Ornamentation is one of the most significant points of debate in design history. Arguments have long raged about whether ornamentation is a frivolous waste of our time and resources or a beautifying presence that makes life richer. In today’s digital age, unconstrained by past technical limitations and with seemingly infinite options and reference points at our fingertips, the barometer of taste appears to be shifting between less and more—minimalism and maximalism—with greater regularity than ever before, especially in graphic design.
Currently, it would seem that we are in the throes of a revival of ornament. In 2018, Phaidon published Sagmeister & Walsh’s Beauty book, part of the studio’s multifaceted project whose thesis was that “over the course of the last century, beauty was displaced by functionality in design and architecture. As a result, something essential was lost.” The design of the book is awash with contemporary ornament: complex and opulent 3-D computer-rendered illustrations, elaborate decorative serif typefaces, and intricate repeat patterns. Even the way it is presented, photographed on a ruffled bright blue piece of silk, makes it appear as much an ornament to be admired as something to be read, and hints at today’s trends. Such approaches are typical of work by Jessica Walsh, an American designer who first teamed up with the like-minded Stefan Sagmeister in 2012, but in 2019 went solo by founding agency &Walsh. With more than 500,000 followers on Instagram, Walsh is one of the world’s most influential young designers, and her success points to the popularity of a more visually appealing, less-rigid approach to design.
Today, what counts as an ornament in visual communication is up for debate. Ornament can be a carrier of meaning, and making things look appealing or interesting, far from being a frivolity, is often the very purpose of graphic design—particularly given the increasing dominance of the image in modern life.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORNAMENT
Although the decline of ornament is usually associated with the various avant-garde modernist movements that emerged in the early twentieth century, its roots can be found deep in the previous century. In 1849, art critic John Ruskin argued that ornament should only be used for leisure—“Wherever you can rest, there decorate; where rest is forbidden, so is beauty.” The idea of separating ornament from utility can also be seen in the writing of William Morris, who famously stated that you should have nothing at home that “you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Morris, aside from his role as a proto–Marie Kondo, is best known for his richly patterned, expensive textile designs. He may seem like an unlikely influence on modernism, but he was one of the first to articulate that purely functional forms have their own unique beauty.
Then, in 1908, the Austrian architect Adolf Loos declared in his oft-quoted essay “Ornament and Crime” that the “evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects,” a statement that captured the zeitgeist of the nascent modern movement. He presents some of the practical arguments against ornament: it wastes labor and materials, making products that are costlier and get replaced when they go out of fashion, rather than when they stop functioning. For Loos and his modernist contemporaries responding to the advances of the industrial revolution and the advent of the machine age, the removal of ornament represented the hope of a more efficient, rational and utopian world, and it was as much a social cause as an aesthetic one.
In the wake of World War II, graphic designers increasingly followed the lead of modernist architects, taking Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s famous dictum “less is more” to heart and stripping back what they considered unnecessary and decorative. Focus shifted to achieving clarity of information, with objectivity and neutrality as the ultimate goal, through the use of strict grids and the eradication of elements such as illustration, patterns and, in typography, serifs. It was Swiss designers, such as Armin Hofmann, Emil Ruder and Josef Müller-Brockmann, who were the most innovative minimalists, leading their clean new approach to be labeled the Swiss style. Their aesthetic soon reached an audience of designers worldwide and was used enthusiastically by multinational corporations seeking to be appropriate for an increasingly global audience.
The most significant backlash against modernism was, of course, postmodernism, which brought with it a return of complexity and eclecticism in design—ornament was back on the menu. This was especially true of graphic design, where innovators such as Wolfgang Weingart, David Carson, Katherine McCoy, Neville Brody, April Greiman and the many designers involved with the Emigre type foundry broke the rules instilled by the previously dominant modernist dogma. There were wider currents at play that led to ornament being resurrected, such as an interest in subjectivity and individual experiences, the desire to break down hegemony, an embrace of the possibilities of digital technology, inspiration from beyond the narrow scope of the Western canon, and an appreciation of the vernacular.
