Ellen Glover is a Built In senior staff reporter covering design, UX and product management.
Ellen Glover is a Built In senior staff reporter covering design, UX and product management.
When you think of good design, odds are words like “ugly,” “unpolished” or “experimental” aren’t the first ones to come to mind, but it has become an aesthetic of choice for a growing number of digital designers. Known as anti-design, this style rejects the intuitive, grid-like elements of traditional design in favor of challenging, innovative layouts.
“Anti-design feels and looks like rebellion,” Imogen-Mary Hoefkens, a senior art director at 99designs, told Built In. It goes beyond just bending the rules, she added, “it’s pretty much setting them on fire.”
In practice, this looks like typography that either doesn’t align or spans multiple lines, overlapping images, flashy colors, asymmetry, intentionally crowded spaces — everything classic design rules tell you not to do. Despite its seemingly haphazard appearance, Julia Tylor, who works as the creative director of design consulting firm Throughline, said using anti-design well is still very methodical.
“It’s not just anti-design for the sake of being ugly. It still has to look good and be compelling,” she told Built In. “It’s taking the principles of fine art and that ability to be creative outside of boundaries, and applying them to a world that has historically been very structured.”
That being said, the very nature of anti-design makes it difficult to put into a box. It’s a way of thinking more than a specific aesthetic. It’s a reaction — a description of what it is not. It rejects convention and traditional aesthetics, but of course conventional design fluctuates all the time.
So, to understand anti-design, one must first understand the specific “design” that is being rejected.
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These days, that usually means simplicity. Designers are taught that simple, intuitive and frictionless design is the key to a good user experience. The idea is that, while users want to see aesthetically pleasing websites, they don’t want to be distracted or have obstacles put in their way that could disrupt their journey on the website. Any extraneous design elements should be avoided.
Simplicity, according to product manager Daniel Kalick, is a kind of “über principle” in digital design. “If you’re making somebody think too much, you need to not do that and really come up with something that is much more simple,” he said during a talk at the 2017 AIGA Digital Design Conference. “I think that simplicity becomes this sort of assumption about what we always want, and what every human wants in every experience everywhere.”
Anti-design challenges that assumption by expanding on what it means to use a website. It doesn’t necessarily turn its back on simplicity or ease, but rather it explores other kinds of experiences one could get out of being online.
“Think about the best experiences, or the most memorable experiences, that you’ve had in your life — first date, a festival or a concert, a game, a vacation. I don’t think that what is memorable about any of those things is their simplicity,” Kalick said. “I think the point anti-design is making is that we don’t want simplicity always. We want to be challenged, we want complexity.”
“If it’s being used to communicate the right message, in the right place, for the right audience then it’s a good piece of anti-design.”
But not all designers agree. Kate Moran, a director at UX and UI consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group, rejected the idea that complex and challenging layouts are desirable for most users in a 2017 article, calling the notion “ridiculous.” She likened anti-design to “bad 1990s designs on steroids,” and said it is only really effective when the intended audience is other designers, or when the product is meant to be nothing more than entertainment. Otherwise, it will “backfire.”
“Remember: You are not the user. You may find many designs too boring or too simple, but the majority of the users of the web would likely disagree with you,” Moran wrote, citing another Nielsen Norman Group article from 2016 that claimed just 5 percent of the U.S. population has “high computer-related ability.”
Indeed, anti-design is experimental, therefore it’s not for everyone. Its disorienting and non-intuitive nature can be difficult to make accessible, especially for people with visual impairments. And for sites that require a modular design with lots of pages, it is hard to do all of the creative and wacky things that are essential to anti-design at scale.
When used correctly, however, anti-design can be a great way for companies to communicate their brand, create a memorable digital experience and simply engage with users in a new and exciting way. Of course, like any other piece of creative expression, anti-design is subjective. Its beauty often lies in the eye of the beholder. There is no clear-cut definition of what makes it “good” or “bad” — but it must communicate a message.
“It should make someone think and feel something,” Hoefkens said. “If it’s being used to communicate the right message, in the right place, for the right audience then it’s a good piece of anti-design.”
The concept of anti-design has taken hold not just in web and graphic design, but in fashion, furniture and architecture, too. Its fluid nature makes it difficult to pin down to one era or decade — for as long as there have been rules and standards, artists and designers have sought to bend and break them. This has made it especially appealing to younger generations.
“It’s the ultimate youth aesthetic, it’s anti-everything you normally see in design and breaks the rules. Young people can relate to that rebellious characteristic,” Hoefkens, of 99designs, said.
Anti-design appears to have gotten its start sometime in the 1960s. It is said to have started in Italy, but its influence made its way over to the United States, too. Although its focus then was geared toward furniture design, it was largely positioned as a reaction to a rise in modernist design — an aesthetic that came out of the United States’ desire to establish itself as an economic leader post-World War II. Placing function over form, modernism is defined by its minimalist style, muted colors and an overall emphasis on an object’s usefulness as opposed to its beauty.
