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On “Just”, Awesomeness, and ™
Guest Editorial by Alexander “Fish” Bohn

I decided, recently, to have a go at excising the word “just” from my vocabulary. Not in the adjectival usage (“just” as in “justice”) nor in the noun (“just” as in “a large-bellied pot with handles”, according to the OED) but as an adverb. Oh, you know, I’ll just write this article on language minutia and graphic design. That’s what I mean. I use it all the time, in that casually dismissive sense. So do most of my peers and contemporaries; it’s almost as common as the plague of “likes” with which my generation is constantly upsetting our more grammar-conscious elders.

I’m not worried about offending them, though, or anyone else. By eliminating the dismissive adverbial form of “just” from my vocabulary, I’m trying to hack my own brain. If you say “I just have to design these four posters, and just work out the type treatment for the whole series” to yourself out loud, your eye-rolling is somehow implicit. You just have to do these things; they’re not even worthy of discussion, really. But the same sentence without the “just” sounds far more monumental: “I have to design four posters, and work out the type treatment for the whole series.” That sounds like a far more serious endeavor to me.

The reason this is particularly important to me, a graphic designer, is that this inherently dismissive attitude can short-circuit the iterative processes that we use to make things awesome. For the purposes of this essay, I would define awesomeness as a state characterized by a rich holistic intertwining of style, content, and meaning. An awesome graphic work is the sort that you might stare at for a few tense moments, upon first seeing it, before quietly uttering “fuck yeah!” under your breath.

Consider, for example, 2x4’s entry in the Urban Forest Project… the buttons on this page that allow visitors to download the poster or order a totebag printed with it are laughable, as the poster is a blank white sheet of nothing. Ostensibly, this poster is “about the space between the trees”. Is this cute in a snarky, in-joke sort of way? Perhaps. Is it awesome? I would say no.

There are many posters on the urbanforestproject.org website that are either formally elaborate, or technically so, or both… examples I am partial to the entries by Alan Dye and Petter Ringbom. These are awesome, as are many others. Some of the less complex posters are no less awesome; consider the entries by David Reinfurt or Nikki Chung.

I would consider some of the entries that fall back on default modes to be generally less awesome. Whether the default mode in question is unique to the designer’s house style (see Paula Scher’s) or specific to the means of graphic production (see COMA’s), these posters invariably end up as one-liners. You read or see them, and that’s it, you’re done.

But the 2x4 example epitomizes anti-awesomeness in the most thorough fashion. It is, I would submit, the ultimate product of the mentality fostered by the overuse of “just”. You can readily imagine the smirk on the author’s face when he or she decided to send in a blank PDF file, knowing full well that their authority as an agent of a highly regarded design firm would guarantee the blind acceptance of their imbecilic pun into the projects’ pantheon.

I don’t mean to single out the Urban Forest Project, but the fact that it collects such a wide range of designer-authors under one aegis makes it an ideal context in which to compare awesomeness, and test for the evidence of “just” default-mode thinking. If you’re familiar enough with a given aesthetic, you can spot the “just” stuff easily, in any portfolio. Experimental Jetset, the Amsterdam-based design collective, has practically made a career of “just” employing default typefaces, monotonous color palettes, and other such deadpan decisions.

I want to point out at this point that “just” design is not necessarily bad design, and awesome design is not necessarily good. Awesomeness can suck you in, but the design in question must hang together as a whole, or it will lose you, and the awesomeness will have been wasted. And sometimes the “just” move is the right move, as the signature type treatments of iconic artists like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger indicate. In these cases, the simplistic repetition of the default type style in question becomes synonymous with the persona of the artist, and so encapsulates their message. (In design, we call this “branding.”)

I propose that there is a perfect fulcrum between the opposing forces of absolute “just” and absolute awesomeness. At this point, the rote application of a default approach is harmoniously tempered by the rigors and context-dependant overtures that characterize awesomeness. Artists and designers who have reached this magic singularity in their practices can be said to have a ™.

A fine example of a ™ practitioner is M/M Paris, the French design studio chaired by Michael Amzalag and Mathias Augustniak. M/M Paris’ aesthetic is highly distinctive and contiguous throughout their work, but they completely eschew the bog-standard default styles, having created their own sort of “just” approach using the methodology of awesomeness. Many of their posters contain hand-drawn type, and the letterforms themselves often have line weights, contrast values, and other parameters that are notably common to many of M/M Paris’ works. But in each case, these letterforms are manifest for their given context, and their given context only.

We can refer to this hybridized approach as M/M Paris™. It is a systematic default style that can be applied in a veneer, but a veneer that can only be concocted (and summarily decocted) by M/M Paris themselves, as only they retain the distinct strains of awesome that are essential for the styles’ formulation.

Many of the established upper echelons of graphic designs’ canon are ™ practitioners. The likes of Ogilvy™, Landor™, Wieden+Kennedy™, Pentagram™, Vignelli Associates™, and their ilk, continue to land lucrative contracts. They have the same appeal to their clients as does a company like Ford™, or Charles Schwab™, or Maytag™… the breath and scope of their respective histories have achieved the critical mass necessary to sustain their ™ equilibrium. Likewise, relatively younger independent entities such as Fons Hickmann™, Tomato™, Aesthetic Apparatus™, Graphic Thought Facility™, Harmen Liemburg™, et cetera, all are nimble enough to maintain the trappings of ™ness at small sizes.

At both ends of the spectrum, their work is both serially recognizable and utterly distinctive. It is important to note, however, that these luminaries™, as well as their up-and-coming subordinates™ with less name-brand recognition, have all historically been delivered to the nirvana of the ™ state through paths lined with hard-earned awesomeness. The dichotomy of “just” and awesome is an inequitable one, and the spiraling gravitic arms surrounding the ™ state only spin in one direction.

This is the primary reason I want to purge the actual word “just” from my speech. As Orwell postulated, if I can’t think it, I can’t do it. And so it will go. This act will constitute but a tiny fraction of the journey down Awesome Street, but it’s high time I got going. I just have to fix my brain first, and I’ll be right there.

Alexander “Fish” Bohn is a graphic designer and nacent design writer. Hailing originally from Brooklyn, he is currently a grad student at RISD, where he is researching bullshit patterns in design practice, among other things.

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ENTRY DETAILS
ARCHIVE ID 3367 FILED UNDER Critique
PUBLISHED ON May.08.2007 BY Speak Up
WITH COMMENTS
Comments
Brad Gutting’s comment is:

Wow. That 2x4 poster is probably the stupidest piece of shit I've seen in ages. It's not even original.

I've actually developed more interest in posters for the local rock scene (St. Louis) than in whatever is I'm supposed to look at, and champion Craigslist as the pinnacle of web design. That or Crossfit and their affiliates, sometimes Google especially with their cute logo alternatives.

This is a really interesting article and you've articulated thoughts that I think many people have had in a pretty inventive way. Cool.

But, there's this lingering question I have:

Why does any of this matter?

Take Warhol. Distinct style. Relatively. Then he said he wanted more and more people to do work just like his so you couldn't tell the difference--a passing interest in obliterating the "TM" or "authorship" of the piece. Which I find interesting. While Warhol was pretty upfront about how daft and shallow his stuff was (and really happy about the money the paintings commanded, all based on an identity that was literally infused on the surface of a canvas), I've noticed that many design firms and most advertising agencies are REALLY concerned that you know HOW MUCH MEANING their work has, even though it rarely does, and even though most clients only care that their sizable investment pays off.

It's like they're basically saying "HEY! I'm gonna tell you a joke and its gonna be really funny! And you're really gonna laugh hard!"

Dare I posit that authorship is just a bag of hot air? Or am I totally missing the point?

On May.08.2007 at 12:14 PM
Prescott Perez-Fox’s comment is:

I completely agree that the work "just" is awful. A former boss of mine used to ask me to "Just _____" all the time, and thereby demeaning my entire profession and job role. It wore thin. Similarly damaging is when people say "real quick", eg "Can you design a brochure real quick? Just put together some photos and text."

On May.08.2007 at 03:29 PM
Armin’s comment is:

For the longest time, designers have asked what makes a design project better/cooler than another, specially when the decree is based around subjective opinions. This awesomeness versus "just" argument is the closest thing to a humane, no bullshit explanation that I have read. What makes a project great, is the ability to rise above the mundane tasks that every project faces and tackle them with passion, determination and conviction. Awesomeness is painfully evident when it hits you in the face.

