When you think of good design, odds are words like “ugly,” “unpolished” or “experimental” aren’t the first ones to come to mind, but it has become an aesthetic of choice for a growing number of digital designers. Known as anti-design, this style rejects the intuitive, grid-like elements of traditional design in favor of challenging, innovative layouts.
“Anti-design feels and looks like rebellion,” Imogen-Mary Hoefkens, a senior art director at 99designs, told Built In. It goes beyond just bending the rules, she added, “it’s pretty much setting them on fire.”
In practice, this looks like typography that either doesn’t align or spans multiple lines, overlapping images, flashy colors, asymmetry, intentionally crowded spaces — everything classic design rules tell you not to do. Despite its seemingly haphazard appearance, Julia Tylor, who works as the creative director of design consulting firm Throughline, said using anti-design well is still very methodical.
What Is Anti-Design?
Anti-design is an approach that bucks the rules of conventional design in favor of challenging, experimental layouts. In web design, this means doing away with the clean, symmetrical, grid-based layouts so commonly seen in today’s websites in favor of loud colors, crowded, asymmetrical design. Anti-design encourages exploration and experimentation, and is meant to push the boundaries of what it means to be a useful and engaging website.
“It’s not just anti-design for the sake of being ugly. It still has to look good and be compelling,” she told Built In. “It’s taking the principles of fine art and that ability to be creative outside of boundaries, and applying them to a world that has historically been very structured.”
That being said, the very nature of anti-design makes it difficult to put into a box. It’s a way of thinking more than a specific aesthetic. It’s a reaction — a description of what it is not. It rejects convention and traditional aesthetics, but of course conventional design fluctuates all the time.
So, to understand anti-design, one must first understand the specific “design” that is being rejected.
Anti-Design Trades Simplicity for Complexity
These days, that usually means simplicity. Designers are taught that simple, intuitive and frictionless design is the key to a good user experience. The idea is that, while users want to see aesthetically pleasing websites, they don’t want to be distracted or have obstacles put in their way that could disrupt their journey on the website. Any extraneous design elements should be avoided.
Simplicity, according to product manager Daniel Kalick, is a kind of “über principle” in digital design. “If you’re making somebody think too much, you need to not do that and really come up with something that is much more simple,” he said during a talk at the 2017 AIGA Digital Design Conference. “I think that simplicity becomes this sort of assumption about what we always want, and what every human wants in every experience everywhere.”
Anti-design challenges that assumption by expanding on what it means to