What is the name of this contemporary graphic design style?
January 15, 2021 11:43 AM   Subscribe

Good examples include (a) The Gentlewoman magazine (b) The Cherry Bombe Cookbook (c) Reformation Clothing. At the risk of revealing my own opinion of it, I would characterize it as "Boring bold sans-serif typefaces used where they shouldn't be, mixed with a color palette that's somehow both garish and muted at the same time, plus photos that looks like they're lit by Terry Richardson." Bonus question: how and why did this style become so pervasive, dare I say popular?

(Apologies to any graphic designers who like this style; I recognize that I'm probably in the minority in my allergy to it. But I am still dying to know if it's an organized trend with a name, or whether it's just something that has bubbled up into the zeitgeist organically.)
posted by rjacobs to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It's generally associated with Millenials and Instagram.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:46 AM on January 15, 2021

I've seen it referred to as the millenial aesthetic, and I'd recognize exactly what you meant if you used that term, but I don't know how widespread it really is.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:54 AM on January 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

Very much off the top of my (Gen Y) head but the ubiquitous availability & zero-cost of Wordpress to anyone, of any skill level, has lead to the propagation of themes or templates to suit all manner of business, creator or organization. Just tweak the colour & font and Bob's your uncle. So I guess I am just seeing generic website templates. Very likely found by searching a template site for: "clean" "modern" "customizable" "< $30" .
posted by i_mean_come_on_now at 12:12 PM on January 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

I would call it somewhere between “clean” and “in your face.”
posted by BostonTerrier at 12:13 PM on January 15, 2021

Definitely part of the millennial aesthetic.

I think it’s referencing the amateur aesthetics of Instagram/social media but heightening the feel. Flash photography, slightly awkward typefaces, simple layouts. Makes brands feel relatable since a lot of their ads will appear in social media feeds, next to content created by users peers.
posted by TurnKey at 12:23 PM on January 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

yeah, i'd call it modern web template that works good on a mobile device, that's the millennial design aesthetic online, and I prefer it over the flash/shockwave madness of 20 years ago. Back then all the david carson grunge typography photoshop collage everything was fun but it was all for viewing on our huge 17" monitors, not on tiny magic vertical scrolling devices.
posted by th3ph17 at 12:41 PM on January 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Hi Gen-X-er here, plus I'm a graphic design professor and parent of a Gen-Y-er. I think you could call this style Millenial Minimalism, which I base on this AIGA article from almost three years ago: Is Millenial Minimalism on its way out? AIGA is the national (somewhat international) professional association for graphic design, by the way.

I think your first link verges on something beyond just Millenial Minimalism, however, and gets closer to a new version of a Ben Carson/Cranbrook anti-aesthetic for the Millenial generation. Graphic design has never really had much of an "arte povera" or anti-aesthetic movement, although periodically professional, experienced designers do make and celebrate so-called "naive" work. A good example from a previous historical moment might be the work of Ed Fella, which is not minimalist at all.

In any case, as to your question about the zeitgeist, as a design professor who has been working in the field for over 20 years and seen student work for 15 of those years, I think design migrates between minimalist and maximalist poles over a pretty long period (usually decades). My own personal theory is that these migrations are responses to whether the larger zeitgeist is in a more optimistic or pessimistic moment. So, you started to see the emergence of streamlined aesthetics across mass media art (graphic and industrial design, for instance) in the 1910s and 1920s and we got the Art Deco movement out of it. This re-emerged in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, with space age design and "Googie" architecture. Then we hit a big turning point in the middle 60s, with the Vietnam war and the Civil Rights era and you see the emergence of earth tones and a much more fussy, textured aesthetic; one could even argue there were strains of Victorian aesthetic, for instance, in 1970s illustration. Maximalist design aesthetics carried forward into the 1980s, with things like Memphis school industrial design (think Pee Wee's Playhouse) and perhaps hit a peak in the neon 90s (think Joel Schumacher Batman). Then the first dot com boom arguably sparks a new wave of optimism which begins the migration back to minimalism. So, minimalism works in historical moments when a society is feeling bold or confident and the return to maximalism (color, texture, detail) is about the search for visual comfort in moments when society turns inward.

I've been telling my graphic design students for a few years now that optimism/minimalism have probably hit their high water mark and design is probably going to start migrating back to texture/detail/fussiness/maximalism. Just my opinion, but based on my sense of the trends as described above.
posted by Slothrop at 12:43 PM on January 15, 2021 [56 favorites]

It's a watered-down post-Bauhaus International Style aesthetic by way of American Apparel's 2004 website.

I mean, it's my go-to as much as anything else, since I'm not really a designer, and it's easy to make it look non-awful. But it's not especially good, mostly.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 2:18 PM on January 15, 2021 [6 favorites]

This is an overlap of retro late-80's/ 90's design with millennial minimalism. In '82 and '86 there were a couple of influential rock/post-punk album designs: Flipper's Album - Generic Flipper and Public Image Ltd.'s Album. They co-opted 'generic' design and were a commentary on 'overwrought design,' which corporate printing and expensive advertising (aka The Man) still used, and which were out of reach for the average creative. The 'anti design' move was helped along by the advent of popular computing, which usually provided only a small number of monospaced typefaces to work with (Arial, Helvetica, Times, etc.). You can also see it in covers of The Face and NME magazines. And all of these refer in some way back to Bauhaus, a craft-based collective that valued the interrelationship between art, technology, usefulness, honesty of materials, and community.
posted by cocoagirl at 2:43 PM on January 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

Not quite your examples, but possibly related: the bland.
posted by batter_my_heart at 3:52 PM on January 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I think it's a transition from Millenial corporate normcore to the Gen Z rejection of that look. This article (h/t the A Thing or Two newsletter) examines it:

The Gen Z Aesthetic: The death of "premium mediocre" and the birth of "intentional ugly"
posted by tasseomance at 3:57 PM on January 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

I work in the photo industry.

Pretty much everything that is produced these days - ads, magazines, catalogs, webstores - is going to run on social media in some form. It doesn't matter what we shoot, the main outlet for photography & the design elements these days is not paid ad placement in traditional media, it's placement in social media of some type.

So if your imagery is going to live in people's feeds, for a lot of brands, it needs to not look out of place in people's feeds. All the things other commenters are talking about are definitely a factor, but my perspective hearing what the creative directors say when the stuff is actually being made - it's because they want it to catch people's eye on social media, but they don't want it to scream !! GLOSSY ADVERTISEMENT !!

So you use an on camera flash instead of elaborately lighting a set, you cast models that have personalities or quirks, it's styled but it's purposefully not perfect, etc.

also, it's cheaper
posted by bradbane at 6:38 PM on January 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

The style is created and supported largely in the world of Wordpress themes and themes distributed via Squarespace and other store platforms. It's not meant so much to be design in and of itself, as a vehicle for displaying product.
posted by zadcat at 6:31 AM on January 16, 2021

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