Anti-design, by its connotation suggests a bold move away from traditional design norms. The label conjures up the idea of a pure revolt against foundational principles in practice for decades or centuries. But this attitude of rebellion is nothing new to the artist or to the art world; the same spirit of defiance against predefined principles has existed in the art world for ages and can be seen prominently exercised since the late 19th century. And no doubt the move was a counter to modernist ideals of design, but it was also a political critique of 1960 Italy’s consumerist culture and excesses of Italian design[AG1] .
The core philosophy of anti-design can be traced back to the radical period 1 in Italy. In some sense, it is an offshoot of Pop Art, which in its heyday was heralded as ‘Anti-Art’, but it owes its credit to the radical architecture collectives of Florence with equally radical names like UFO, 9999, Zziggurat, LIBIDARCH, etc. But one in particular is considered the initiator of Anti-Design: Archizoom. In 1966, they held an exhibition with Superstudio, 2 showcasing the most influential and notable avant-garde period installation manifesto called “Superarchitettura”, 3 exhibited in Pistoia. Their Radical Manifesto reads, – “Superarchitecture is the architecture of super production, super consumption, superinduction for consumption, the supermarket, the superman, and the superpetrol.”
Besides the ideals being a source of motivation, it was also the introduction new materials like plastic, polyester, rubber, etc. that allowed these designers/artists to further experiment and explore these designs. It became possible to exaggerate, distort, use bold colours, and implement ornamentation all at the same time.
Architect and designer Ettore Sorttsass (1917-2007) was a major proponent of the movement, so much so that he came to be known as the ‘Father of Anti-Design’. When the movement began to die down in the 1970s, he gathered a group of young designers and architects from Milan to pursue an approach to design focusing more on surface decoration. They named themselves ‘Memphis’4 after Bob Dylan’s song ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’. But due to its kitsch nature, enthusiasm for the movement slowly died out of popularity. But it was in the 2010s that its popularity for anti-design was revived again.
But why Anti-Design?
One thing to understand about design is that any ‘design’ by its very nature needs to be utilitarian; if it can’t be used, it is a failed design. For example, I can make a chair out of butter paper. It looks cool, and probably it is a good piece of fine art, but since no one can actually sit on it, it’s a terrible design for a chair. It is here that anti-design becomes a source of bewilderment, as it walks that very thin edge between design and contemporary art. It presents the capacity to break the visual cohesion of a setting with both its bright colours and unorthodox forms. At times, making it cumbersome or taking up more space than is needed while retaining its functionality.
Even though the philosophy of anti-design is used vastly across all forms of design, it is mostly through ‘anti-design graphics’ that it has been popularised in the current age. When seen from the context of visual design, for example, advertisement posters, a very entrepreneurial perspective makes it imperative to display your message in succinct form. Where your ‘prospective customer’ can know clearly about your product or service that you may provide. This is one reason why most of the advertisements by big companies often have a clear and simple approach to design in order to maximise their reach among a large audience. But sometimes, prominent brands have been known to use the philosophy of anti-design in their marketing campaigns. And they could take this leverage because they are well aware of how iconic they are by default.
For instance, 2 years ago, Dorito put out a commercial called ‘Another Level’ in which they presented blank packets for their chips and only presented abstract shots of triangles in their commercial. This form of advertisement is also known as an ‘anti-ad’ since it’s a form of self-referential joke on the ad campaign But from another perspective, anti-design can also be a means to stand out in the crowd. When every other person/ organization/ company is using a design format abiding by design guidelines, one that breaks those ideas appears unique and can pique interest in the viewer.
Brutalism Vs. Anti-Design
One thing that perplexes even graphic designers at times is the difference between brutalism and anti-design. Even though they both stem from a similar place, they both have jarring visuals and unnecessary elements added to their design. If ‘Anti-design’ was a counter to modernism in design, ‘Brutalism’ can be considered modernism’s counter to Anti-design.
Coined by critic Reyner Banham (1922–1988)5 as a pun, the word brutalism stems from the French word ‘brut’ meaning raw, which refers to the use of raw Concrete (‘beton brut’) used by pioneering modern architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) for his 1950s architectural design.
The main difference between brutalism and anti-design is where anti-design is all about inviting humour and irony by creating unnecessary complexity with the use of overlapping elements, an ugly interface, and incoherent colour palettes to create a cacophonous visual. Brutalism is all about presenting the raw materials of a design without any additional decoration, often having only black and white with one distinct and striking colour to accompany it. It is another form of minimalism, but different in the fact that it does not actively adhere to any design norms. One can and will still find overlapping elements, a jarring colour palette, and misalignment.
As a result, popular brands may not use anti-design for their graphics but may very well use brutalist designs. It is simpler, more effective, and does not overwhelm the viewer or user with visual overload, while at the same time maximising the range of their target audience.
Do you really need to use Anti-Design/Brutalism?
The answer to this very question always boils down to your own preferences and who your target audience really is. If you feel that you can communicate with your audience with a unique flair, anti-design can be a good choice. If you want to retain simplicity while at the same time applying the principles of anti-design, then brutalism is a good option. But your designs need not be purely brutalist or anti-design in nature. The best option is to embody the qualities of both and also use some design principles along with them.
I would like to mention that designers who do not employ anti-design in their practice are not inferior because they are following the rules. And restriction to rules and principles does not deign the designer a lesser status than a fine artist. It is equally hard to create something new within restrictions as it is to create something without any.
- Radical Period in Italian Design is a prominent shift in style among the Avant-gardes of 1960s
- This collective of architects were known to base their projects on fascination with technology and space. In some sense they can be called the futurists of the design world.
- Superarchitettura (1966), exhibited at Jolly2 Art Gallery in Pistoia – An installation manifesto by Archizoom and Superstudio
- The Memphis Group, also known as Memphis Milano, was an Italian design and architecture group founded by Ettore Sottsass. It was active from 1980 to 1987. The group designed postmodern furniture, lighting, fabrics, carpets, ceramics, glass and metal objects.
- Peter Reyner Banham Hon. FRIBA (2 March 1922 – 19 March 1988) was an English architectural critic and writer best known for his theoretical treatise Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) and for his 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies.