Design is being pulled in two directions. On the one hand, there’s a wave of practitioners abandoning the screen in favor of creating “real,” handmade work; on the other, there’s a new generation of designers and imagemakers who’ve wholeheartedly embraced the creative possibilities of the digital world. One of the trends that has risen to the surface in recent years (and stayed there) is an aesthetic that references a certain digital “ugliness” reminiscent of ’90s Geocities websites and early internet-era computer games. But is it just a passing phase, or a sign of things to come—evidence of the rebellious spirit brewing amongst young up-and-comers? And what might that mean for the future of graphic design?
Take the work of Manuel Birnbacher, whose identity for the 2014 Nachtdigital Festival looks like a mutated Sims gameplay guide, pairing wayward type with morphed human forms. “I really like being able to play with abstraction and caricature, as well as imagery somewhere on the border between realistic and digitally created,” he says.
Rose Pilkington, who’s applied her digital-first style to work for MTV and Lowe Counsel, is also drawn to the freedom that this aesthetic offers. “It almost appears not to have any limitations,” she says. “Infinite realities and worlds can be created, and sometimes it blurs the line between reality because it can look so life-like.” However, she admits that what became an “obsession” after she learned to use 3D modeling software still has its limitations, such as the inability to reproduce the handmade effect of a screenprint or illustration.
But what the digital approach may lack in soul it makes up for with immediacy. “The computer can make magic far more quickly than my hands,” says artist and designer Keetra Dean Dixon. For Dixon, the draw of digitally-created imagery is less about the aesthetic and more about using an efficient, computational method to create “maximum form.” Dixon believes it’s a craft like any other creative practice, just with a new set of tools. “I love exploring emergent technology as a way to maintain my fluency with new tools that may be relevant to the evolution of design,” she says. “Our tools influence us and pull us in new directions. I like to be an active participant in that shift.”
Maiko Gubler, a visual artist and designer who uses digital modelling as a form of sculpture, also finds herself drawn to the potential of these methods. Her traditional graphic design background (yes, she has set type manually) and her experience working with clay contribute to her fascination with the way people use digital tools. In fact, she thinks the popularity of digital design may have more to do with accessibility than any kind of trendy retro-future look.
“It’s something new, and the software needed to make it has become easier to get ahold of,” agrees Sam Lyon, whose purely digital illustrations made a splash last year. (Who didn’t see his jelly-like animated GIFs?) Whereas in the past, 3D imagery was made only by those who already understood how to create it, the internet has allowed for a much broader application. “The CGI people of Hollywood and the ad and architecture world have perfected 3D imagery in the last 15-20 years,” says Birnbacher. “It’s the democratization of the technology, and the imperfect, rough, and amateurish approach of graphic designers and artists that make digital imagery interesting again.”
So are contemporary graphic designers reclaiming 3D modeling in rebellion against the perfection it’s found in the hands of the film industry? Birnbacher certainly believes that the “slick and flawless” nature of fashion and advertising imagery has had its own knock-on effect for a younger generation of designers. “It’s time now to break rules and make things look rough and fresh in the same way David Carson did with typography in the ’90s,” he adds. “It’s the glitch and the mistakes that give something a soul, even in a digitally-created figure.”
Some would argue that the digital design aesthetic’s 15 minutes are up. It’s already been three years since Gestalten documented some of the edgiest practitioners in Pretty Ugly: Visual Rebellion in Design. But it’s shown no sign of slowing down. “That digital pixelated realm is what a good part of my generation grew up with,” says Rose Pilkington. “We’re still that world. It’s never stopped changing, and only becomes more advanced. Take a look at the posters up around cities. Perhaps this is just a new means of presenting information, just like painting or photography.”