Sigh. Urban Outfitters. Dogshit. Sigh.

Posted in graphic design, Life Sucks, Tuesday's Rant by DCroy on 30 November 2010

Yes. It’s shit. Dogshit, if you will. But it’s more distressing than the usual dogshit because it, to me, is a harbinger of a burgeoning movement that could possibly eradicate notions of any non-dogshit design from the design conversation entirely.

Urban Outfitters Stupid Logo

Again, Sigh.

What’s the concept? It’s possibly a result of academic notions of post-structuralism, deconstructionism, and semiotics*. Possibly it’s a winking (and, to my mind, snide) appropriation of unschooled design (it’s also a failure at that, since it looks like nothing more than a Yale MFA attempting raw design). Possibly it’s a publicity stunt mocking/copying the fallout from the Gap.

So, to recap, at best, it is:

What it is not:

  • Communication

This post is not about it being a shitty logo, or shittily executed. It’s obviously both of those, and I think that’s the intent**. It’s about, in some sense, the future of design. I mentioned Yale on purpose, not just they’ve got their heads so far up their asses, aesthetically and conceptually, but because they’re such a prominent design program, that I think we’re seeing the fallout of the ass-headedness, starting with Urban Outfitters. That UO is a bad logo is kind of whatever; that it’s the first shot in a school of anti-design is more worrying.

(A side note on the snideness: theres something off-putting about a joke at the expense of “bad” designers that’s so inside that only a small clique would truly get it. This is maybe apropos for an indie band or fashion house, but it feels weirdly cruel and inappropriate for something like Urban Outfitters).

“There are too many [graphic designers], the [graphic design is] terrible, and it’s because you have been taught to have self-esteem.” – My Hero.

The Yale website is a case in point. There’s so much that’s so wrong with it that it’s hard to know where to begin. Bear in mind that this the public face of an MFA program that costs $50 grand a year. I think the primary problem is that it’s a wiki: anyone can edit it. Conceptually, that’s fine. It’s an idea. I get it. Practically, what you end up with is design-by-committee, which is never good. Good work comes from dedicated designers working with thoughtful decision-makers. When everyone has a voice (to protect their self-esteem and the idea of inclusion (versus the tyranny of ability or dedication)), you wind up with stuff that looks like this:

Yale Art School Homepage

Millions of dollars of MFA design work.

My problem is not necessarily with the idea. The idea could work for some clients, unschooled design can work, especially for fashion, where twee or obscure aesthetic choices can communicate subtler shit than a flyer for a used car auction. All of that is cool. And I also support school as a period of experimentation where you’re free from commercial pressures.

What’s disturbing to me is that, what if you wanted to learn how to actually design something? You go to Yale, you plunk down your dough, and you basically spend your time being encouraged to codify what you already think (not much – cats parachuting! How delightfully outré) into academic theory. Then your book is filled with ugly, stupid theory and nothing else. Because you never learned anything else.

More and more (and because of stuff like the above), I’m preferring to think of myself as a commercial artist. There are things, as a commercial artist, that I must do: speak in the client’s voice; maintain a level of professional craftsmanship; constantly improve; be self-critical. When I look at Yale’s homepage or their MFA shows† I don’t see design as I know it to be – as commercial art, as visual communication, as part of a tradition of craft. I see privilege combined with fear.

Privilege in that you’d have to be fully sponsored by your parents and therefore unconcerned with ever having to earn a living to believe that this kind of navel-gazing means something outside your Yale MFA class (and no, “green” doesn’t count††). It’s the kind of privilege that’s been so privileged, and so drenched in self-esteem, for so long that it has no idea that it’s even privileged. This may seem to be out of left field, but the kids organizing a giant pillow fight in NYC is much the same. Cute? Twee? Sure, fine. But we’re in the middle of two wars and a recession. Yet this is what we organize? This is what we communicate? Our own cuteness? Isn’t there something more substantial that we could put our minds and our efforts into? In short: Yale design is the flash mob pillow fight of graphic design.

And fear because it seems to me that these kids want to be conceptual or abstract fine artists but are afraid they can’t hack the art world. Yale MFA design seems to be a back door to that world. Which is fine as far as it goes. But it ain’t design.

