Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

Always (mis)read the label

Posted on 22 November 2007 13 comments

Article illustration for Always (mis)read the label

A former colleague got in touch the other day to say that he’d enjoyed my recent tutorials in .net magazine, but thought I was wrong to refer to ‘Web 2.0’ as a design aesthetic when in fact it’s a development concept. Many of you (particularly those of you who saw my talk at FOWD) will know that this is rather ironic, as of course I completely agree with him! So it got me thinking: are my magazine tutorials giving off a different impression to the kind of stuff I’m speaking about at events?

With this slightly worrying thought in mind, I’d like to try and clear a few things up, as well as open up a discussion about design cliches with you guys.


Firstly, I love writing for .net magazine, but it’s worth noting that tutorials are about a practical solution to a problem and understandably they can’t allow much room for debating or ranting. I’d like to think that I conveyed my feelings against the ‘web 2.0 look’ in the introduction to the tutorial, but as this meaning is obviously being lost to some people, it’s worth clarifying here.

The so-called ‘Web 2.0 look’

I don’t think I need to go into too much detail about this here because my FOWD talk (entitled ‘Destroy The Web 2.0 Look’) covered most of my major gripes, but for those of you couldn’t be there or who haven’t seen the slides, the crux of the presentation was to emphasise that what people casually refer to as the ‘Web 2.0 look’ is nothing more than a current (and overused) design trend; you know: logo reflections, gradients, drop shadows, rounded corners, diagonal lines, etc. It was also a kind of call-to-arms to get designers to make an intentional break away from these cliches.

The so-called ‘Grunge look’

In another touch of irony, I’ve been told a few times that the ‘Grunge look’ – apparently something I’m known for – is just as much a cliche as the ‘Web 2.0 look’. Well, I agree. Sadly, my earlier .net tutorial that (perhaps unwisely) referred to this aesthetic a few times didn’t really express this. Like I said, a tutorial is not really the context in which to do open up a debate. But regardless of whether I’ve expressed this or not, Grunge is a label I feel a little uncomfortable with. Not as uncomfortable as ‘Web 2.0’, of course – because at least Grunge allows for a slightly more vague and abstract interpretation – but uncomfortable nonetheless.

My trusty Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “grime or dirt” in the first instance, a musical genre in the second, and a style of fashion in the third. It’s obvious that people see the worn / distressed / muddy textures I’m fond of and apply the OED’s first definition of the word, but Grunge has always been a problematic label. Personally, I think it’s most widely known for its application to the early 90s Seattle music scene, where it represented not just a musical style but also the accompanying look and ethos; a kind of punk-born carelessness mixed with a more introverted atmosphere and a strong influence from Metal. Grunge’s most famous figurehead Kurt Cobain famously disliked the term; primarily the problem was that it quickly became a marketing tool and a way to enclose several bands under one umbrella, when – in reality – the complex musical arrangements of Alice In Chains were quite different from the punkish minimalism of Nirvana.

Apologies for the brief musical interlude. My point is that Grunge has always been a poor description purely because of its vagueness. In the case of my own work, for instance, I would rather hear people describe my ‘style’ as “richly textured” or “organic”. The trouble with the Grunge term is that it negates the highly structured grid system that controls the actual design of the site; take away my background image and you’ll find that the so-called Grunge is pretty much gone.

Now it’s your turn

So what do you guys think of this? Personally I think that labels are a necessary evil in all walks of life, but it’d be nice if people didn’t apply them so freely and without serious consideration. Over on Snap2objects, Mao wrote an article in support of my FOWD presentation and went further by analysing characteristics of the style in general. It’s worth having a read, although sadly the comments section once again shows how so many people are missing the original point. Are we back to square one? Comments are open…
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  1. Mykal Cave

    Mykal Cave

    22 November 2007 @ 04:28PM #

    I gotta say that I"ve always thought of design in general related in some way to music. There is a well known musician who I can’t recall who is also an artist. When asked how his approach to writing music differed from his approach to art differed, he said is doesn’t. And I can’t agree more. From what I understand you also have musical tendencies so maybe you can relate?

    Anyway what I would like to say is that although I also am not fond of the web 2.0 look, I don’t feel it should be destroyed altogether. Again if we think of design on a par with music, the web2.0 look can be thought of as just another style of music. Your not necessarily going to be a fan, but maybe it still has a value to music (design) as a whole? Its a tool that you use to convey a message.

    Again Im not a fan of the web 2.0 look but I think it can be useful based on the content that you are trying to share. The same way a song with lyrics of despair are not necessarily going to be backed with music of joy, I cant help but feel that not all sites are going to call for a textured or organic design.

