Spontaneous Order in the Fight against Ugliness
Italian design legend Massimo Vignelli once described the life of a designer as one of a constant “fight against the ugliness.” I can personally testify to the validity of this claim, as I work daily toward the elimination of the nefarious use of Comic Sans and Papyrus. But although designers are ultimately in that fight, it is clearly no conventional battle.
Practically speaking, I—along with the majority of designers—are not daily crusaders for the noble cause of global aesthetic improvement. We don’t go to work every day, Bezier-Pen Tool unsheathed, with the vision of eliminating “the ugliness” from the face of the Earth. Collectively, we don’t have commanders in our fight against the enemy of poor design. We are not bound together by any common law, institution, or even cause. We are a diverse legion each acting by our own free will, yet spontaneously converging toward the same end—whether it is intentional or not. Just like anyone else with any other profession, we do what we do not out of duty or a quest for glory. We do it because our work matters to us.
And yet the forces of aesthetic integration continue to gain on “the ugliness.”
Just Google “1950s Graphic Design” and you will notice the difference quality, effectiveness, and visual appeal. Such an evolution is only possible with the disorganized aggregation of creative minds.
But how can progress occur without organization and unity—without a plan or goal? Order from chaos is unfathomable to the human mind, yet it is the single rule of the universe. This “spontaneous order” does not occur by human planning, but by an inadvertent aggregation of dispersed individual knowledge. It is the “invisible hand” that promotes an unintended end through the self-interested work of individuals. It is, as Adam Ferguson describes, “the result of human action but not the execution of human design.”
That’s right. The existential fight of designers is not the result of “human design”—ironic but true. No institution was formed to harness the creative forces of the world and expel the cluttered designs of the 1950s. No single person spearheaded the effort against the excessive use of exclamation points. No instruction manual of the “Five Easy Steps to Aesthetic Integration” existed to transition graphic design into the modern age.
It just happens. Order emerges out of apparent chaos. Societal good is inadvertently formed from self-interest. Ugliness is fended off by the aggregate efforts of individual designers.
The evolution is gradual, disorganized, and spontaneous—but it is more effective than any human-devised plan could ever achieve.
Massimo Vignelli was not over-exaggerating. Evidence of the battle’s progression is apparent, despite the seeming lack of organization. No matter our practical motives, we ultimately unite—spontaneously and unintentionally—in the fight against ugliness whenever we design. As long as we continue to do the work that matters to us, I’m convinced beauty will win.