When did bad taste become good design?


There’s been a theme developing this year. Our preconceptions as to what we would describe as acceptable design are being challenged. Crude and bad taste design is everywhere; a trend that’s spread right across the spectrum of pop culture.

Album artwork is a case in point. It’s bad meaning good; postmodern and yet somehow unironic at the same time. Fashion too. We’ve all been digging out those Ellesse jumpers and dusting off those Kappa trackie bottoms.

But what does it all mean? What does it say about us? Have we reached a new era of design? Have we reached a time whereby digital and design perfection is considered inauthentic? Is the crudeness of ‘crap’ design somehow more honest? Is this a response to meme culture? And how does all of this affect the creative industry and work done within in?

So, when does bad taste become good design? We put the question to our very own ilk team, including one self-confessed Swiftie – here’s our two cents:


Shaun Ransom, Creative Account Manager

“Whilst some may think the album design shows little effort and thought, pointing towards an authenticity and focus on music as opposed to the design – I’d love to see how many design iterations and amends these went through.

Is it just as simple as sticking “DAMN” in Times New Roman… long a symbol of design-oh-hell-nos, in rebellion to a contemporary culture that is too preened, too focused on appearance. Are they mocking of our culture, and protesting our propensity to value aesthetics over depth? Are they a protest on advertising in general? And a celebration of the simpler times? A movement towards non-conformity (which ironically always becomes conformity and mainstream), aesthetically rebelling against design ideals??

Are artists saying that they are that good it doesn’t matter what album art they have? If it’s truth we seek in times of “fake news”, do we look for this in art that anybody can produce, does it make it more inclusive and less elitist. It seems to be an ode to throw away cultural, a culture that is saturated by appearance.” 


Ryan Spence, Senior Designer

We’ve reached an era born out of so much digital perfection in design and art, whereby it’s harder, and potentially more meaningful/memorable, to create something that is crude and seen as bad taste. This struggle explains the shock aesthetic of the illustration, typography and layouts that we see in meme culture – where everything looks homemade. The more accessible the typeface and the more rushed the illustration looks, the more grounded, real, and funnier the meme becomes. Pepe the Frog could be a polished watercolour masterpiece, or a photorealistic digital illustration, lilypads et al… but nobody would relate to it. It has to be crude, and it has to look like you did it on Paint. Pixelated? Even better.

This trend has crept its way into recent trend in album cover design: a combination of a simplistic or a distressed portrait against a simple, domestically-available typeface, usually in harsh RGB colours like the default ones you see on Microsoft Word – these aesthetic properties match what we’ve seen for meme design. It’s democracy in design, and the cultural effect of this in music is accessibility. The more transparent and basic the artwork, the more relatable the artist. Thankfully, we’re not quite at the point where we’re seeing Comic Sans on the latest Kendrick Lamar release… yet.” 


Shaun Beaumont, Creative Director

The inevitable backlash of a visually ‘spoilt’ generation. The reason why everything is noticeably crap is that it’s never been as consistently good.

Good design, well executed, intelligent, technically tight and, at the very least, visually pleasing design has been part of the ‘millennials’ visual library since birth. Meaning that anything other than ‘very good’ hasn’t been normal. At no time in history have brands (be they people, products, services, interfaces) been as good at being created and crafted as now. 

Crap design is the application of ‘punk principles of ownership’ to today’s cool as f**k brands by millennials. They’ve learnt that some good looking things can supply bad experiences. If you know something is going to provide you with a good experience you actually care less about how it looks. So why not make the good stuff look bad? It doesn’t change the content and its a way of achieving ownership by millennials through a choice of style that’s theirs. Crapcool!” 


Richard Hanney, Head of Stategy & Copy

Let me describe a shirt to you. It’s a white polo shirt covered in chaotic pattern of navy blue sticks and circles with a white collar and a turquoise Nike logo over the left tit. I mean, it’s not exactly Grace Jones, but certainly something that qualifies, either in a conservative-dad-way as ‘loud’, or in a bewildered-but-polite mum way as ‘different’. In my mind, it’s reminiscent of the sort of thing Andre Agassi would have worn to compliment his flowing, halfway-down-the-back horse-tail mane in the early nineties. It was cool then, and just maybe it’s cool again now. I’m at least 53% sure it is.

