Undesigned Design: So Bad it’s Good

Written May 24, 2017 by Kevin Gamache

One of the more interesting design trends of late is the “undesigned” design. As a response to our overly marketed consumer culture, some companies actively choose to appear unrefined and inelegant to appear more relatable to customers.

In an interview with Communication Arts magazine, Sam Becker, Executive Creative Director at Brand Union, said that in 2017, successful brands should feel authentic, transparent, and unrehearsed — even though behind the scenes their strategies are almost certainly thoroughly researched and planned.

“When I say undesigned, it’s mostly in a superficial, visual sense,” said Becker. “Successful brands are, of course, meticulously designed. They’re planned, orchestrated and delivered with remarkable consistency. The idea is that they should not appear meticulously designed to the consumer.”

This trend can be seen in, of all places, the National Basketball Association. Recently, the Detroit Pistons rebranded their team with a logo that looks incredibly similar to the one the team used in the 1970s and 80s. Rather than rolling out a completely new rebrand, today’s NBA teams are literally digging up logos from the past and repurposing them to build upon a sense of nostalgia and authenticity. The Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings, and Atlanta Hawks, among others, have latched onto this trend.

Say what you will about the new Pistons logo — it features a simple basketball line drawing and a cringe-worthy font selection —the logo does have a throwback quality that connects the team to its past, and does so in a way that arguably feels authentic.

Quirkiness (some might say ugliness) has become an asset. Appearing unpolished has become a conscious marketing decision. Brands like Snapchat, with loose guidelines and a user experience that feels totally unplanned, actually stand apart because of those things. Undesigned design shuns the appearance of calculated precision and embraces the chaotic — the unrehearsed visual accidents that somehow make it feel more human.

Studio Magazine is a great example of an undesigned approach. The overlapping elements and high-contrast type treatments feel like they’ve been roughly slapped together. It conveys a sense of hipster coolness which is completely appropriate for its target market.

Bloomberg has always had a similar approach, though a little more refined. They feature large fonts and bright colors common to undesigned concepts, along with retro interactions and simplistic layouts that feel as if they were taken directly out of the 1977 EPA Style Guide.

The “we’re not trying too hard” approach isn’t appropriate for every company, however. You wouldn’t want an engineering firm, doctor’s office, or government agency to appear chaotic or unplanned. But it’s interesting that in an era of mass marketing and digital design, many modern brands are actively embracing unstructured experiences, questionable type treatments and 1970s-era design principles as a way of standing out and connecting with consumers.

What’s old is new, and what’s bad is good.