Dust jackets and snark

Whirls of color and texture flipped by, one after another, up on the projector in front of us. Pitch-perfect typographic settings and illustrative allusions were printed onto these book covers, each striking the balance between describing the story of their contents whilst experimenting and bringing something new to the table. These books supplied patterns of wondrous, electric detail.

We were lucky enough to sneak into this talk by an internationally famous book designer; his work abundantly pronouncing his keen eye and razor-sharp wit. During this short talk it was impossible to ignore or challenge his designs and so all of us, even the hardcore cynics amongst our group, were uncontrollably in awe of him – this designer and storyteller, this sensei, before us.

Half way through he stopped the talk dead in its tracks as a flicker of vile, putrid colors zipped across the screen. It was some of his work for another large publishing house but this stuff was entirely different. You could hear the unmistakable shudder of the thirty or so graphic designers in the room, all collectively thinking: “WTF?”

The books were undeniably ugly; their repulsive, magnetic forces constantly pushed your eyes in the other direction. However the designer argued that the brief for these books was unlike anything else he had ever worked on since his publisher was looking to sell them specifically to younger students. Ultimately the publisher wanted them to buy the cheaper editions and hopefully segment the market into well designed classics and cheap paperbacks for them to be used solely in the classroom.

At the time I was outraged. How dare this designer make ugly things for a bunch of greedy, commercial overlords! Just think of those poor students! Think of all the libraries where those books will awkwardly live, their shelves moaning and mumbling all the while.

With time however I realised that this design was by all accounts a phenomenal success. He had performed the role of a ‘commercial artist’ as he should – it’s right there in the job description. This design had a positive effect on the publisher itself and it neatly segmented this market in two. Yet design in this sense carries a very strange meaning as it challenges our preconceptions of beauty, elegance and success.

Consequently this story is why I’m confused by people ranting on Twitter when a new website/app/film/anything launches and their first reaction is: “this is bad design.” Sadly I often react in this way, too (although I’ve gotten a little better at repressing these knee-jerk reactions). Either way, I think that we need to begin questioning what ‘success’ really means. If good design isn’t about aesthetics, then how can we possibly lash out in either a defensive or challenging manner?

I’d just like to thank those ugly little books for reminding me that any object of a design process is usually more complicated than we might first assume.