Steven Heller | Essays

Curse of The "D" Word

Do you make things look nice? Do you spend more time worrying about nuance and aesthetics than substance and meaning? Do you fiddle with style while ignoring the big picture? If your answers are yes, yes, or yes, then you are a decorator.

Being a decorator is not how graphic designers necessarily want to perceive themselves. But what's the big deal? Is anything fundamentally wrong with being a decorator? Although Adolf Loos, an architect, proclaimed ornament as a sin in his essay, Ornament and Crime, an attack on late-nineteenth century Art Nouveau, in truth decoration and ornamentation are no more sinful than purity is supremely virtuous.

Take for example the Psychedelic Style of the late 1960s that was smothered in flamboyant ornamentation (indeed much of it borrowed from Loos' dreaded Art Nouveau). Nonetheless, it was a revolutionary graphic language used as a code for a revolutionary generation — which is exactly the same role Art Nouveau played seventy years earlier with its vituperative rejection of antiquated 19th-century academic verities. Likewise, Psychedelia's immediate predecessor, Push Pin Studios, from the late 1950s through the 1970s, was known for reprising passé decorative conceits. In the context of the times, it was a purposeful and strategic alternative to the purist Swiss Style that evolved into drab Corporate Modernism, which had rejected decoration (and eclectic quirkiness) in favor of bland Helvetica. In their view, content and meaning were not sacrificed but rather illuminated and made more appealing.

Anti-decorative ideological fervor to the contrary, decoration is not inherently good or bad. While frequently applied to conceal faulty merchandise and flawed concepts, it nonetheless can enhance a product when used with integrity — and taste. Decorators do not simply and mindlessly move elements around to achieve an intangible or intuitive goal: rather, they optimize materials at hand to tap into an aesthetic allure that instills a certain kind of pleasure.

Loos and likeminded late-19th and early-20th Century design progressives argued that excessive ornament existed solely to deceive the public into believing they were getting more value for their money — when in fact they were being duped through illusionary conceits. These critics argued that Art Nouveau (and later Art Deco or Postmodern) decoration on buildings, furniture and graphic design rarely added to a product's functionality or durability; it also locks the respective objects in a vault of time that eventually renders everything obsolete. Decoration was therefore the tool of obsolescence.

However, decoration also plays an integral role in the total design scheme. It is not merely wallpaper. (And what's wrong with beautiful wallpaper, anyway?) Good decoration is that which enhances or frames a product or message. The Euro paper currency, with its colorful palette and pictorial vibrancy, is much more appealing than the staid U.S. dollar. While the "greenback" is comprised of ornate rococo engravings, the U.S. bills lack the visual pizzazz of the Euro. Of course, visual pizzazz is irrelevant if one is clutching a score of $100 bills: putting the respective face values of the currencies aside, the Euro is an indubitably more stimulating object of design because it is a decorative tour-de-force with a distinct function. One should never underestimate the power of decoration to stimulate the users of design.

Decoration is a marriage of forms (color, line, pattern, letter, picture) that does not overtly tell a story or convey a literal message, but serves to stimulate the senses. Paisley, herringbone or tartan patterns are decorative yet nonetheless elicit certain visceral responses. Ziggurat or sunburst designs on the façade of a building or the cover of a brochure spark a chord even when type is absent. Decorative and ornamental design elements are backdrops yet possess the power to draw attention, which ultimately prepares the audience to receive the message.

It takes as much sophistication to be a decorator as it does to be a wire-framer. A designer who decorates yet does not know how to effectively control, modulate or create ornamental elements is doomed to produce turgid work. The worst decorative excesses are not the obsessively baroque borders and patterns that are born of an eclectic vision (like the vines and tendrils that strangulated the typical Art Nouveau poster or page) but the ignorant application of dysfunctional doodads that are total anachronisms. A splendidly ornamented package, including the current crop of boutique teas, soaps and food wrappers, may cost a little more to produce but still have quantifiable impact on the consumers with discerning tastes who buy them (and who sometimes keep the boxes after the product is used).