But why would I buy it? Well, because I liked it, obviously. But why? I think – even though it’s a thought that makes me feel a little tragic – it can only be a response, at least on some level, to the cultural permeation of this bad-meaning-good thing going on. It’s a hard thing to rationalise because, much like the concept of ‘guilty pleasures’, it essentially describes the imprint of social pressure on an individually subjective opinion. The ‘bad’ element is divorced from what an individual actually feels about something (the ‘good’) and represents a nod towards a certain cultural/social perspective. If you think about that too much, it’s not long before the protective irony of the whole concept of a ‘bad taste’ trend starts to buckle. 

But even knowing that, it’s still really confusing! On the one hand, the idea of social pressure forcing anyone to qualify what they like with a big dollop of irony is quite unpleasant. On the other, there’s a lot of fun to be had in resurrecting seemingly anachronistic styles, whether that’s in clothing, art, graphic design or any of the arts, and reminding ourselves of exactly what it was about that aesthetic – no matter how crude, naff or distasteful it may seem – that led it into existence in the first place. So while I don’t really know what I think about it from a rationale perspective, it’s certainly not something that I can honestly say doesn’t appeal. Especially when I’m buying a shirt.


Michael Goldsworthy, Designer

The bottom line is, Taylor Swift’s new album would sell ridiculously well, regardless of what the cover looked like. Meaning designers have a safe playground to do what ever they want and care less about the way it looks in favour of gaining more publicity (without affecting the record sales).

Good design should always be judged by how well it performs its function (not just how it looks!). Its engagement with the audience and causing a reaction should be the most important objective.

If the design does the job then we shouldn’t be too upset by the aesthetic of the design, and see the design for what it really is (basically a bit of a shit-stirrer!).

Personally, I love the fact that designers are pushing the buttons of society making the idea the focal point and the aesthetics taking a back seat.


Sarah Germaine, Junior Creative Account Manager


Now that we’re all up to speed (and my heart rate has slowed to a normal pace), let’s take a look at the album artwork that was released last week. This time around the countryfile backgrounds and preppy outfits have been ditched for something stripped back that feels much more raw, with the B&W image reinforcing the contrast between this and her previous albums (big up 2006 frizzy Taylor though #lestweforget). This artwork in particular feels like she has a message to send to her fans, her critics and her opposition. Swift is back people, and she ain’t giving a damn about her reputation (ooh, look what you made me do).

For me, all of Taylor’s album covers are quite self indulgent and this is no exception. It’s interesting that she is more explicit about the self indulgence on this album however, not hiding behind the aforementioned stylised photoshoots but instead looking directly at the camera (her last two ‘mainstream’ album covers show her looking away from the camera – Red – and not showing her full face at all -1989) with her name repeated over and over. And why on earth not? The repetition of her name in the tabloid-style design is only what we’re used to on a daily basis in gossip magazines and the likes, so I love that she is doing what she does best (by adding a little more fuel to the already raging bonfire) with this artwork.

People are trolling the album cover already (shout out to the people suggesting that it’s missing a portion of fish and chips) but this hints to me that we (myself included) have been spoilt. For too long as a music-listening generation we’ve been used to artists releasing feature-length films (Beyonce) or recreations of the Last Supper (Stormzy) with their albums, which could explain the uproar at an artist – God forbid – releasing actual artwork that is simply the artist’s name in black and white.

My (slightly biased) opinion is that Swifty is looking for us to focus on the content of her music, rather than the artwork. I’m not against artists exercising their creativity in the form of accompaniments to their bodies of work, but I don’t think it’s such a bad thing that people are beginning to do things a little differently. Whilst what she is doing is not exactly original (artists such as Kendrick have pipped her to the post this year), it does suggest that a new wave of music artwork is on the horizon. One that will make us take the music at face value, which I don’t think is altogether a bad thing.