Design is everywhere.

Almost everything
has been “designed”
by someone.

People who don’t know anything about design aren’t really aware of its ubiquity, and I suppose that’s fine. I am often tempted to evangelize about the importance of design, but it sometimes seems to be that not everyone needs to understand or care about everything. I couldn’t care less about business school, which seems to me to teach things that are either obvious or too esoteric to actually matter. I seem to be doing okay with that lack of knowledge, although it might explain why my current net worth is deep blood red. And plenty of outsiders feel the same way about design—we do a job that is purely decorative, a job that anyone with some extra time and creativity can get done. These people are often our clients, at least until we become educated or in-demand enough to avoid them. But the majority of working designers don’t have this choice. For better or for worse, the work created by these workhorse designers makes up a large portion of our greater visual culture, but it exists on the fringes of the design world.

I am troubled by the marginalization of this “other” design. Highly educated designers know what we don’t like—a deeply discerning professor once told me that bad typography made her feel physically ill—but we don’t often consider the backstory of “ugly,” everyday stuff. The signs in my laundromat are not what anyone would consider high design, but they were clearly made by someone with technical proficiency and intent. The lower-end magazines in the supermarket checkout line were certainly designed by a professional but are unlikely to win prestigious design awards. When our eyes aren’t inattentively sliding over their surface, we might smugly snicker with our fellow design snobs over a cheap-looking gradient or drop shadow. But another designer intentionally made these things, and I am very curious about how this design operates.

Before I became an MFA candidate, I was a working designer with a degree from a liberal-arts school. My design education was not nearly as in-depth as the curriculum at an art school like MICA. With my undergraduate degree, I emerged able to make things but not knowledgeable about the details that separated high design from visual rabble. My background is decidedly middle-class. I grew up in Hamilton, New Jersey, a suburb of Trenton where most people were one generation removed from a mostly vanished blue-collar identity. That identity gave Trenton its motto: “Trenton Makes, The World Takes.” Today, the motto is sadly ironic. My father was a warehouse manager and then a recruiter of warehouse managers. He later went back to school to become a special-education teacher. My mom was a social worker for the state of New Jersey. Briefly, my former stepfather owned a tanning salon. My friends’ parents in elementary and middle school mostly worked for the pharmaceutical companies that dominated central New Jersey, or else they owned small businesses or were plumbers, scrap dealers, and contractors. Much of the graphic design was in the forms of pizza menus and diner placemats, supermarket flyers and ads for McDonalds.

I went on to high school as a scholarship student at an all-girls prep school in Princeton, located in a gorgeous early-postmodernist building designed by Jean Labatut, graduate director of Princeton University’s School of Architecture in the late 1960s. There, and through trips to New York with my aunt and new high school friends, I was exposed to and inspired by a higher-end world of art and design. After that, I attended The George Washington University, where I majored in studio art and concentrated in design, but I focused much of my attention on art history and contemporary conceptual art. I also sub-specialized in Miller High Life and making the most of dollar-beer night at the nearby bar. The design concentration was being slowly discontinued, so I learned how to use the Adobe suite and some design basics, but not much beyond that.

After graduating, I did some local freelance and temp work in New Jersey, and I followed this with a stint as an intern at Michael Graves Design Group, the product-design division of the architect’s firm in which the products and packaging for his Target line was made. In hindsight, I think my time at this elite studio really showed me how much I didn’t know, both technically and in the culture of contemporary high design. These highly-trained designers didn’t find it impressive that I considered myself “self-taught.” They saw nothing wrong with only using three typefaces that Michael himself selected, I thought this was terribly boring given that there is a whole internet full of free fonts. They never let me use any of the cool texture files I had been collecting. I did not fit there. With what was likely mutual relief, I left for an internship at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

While there, I received great direction from Dan McKinley, and I was trained in the fairly specialized skill of designing for art exhibitions. This led to a position as a junior designer at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art + Design. My directors there, John DeWolf and Maria Habib, taught me the ins and outs of fine design. Five years of exposure to the design-education community in the college as well as working to integrate design as an important contributor to the museum’s programming changed my perspective of what design is and how it can function in society.

My mixed background in both high and low culture and my interests in economic justice and critical theory inform my questioning of the class-stratification of design. In a master’s program in an art school, I live in a world where designers consider whether they want to smash Beatrice Warde’s “crystal goblet” and break out of the content-first mentality of modernist design. We know the rules as set forth in Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style, have made at least good-faith efforts at spelling and pronouncing Tschichold, and have debated the merits of Michael Rock’s essay “Designer as Author.” My classmates are going off to work at tech companies and, in some cases, including my own, to teach on the university level. No one is interested in low-paying local design work, except perhaps as a social-design project. We exist in a world that is wholly separate from the designers who work in-house at the local copy shop, even from the designers who work on our newspapers and weekly magazines.

I have tried to use the tools of critical thinking to discover patterns in work generally considered to have been designed thoughtlessly. Art school educates designers in a modernist tradition, where compositions are activated through grid systems and careful hierarchies of tasteful typefaces, and white space is a tool for creating tension and emphasis and directing a viewer’s eye. Breaking the rules of the modernist fundamentals of design is a conscious, rebellious choice. But modernism is not a neutral, correct default. Bright, clashing colors and interrupters and goofy typefaces and layered cutouts and drop shadows attract attention. White space is a waste of paper if you’re on a budget. Educated purists can point to cognitive studies on readability to support their position in favor of simplicity and precision, but low-end design has the advantage of appealing to common sense and common tastes. I believe this aesthetic operates on its own set of visual principles also worthy of study and classification.

This site documents my hypotheses, process, and visual research thus far. I hope it is a starting point for further investigation and might provoke some additional thought and discussion about the other design.

Other Design

I started my investigation with an examination of white space and its use across the economic spectrum.

White space is a powerful part of the educated designer’s toolkit–it can be used to direct the viewer’s eye, creating emphasis and hierarchy through alternating areas of visual density and rest. However, this can be a counterintuitive concept for value-minded clients and viewers. A visually dense layout jam-packed with a variety of type sizes, photographs, graphics, and text just feels like a better deal. On a gut-level, white space seems like a waste of paper. Woman’s World addresses this instinct right on its cover: “More for Your Money!”

I tested this theory by selecting publications based on the median household income (HHI) published in their press kits. I isolated the white space in several layouts from each. The first manifestation of this process was the poster on the right, created for the Graphic Design Festival Breda’s poster competition in early 2014.

More layers and more effects are often perceived as more design.

Initially inspired by the bombastic design of many of the advertising materials and signage of businesses in my neighborhood, this principle is the the converse of white space as a luxury good. Powerful desktop-publishing software with tools that allow designers to easily create elaborate visual effects and the falling cost of digital full-color printing have led to what can seem like a visual arms race. Text can easily be layered on top of a full-color photograph and then outlined, beveled, filled with a gradient, and given both a shadow and a glow effect to ensure that it contrasts sufficiently with the background to be readable. The assumption seems to be that to do any less would be to not take full advantage of the skills of the designer or the capabilities of the printer.

I explored this concept through separating the implied layers in a given layout. My initial experiments used advertisements with translucent color overlays to highlight each layer. As my scope of research became more focused, I turned my attention to analyzing the same magazine layouts as in my white-space visualizations, creating a virtual three-dimensional rendering.

The size of the price in a layout is determined by the price sensitivity of its intended audience.

Despite the rise of digital media, junk mail persists. Discount retailers produce weekly flyers highlighting their new low prices in type that is often as large as the item being advertised, while high-end stores send catalogs that are more reminiscent of fashion or lifestyle magazines, filled with elaborately staged photographs to entrance viewers with the promise of the fantasy world they can join by purchasing their products, the prices of which are barely acknowledged in tiny type. This makes sense. For a consumer with more needs than money, price is the most important factor in making a purchase. For the aspirational shopper with disposable income, there is both truth and a sense of caché in the old adage, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.”

I made some preliminary forays into visually exploring this principle, but I determined that I would limit my scope to magazine editorial design for the brief duration of this thesis project. Hopefully, I will have the luxury to expand my research to include advertising in the future.

Ugly design can be intentional.

I began investigating low-end design with the belief that much of the work that falls outside of the elite design aesthetic is not simply uneducated or sloppy but, instead, has its own intention and method. Much of it is cluttered and chaotic in its exuberance but still has a semblance of polish and appeal. Some of it, however, is irredeemably ugly. I believe this too is intentional.

Twerking Tube Man via Buzzfeed

In the physical world, a common manifestation of the intentionally ugly is the furniture store or car dealership that is seemingly perpetually going out of business. Huge signs with clashing colors and screaming text cover the building’s facade and are occasionally brought even closer to the potential customer by air-powered “floppy dancers” or people twirling huge arrows. I believe that this is an intentionally (if falsely) desperate display to convince the viewer that they, the consumer, are in a position of power over the advertiser. Even if one isn’t at all in the market for a new six-piece dinette set or oriental rug, morbid curiosity over just how low the prices might be becomes a draw.

This dynamic is also frequently on display online. Strange ads, commonly known as “click bait,” use bafflingly crude graphics, mystifying images, and promises of “one simple rule” to compel curious viewers, against their better judgment, to click. It is also my hope to put my growing collection of these ads to use in a future project. Once you notice them, they are too common and bizarre to ignore.

Please see Visual Analysis to further explore and interact with my research.

About the

Design Dissection is Sally Lynn Maier's MFA thesis project.

Completed in 2014-2015 at Maryland Institute College of Art, the project included the writing and visualizations included on this site, as well as an exhibition on view from March 27–April 12, 2015 in MICA's Meyerhoff Gallery.

Thank you to everyone who helped make this project possible.

  • Thesis Advisors
  • Abbott Miller
  • Andrew Losowsky
  • Ellen Lupton
  • Jennifer Cole Phillips
  • Writing Advisor
  • David Barringer
  • Technical Advisor
  • Kristian Bjørnard
  • Inspiration, Competition,
    and Friendship
  • MICA GD MFA 2015