There are many different kinds and degrees of decoration and ornamentation. While none of it is really sinful, much of it is trivial. And yet to be a practitioner of this kind of design does not a priori relegate one to inferior status branded with a scarlet (shadowed, inline and bifurcated) letter "D."

Some designers are great because they are exemplary decorators.

Comments [47]

it's all about visual vocabulary. the design principles we all learn at university are of course necessary and irreplaceable, but how we implement them in a sea of niche-market relativity is the real test, imho. no matter what you're working on, establish a visual vocabulary (or work within a pre-defined one) and run with it. and remember, most of the time, you're designing for non-designers. wow them, guide them, don't make them think too hard, and give a little something for the more observant viewer to nibble on.
John Mindiola III

Thought you were taking a break. Ha!

Joe Moran

Debating and defining the definition of design, (including pondering) the different ends and delving into discussion around detail has got to be one of the most done things these days. I enjoyed this one, but Im jaded with the seemingly never ending debate about 'What is design'. I might be wrong, but they generate defensive head-nodding, impulsive colleage emailing, and line-in-the-sand-drawing behaviour... what starts as interesting perspective ends as designer defensiveness. I love the positive side of the discussion, but can't we move onto some other Design Observation? Particularly you guys, you're at the head of the class...

Instead of "decorator", I'd say "differentiator". :)
Douglas Karr

Often I am asked to design when the client really just wants me to decorate something. As long as I know which near the start, I'm happy to attempt either, or to make a case for the opposite.

Great article. I'm in total agreement.

I've often found myself moving between the poles in my own methodology: from "if isn't not crucial to the concept, and doesn't have reams of rationale, nix it!" to "but this is so pretty!"

My favorite genres are Swiss and Art Nouveau -- I'm at odds with myself!

One conclusion I came to a while ago, that you hit on nicely here, is that setting the "emotional environment" is nearly tantamount to the content. We're so cerebral so much of the time, we forget that a flourish can prick the heart in a way which is not so obvious to our reason.

Great job.
Benjamin Allison

Yes, some designers really are exemplary decorators. I think I belong to another faction who doesn't utilize any means of decoration in their designs. My work has often been criticized by some peers and even clients as being too clean, sterile, and bland. I am usually not bothered by that view, because I believe in the way my designs function and what they communicate. Plus you can always pitch your design strategy to peers and clients as you are in direct contact with them. But when decoration becomes fashionable and trendy, even your actual audience starts looking for certain decorative elements in your designs, the lack of which might affect their impression negatively.

So my question is, do you determine the level of decoration in your work based on audience expectations, and basically let trends interfere with your communication goals and/or functional specs and usability requirements?
Onur Orhon

Spot on commentary, as well as all the comments thus far. It really is all about the content and context; as long as the elements utilized work together, and therefore bring the design to a greater visual impact, I'm all for it.

I feel that we can avoid the nasty "trendy" designation by following the ideals of the concept completely, and making sure that the concept is strong enough to survive the test of fickle times. What I think we can all agree on is that unnecessary decoration, or decoration to "pretty things up" would interfere with the overall value and effectiveness.

I'm graduating university soon, so I'm still in the idealistic designing-for-designers phase. To me, it's all about love for the craft. To use decoration for the sake of decoration seems like such a lazy and lousy thing for an artist to do. However, why do I feel like I'm in line for a very big wakeup call?


The funny thing is that the oft-scoffed-at, seemingly concept-free decorative styles are usually referenced in later years and employed by thoughtful designers in meaningful projects, whether in irony or whether to comment on the spirit or history of the time. While perhaps not always the best solution when used alone, the stylistic or decorative always gives us more ammunition in the end. Three cheers to the decoratively powerful!

I hear concept, concept, concept all day long from creative directors -- only to have the client just want something pretty. Sometimes, the client is right. The concept just gets in the way.
Inaudible Nonsense

Whenever groups of people gathers, there are always going to be labels, dividing who "we are" and who "others are". And when that happens, it's always seem retarded to me.

