Tomorrow’s Aesthetics Yesterday

Published:  February 25, 2013
Michael Bojkowski
Tomorrow’s Aesthetics Yesterday

Michael Bojkowski is designer with over 10 years of experience working with studios, publishers, and independent clients in London, Melbourne, and Amsterdam. Michael has also written extensively about design for various publications including his own Press Publish/ok interrupt imprint. Previously art director and designer at Grafik magazine, he is currently art director for (inside) & Architectural Review Asia Pacific at Niche Media. He speaks here about emerging trends in visual communication, and the forces that are pushing design forward.

Fractured Aesthetics.

Over the last decade or so we’ve seen, firstly, people disconnecting from traditional media. Just think about the number of people you know who happily admit to not having a telly, or the number of refuseniks you know who still buy all their music on physical formats, or friends who always seem to see the latest films before they hit the cinema (only to go watch them again in the big screen).

We’ve also borne witness to a fractured media landscape that has quickly evolved, where nothing replaces anything any more. Vinyl records now sit comfortably next to mobile phones chock full of mp3s, which in turn sit next to streaming services such as Spotify, Rdio and the like – and that’s just a quick look under the hood of the music industry. All these formats, products, services and ideas now jostle for our time-poor attention. Whereas in the past there might have been a sense of progression from one format or technology to the next, now there is chaos.

Just as the media landscape has splintered into numerous outshoots, so too has the role of the graphic designer. Never before has graphic design covered such a wide gamut of creative endeavours. From the more traditional brand-savvy, identity-led designers, to digital experts such as ‘designer-developers’, to art directors and editorial bods (Hi!) bridging the divide caused by recent print and screen melees, to artisan-esque type designers, to screen-based designers creating work for broadcast and online. The list is becoming infinite.

And whilst there are still many full-service design studios that seek to encompass all that being a modern creative agency entails, there are also many designers, young and old, finding the space to specialise. And not just in a particular design practice, but also in a particular aesthetic approach, sifting through the vast history of visual culture so easily accessible online.

Previously, all-encompassing aesthetic movements such as Swiss Modernism in the 1960s or American Vernacular in the late 80s/early 90s, to name but a couple, would blow through design practises around the world, transforming the design landscape of whole continents. Nowadays we’re used to visual trends and motifs coming and going so quickly that a splintered approach starts to make sense. For example, take a look at the work of print studio such as The Hungry Workshop with their unique take on vernacular design, then flick over to somewhere like Hunt Studio, whose publication work is resolutely ‘modern’ in the strictest definition of the term.

For this particular article, we’re going to look at one particularly visually rich trend that might have the longevity to make a lasting mark on our visual landscape and help define the times we live in.

The Aesthetics of Mistakes.

Anti-design is one of the terms that has been attached to an emerging aesthetic that investigates, and often celebrates, motifs and techniques that were previously considered naive or simply ‘bad’. A group of young designers have been picking at the bones of early digital design, unearthing neglected visual nuggets and unpolished gems that have been previously consigned to graphic design’s morguefile. In this respect the trend is not dissimilar to the renewed interest in American vernacular design as parodied on the Hipster Branding tumblog. The significant difference is the period of graphic design development being referenced, specifically the point at which the Apple Mac emerged as a key tool for designers and ‘desktop publishers’ – a role that has all but died out now.

Misfires, mistakes and oddities created during this period, such as ‘badly’ distorted and/or skewed type, Photoshop bevel effects, awkward use of white space and spartan image arrangements as well as previously unpopular elements such as the use of ubiquitous, default typefaces like as Arial and Brush Script are now being investigated and celebrated for their unique qualities, as well as being bent out of shape to create demented new forms.

Prime examples of designers employing this new aesthetic include Joel Evey and his recent work for Urban Outfitters, Valdemar Lamego’s editorial design for Parq magazine, Michael Willis’ work and curation for Panther Club and Metahaven’s various politically charged, and often impenetrable, project work. On our home turf designers such as Uriah Gray at Coöp, Jordan Dolheguy at Totem Visual and Tomas Shanahan and Kevin McDowell at Confetti are all forging ahead with their own investigations into early digital graphic design in order to create new styles and visual motifs.

