Judging submissions to a graphic design competition recently, I was
startled by the number of entries afflicted by a curious malady that I
would call the “Not Bad, but Not Great” syndrome. I’ve noticed an
increase in merely decent work being produced in all design media as the
language of design is becoming more widespread. Separating the wheat
from the chaff is always a challenge for any competition judge, but the
ratio of OK to great
seems to have slid toward mediocrity.
Years ago, as an art director, when I was moderately satisfied with
but not ecstatic over a piece of work I would say to the designer or
illustrator, “It’ll do.” In response, they were either relieved that the
job was approved and said nothing, or were confused and asked, “What
does ‘it’ll do’ mean?”
I preferred their silence. Because when pushed to respond, I would
find reasons why, actually, it would not do. For “it’ll do” meant
that it was just passable —it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great, it wasn’t
even all that good, but it was professional enough that under the
circumstances (a tight deadline or, more likely, an inability on my part
to suggest how to make it better), I was willing to take the line of
least resistance. Mea culpa!
Yet “it’ll do” was not meant to be faint praise. It was, pure and
simple, resignation. When the designer or illustrator asked me to
explain myself, it was usually an honest request for constructive
criticism. Sometimes I would comply, other times I was flummoxed.
“It’ll do” means that the work is “fine,” even “nice,” but not
“brilliant.” Now, getting that across can be difficult—after all, there
is a certain level of subjective evaluation involved. So, saying “it’ll
do” was my fallback position. It implied I wasn’t entirely pleased
because it was, to be frank, mediocre. Yet mediocrity, sad to say, could
be acceptable in certain circumstances.
So, without naming names, I will single out one example to
anecdotally illustrate the “Not Bad, but Not Great” syndrome.
Submitted to the aforementioned competition—not an AIGA competition,
mind you—were about 10 projects designed by the same graphic designer,
that were, as Garrison Keillor might say, “above average.” But as he
implied in the term, they were not much more than that. All the
fundamental design components were accounted for: the work looked
to be designed, with handsome typographic choices and a pleasant color
palette, but it felt like cookie-cutter or template work. In other
words, the designer appeared to have some of the right motor skills, but
something—let’s call it “nuance” or “flair”—was absent, as though the
design was done on autopilot. Like a person who can move their feet but
Categorically bad work is much easier to critique, since bad is
almost more quantifiable, in a way. If you are fluent in typography, it
is obvious when typeface A and typeface B don’t go together (like
wearing stripes and plaids), or that there is an excessive employ of
Photoshop drop shadows and other computer enhancements. Bad is bad.
“It’ll do” is mediocre, but with the patina of professionalism. Too much
graphic design has the patina without the substance, and has become the
Tibor Kalman once railed that professionalism was, in fact, the
absence creativity. Following the rules, he argued, was not the key to
great design. So he turned the tables around: From this day forward “bad
is good,” he declared. Of course, rule busting is great, if only to
keep designers (and clients) on their toes. Yet as a style—let’s call it
“neo-rule-busting”—it can be just bad, and not in a good way.
But back to those competition entries I was reviewing. They were not bad
bad or good bad—they didn’t outright demonstrate awful
taste, crummy aesthetics, lousy this or that. It was just that these
business cards, logos and other printed materials were cut from the same
uninspired mold. Each was typeset in acceptably “classic”
faces—Garamond, Bodoni, a hint of Futura—and acceptably letter-spaced.
Some of the pieces were even printed as faux letterpress with polymer
plates. But something was amiss and awry. The instinctive “flair”—the
heart—was gone leaving only the barebones, which wasn’t bad, so, “it’ll
The problem, however, with that calculus is the acceptance of “it’ll
do” as “this is what I want.” How many times have you designers heard
that mantra from a client? “This is what I want” often refers to “Not
bad, but not great,” which translates to “acceptable.” And that’s how
mediocrity is funneled into the mainstream as “good” or even
“competition worthy.” And it can even fool those of us who should know
While most of the submissions from the nameless designer who provoked
this essay were rejected, one piece got selected nonetheless. The
judges argued that the designer entered so many borderline pieces, maybe
it would be fair to include one as a sign of support. Someone pointed
to a faux-letterpress letterhead and envelope and exclaimed, “This’ll
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Tibor Kalman, founder of the design firm M&Co, left behind scores of design artifacts but is remembered more for his critiques on the nature of consumption and production than for his formal studio achievements. He enlarged the parameters of design from service to cultural force, for which he received an AIGA Medal in 1999.
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