The postmodern approach to ornament often wasn’t about achieving beauty; sometimes it was even aiming for the opposite effect. “Less is more” became “less is a bore,” which caused a great deal of ire to many, most notably Steven Heller, who was inspired to write his controversial 1993 essay “Cult of the ugly.” In it, he concluded that “ugliness as its own virtue—or as a knee-jerk reaction to the status quo—diminishes all design.” Almost 30 years later, arguments persist. There are still avowed modernists, and ornament remains a dirty word to some graphic designers, but the “anything goes” attitude of postmodernism is certainly closer to the status quo today.
In recent years, typography has, of all the areas of graphic design, seen perhaps the biggest resurgence of a more ornamental approach. Gone are the days when a strict modernist like Massimo Vignelli could seriously advocate that a designer requires only six typefaces. In 1991, he defined the “proliferation of typefaces” as “a new level of visual pollution,” but typographic options have since grown exponentially, and diversity has been increasingly celebrated rather than condemned. The mainstream remains mostly dominated by neutral sans serifs, even among newer, digitally focused brands, such as the swath of startups favoring colorful minimalism and friendly geometric sans serifs. However, a more daring approach to typography is slowly having a knock-on effect, even in the corporate world. In 2017, American yogurt and food company Chobani embraced a new quirky, chunky serif for its logo, drawn by New York–based type designer Berton Hasebe. As this high-profile rebrand shows, custom typefaces with distinctive or characterful qualities are an ideal way for brands to stand out in ever more competitive markets. Type designer James Edmondson, who founded the California-based OH no Type Co. in 2015 in response to his dissatisfaction with the prevailing type design landscape, where “less-interesting fonts were popular,” says that he has noticed a “pendulum swing toward experimental fonts,” adding that “there is lots of fun to be had, and new problems to solve.”
Typography has long had an ornamental history—one only needs to think of the display wood types that were popular in the nineteenth century—and designers today are increasingly looking back to go forward. Commercial Classics, an offshoot of Commercial Type, is dedicated to reviving a range of historical typefaces, such as the bizarre reverse-contrast Caslon Italian; Thorowgood Grotesque Dimensional, with its trompe l’oeil 3-D layers; and the highly decorated Caslon Rounded Ornamented. In a similar vein is The Pyte Foundry, run by Oslo-based Ellmer Stefan, who has a confessed passion for the “typographic lunacies of the nineteenth century.” In 2016, Pyte undertook the mammoth task of releasing a free display typeface every week for the entire year. The results were eclectic and highlighted the idiosyncratic approach to typography in the premodernist era.
Ironically, it is advances in font technology that are helping to facilitate these revivals of complex typefaces from the age of moveable type, with the advent of variable fonts also promising exciting ornamental possibilities for designers. David Pearson, a British book designer whose breakthrough project was the 2004 Penguin Great Ideas series of covers brimming with historical ornament, is excited by the space-filling potential offered by variable type. He suggests that designers will be “happy to use it loud and proud to showcase its dynamic aspect,” and also adds that, from a book cover perspective, “negative space is increasingly seen as a frivolity, commercially speaking, and associated with high-mindedness, indulgence and waste.”
Digital typography was a major factor in postmodern shifts in graphic design during the 1980s and 1990s, with the constraints and possibilities of pixel-based fonts leading to an explosion in creativity. In recent years, thanks to technological improvements and affordable and accessible font-creation programs, most notably the Glyphs app, more and more graphic designers are experimenting with the creation of typefaces.
An example of a designer doing this is David Rudnick, who only uses his own custom typefaces in his work, and does not make them commercially available in order to ensure the type remains unique to the context it was created for. This, Rudnick says, is “a response to the digital conditions of our age—I’m making tools that I know can remain reasonably unappropriable.” Rudnick’s approach to typography often includes ornamental, historical reference points, sometimes combined with sci-fi, futuristic elements. As with many contemporary designers, the role of typography in his work isn’t just as a means of communicating language, but to convey a feeling, an atmosphere or meaning. The popularity of the more extreme elements of Rudnick’s visual style has been credited with encouraging a new wave of young designers to explore more expressive type forms, resulting in a resurgence of highly ornamental, Gothic blackletter–style fonts in contemporary graphic design, especially for fashion, music and nightclubs.
