For a designer, “ugliness” hasn’t historically been something to strive for. Beauty has largely been a no-brainer when it comes to what’s desirable, or what constitutes “good” design.
Yet, culturally, we’re becoming increasingly fatigued by perfection. After years of brands behaving in similarly simple, orderly ways, we’re yearning for expressions that are less hygienic and altogether more human. When designers do away with old-fashioned principles that align “good” with “beautiful,” they have the freedom to make work that’s infinitely more creative. And in doing so, it’s more interesting—and more inclusive.
Design that destabilizes inherited “rules” around ugly and beautiful rewrites what’s seen as acceptable. It progresses visual culture by celebrating playfulness and forging intimacy by underscoring the limitations (and untruths) of perfection. It subtly helps everyone from brands to designers to consumers communicate more honestly.
“Beauty is passé”
An itching for “ugly” could be seen as cyclical, in design circles at least. As Stephen Heller wrote in Eye back in 1993, “Designers used to stand for beauty and order. Now beauty is passé and ugliness is smart.”
Heller sets out the problems with defining “ugly,” situating it in opposition to “classical” design rules around “adherence to the golden mean and a preference for balance and harmony.”
This idea of ugliness as a form of rule-breaking can be traced further back in time to the design language of punk in the mid- to late 1970s, which echoed similarly establishment-baiting artistic movements like Dadaism in its use of re-appropriated letterforms and images.
Shunning formal typography in favor of a collage-led, rip-it-up-and-start-again nod to ransom notes, punk design—like punk music—was a visceral rebellion against the establishment. Gone were the formal constraints of tasteful design like Modernism or Swiss International Style (Helvetica, Univers, grids etc.).
The voices of disenfranchised young people were being elevated through such letterforms, and their railing against the establishment politically was mirrored in their railing against neat, polite aesthetics.
The fact that the visual language of punk is still seen as a symbol of defiance and a DIY creativity born of frustration with the system—more than 40 years on—is a testament to the power of the “ugly” in shaping culture.
Beautiful isn’t progressive
Today, brands that reject beauty standards and embrace a certain amount of garish or “unfiltered” aesthetics are lauded for their authenticity and brashness. More and more, people reject the minimalism that defined the last decade, pursuing a more intimate feel that prizes realism and celebrates flaws instead.
Take the Gen Z-founded brand, Parade, which rewrites the rulebook of what underwear imagery should be. Cofounded in October 2019 by 22-year-olds Cami Téllez and Jack DeFuria, its logo is a fun, memorable, and luscious piece of lettering with somewhat unconventionally-drawn letterforms; its Instagram feed is liberally, joyfully un-corporately peppered with snaps of Paris Hilton and LiLo.
Eschewing the bland sensuality and male-gaze-skewed lingerie branding of yore, Parade presents itself as an unpolished, inclusively real-bodied step forward from the traditional “beauty” standards of unattainable body types and women trussed up in angel wings.
Likewise, skincare brand Topicals strips away preconceived, tired notions of beauty and celebrate flare-ups and “flaws” in both its no-nonsense, honest photography style and its graphics. The type is unrefined and deliberately challenges legibility, clashing serifs with sans serifs, blocky bold weights with italics—all in a single strapline.
When brands present themselves in ways that are rooted in difference, quirks, imperfections, and vulnerability, they create a sense of intimacy and inclusivity where those taking the “aspirational” route never can. Slick, “tasteful” Kinfolk magazine-like aesthetics are on the wane: We’ve seen it all before, and we know we can’t ever achieve that level of spotless perfection.
The power of ugly type
Typography can be seen as a microcosm of the cultural conversation between “ugly” and “beautiful,” “good” and “bad.” We’re now seeing a blossoming of new typefaces that revive historically-rejected aesthetics or reject history altogether.
Norway-based Pyte Foundry, for instance, boasts an entire font catalogue that celebrates awkwardness through letterforms often inspired by 18th and 19th century type, opening up new paths for designers and, in turn, visual culture more widely.
The overbite on “a” is a fixture of many newer “ugly”-leaning typefaces: it’s also found in Latinotype’s 2020 font family Magazine Grotesque, among many other nuances that set it apart from traditional Grotesks. In short, it subtly breaks the rules.
When type designers turn to ugliness, they’re participating in a broader shift in visual culture toward multiplicity and experimentation. Typography that eschews beauty and tradition catalyzes shifts toward more experimental design, and aids brands in creating aesthetics that are bolder and feel refreshingly imperfect.
Editorial design: a Trojan horse of “ugliness”?
As typefaces like Magazine Grotesque or NaN’s Jaune prove, rule-breaking is one of the most common (and comprehensible) conduits of “ugliness.” That’s perhaps why that kind of design has frequently been applied in contexts that are skewed toward countercultural audiences.
Tracy Ma’s designs for the likes of Bloomberg Businessweek and The New York Times borrow from different modern day visual filters to harness a powerful and resonant visual language that’s pushed more traditional editorial platforms in bold new directions. Her work also mirrors contemporary attitudes that reject the Western canon of Modernism and its adherence to the grid.
And Ben Ditto’s designs for Dazed’s Beauty platform experiment with the formal considerations around type, layout, and the site’s functionality. The non-traditional takes on what is beautiful in the site’s design perfectly mirrors the content, which strives to break new ground in what we deem to be beautiful in the first place.
Ugly as democratization
What might traditionally be termed ugly in branding—frenetic layouts, eschewal of the grid, mixing and matching everything from Bauhaus influences to kitsch—is slowly creating a new beauty in its playfulness and capacity to move culture into new realms.
Richard Turley’s thoroughly maximal 2015 overhaul of MTV directly mimicked emergent social media platforms by centering user-generated content and celebrating what the designer termed the modern day “clusterfuck of visual content.” That meant a joyful assault of a visual identity formed from a mashup of pop-cultural icons, memes, high-octane neons and a ton more.
Crucially, those MTV designs heralded a slogan change from “I want my MTV,” to “I am my MTV.” It puts users at its heart. It’s hard to imagine tasteful, rule-adherent designs being able to so honestly place their audience at their center.
Ugliness is liberating: for designers, it means the rules don’t always have to be followed, and there’s limitless potential for experimentation; for a brand’s audience, it’s freeing because it shows people they don’t always need to be perfect. Thanks to the likes of Instagram, TikTok et al, audiences are more design-literate than ever. People don’t always need to be mollycoddled with safe, tasteful color palettes and plain, legible typefaces.
“Ugly” design isn’t aspirational or hierarchical: it places value in the messy, weird, unpredictable milieu of what it is to be a person living in a messy, weird, unpredictable world.
Andrea Trabucco-Campos is the creative director at Gretel.