Sometimes the best projects start on a whim. Just ask Singaporean graphic designer Darius Ou: his Autotypography project started six years ago while he was bored at design school, and has since evolved into a collection of 365 posters that have found their way into college study materials, and now are showing as part of the Dissolving Margins exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore.
Autotypography was born when Ou decided to create one A4 poster a day. Over a year, this “visual diarrhea” of his life—hence the wordplay on “autobiography”—evolved into a “semiotic playground.” At the beginning of the project, Ou experimented with breaking the cardinal principles of “good design” because it looked “cool”—from stretching typefaces to blending amorphous forms—but midway through, the project turned into more of an inquiry into visual culture. Autotypography helped propel Ou to becoming one of the foremost proponents of the “new ugly” in Singapore.
“I see a lot of graphic design rules very loosely now and I don’t follow them like a bible,” he says. “To me, I’d rather people say I hate your work than to not get any comments at all.”
Ou readily admits that exhibiting Autotypography in a gallery was the last thing on his mind when he kick-started it with a poster that ironically used Helvetica to critique the typeface’s popularity. Such tongue-in-cheek posters eventually gave way to graphical expressions that heavily referenced Taiwanese graphic designer Wang Zhi-hong’s deconstructed Chinese typography and the brutally expressive works of “critical graphic designers.” Riffing off these influences he encountered online, Ou began developing his own production techniques through his daily poster-making exercise.
“The project really allowed me to hone in on my technical skills, and that is something that I will always take with me,” he says. For instance, having figured out how to blend shapes with a gradient in one poster, he used it again in a 2014 poster for the Soirée Graphique exhibition. Elements from other Autotypography posters also made their way into Ou’s contribution to Erik Brandt’s Ficciones Typografika, a project dedicated to typographic exploration in a public space.
Beyond developing an arsenal of tools that have become a trademark of his maximalist design approach, Ou says Autotypography also helped him reflect critically about how he should practice graphic design. This is summed up in his favorite poster, which was created just over halfway into the project, and even became part of Francisco Laranjo’s scathing critique of “critical graphic design.” In his poster, Ou asks if the “friction” arising from the “critical graphic design” movement was ruining or pushing forward the profession.
“At this point, ‘ugly design’ has changed its meaning for me,” he says. Rather than a negative comment, Ou began seeing his works and that of others as questioning the “rules” he was taught in design school. “I think it’s a term that is conflated. It’s actually design that is different and not the usual,” he explains. “If we always follow the rules set by designers who lived in the 20th century—but we live in the 21st century—then what are we following? Are we blindly following?”
This mode of being constantly critical about how he designs is what remains so many years after ending Autotypography. Ou was tired of the project and had just graduated: he started reading up on design history to reflect on the year’s work and also founded the design studio, Currency, with Melvin Tan. They split in late 2016 and Ou has been running his eponymous studio since. Throughout this period, he has sought to reconcile the edgy aesthetic sensibilities developed in Autotypography with the expectations of clients.
He has found some success with emerging practitioners in the arts and cultural industry, such as artists Jennifer Mehigan and Jack Tan. For the latter, Ou recently completed an annual report for a court where animals could communicate with humans and have legal rights. Besides having to imagine how animals would “see” the design (a black and white identity was adopted because most animals are color-blind), Ou’s design also challenges the idea of bolding texts as a means of emphasis and displaying hierarchy. In his report, the copy gradually becomes bolder to visualize the artwork’s concept of evolution instead.
But beyond creating work that simply looks experimental, Ou has come to realize that pushing boundaries is contextual, and can come in many ways. “It doesn’t have to be ‘ugly’, it just needs to be different and be able to be remembered,” he explains. An event brochure he designed for a bank, for instance, uses a relatively clean and uncluttered design which Ou says is unusual for such corporate literature.
Today, the “new ugly” has become increasingly embraced by mainstream visual culutre. Ou points to Slovenian graphic designer Nejc Prah’s Grand Prix award in the 2015 Tokyo Type Director’s Club and HORT’s Nike campaigns as indicators of how times have changed. He’s eager to ride on the appetite for more experimental work by continuing the spirit of Autotypography. This means creating graphic design that challenges audiences: more than just a means to attract attention, he’s keen to encourage a deeper reading of things.
“When you make things so easy, people put in less effort and this also translates to less engagement with the content,” he says. This hit home when he saw how fake news websites tricked readers by borrowing the “look” of established media outlets.
Ou adds that graphic design can only progress if practitioners continually look for unconventional methods to approaching a brief and challenging aesthetic ideas. “If you stay true to always asking ‘Why?’ and ‘Why not?’, you will always stay ahead,” he says. “It is always change that will evoke change.”