COMPLEX WORK FOR COMPLEX TIMES
Rudnick, who has managed to develop one of the most distinctive and imitated approaches in contemporary graphic design, began his practice without formal training, having originally studied art history, focusing mainly on the northern European Renaissance in the fifteenth century, a time of great technological change. Rudnick sees parallels between the era he was studying and the one in which he began to design, due to the internet having as radical an effect on how society accesses and controls images and information as the printing press once did. He considers this awkward, difficult transition to a digital world as a key tension his work is “in visual dialogue with.” Rudnick acknowledges that his approach has often been misjudged by detractors who think he is an accelerationist taking graphic design too far in an extreme direction. He is keen to stress that his work is not “a celebration of the baroque or mannerism or crenulations.” Instead, he considers it his “best effort to understand what the front line of culture is, sharing the results with an audience to say, ‘Why does this gesture feel more resonant of how things are now, than if I were to give you an absolutely and gorgeously “unproblematic,” clean image that believes life can be reduced to the same answers as 50 years ago?’” With its idiosyncratic use of symbols, typography and imagery, his work points toward a more complex approach to graphic design as a response to the political, social and technological complexities of the world today.
Design, like all visual culture, responds to and interprets the world around it and also reflects it back. There are also the effects of the democratization of graphic design, and design’s potential automation, to consider. As it becomes ever easier for nondesigners to achieve technically proficient, clean and rational results, designers respond by becoming more interested in complexity. Graphic designers also have more incentive to develop their own style or unique approach in order to stand out in the online attention economy. The increased risk of plagiarism and copying thanks to visibility on the internet has also potentially resulted in designers pursuing approaches which are more personal and harder to imitate.
Complex and personal approaches to graphic design are nothing new, and have long been associated with a more critical or theoretical position in opposition to modernism’s cold logic. From the late 1960s onward, Dutch graphic designer Jan van Toorn took a unique reflective approach, creating work that challenged and confronted the viewer, forcing them to consider the role of the designer. Van Toorn was keen to expose the designer’s role in distributing prevailing ideologies, and used his work to question, rather than just acting as a servant for clients. Many designers since Van Toorn have used their work to subvert or contradict the aesthetics and techniques of dominant ideologies such as capitalism, neoliberalism and the patriarchy. Metahaven, Anja Kaiser, the Design Displacement Group and The Rodina all frequently take an overwhelming, maximalist approach as a direct critique of the lingering system of modernism and its aim of “objectivity.”
American designer Eric Hu, who has worked in director roles at Nike and the Canadian fashion retailer SSENSE, suggests that political changes like the election of Trump and the Brexit vote have “undone a simplified examination of the world and revealed it to be messy,” and says that “it’s normal for culture to respond in kind.” Hu also considers that the failings of the idea “that you can problem-solve your way into a better world” is also a factor in designers feeling less bound to modernist rules, adding that in graphic design, there is a “real fear of just admitting something looks nice.” In terms of his own work, which is often focused in cultural areas such as music and fashion, Hu remembers a lecture by Ed Fella at the ArtCenter College of Design as a key moment in the formation of his own opinion on ornament. Fella’s free and expressive approach was an alternative to the “rigid, rationalist justification for every single thing on a piece of design” advocated by his teachers, and Hu recalls that “it really felt like someone took the handcuffs off me at that moment.” For Hu, the democratization of design tools means that “ornamentation will become more accepted.” He posits that as the field matures, we will see “a design industry and design as an art medium,” but he also says that there will always be designers pursuing “a rationalist route, hoping to appeal to technology and business clients.”
There is a flip side to the idea that difficult times breed complex, even overwhelming, approaches to graphic design, and that is that in a period of great uncertainty, people want to be cheered up and see beauty and positivity in the world. The work of popular designers such as Camille Walala, Morag Myerscough, Alex Trochut, Kate Moross, Felix Pfäffli and Hansje van Halem show that there is a great appetite for vibrant, colorful graphic design that uses elements of ornament, such as pattern, illustration and lettering, in playful and visually appealing ways.
