content to borrow from the past those forms of beauty which have not already been used up ad nauseam. It has been my desire to arrest this tendency, and to awaken a higher ambition."

The problem with opinions on older works is that they are often cobbled together from ever-morphing "common knowledge" based on what people have said in the past, without actually examining the the subject being discussed to see if the opinion is valid. You can't blame Owen Jones for creating an incredibly valuable resource that later designers misused in a way he specifically stated that he did not want it to be used.

It is valid to complain that Jones' slant on primitive art is condescending, but it's condescending in the typical mid-19th century manner. A lot of research has been done in this area since then, and we know things about so-called "primitive" cultures that Jones never could have known. However, the basic information presented in Grammar of Ornament is valid and useful, if taken in context of the views of the time.

Stephen Worth
ASIFA-Hollywood Animation Archive
Stephen Worth

Sorry... a typo...

which rendered an ornament beautiful, because it was inappropriate

Should read...

which rendered an ornament beautiful, because it was appropriate
Stephen Worth

Was pleased to find this website.

This a website I came accross recently that seems to have some very high design... I like his style... check it out:
Tom Headstream

I would like to offer an alternative interpretation of the return to the ornamental and the "propensity for density". At the turn of the last century, scientific discoveries and the emerging technologies directly challenged notions of craft and skill. Printing techniques, photography and the increased mechanisation of labour enabled artists to reconsider their aesthetic and social roles.

Instigated by the emergence of desktop publishing in the mid 1980's, the digital revolution shares similar emancipatory potentialities. As we are all aware, it is now possible to publish digitally and/or output via the use of inexpensive printers, with relatively little training. The necessity of professional visualisers or the disciplines associated with them is bought into question. As witnessed throughout the last decade, the crowning of design demigods was opened to all. However, this radicalised democratic approach does not find favor with everyone. Typically, this open approach is seen as a threat by those with something to lose-graphic design connoisseurs.

Now that many of the myths of expertise are dispatched in application filters and default settings, designers have had to construct new standards, new forms of authority and control. Discourses are propagated that attempt to convince the practitioners, students and others, of designs inherent value. This requires the creation of an aesthetic language, one that necessitates a struggle-for the uninitiated, without access to the necessary skills, knowledge, understanding or training- to replicate. Having justified our profession and secured its positions, albeit temporarily, we can return to the infinite "debate" in the aesthetic domain.

Meanwhile, corporations-indifferent to trends employed in marketing manipulation (as long as it correlates to an increase in economic and brand wealth)- seek to fetishise this perception of the new and (ab)use it in a bid to generate profit. The various technologies continue to identify and codify the means and methods needed to replicate professional standards, offering one-click solutions.

If you share any allegiances in the somewhat simplified understanding outlined above, then the question that needs answering is-what role is left for visual designers?

As a start I would propose concepts similar to those advocated by the Libre Society-"Creativity is creating resistance to the present". Their critical approach offers new ways for creatives to awaken from the smothering illusions of dominance and control, and to build a politicised realm of commonality.
Marcus McCallion

yes, but it begs the question, what is the subject?
if the piece is art, then add all the 'thornament' you like. but if the piece is to communicate a message, then I agree, the modernist movement of simplicity seems to me to be the best way, because an intended audience unfortunately has to get what it wants.

hiya folks

if you look at contemporary music (or at least western art music) you can see this whole argument played out but a few steps down the road. Like graphic design, much "contemporary" music has laboured (in equally strict terms) under a post war modernist aesthetic for the last half a century, yet the last couple of decades have seen the flowering (sorry) of elements that bear more relation to the baroque and the medieval than any other period. While of course everyone still composes like they lived in Darmstadt in the 1950's, the music that hits the top of composers iPod most played lists increasingly possess's characteristic s more at home in 12th century France than anywhere else. As a composer I sometimes feel that the desire to throw caution to the wind and write beautifully layered modal harmony, to think horizontally rather than vertically, perhaps this desire is giving in to something less intellectual, less sophisticated than our 20th century education would be comfortable with. But on the other hand it may be more simple than that...the world we find ourselves living in is an horrific and confusing place, seemingly more and more so as time passes, and perhaps a return to the baroque, a return to the romantic, is a logical aesthetic reaction to a world hell-bent on pushing so much horror in our faces. To wallow in bright colour, to applaud the finely tuned curves of meaningless detail, as artists maybe there has never have been a more urgent call for us to create things that are beautiful, to remind the world that not everything can be an instrument of spin, that certain things take time and we can enjoy the product of human effort and wonder at the re-emergence of craft sensibilities. Of course with any big shift comes a tidal wave of wagon jumping and misinterpretation, but is it not a wonder that this shift is occurring, is it not the most exciting feeling to see the world react to itself in this way, to wave goodbye to the 20th century and witness the birth of the 21st and see the first glimpses of a changing tide whose course we can only struggle to imagine? In spite of the horrors, what a time we live in...

Jobs | July 22