Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

Always (mis)read the label

Posted on 22 November 2007 Comments

Article illustration for Always (mis)read the label

A former colleague got in touch the other day to say that he’d enjoyed my recent tutorials in .net magazine, but thought I was wrong to refer to ‘Web 2.0’ as a design aesthetic when in fact it’s a development concept. Many of you (particularly those of you who saw my talk at FOWD) will know that this is rather ironic, as of course I completely agree with him! So it got me thinking: are my magazine tutorials giving off a different impression to the kind of stuff I’m speaking about at events?

With this slightly worrying thought in mind, I’d like to try and clear a few things up, as well as open up a discussion about design cliches with you guys.

Context

Firstly, I love writing for .net magazine, but it’s worth noting that tutorials are about a practical solution to a problem and understandably they can’t allow much room for debating or ranting. I’d like to think that I conveyed my feelings against the ‘web 2.0 look’ in the introduction to the tutorial, but as this meaning is obviously being lost to some people, it’s worth clarifying here.

The so-called ‘Web 2.0 look’

I don’t think I need to go into too much detail about this here because my FOWD talk (entitled ‘Destroy The Web 2.0 Look’) covered most of my major gripes, but for those of you couldn’t be there or who haven’t seen the slides, the crux of the presentation was to emphasise that what people casually refer to as the ‘Web 2.0 look’ is nothing more than a current (and overused) design trend; you know: logo reflections, gradients, drop shadows, rounded corners, diagonal lines, etc. It was also a kind of call-to-arms to get designers to make an intentional break away from these cliches.

The so-called ‘Grunge look’

In another touch of irony, I’ve been told a few times that the ‘Grunge look’ – apparently something I’m known for – is just as much a cliche as the ‘Web 2.0 look’. Well, I agree. Sadly, my earlier .net tutorial that (perhaps unwisely) referred to this aesthetic a few times didn’t really express this. Like I said, a tutorial is not really the context in which to do open up a debate. But regardless of whether I’ve expressed this or not, Grunge is a label I feel a little uncomfortable with. Not as uncomfortable as ‘Web 2.0’, of course – because at least Grunge allows for a slightly more vague and abstract interpretation – but uncomfortable nonetheless.

My trusty Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “grime or dirt” in the first instance, a musical genre in the second, and a style of fashion in the third. It’s obvious that people see the worn / distressed / muddy textures I’m fond of and apply the OED’s first definition of the word, but Grunge has always been a problematic label. Personally, I think it’s most widely known for its application to the early 90s Seattle music scene, where it represented not just a musical style but also the accompanying look and ethos; a kind of punk-born carelessness mixed with a more introverted atmosphere and a strong influence from Metal. Grunge’s most famous figurehead Kurt Cobain famously disliked the term; primarily the problem was that it quickly became a marketing tool and a way to enclose several bands under one umbrella, when – in reality – the complex musical arrangements of Alice In Chains were quite different from the punkish minimalism of Nirvana.

Apologies for the brief musical interlude. My point is that Grunge has always been a poor description purely because of its vagueness. In the case of my own work, for instance, I would rather hear people describe my ‘style’ as “richly textured” or “organic”. The trouble with the Grunge term is that it negates the highly structured grid system that controls the actual design of the site; take away my background image and you’ll find that the so-called Grunge is pretty much gone.

Now it’s your turn

So what do you guys think of this? Personally I think that labels are a necessary evil in all walks of life, but it’d be nice if people didn’t apply them so freely and without serious consideration. Over on Snap2objects, Mao wrote an article in support of my FOWD presentation and went further by analysing characteristics of the style in general. It’s worth having a read, although sadly the comments section once again shows how so many people are missing the original point. Are we back to square one? Comments are open…
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