The resurfacing of interest around ornament in graphic design that came in the wake of postmodernism was part of a wider critical reevaluation of modernism from different perspectives. With modernism’s aims of universalism and sense of definitive superiority at the expense of pluralistic traditions, it is easy to see how its critics associate its ideology with authoritarianism, conservatism and a colonial drive. The fact that modernism was a Eurocentric, White-dominated and overwhelmingly male movement feeds directly into this. In recent years, conversations around equality and decolonization have finally begun to reach the mainstream, so it is unsurprising to see the dogma of modernism, and especially its denigration of ornament, being challenged.
Ornament cannot be considered without taking gender into account; it was long seen as feminine, excessive, frivolous and sensuous. Modernism’s position that design should be logical and functional was a patriarchal one, partly predicated on the harmful, outdated idea that men are the rational thinkers. The Bauhaus school, birthplace of modernism, may have been home to many progressive views, but women who studied there were encouraged to pursue “soft” subjects such as weaving or textiles. The school’s founder, Walter Gropius, thought that women, whom he described as the “beautiful sex,” weren’t suited to think in three dimensions, which should be left to the “strong sex.”
The feminism that came with postmodernism had a big impact on women working in the design world, and many women designers have reclaimed and celebrated some of the “feminine” elements thrown out by modernism. The first wave of graphic designers who were explicitly experimenting with ornament in their work around the new millennium were primarily women designers, such as Marian Bantjes, Denise Gonzales Crisp and Gail Anderson. Gonzales Crisp, an American designer, writer and educator, has especially considered the role of ornament in graphic design in depth. In her 2003 essay “Toward a Definition of the DecoRational,” she notes that the “rationalist aesthetic as theorized and practiced by mid-century modernists is not only of a different time, but of a different place, a different gender, a different ethos.” The resurgence of interest in hand lettering in the last two decades, partly in response to boredom with the sterility of digital typography, has also been dominated by women, with trendsetters Jessica Hische, Louise Fili, Marion Deuchars and Martina Flor having helped popularize a decorative and expressive approach.
Like gender, race must be reflected on in any discussion of ornament. Today, a reader of Loos’s “Ornament and Crime” would find it hard to agree with his views given the overt racism of his argument. Loos frequently used non-Western cultures as examples of ornament usage, which he described as a “degenerate” and “primitive” pursuit for “backwards” peoples. From a contemporary perspective, it is obvious that modernism’s rejection of regional traditions and visual styles in the aim of universalism has had harmful effects that need rectifying. In his viral essay “Design Thinking is a Rebrand for White Supremacy,” New York–based product designer Darin Buzon notes that the “act of prescribing racelessness or more broadly neutrality is itself a racial or sided act,” adding that “aspirations to achieve this [are] impossible let alone prone to racism” and that “doing so renders all the nuances of humanity to a uniform visual code.” Buzon also asks, “What is Modernism if not the cultural weapon to erase nonwhite aesthetics?” Designers should be free to embrace their cultural backgrounds as a source of inspiration; however, there is a risk of repeating some of Loos’s mistakes if BIPOC designers are expected to use ornament to fit the stereotypes projected by White designers. Apsara Flury, a Swiss designer who has worked for clients such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and Dutch architects MVRDV, remembers feeling uncomfortable that a design school tutor in Switzerland “wanted her to use ornament” because of her Thai heritage and “suggested that she try not using a computer” in her work, as if she was inherently suited to a less technological approach.
Ornament cannot be separated from intellectual questions about power dynamics and the politics of taste and elitism. Benedetta Crippa, an Italian graphic designer and educator based in Sweden, embraces ornament in her work, which she considers “a reaction to a patriarchal view of the world which has consistently pushed down decorative practices as feminine and expendable, and an affirmation of the reality of my own body and mind to simply exist and take part in shaping the world.” With calls for decolonizing and depatriarchizing design growing ever louder, especially in education, a more pluralistic and less judgmental view of different styles and approaches to design will hopefully become more mainstream. Crippa suggests that with “cultural diversity being revised [to be] a fundamental value,” we will see more work that challenges the “commonly accepted notions of quality that patriarchy, White supremacy and capitalism have defined for us,” adding that “the reality of human expression is immensely diverse, varied, and connected to culture and local tradition, and ornamentation has always existed as part of people’s ways of seeing and making. It is most urgent for that to be celebrated.” ca