Artwork, print and cheap uncoated paper – 1950s/60s comics’ matchless charm (pic via Half-man Half-static).

Forty years back (in the Life on Mars era) the fashionable aesthetic is an informal, natural look. There is lingering hippy talk of ‘getting back to nature’. These are lean years for the high street hairdresser, ‘male grooming’ is a laughable concept and clothes are mostly cheap and nasty or homemade. Design is still a cottage industry but it is looking to the future: Michael English’s Hyper-real airbrush illustrations seem new and extraordinary. Robert Moog’s synthesizer is the future of music (although he hasn’t yet worked out how to keep it in tune)…

March 2010, Farringdon. I’m in a tube carriage near an extraordinary-looking young woman who appears in no way real. Her hair, nails, makeup seem somehow beyond human and her high brow and flawless surface reminds me of the actor/digital hybrid as the Red Queen from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Blankly shiny, expressionlessly ‘perfect’, she is the HD-ready paradigm of contemporary beauty. Music seeping from headphones is also soullessly bright, sampled, virtual, autotuned. All of this is in sharp contrast to the immediate noise and grubby texture of London, where illustrators, designers and musicians, bored with software slickness are increasingly going ‘wonky’ (surely the most irritating/overused phrase of 2009), working with the look and feel of handwork, crafts, ‘outsider art’ and forgotten technologies to rediscover ‘charm’….

The last forty years have taken us from one extreme end to the other of a cycle in which mainstream culture either looks toward or away from ‘perfection’ in what it judges to be beautiful/attractive. Design – always juggling rationality and creativity – tends to explore / reflect the opposite of the mainstream. Now, the flawlessly over-groomed predominates, whilst an undercurrent of creators explore the opposite: a naïve approach that engages in ways that billion-dollar Avatar slickness cannot. [ update from 2012: it has a name now: glitch art ].

Opposing perfection is ‘charm’. Like charisma it is near-indefinable (although the OED has a go: ‘giving delight’, ‘arousing admiration’, ‘fascination’ and ‘attractiveness’ or alternatively: ‘an object with occult power’. True but unhelpful.). Charm is unreliable and subject to changing tastes – the minute charm is manufactured, regulated, or repeated, it ceases to exist. Today’s charm is tomorrow’s tacky (and the day after tomorrow’s ‘what were they thinking?’).

‘Charm’ in graphic design follows no rules but frequently includes elements of the handmade; the misaligned/irregular/unstructured; a lack of skill; both old and new technologies; the accidental; evidence of use; texture and tactility…


Charmingly untutored hand–lettering (unless my local cornershop is staffed by out-of-work illustrators/designers. Possible – I should have asked)

Firework label c.1975. They don’t make ‘em like that any more: crude, misregistered printing, misaligned type, redundant punctuation. Gorgeous.

Studied charm. Coffee chain Puccino’s visual identity is (arguably) weakly branded compared to its competitors, but harnesses dry wit and handmade visuals by Jim Smith/’Waldo Pancake’ to distinctive effect.

‘Cobi’ (Barcelona Olympics mascot) Javier Mariscal 1979.  Compare and contrast with more recent attempts at the same problem.



Recent technology has charm potential, even in OSX .  For a better example see the raw web charm of Daniel Eatock’s website.

Charm is the polar opposite of the analytical aspect of design, hell-bent on removing decoration and redundant detail, organizing and structuring for maximum effectiveness. Unrestricted that tendency leads to Helvetica by law and compulsory Swiss typography for every design problem – a stiflingly dry prospect. Rationality alone has its place, but if you really need to communicate, first you must attract and engage, then you can inform; and you want your message to linger in the mind. Charm helps us with the two ends of that process and reminds us of the fallibility and individuality that rigorous analysis and rationality tends to remove.

Good design often sensitively incorporates elements of both rationality and charm. A note of caution: trying too hard to be ‘charming’, as in life, is usually counterproductive…



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