And so we’ve got Urban Outfitters, as junky as a license plate, but rather than low-grade bureaucratic shit, it’s now got a conceptual imprimatur as the house style of an expensive elite institution of higher learning. We’re gaining shit design from both ends of the spectrum (high and low design), and we’re losing craft, ability, and beauty in the bargain. Welcome to shitsville, everybody.

* For a quick tour of all this junk, read some Roger Scruton. You’ll disagree with his conclusions but you’ll be enlightened by his alacrity.

** Conceptually, there’s something to that “screw the rules” idea; something to the idea of ugliness and subversion. But “I’m gonna compress the letters and apply a stupid Illustrator warp” doesn’t come up to the standard of knowing and obliterating the rules, mostly because the end result looks more like self-satisfaction than any kind of thought process.

† Take a look at these theses. I’m all for exploration, but I can’t tell what any of these projects are supposed to be without reading the explanations. Purposefully obtuse work is okay, but it just is not graphic design.

†† Green is the Medici of the new millennium – a quasi-religious aesthetic based on notions of purity and good and ideology rather than beauty (so sue me).


4 Responses

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  1. Alec said, on 23 December 2010 at 8:26 am

    Good lord, that UO logo is a train wreck. Really hard to figure how one ends up there. And by all means, I can always get behind a brutal strafing of Yale!

  2. kelmil said, on 10 January 2012 at 12:21 pm

    This is honestly the best thing I have read in regards to design criticism in so long. You nailed it, this is coming from a grad of Cranbrook which could arguably be substituted for the word Yale in several of these sentences.

  3. gabferreira91 said, on 3 April 2013 at 8:13 pm

    I think that you are right when it comes to the work being “ugly”. However, what it seems you’ve failed to understand is that many of designers graduating from that program can also design for the market, which can become tedious if that is all you are doing. The Yale website isn’t trying to look good, it’s trying do something new; I see it as an experiment and a criticism of what happens when one project falls in the hands of too many people. Beauty is always subjective, but innovation (however odd or “ugly” it may seem), is still innovation. If you look back in time, the designers that have made history and contributed to our profession were the ones who attempted something new, even if what they were doing was ostracized by “professionals” and labeled as non-design. Remember David Carson? Remember Stefan Sagmeister? These are all people who know how to design to communicate, from corporate to outrageous, but chose to go an extra mile in an attempt to create something the world had not seen before.

  4. David Croy said, on 11 April 2013 at 6:35 pm

    “I think that you are right when it comes to the work being “ugly”.”
    >> I didn’t critique its ugliness or beauty.

    “I see it as an experiment and a criticism”
    >> Sure, it’s an experiment – if you reread the above, you’ll see that I got nothing against that kind of approach. But it’s an experiment that is stupid and that failed badly.

    Calling a failed experiment a “critique” is a pretty callow way out of criticism of the original failure. This is stock post-modernism: there are no rules/there is no truth, therefore there can be no criticism; and if the failure is too obvious to avoid, you can fall back on ironic distance (That’s terrible. But it’s new! But it’s still terrible. Well, I didn’t mean it in the first place, it was a critique of terribleness). That’s one way to approach things, but it does nothing for me.

    “Beauty is always subjective, but innovation (however odd or “ugly” it may seem), is still innovation.”
    >> If you reread the above, you’ll see that I’m not arguing beauty or ugliness; and I’m not against innovation.

    But, innovation is not always a virtue. As seen above, the only goal was innovation (which is really pretty easy to achieve). Great, they succeeded in creating something new – they created something stupid and bad, but at least it’s new. So it’s new, big deal. It’s also crap.

    David Carson successfully captured the energy of the new sport of snowboarding. It was great, innovative, stuff, but it also did work within that innovation. It wasn’t just new, it communicated in a way that this kind of shit does not. Not many people can really pull off pure style, but he was certainly one of ’em.

    Stefan Sagmeister has never made anything that I cared about at all. It all seems like a first year design student’s first idea. I guess we could applaud him for retaining a kind of naive energy, but it would be (to my mind) exactly the same amount of applause we would give to a first year design student: not much.

    In short, novelty is easy and we shouldn’t put too much emphasis on it. Novelty for its own sake is design up its own asshole (q.v. Sagmeister), and nobody needs that.

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