> Dare I posit that authorship is just a bag of hot air?

Brad, I would say it's half hot air and half achievement. You can't claim design authorship without first claiming your territory — and that is usually done by being the better, stronger, more consistent designer (in our case). It's what you do with the acknowledged authorship that can turn to smelly hot air or be a whiff of Spring roses.

On May.08.2007 at 04:06 PM
Christina W’s comment is:

Ooh, I used to get that too... "Can't we just rip something off? How about this?" Drove me nucking futs.

On the other hand, the sense that I personally get when I think "just" is more like "I just have to design these four posters, and just work out the type treatment for the whole series... by tomorrow." Goes with Prescott's "real quick". Here's to awesomeness :)

On May.08.2007 at 07:22 PM
Derrick Schultz ’s comment is:

I'm not sure I would put 2x4 or Experimental Jetset in to the "just" category.

The "just" category is most likely filled with designers that none of us have heard of, unless their "just" has been "I'll just talk about myself and bullshit my work." Which is possibly true of some more well-known designers.

While the particular piece of 2x4's and the "systems approach" of Experimental Jetset appear to be concious decisions to make their jobs easier, I think both firms have proven their knowledge to be "awesomeness" even if their work visually appears to be something else. I'm sure everyone has at one time thought of "a blank canvas=space" or "always setting a poster in one of X number of typefaces is militantly cool," but the decision is often overided at some point. Sometimes the balls to stick by your ideas can be awesomeness.

Perhaps theory awesomeness vs practice awesomeness is what is up for debate here.

I'm interested in knowing why EJ isn't given trademark status, while Vignelli is. I'd argue both operate in a similar pragmatic approach. What separates them? Endurance? Original "awesomeness" vs. second-to-the-scene awesomeness?

On May.08.2007 at 11:03 PM
Derrick Schultz ’s comment is:

For the longest time, designers have asked what makes a design project better/cooler than another, specially when the decree is based around subjective opinions. This awesomeness versus "just" argument is the closest thing to a humane, no bullshit explanation that I have read. What makes a project great, is the ability to rise above the mundane tasks that every project faces and tackle them with passion, determination and conviction. Awesomeness is painfully evident when it hits you in the face.

Not to take anything away from Alexander's peice (I've enjoyed the article's ability to create some self-doubt in myself), but I fail to see how this clarifies the situation of bad/good/cool/cooler. While it certainly uses language we can all understand, it still relies a lot on subjective arguments. "a state characterized by a rich holistic intertwining of style, content, and meaning" is certainly in the eye of the beholder. I looked at David Reinfurt's piece and said "thats just what I would expect David Reinfurt to do." Alexander looked at it and said "fuck yeah." Awesomeness is painfully evident, but only when both people are looking for the same thing.

On May.08.2007 at 11:25 PM
John Mindiola III’s comment is:

visual rebellion vs/for economic lubrication.

designing for non-designers.

we want to be great designers. this is how it is.

On May.09.2007 at 01:23 AM
tonepoems’s comment is:

I have one to add to the category of 'just' and 'real quick' and it always makes me cringe: "Can you make this look pretty?"

On May.09.2007 at 02:06 PM
fish’s comment is:

mr. schultz: I don't think the issue is a fully clarifiable or systematizeable one. such is the nature of subjectivity, yes? this is why god made bars, and put whiskey in them: so that we might debate such case-by-case points of contention long into the night. amirite??

I agree w/ yr comment about experimental jetset, but that's only because I was fortunate enough to see the SMCS stuff in person a few weeks ago. before then I was just like, ok, yes, I get it, wtf?... but their systematic approach is much more evident (and interesting, I thought) when seen in person.

2x4, on the other hand, is not a group that I would categorize as one that operates in the "just" mode on the regular. rather, I was claiming that their poster for urbanforestproject.org was a self-indulgent failure, and that that example specifically epitomized "just"-mode design.

indeeeed! thank you for reading and for your comments, everyone.

-fish

On May.09.2007 at 03:02 PM
KevinHopp’s comment is:

"Of course I can make it look pretty"

To be honest your convoluted thought marks some inspiration. Do the best work you can. Or in your terms, do awesome work, but I agree more with Derrick - what is awesome to one person doesn't mean it's awesome to the next.