The counterculture of the late 1960s swung the pendulum the other way, and used anti-design as a way to criticize not only the stripped-down modernist look, but the consumer culture and capitalist greed it seemed to represent. The modernist palette of whites, blacks and grays gave way to bold and vibrant colors; perfect, clean lines were replaced with distortion. The aim of anti-designers was to make people actually think about the object they were buying, as opposed to just mindlessly using it.
Since then, anti-design has come in and out of popularity over the decades. The 1990s design aesthetic of bright, gaudy colors and experimental formats are apparent in what is now considered anti-design. This is important since that same decade witnessed the birth of the internet. With no solid rules established, the World Wide Web was a playground for designers to experiment in. And all of this was happening against the backdrop of angsty, grunge design aesthetics like those of David Carson, whose tenure as Ray Gun magazine’s creative director was defined by his use of crowded typography, asymmetry and busy visuals — all hallmarks of today’s anti-design.
By the 2000s, small mobile phone screens had become ubiquitous, and designs got more simplified to accommodate them. That brings us to the internet’s current design, which is largely grid-based and seems to be based on a handful of standard layouts.
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The resurgence of anti-design today harkens back to its 1960s origins, only now it is taking place online. The web isn’t the Wild West that it once was. It has reached an age where it is “relevant to start borrowing from the past,” as noted in “The Rise of Brutalism and Antidesign,” a research paper published in 2019 by students at the School of Engineering in Jönköping, Sweden. Only now, anti-designers are railing against the “uniformity and commercialism” of the internet instead of post-WWII modernist design.
This is perhaps best distilled in a now widely circulated tweet that asks, “Which one of the two possible websites are you currently designing?,” above images of two similarly generic website templates. In the six years it’s been around, this has been retweeted thousands of times, indicating a larger, industry-wide sentiment that design has gotten too stale or cookie-cutter.
Some point to website builders like Squarespace or WordPress as the reason design, specifically web design, has gotten this way. Others point to our increasingly competitive capitalistic society — businesses know what works to get sales, or followers, and they are hesitant to stray too far from that. Whatever the reason, Tylor said we’ve “exhausted the clean design.”
“I have spent so much time following the rules, and I’ve gotten to the point where everything just kind of looks the same.”
“We’ve had years where, like, every website was a white background, big Helvetica and a colorful button with a call to action as the main page,” she said. “I have spent so much time following the rules, and I’ve gotten to the point where everything just kind of looks the same.”
This disenchantment with the clean and simple standards of the industry may also have to do with the pandemic and its complete disruption of seemingly every part of normal life. “We’ve challenged a lot of assumptions because we’ve had to,” Tylor said. “We’ve thrown everything out the window, we don’t really know what the playbook is, so why not try new things?”
Anti-design is a means of creation and exploration. These days, its goal is to revitalize what has become a rather cold digital landscape, and push the boundaries of what is useful and engaging. Granted, it is a bold and daring choice, and it will not necessarily work for every brand or project.
“Anti-design, from a branding perspective, basically means ‘I don’t give a shit.’ There are certain organizations where that is a good and powerful message to have. But I think there’s others that it’s probably not right for,” Kalick said in the AIGA talk.
The ideal uses for anti-design are often editorial projects like Bloomberg’s Global Guide to State-Sponsored Trolling, and art-focused publications like Wrong Wrong or Timesheets Magazine. Again, it is difficult to implement anti-design effectively on large, modular sites, but it can also be done there if it is for one-off campaigns. For example, Adidas’ Yung-1 Alpine Sneakers’ promotional page used several elements of anti-design.
It is best to look for opportunities that have a more “curatorial bent” where you’re bringing a user into an experience and guiding them, according to Kalick, as opposed to just letting them figure out the site on their own.
But anti-design must always be used very intentionally, especially for web design. If you go too far in the direction of ugly for the sake of being ugly or different for the sake of being different, it can take a toll on the user experience.
“I have seen websites that go too far, and they’re awful to use. It’s really cool, it’s different, I haven’t seen anything like that before. But it’s distracting, it’s unusable. I can’t read it, I can’t interact with it in a way that’s useful to me,” Tylor said. “It still needs to be readable, it still needs to be understandable. You need to be able to look at it and appreciate it in some way, or get the message that’s being conveyed.”
In the end, perhaps the most important thing about anti-design is that it’s always changing right alongside conventional design. The two are one in the same. And just like any design trend, anti-design’s popularity will likely ebb and flow.
“In five years it might not be like this in the world. The world will be a different place and different things will be on people’s minds,” Tylor said. “It’s an application that’s somewhat new in terms of the digital space, especially the web, but the idea of anti-design is nothing new. It’ll be in for a while, it’ll go away, and it’ll probably come back again in 20 years.”