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Fresh Styles for Web Designers: Lo-Fi Grunge Style

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One way to come up with a "fresh" style is to go back in time a few decades, cut what you find, and paste it into the present. Here, Curt Cloninger discusses Lo-Fi Grunge Style of Web Design—a style that was born out of David Carson's loose, antigrid layouts and Saksi's irregular printing idiosyncrasies of the late '60s. Add a dash of his own Euro-fashion design influence to the mix for good measure, and voila!
This sample chapter is excerpted from Fresh Styles for Web Designers: Eye Candy from the Underground, by Curt Cloninger.
This chapter is from the book

"Come doused in mud Soaked in bleach As I want you to be As a trend As a friend As an old memory."

—Nirvana

If there is indeed "nothing new under the sun" (as the author of Ecclesiastes repeatedly asserts), one way to come up with a "fresh" style is to go back in time a few decades, cut what you find, and paste it into the present. In the '60s and early '70s, digital printing was commercially unknown. The psychedelic Haight-Ashbury concert posters of Peter Max, the pop-art soup cans of Andy Warhol, and the loose pen-and-ink illustrations of Ralph Steadman were all created nondigitally and printed on offset presses. The more grassroots the art movement, the less precise the printing quality. This resulted in posters with color bleeding, smudges, and irregularities. In other words, a lot of low-fidelity printwork was floating around popular culture at the time.

Of course, in the '60s and early '70s, this nondigital print look was not "retro." It would not have even been considered "nondigital," because there was no digital printing with which to compare it. It was simply the way a lot of graphic design looked at the time.

Fast-forward to the early '90s. Iconoclastic graphic designer David Carson is turning heads everywhere with the unorthodox look of his new underground magazine, Raygun. Amidst a design culture hip-deep in the orderly, grid-based layouts that a new wave of desktop publishing software has made possible, Carson opts instead for a looser, dirtier, grungier style. His font sizes vary widely within the same layout. His line leading is intentionally off, causing his lines to blur into each other, overlapping and intersecting, the text itself becoming a kind of abstract art. Carson uses mostly distressed "grunge" fonts—fonts that bleed around the edges, fonts that aren't crisp and clean, fonts that look an awful lot like the predigital underground poster fonts of the late '60s. Imagine that.

In the early '90s, at a time when design is supposed to be "seen and not heard," serving the content it presents without drawing attention to itself, Carson forges a highly visible (some would say obtrusive) design style. His attitude and philosophy will have a major impact on the Lo-Fi Grunge Style of web design, so a brief exposure to some of his thoughts on graphic design seems appropriate here:

  • On the purpose of "hard to read" design:

    "[In every issue of Raygun], there is almost always one [article] that's more difficult to read than some of the others, but... the starting point is not 'Well, let's muck this one up.' The starting point is to try to interpret the article, and doing that, some of them get harder to read, OK? I don't have a problem with that, and I really think it makes it more interesting to the reader, especially our reader, where you're competing with all these other things [like music video and computers]."

  • On the weakness of unobtrusive design:

  • "I believe now, if the type is invisible, so is your article, and it's probably not going to get read, because—at least with this audience, and I think it's spreading out more—they're seeing better TV, they're watching video screens. You give somebody a solid page of grey type and say, 'Read this brilliant story,' and a lot of people, they're going to go, 'Doesn't look very interesting. Let's try and find something more interesting.' I think if it's invisible, it's just done a horrible disservice to what's potentially a really good article."

Fast-forward yet again, this time to the latter half of the '90s. Location: Helsinki, Finland. Teenage design savant Miika Saksi is devouring issues of Elle and other fashion magazines, studying, absorbing, learning Photoshop, tweaking, experimenting, honing his style. Although Carson is not Saksi's strongest direct influence, the international fashion magazines that Saksi is reading are laid out by designers who are only too conversant with Carson's work.

When Saksi finally takes his work to the web in 1997, he dramatically impacts the underground online design community. Up to this point, design on the web has been largely grid-based, boxy, controlled, digital, and clean. Saksi manages to combine the irregular printing idiosyncrasies of the late '60s with Carson's loose, antigrid layouts—webifying both without losing any of their analog charm, and adding a dash of his own Euro-fashion design influence to the mix for good measure. The Lo-Fi Grunge Style of web design is born.

As Close to Print as the Web Should Get

Most of the "craft" of lo-fi grunge design is accomplished in Photoshop—experimenting with brushes, compounding layers, applying filters to selected images, and overtly incorporating some form of distressed text into the overall collage. This Photoshop "design" is then sliced into parts, saved as gifs or jpegs, and pieced back together into a web page. So I'm not offering these sites as examples of information architecture or even sensible navigation.

Because so much of lo-fi grunge relies on Photoshop rather than HTML for its distinctiveness, it runs the risk of being labeled print-centric. Indeed, many of these design collages would be better represented at 300 dpi, gracing the pages of some glossy print magazine. So if the point of this book is to break away from mere repurposed print design, why am I offering up lo-fi grunge as a fresh web design style? Primarily because on the web, where everything is so clean and partitioned, lo-fi grunge does stand out as fresh. And because it is derived from a nonstandard, dirty, experimental print style, I'm willing to overlook its print origins and admit it as a web-specific design style.

Rather than spend a lot of time talking about Photoshop techniques (there are already a few books on the subject), I explain some of the fundamental design and coding hacks that make lo-fi grunge "work" on the web, taking advantage of the web's unique strengths and working around some of its nonprint peculiarities. But before tackling the techniques, check out some of the following lo-fi grunge sites.

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