Also running alongside this is a renewed interested in early website, broadcast, and other screen based design from the same era, whose motifs include crudely drawn icons, flashy animated gifs and jagged 3D renders, such as those deployed by Daniel Swan in collaboration with artist LuckyPDF, or designer/illustrator Brian Metcalf who is part of a collaborative project known as Phone Arts which seeks to create new art forms using mobile phones exclusively.

The roots of this new aesthetic can also be found in Finnish agency, Kokoro & Moi’s guest design for Print magazine back in 2010, where they went as far as manipulating arabic letterforms to appear as English, in the process, eliciting heavy criticism from certain readers not used to having such a radical design agenda thrust upon them. It’s also evidenced in editorial design by art directors such as Yue-Shin Lin at Lodown magazine and in Mike Meiré’s intentionally ‘ugly’ redesign of 032c.

Blame the interwebs and services like ffffound, Designspiration, Pinterest or, most notably Tumblr, for the spread of this new form of ‘graphix’. There’s no dodging the fact that the idea of the ‘graphic designer’ as jack-of-all is slowly being consigned to the annals of history, whilst the emergence of a hit squadron of designers, with a burgeoning range of expertise, and a plethora of aesthetic approaches are fast becoming the norm rather than the exception.


This essay was first published in desktop #289

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8 Responses

  1. Ebony

    I feel like something that started as ironic is starting to see itself into the norm in ways we didn’t really predict, and I feel like we’re going to be embarrassed about it a la Word circa 2K. I’m not saying this isn’t okay, because if we’re doing it the way art history always has, this is going to be fine. I just think that design was finally reaching its impossible utopia of becoming timeless, ageless and classic by drawing influence from all the greatest periods of design. Now in this world of visual chaos, the utopia is being given the context of not existing in isolation, however I feel to the demise of the global understanding we are coming to about how necessary it is that design BE ageless. Cradle to cradle design has never been more necessary, and this feels like a tiny side track from a global design ideal.

    • Hey Emily, how was design reaching this impossible utopia? And what impossible utopia? The world is built of insanely diverse cultures—from clean and distilled Swedish design, to Bauhaus, the Western bastardisation of these ideas then to Asian design and it’s confusing clutter, Southern American design and it’s wonderfully colourful playfulness, there’s never been one ideal and there could never be one true utopia.

      The New Aesthetic, this chaotic digital destruction, is just another texture building on the pallette. Sure, the glitch, databent, retro and “bad” design is hitting pique fad status but it’s a glorious celebration of the irreverent shit that exists in the digital world.

      Why should there even be a single global design ideal? Why would we even benefit from such a thing? The beauty of life is the discovery of the new, the unknown, the perfect, the totally fucked up and the insanely derranged ravings of lunatics.

      Bring on the blessed digital rainbow and let it burn your retinas.

      And, er, disclaimer. I’m launching a book tomorrow called “AlphabeNt: Experiments from A–Z” which is a collaborative effort to destroy traditional notions of good typography through glitch art… launch video is here:

      Launch event details are here:

      Come see something new :)

  2. Andrew

    Roots traced back to 2010 with Kokoroi and Moi??? Do some research mate ffs… it goes back back back all the way to the 90s… and 80s and 20s

  3. Chocky

    @Andrew, dodgy PS filters go back to the 20s? ORLY?

    I think Michael meant to refer to Kokoro & Moi as a breakthrough moment when this aesthetic garnered mainstream attention. I would argue it’s an extension of neen: so that puts its genesis at about 2000.

  4. This is a great succinct article for what it is, and I applaud the reluctance to slap a name on it, but I think there is something to be said about the often misconception and association of this new aesthetic in design with “The New Aesthetic” ( The two gained a large and valuable recognition within the past few years, but there seem to be a number of differences between the two. The New Aesthetic is driven by the forced aesthetic caused from evolving technologies i.e. inaccurate 3D Google Map screenshots, it’s about working within and around technology, and while much of this new aesthetic in design was a result of new technology, most notably the internet, a majority of its focus is not to expand upon these boundaries of the technology it lives in, but rather it seeks to question the solidarity of the foundations upon which it rests.

  5. Great article. It’s nice to read something that observes the current trends without necessarily judging them. Ebony, the ‘utopian timeless design’ you speak of will never exist. Design is always a reaction to content/culture/time. It cannot exist in a vacuum!

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