The N Word

“Nice” could very well be the most offensive critical word a designer–or any creative person–will ever hear. “That project you’ve worked on for three years and devoted body and soul to is very nice.” I don’t know about you, it makes me want to scream.

While it is nice when peers say you’re nice–as in “that dude is really nice to children and small animals”–but to characterize someone’s design with the “n word” is worse than not nice, it is belittling.

Nice is a euphemism for “eh!” or “its just okay” or “it’ll do.” Often when the word is spoken, it is accompanied by a melancholy glance, a slight shrug, and a half-hearted smile. Something that is deemed to be nice is certainly not bad, but it is not extraordinary or exceptional. Nice is a word used when other superlatives are too charged. Nice is non-committal.

It is also a synonym for satisfactory, but doesn’t that really mean mediocre? I’ve heard clients say: “Your solution is very nice, but I was hoping for something, well, different.” Translation: “This is exactly what I do not want, but I’m basically too nice to say it too your face.” To assuage your disappointment the client hides behind the “n word.” But you have to be in deep denial not to know the genuine meaning.

Sure, there are many more unpleasant words - terrible, ugly, stupid, or inept, to name a few. I’m sure we would hate being branded with any of them. But the piddling monosyllabic, soft-c of nice is so void of passion that it oozes with insignificance. Nice is pure fluff; so give me a word like brilliant, which the British use to best effect (even though I’m told it actually means nice).

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote George Orwell. If indeed there was a more insincere word applied to art and design I haven’t heard it, and I presume the man who coined newspeak might agree that nice takes the prize. So if you are at a crit or in a presentation meeting and the teacher or client says “that’s nice” it may not be worth getting angry, but you’ll probably wonder “what is he really thinking?”

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.