Not Bad, but Not Great

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 can’t dance.

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 norm.

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 do.”

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 better.

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 do!”

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more.