A place to file your complaints. Submissions welcome.
By Marianne Sandwich-Cake
I am sorry about the ugly.
I’m sorry about all the ugly.
What’s my problem? Ugly graphic design and the rise of meme culture is ruining everything.
Don’t misunderstand me. This is not a condemnation of advertising, graphic design or any other pragmatic aesthetics. But because I am an aesthetically sensitive person, some of what I see feels like an assault. Also, I can’t help but feel that I am partially to blame. I have been teaching graphic arts for over a decade.
Because of my involvement in creating, aiding and abetting an army of half-assed “designers,” I have that nagging “you did this to yourself,” voice that creeps in whenever I see an example of forced, partially technically proficient art that has taken over billboards, TV commercials, magazine layouts and advertisements nationwide. And. It. Sucks.
Before my critics start in with exclamations of “ARRRRT!!!!” I’d like to remind them that graphic design is art with a specific message that can be measured by its ability to function within its purpose. Art for its own sake can exist without a purpose. That’s Meggs, yo.
So enough with the complaining. Let’s see an example of this design that sucks so bad.
Where to begin? Okay, was she drinking ants? Even if she wasn’t, would they be around her mouth? Does this woman’s house need an exterminator, or does her mouth? Are they going to spray pesticide on her face or in her mouth? Yes, it’s a spoof of the wildly successful 25-year-old “Got Milk” campaign that has been parodied more times than I can count. Ha fucking ha. I get it.
One might argue that it’s memorable and gross enough to be persuasive, but I am going to argue that this SUCKS. It’s LAZY design. And someone got paid for this, probably a nominal fee in our ever de-valued field. They know how to use Photoshop real good. See? Looks like real ants on a mouth. Cool.
It’s a prime example of what I call “you get the idea” design. Can’t find the right font? Just choose something that’s close enough. Or better yet, just use the font you think looks cool, or whatever. Build around that, or something. Can’t come up with a solid concept based on the needs of the client or message? Just pilfer one. Or use whatever and don’t follow through with any logical questioning or assumptions that might inform the viewer while it decodes the meaning of the message in your design. You know. Or whatever. You get the idea.
You know what’s better than the “Got Ants?” billboard? Anything. A clump of dirt, or a piece of string. Or a goat. Or this “bad” billboard from a well-known TV program featuring Danny Devito sandwiched between two tittie-ladies. Thumbs up! And the best part? It doesn’t even give the name of the bar that it’s supposed to be promoting. And yet, it’s a thousand times better in all ways design.
Public/citizen art. The double edged meme.
For the record, I do like some memes. I have even created a few. Here’s one that I’ve been saving. When I realized that the internet had failed to cough up what I requested on command (Google images), I filled the void with one of my own:
Most public art is actually a-okay with me, in general. Purposeless art? No problem. Snarky, passive-activist art? Sure. The perfect meme is just as fun as the perfect one liner. It’s a visual quip. But I sense that memes have taken the place of “crafty collectables” in our digital media culture. Instead of picking up glue guns and getting crazy with the glitter pens, people are shoving their dogma up your eye holes with meme generators.
Because everyone can access photo-editing and graphic software, there are scores of laptop jockeys and smart phone Picassos who are creating memes. Not all of them are bad. Some are funny, or even witty. And, yes, arguably just like the emoticon (“emoji” to those of you who insist) they quickly communicate an idea coupled with emotion. By the very definition of graphic design, it can be argued that these memes are successful in their purpose. HOWEVER….
They are mostly unattractive.
I’m not even disagreeing with their intent. My beef is with the visual. Yes, my pet peeves include using red over gray (are you a fuckin’ moron? Learn about value and contrast, plebes), setting everything in script, poor line breaks and omitting punctuation. Yes, I hate memes of people holding signs that have been photoshopped to say stupid shit set in artificial, handwritten typefaces. I loathe memes of chalkboards overloaded with paragraphs of text set in comic sans and attributed to Ghandi or someone no one cares about. But it goes even deeper than that. I will venture an educated guess that all this template, “good-enough” art is creating an interesting and meaningful dichotomy. Our visual culture is becoming simultaneously sophisticated and primitive.
We accept words like “pixilated” and “font” into the vernacular. Even Newsweek, among other media outlets, ran articles on typography for general public consumption back in 2008. Typography has become an everyman topic. Meanwhile, images like this are considered acceptable. They are used, shared and “liked” regardless of their pisspoor layout, zero attention to detail and disregard for all grid systems or compositional rules that graphic design holds dear. But what’s striking is how this becomes invisible, dismissed by sheer lack—in the same way that we scarcely know the names of trees or shapes of leaves.
Good bad design.
But, Marianne Sandwich-Cake, you ask, what about good bad design? Do you make exceptions? Well, yes. There are quite a few that don’t burn out my retinas with their hideous misunderstanding of visual composition. Mostly, they are quaint throw-backs to a time when designerly expectations were low, or when things were truly DIY.
Take, for example, the legendary Magikist carpet cleaner sign that used to stand majestically on the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago. This huge set of red lips, with the stylized typography reading “Magikist,” was a landmark in the Midwest. Forget the fact that apparently your carpets would be kissed clean (somehow), or any number of cunnilingus jokes that can be made when you combine lips, kissing and rugs. This was the “sweetest name in rug cleaning.” I suppose you might consider it kitsch.
In the category of DIY design, the quaint “I did it!” quality of homemade signage is alive and well. And it absolutely does not bother me. Not one bit.
Need to know where Lee’s Hardware is?
“Quick! We need a sign. You’re creative, right? Here’s a marker.”
Yes, they used 5 different type treatments for this sign. So?
Bad good intentions.
And then there are times when, and possibly because of the damage of seeing literally thousands of bad ideas rendered with a fair amount of skill, I feel a combination of sad and angry (sangry?). It happens when I see graphics like this:
Do you see it? Do I need to ask? Yes, I realize that there are many different meanings to the swastika. Your point?
This is the unfortunate outcome of what I’m guessing is inexperience and the lack of critical analysis, coupled with passably executed graphic arts skills. Obviously this designer did consider color palette and attempted to use graphic reduction to incorporate elements of cooperation and “emotional” support into this graphic. See? People at a table. Together. Hands outstretched toward each other. It’s memorable, and supports the mission of a social service company that provides training, employment opportunities and social groups for people with developmental disabilities. The organization’s work is laudable. Their logo is not. Why? Swastika.
Does not matter. No. Swastika. Because. Swastika. Unless you are ManWoman, reappropriating and attempting to artistically reclaim the Swastika for its ancient, sacred and more gentle meanings, you are going to fail the primary goal of good graphic design, which is to communicate a clear message to a target audience. And unless that message is, “oops, swastika!” this logo falls short. Thems the breaks, kid. Swastika.
So what? What can be done about all this. It’s progress, man.
Yup. You’re right. I’ve helped to churn out hundreds of art school graduates. Hundreds of degree-in-hand designers to muddy the gene pool and thin out the pay scale. I was “helping” people understand communication arts. And this is the price of progress, my friends. Lots and lots of bad visual art, scratching at my brain through my eyeballs, and ruining my otherwise good time. It’s too much celery in the soup. A little celery is no problem. But a whole pile of it? It’s outweighing the broth. It’s just ruining everything.
And it’s my fault, too.
So I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.