The Decade of Dirty Design

Post-nostalgia stress syndrome for the 1990s—a curious love/hate relationship with grunge type—is finally kicking in just as the first decade of 2000 is coming to a close. Nostalgia is so last century. It is time for design pundits to start looking forward, but not before looking back at the past 10 years in order to neatly categorize and define the design aesthetic of the era (assuming this can be labeled an era). Actually, I'm putting my dibs in to be the first to offer some viable categorization. I know it is cheating to do so before 2009 is officially over.. What's more I hold that fairness is not an issue when staking out one's pundit-turf. So let's begin….


Jonny Hannah's hand-lettered aesthetic.

Jonny Hannah's hand-drawn lettering for the Starbucks Birmingham International Jazz Festival 2005 (left) and the book Telling Tales (2004).

The millennium began tumultuously with the contested election of George W. Bush. The nation was in fairly good economic health when Clinton left the White House, and graphic design was rolling merrily along with plenty of work for everyone. Stylistically, designers had just emerged from a period of hyper-experimentation that pitted old modernist verities, such as order and clarity, against computer-driven chaos, which some called postmodern and others (myself included) sarcastically referred to as “ugly.” Yet from a more sympathetic and reasoned perspective “The early '90s was an extraordinarily fertile period,” wrote Ellen Lupton in a recent article on It continues: “In the U.S., a far-flung vanguard had spread out from Cranbrook and CalArts, where several generations of designers—from Ed Fella to Elliott Earls—had embraced formal experimentation as a mode of critical inquiry. Emigré magazine, edited and art directed by Rudy VanderLans, provided an over-scaled paper canvas for experimental layout, writing and typeface design.” And let's not forget David Carson's stinging jabs at typographic propriety. He significantly influenced a generation to embrace typography as an expressive medium.


Designs for AIGA by Ed Fella.

Ed Fella's handmade typographic work for AIGA from 2004 (left) and 2006 (right).

No matter which side of the aesthetic or philosophical divide one was on, this was a critically exciting time to be a graphic designer. Although the computer was the dominant medium, during the early '90s designers were transitioning from the hand to the pixel, experiencing all the visual quirks and anomalies that came with technological unease. By the end of the decade and the beginning of the 21st century, despite the Y2K-end-of-civilization hoopla, the computer was firmly entrenched in the lives of designers, and not only was there an aesthetic calming down, but a frenetic media migration. Designers were relying on the computer not only for clean, crisp and flaw-free print work, they were turning from the printed page to video, audio and other motion and sound formats. Mastery of the computer's options meant that by the end of the 20th century a new generation of designers were commanding much more than merely Illustrator, Quark and Photoshop programs—they had figured out how to wed technique to concept, and produce design that often had an exterior life other than the client's message. The earlier grungy experimentation gave way to a new clarity and rationalism—even a new minimalism began to take hold with the return to Helvetica and other emblematic sans serif faces.

So, arguably neo-modernism of the kind practiced in, say, Wallpaper* magazine, which launched in 1996, was the defining style of the decade. But actually that was not the case. Eclecticism was still in force, and while some designers were out-of-the-closet modernists, others followed an expressionist model. (You want names? Just look at the AIGA Design Archives for the evidence). But eclecticism is too broad a notion to be a decade-defining style. The '90s were clearly the digital decade with all that that represents—an evolution from embracing digital mistakes to practicing digital precision. Axiomatically, generations challenge one another. If the '90s were devoutly digital then, the 2000s should be the “anti-digital” decade.


Poster by Nate Williams (left) and book cover by Ross MacDonald (right).

(From left) A hand-lettered illustration for Ecojot journals by Nate Williams; and wood-block lettering by Ross MacDonald for the book Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America (both 2009).

Where's the proof, Mr. Pundit? Anecdotally, I draw the rationales from students entering the MFA Designer as Author program I co-chair (with Lita Talarico). When asked why the first wave of students entered from late '90s through mid-2000s, the answer was, “To get back to the hand.” Now, this does not mean a total rejection of the computer (for that would be professional suicide), but it does mean that the craft aspect of design was lacking in their formal educations and practices. With the increase of the D.I.Y. sensibility, with renewed emphasis on “making things from scratch,” designers were feeling a need to make physical (not virtual) contact with their materials and outcomes. It is no surprise that sewing and scrapbooking emerged as popular hobbies, but it was somewhat novel that they were integrated into the graphic design practice.

Over the past five years I co-authored three books that support this “anti-digital” claim: Handwritten (with Mirko Ilic) and New Vintage Type and New Ornamental Type (with Gail Anderson). The first is totally focused on typography done by the original 10 digits (although unavoidably scanned for the computer). The other two books revisit older styles and eras, and a good amount of the material is generated by hand with a D.I.Y. underpinning. Consistent with this assertion, hand typesetting, letterpress printing and silkscreen techniques are on the rise in schools and workshops. And speaking of workshops, as a thesis one former MFA Designer as Author student established the Dirty Weekend, a series of three weekend sessions that focus exclusively on painting, carving, cutting and printing by hand. Recent turnouts at the Art Directors Club in New York have also proved that the hand is at least as mighty as the pixel.


Handwritten book cover by Steven Heller and Mirko Ilic (left) and John Gray's cover for Everything Is Illuminated (right).

(From left) Cover of Steve Heller and Mirko Ilic's book Handwritten (2006); and Jon Gray's book jacket design for Everything Is Illuminated (2002)

Why call this trend anti-digital? Isn't it just an alternative to the dominant medium, but certainly not a substitute for it? Perhaps. But since pundits like to sum up moments—especially decades—for purposes of further debate, I will refer to the early Oughts as “The Decade of Dirty Design” until someone proves otherwise.

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.