    Even though I personally prefer a more organic and unique design (your site, web designer wall) Site content really seems to determine its design elements.

  2. Stevie K

    Stevie K

    22 November 2007 @ 04:32PM #

    I think it’s just a fact of life that labels that may not fit are applied to pieces of work. The labels are often inappropriate to the artist/designer but it’s the way we humans define and group things together, otherwise everything is too complicated to handle.

    I’m sure Picasso never like being described as cubist but its how you create an initial understand in educating people. Its just that the label is designed for entry level interest and doesn’t describe the intricacies of something but really the ‘feel’ of something.

    It is strange that the term has been applied mainly to your own site as the background is the only ‘grungy’ element of it.

  3. mao


    22 November 2007 @ 04:50PM #

    Despite some guys having (mis)read the label, it is important to start the conversation and the reevaluation of the topic. But it is also important to make the point clear and what the proposal is. You are right that using the label “grunge” to describe “organic” and “fully textured” is not the most appropriate because it might cause distractions in the discussions as we have seen.

  4. Jon


    22 November 2007 @ 05:36PM #

    Labels may well be a necessary evil, but it strikes me that an aesthetic impression should not separate visual style from tactile experience.

    In my view, judging anything on pure visual aesthetics alone—but most especially interactive media like the Web—leads to fundamentally flawed opinions. After all, “Web 2.0” is nothing to do with style, but has just been appropriated as a lazy way to describe stylistic elements. It treats an interface as a painting, not concerned with how it works, but purely with how it looks or the passive emotional response it invokes. Therefore, if an intelligent label is applied, it should encapsulate the whole active experience of that interface, not just a visual impression.

  5. Moo


    22 November 2007 @ 09:17PM #

    I dont think that design can be so easily likened to music, in that music is the message whereas design is a container for the message. Take this very page as an example. Does its aesthetics affect its content? Which is the most important? Which could you do without? In general, form has to play second-fiddle to function (particularly when talking about Web 2.0). The aesthetics is an important part of the overall ‘design’ – which i suggest is the ‘application of form and function’.

    With regards to applying labels to aesthetics I think both ‘Web 2.0 look’ and ‘grunge’ are apt. Yes, we all accept that Web 2.0 has little to do with style, but there is a definite ‘feel’ that most Web 2.0 and social networking sites share. Perhaps ‘glossy’ works as a label for these?

  6. Marc Hewitt

    Marc Hewitt

    22 November 2007 @ 11:48PM #

    I had been practising in the realm of Menatl health for almost fifteen years when I decided in September of this year to pursue a career in Creative Multimedia.
    Looking for inspiration, at the same time, I happened to purchase a .net mag. It has fairly decent content but what made me decide to subscribe to it was a tutorial about “dark” and “distressed” website design. Looking in the “real world” with psychodynamic spectacles, I have witnessed “dark” and “distressed” first hand and it is all too prevalent in Today’s disposable and pre-packaged society.
    The tutorials of which I speak are both informative and refreshing. As you are aware there is a time and a place to be “subversive” i.e .net issue 170 and you are adding something “organic” to a clinical pre-defined genre in the form of Web 2.0.
    Labels are used by society either to confine or constrain. Some labels are used to describe and prescribe, like when a Psychiatrist gives a diagnosis of Schizophrenia or Bi-polar depression to a patient. What this really does is eradicate the fear and anxiety of so called rational individuals when they experience behaviour exhibited by others that is incomprehensible or incoherent. Labels will always be used by society. But whether we choose to adopt them or conform to their standard accepted “norms” is another matter. That is why we need people like yourself to challenge convention through your work.
    I personally believe that the tutorials are well balanced with an edgyness that is needed to keep the readers attention.

    My compliments to the Chef!

  7. Ryan Carson

    Ryan Carson

    23 November 2007 @ 06:03AM #

    Labels are just a part of life. No matter what you do, people make generalizations.

    I think the best way to fight it is to continually re-invent yourself and your style. A great example of this is Seth Godin. I love how every book he writes is from a new angle – it’s hard to pin him down.

  8. Chris A.

    Chris A.

    23 November 2007 @ 12:35PM #

    Equating music to design is perfect. The web 2.0 look is pop, easily and often imitated by those wanting to appeal to the masses. Remember Patrick Nagel in the 80’s (famous for his Duran Duran Rio Cover), once an inspired artist who’s style was adopted by every tshirt and commercial art company in the world trying to cash in on the success of a style associated with the 80’s pop group. The style quickly became overused and cheapened in the process.

    At it’s inception the web 2.0 look was a clean and refreshing break from the monotony of the limiting website built by apps such as Microsoft Front Page. Reflected logos looked fantastic in the beginning, the diagonal lines were a refreshing change and rounded corners can still spice up a somewhat drab layout. But with time, and more and more designers using the same bag of tricks, we get very tired of seeing the same thing and yearn for something more.

