Unsolicited Aggravation


3rd December 2013
by James Kelleher

Cover image: Unsolicited Aggravation

It's easy to get lost in Pontin's at night. A couple of weeks back, I was in the Sussex holiday camp – Bobby Davro's spiritual birthplace – to see a bunch of bands play at All Tomorrow's Parties, and I was struggling to find a way back to my chalet. Panic was setting in. The layout of the site, optimised for tipsy parents and bluecoats in the 1960s and unchanged ever since, had defeated me for the fifth time that day. It was getting cold. The dim lighting was particularly mugger-friendly and worst of all, the wayfinding signage was about as bad as the human mind can conceive of. I squinted at the signposts with their tiny type and confused iconography, and an ancient evil stirred in my breast. My breathing slowed, my pupils dilated and involuntarily, inevitably, I started to mentally redesign every accumulated visual crime that Pontin's has ever committed in its 77 year history.

What the hell is wrong with me?

You don't go to Pontin's to experience the best in contemporary design. You go to Pontin's to feel a profound sense of malaise over the course of a long weekend. I don't actually want to begin a comprehensive overhaul of their company identity and signage, any more than they want to hire me to do so, and all my annoyance serves to do is to contribute to the ulcer that will be my ultimate professional reward.

This anger at the thoughtless stuff that surrounds us: it's a bad habit. I think that most creative people suffer from it to some degree. My hunch is that, were you to stick a graphic designer in an MRI scanner during one of these episodes, you'd see the same areas of the brain light up as when somebody in a huge SUV cuts you up in traffic, or chews with their mouth open, or when you discover, and rediscover, and rediscover, the exquisite pain of knowing that somebody, somewhere, is wrong on the internet. We all have a very personal social poison that drips through our veins in our worst moments. The rudeness of it. That reckless disregard for other people is what really gets us. Even when the culprit is just poorly kerned type.

It also comes from the same part of the brain that motivates us to draw and re-draw from scratch, the part that drives the creation, destruction and constant sequence of refinements that makes up the bulk of our professional lives. If there's a design policeman in your head, this is the good cop. The bad cop likes to waste your time and make you a miserable pub bore. It's hardly Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, but still: fuck that guy.

You can see expressions of this impulse all over the internet with the rise of the ‘unsolicited redesign’, typically a short series of screens on Dribbble or Behance showing someone's alternative solutions to highly visible design work. Apple's divisive iOS 7 icon set was a particularly popular target for this sort of appropriation. On the face of it you could see this as a democratisation of design criticism: the fusty old gatekeepers might have to learn to loosen their veiny grip on the academy and abandon themselves to the Buzzfeedification of design culture. The problem is that these projects are never carried out in the context of the original design team's brief, so you'll often end up with eye candy that's perfect fodder for Twitter and design blogs, but doesn't have to engage with the minutiae of corporate politics, research, or boring technical considerations. For the most part the motivation is to attract attention and new work for freelancers rather than fulfil a brief, and it usually shows. I'd much rather see those work hours poured into messy live projects, but it's not all bad. I'd like to believe that - here and there - such redesigns can form the start of a discussion or a mandate for change for hard-pressed internal design teams. Mostly though, they are pointless, scratching an itch that never existed in the first place.

My wife likes to joke that I'll only eat in restaurants where I deem the menu typography and signage to be of a sufficiently high standard. This is only partially true. If it was entirely accurate I'd have starved to death long ago, because I have just enough self-knowledge to know that I'm an insufferable snob. All I need to learn to do now is to hide it better – from myself and most of all from everyone else.

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