I recently submitted a new prototype of my portfolio to over 100 contacts I respect. It was returned with nearly a 50/50 response. So it's pretty nieve to think you're going to satisfy everyone all the time... That's just the way the world works.

On May.09.2007 at 03:35 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> but I fail to see how this clarifies the situation of bad/good/cool/cooler.

Because, from the examples he provided, I approve of his taste in design : )

On May.09.2007 at 05:05 PM
Derrick Schultz ’s comment is:

fish,
Please dont ever call me Mr. Schultz. You're probably older than me.

Much like the EJ work, I find the 2x4 urbanforest piece to follow the same path of interest for me. Without harping on that single example too much (which I probably already have), the rationale as expressed on the website does seems "so high school" until a friend sent pictures of it in the context of its application. An all white banner in a message packed NYC does (to me, of course) actually provide the calm I believe they looked to create. On the website, not so much. But context, as 2x4 has said, plays a huge role in their work. "Just" another area where I believe good theory plays a huge role in the outcome of the work, and how sometimes the work loses its context in the scope of criticism.

> but I fail to see how this clarifies the situation of bad/good/cool/cooler.
Because, from the examples he provided, I approve of his taste in design : )
fair enough for me!

On May.09.2007 at 07:20 PM
Hollis’s comment is:

All I know is I ordered one of those friggin' bags and I regret the hell out of it!

On May.09.2007 at 09:39 PM
Malvina’s comment is:

I'm not sure I would put 2x4 or Experimental Jetset in to the "just" category.

The "just" category is most likely filled with designers that none of us have heard of, unless their "just" has been "I'll just talk about myself and bullshit my work." Which is possibly true of some more well-known designers.

Regardless of bullshit status or not, designers in the spotlight, who have gotten recognition in any capacity are up for scrutiny.

I don't think the no-name nobody designers enter into these categories Fish is speaking of. At least, I'm personally not taking them into consideration. Why? They have yet to be judged. They are the potential/the failure/the banal uncaring populace of the graphic design world. There is no context for these people. They are told to do "just" work all the time. This is the consequence of designing for non-designers, firm "style" and the like--when there is no clout to speak of. They might not even care about being famous or aren't talented enough to get there, but are talented enough to produce something meaningless or copied, but passable. Projects just won't get approved otherwise. There is a market to address and that market likes their "just" to the 10th degree. Maybe we should expect these middle-ground designers to be creating the awesome/balanced "just" (such in the case of Holzer, etc), but limitations are as such until they reach that next level.

However, when a designer enters the spotlight, they are no longer given that reprieve. They are expected to push, to innovate, to bring whatever it is they're going for further. Keeping it safe, sound, consistent...is good for business or even Trademark integrity, but at a point, people will hire you only because they know you do "blah" well. Perhaps they are being comfortable with being type cast, but that doesn't make them good/better/best for it. It just makes them successful at what they do, "just" enough to make the populace happy, even thrilled they have something iconic.

On May.10.2007 at 10:00 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

Design needs bullshit.

On May.10.2007 at 05:22 PM
marko’s comment is:

This post is all sorts of awesomeness, though, I will say "Just" has been replaced with "like" in my generation. Also, the "fuck yeah!" moment is now, "OH SNAP!""

I reached the OH SNAP! moment at about the word fulcrum.

In highschool, my writer's craft teacher banned us from using "just" and "basically" from speech and writing, if she caught us, we'd lose a grade point.

P.S. You forgot the "s" in nascent ;-)

On May.11.2007 at 05:11 AM
Flydianslip’s comment is:

How about the phrase "Ya know"....at the end of the sentence. It might just be me, but when speaking, I'd talk about doing something, then say, "Ya know?" like I'm looking for an answer from someone. Never noticed it until my girlfriend noticed she started saying it because she was around me alot. Anyone else notice they say "Ya know" way too much?

On May.16.2007 at 03:17 PM
Greg Formager’s comment is:

I say "ya know" way too often. I hate it, and I am aware of it, but I'm addicted to saying it and other forms of vocabulary weakness. Anyway, in response to this article:

Design is awkward.

On Jun.13.2007 at 04:21 PM