    The trick to being a successful (and good) designer is to buck the current trend and go for something new (when you can convince your client that this is a good thing).

    Labeling these trends can be very offensive to a designer but a necessary evil in marketing “a look” to a client. I can’t remember a time when a client didn’t come to me with a specific “look and feel” in mind.

    I agree that the web 2.0 look definitely needs a different label so as not to confuse the term with its real purpose, accessibility. I don’t think that most people (at least on the client side) realize this. I’ve never had anybody come to me asking about accessibility issues.

    As in music the trend will undoubtedly continue for a while but will eventually be replaced by something else. I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure it is something that will be somewhat nauseating after a few months.

  9. Arktyp


    25 November 2007 @ 11:54AM #

    It amazes me that even when we are fighting the use of lables we continue to use them when judging another persons site (based on remarks about this site looking “grunge”). Seeing as how this site is Elliot’s own, the only question I want to ask is does this design (whatever you label it) reflect his own personality? Those who know him well should be able to answer that as should Elliot. If it does then great job on the site Elliot. Cliche or not, if it fits then use it. The real lesson and reason people get up in arms over cliches and trends is because people stop designing to solve problems and they design to “fit in”. Stop trying to fit in and start thinking for yourselves. Great posts Elliot so keep them coming.

  10. Derek


    26 November 2007 @ 09:38AM #

    Elliot, labels are a fact of life and is what the powers that be come up with to describe a look or sound that they know very little about. I know that very well because I am from the Seattle area and hated the ‘grunge’ label that was given to the bands like Pearl Jam and Alice and Chains that I grew up listening to. The design side is just the same and I have always drawn on my beliefs to design for the project and what will best fit the client. I loved that you mentioned the ‘grid system’, if there is anything we as designers should be discussing is this. Not to say that aesthetics mean nothing but how often have we used something that looked cool but was hard or impossible to use. Design should support and assist in usability.


  11. Kyle Meyer

    Kyle Meyer

    26 November 2007 @ 07:27PM #

    People just want labels as an easy way to reference something, while I agree that ‘Web 2.0’ is incorrect as a style of design I think calling that style ‘plastic’ or ‘glossy’ depending on which is more applicable puts them in the same league as ‘grunge’ or ‘tech’ or whatever other labels are thrown around. Labels just help illustrate a picture of a design to someone who hasn’t seen it, clients or creative management may use them when describing a design that hasn’t reached the mock-up stage because as a label people have a general idea of the look and feel and that makes them feel secure. Granted, those general ideas are personal interpretations and will vary.

    That said, there’s still something very satisfying about breaking away from cliche as much as possible, but there are times when the cliche works better than something we concocted on our own, or, an element of a cliche is needed. For example, A List Apart uses what is commonly labeled as a ‘badge’ on it’s T-Shirt ad. While this is a bit cliche, we dismiss it because it’s being used in a situation where the cliche does the job better than anything we could substitute it with.

  12. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    04 December 2007 @ 02:05AM #

    Cheers for such detailed commentary, guys. You’ve all raised the bar of this discussion with your thoughts and I’m chuffed to have you all here. To everyone who said that labels are a necessary part of life, you’re absolutely right, sadly.

    @ Mykal Cave and Chris A: I couldn’t agree more about the music thing. I don’t want to see the ‘Web 2.0 look’ destroyed completely; I just don’t want to see so much of it, in the same way I’d rather keep my ears safe from the majority of pop music out there at the moment.

    @ Aktyp: Great to see your company name in the comments – I’ve been drooling over your site for the last couple of weeks, so it was a real honour.

    @ Jon: I think you summed everything up perfectly.

  13. Erin


    09 July 2008 @ 07:37AM #

    Ok, I realize I’m coming in a bit late in the game on this one. But I came across it in the archives and walked away from it with a reaction in my gut that I had to walk away from and process to put in to words. In particular, Elliot, your presentation slides on flickr got the wheels turning in my brain. Anyway, I come back now with some thoughts in order and will try to keep this as concise as possible and spare you my mental tangents.

    Basically, the conclusion I came to was a question which I don’t have an answer to. Only a design newbie would ask this question. But I’ve thought of it before in other contexts and even in things I’m more proficient in it’s still interesting to consider. The question is this: So then, what is the difference between good and bad design?

    Realizing the answer to this question will not be the same as what designs do you prefer? And also realizing the best answer any professional could give to this in any arena will often be something along the lines of “I can’t define it, but I’ll know it when I see it”, I’m interested to know how someone who has more design experience than me would answer this.

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