We use a lot of words to describe design today—brutalist, modern, post-modern, minimal, ugly, classic—but “hipster” isn’t really one of them. Hipster is the word one’s out-of-town relatives use (typically accompanied by a sneer) when they see too many mustaches and mason jars and tight jeans together in one place. It’s also the word that Steven Heller and Seymour Chwast have chosen to describe the design of our times in the latest edition of their well-known book, Graphic Style, a sweeping look at the evolution of aesthetics from “Victorian to Hipster.” Eep, there it is again.
In this update on the first edition, which was published in 30 years ago in 1988, hipster is meant to describe the “youthful wave” of graphic design today in all its “Multidisciplinary, Post-Modern, eclectic, anything goes”-ness. Heller cops to the fact that it’s an imperfect word. “It is difficult to determine what is of historical importance at the time it is happening,” he says in the book’s introduction—much less to give it a name.
The design styles that get ID’d and later become such familiar household names that we don’t think twice about tossing them around (“That’s so Bauhaus,” or “That’s so PoMo,” or “That’s so Memphis”) are merely those that are “trending” longer than others; it’s the job of design historians to take note of what’s trending now so we have something to reflect on later. This leads to some uncomfortable naming practices. The graphic designers in the room may refer to Fontism (type-led graphics) on the regular, but when was the last time you dropped Kinetics (layered type in motion graphics title sequences) or Vorticism (a Cubist/Modernist mashup) in conversation?
Perhaps these all fall short for a simple reason: naming things is really hard. Tying up an entire era of visual work in a single bow leads to some funky-looking bows that only history can iron out. So even if the word hipster doesn’t stick, the work, presumably, will. And the work Heller and Chwast have extracted as the best examples of today’s trends are divided further into hipster subtrends:
- New Order: a.k.a. vector-based, which is described as “the single most defining aesthetic characteristic” of our time. Vector illustrations have made it possible to present large quantities of data in a more visually engaging way, and have given rise to a lot of great symbol design and experimentation with typography, as well as to what seems like an unfortunate amount of “cute” design (see above), which takes all the simplicity of modernism and none of its warmth. Then again, experimenting with new digital tools renders all manner of results.
- Neo-Expressionism: Though not as “raw or tortured” as its predecessor, German Expressionism, today’s most expressive designers are using today’s technology to represent and elicit our inner human emotions. It’s a bit of a toughie to pin down, but Sagmeister & Walsh’s moving Fugue logo is a good example.
- Middle East Modern: In the ongoing exchange of visual information between the Middle East and the West, many Western designers are having a love affair with the expressive type and use of line in Middle Eastern letterforms and patterns; conversely, many Middle Eastern designers are embracing the modernism of the West. The results are often striking, particularly in Reza Abedini’s posters.
The design of the 2010s is both ordered, and a rejection of order; favoring simplicity and clarity on the one hand, and explosive expression on the other, as seen in the abundance of both vector-based and anti-vector work. While this group of design trends may lack an easily codifiable visual style, they share “an attitude rooted in freedom,” a direct result of how new technology has enabled a wider range of design styles than ever before, ranging from “raucous experimentation” to “a new simplicity in mannerisms, methods, and styles.” This is indicative of the increasing diversity in the field, too; American and Western European designers no longer have a lock on visibility.
We’re experiencing a moment of openness and experimentation right now that is utterly refreshing, especially from a historical perspective. It’s a rejection of conformity, but it’s a rejection that’s so all-encompassing it defies classification. So let’s declassify it, and simply call it “Graphic Design, 2010-” and sort out the name later. New canons are being born under our feet, and though Heller and Chwast say this is their fourth and final edition of Graphic Style, surely we’ll need an update in another decade?
After all, the role of the historian is not merely to trace design history in the making—it’s to select the best representations from a given era, to give it a name, and to nestle it into the context of the entire history of design so the rest of us can pick it up like a book and read it like a story. It’s worth a reminder that those selective actions are not objective; the hand of the historian is connected to a human who is not without opinion, Heller and Chwast especially.
If you can’t utter the word hipster without cringing, maybe that’s the total point. Maybe naming this era of design hipster is their ultimate historical critique.