Where I am studying, there is this beliefs that designer and artist are very much different. That artist can do whatever they want, and designer solve problem.
David Carsons was always right, these designers act as if artists don't communicate. Every piece of artwork communicate in an creative way. And as long as creativity is involve, it's art.

But what with these labels? Why are there needs to differentiate ourselves from other? To me, even chef designs.

Now we are dividing designer into decorators?
What's wrong with ornaments?

If it is really such a sinful thing for one design something... like their own work desk to be filled with "pointless objects" and not care about what makes them happy... well, then I guess those famous designers should stop making designer toys (urban vinyl) or any ornaments at all, since they are contributing to the problem.
Panasit Ch

Many of the points in this article apply to the written word as well. Only masterful taste, skill and wit could conceive of the phrase "...ignorant application of dysfunctional doodads". Meaningful and beautiful.
Melanie Rodgers

Great article! I have felt this way for years but could not express it so succinctly. Many clients are not into high-concept as much as wanting a design that compels the viewer to pick it up simply because it is beautiful. All things in moderation, of course—and sometimes the product itself is really crying out for a good concept.

I always liked Jan Tschichold's stance on ornamentation in The New Typography, when he pointed out that the more primitive the society, the more intricate their ornamentation. He makes reference to some ancient tribe who even went as far as carving designs on their arrow heads. Of course, Tschichold, being a lover of architecture and a German himself, was probably coming from the same school of thought as Adolf Loos.
Brad Estey

Jan Tschichold made a stance on ornamentation (as mentioned by Brad above) but later in his life (1967) he rejected that statement and acknowledged that "the desire for ornament is elemental, and not so childish naive."

I'm personally a fan of "decoration" there's absolutely nothing wrong with making something look nice, and that can be done either by eliminating what isn't making it look nice, or by adding something to make it look better. Either approach can have merit in the right situation.

John D.


You are making decorating and ornamenting synonyms. Can't decorating (as you defined it--favoring nuance and aesthetics over substance and meaning) be accomplished in a minimalist aesthetic and can't complex design favor substance and meaning?

Loos may have used functionalist rhetoric but he was making a primarily aesthetic argument.
Gunnar Swanson

While I want to agree, there are a couple of sticking points that I can't seem to get over. Call it that old time religion, since it seems that we are on ethical grounds.

First, it seems in the argument that ornament is serving a function, but w/o the responsibility of meaning. In other words, it is acting on the audience - framing their experience for positive or negative - without a mention of what is going on. While this might be fine in capable hands (whatever those may be), it seems troubling in the hands of the ignorant or worse.

Second, the argument for ornament for ornament's sake doesn't square with me trying to be more ecologically-friendly. Is ornament worth the expense and (if so) how much ornament? If the frame is necessary, great. However, if it is just because I or my client feels it, is that any different than me driving a Hummer because I like the feel of it. In the case of deco, where does comsumption factor into production? That religion in me makes it seem like it should at least by a criteria.
Joshua Herbert

Gunnar makes a good point. Decoration and ornamentation are not always synonymous, though in my definition I have conflated the two. Ornamentation can occur in the most highly conceptual work. It is an issue of style more than function (yet style can be linked to function). Although ornament suggests excess, some ornamentation can be essentially minimal (streamline was minimalist).

Joshua has a good point too. Decoration suggests excess. And currently, the new religion of sustainability rails against excess as unholy indulgence.

The term "capable hands" is relative and contextual. But we are talking about graphic design here, where in the end decoration and ornament are impressions on surface, not the surface itself. Even the most sustainable products could benifit from a decorative surface - or not as the case may be.
steve heller

Gunnar's point is key. The issue/problem with being a decorator isn't one of aesthetic style, but rather the [often true] notion that a Decorator is so interested in surface, formal issues, and pure aesthetics that they are prone to ignore the "big picture" strategic issues that often underlay the problems that designers are asked by clients to address. There's absolutely nothing wrong with one decorative/aesthetic approach versus another. It's when the tendency to decorate trumps the need to problem solve that problems arise (and designers get dismissed as flaky aesthetes). When the two disciplines are appropriately balanced and strategically and poetically delivered -- then you've got something.
Tom Dolan


I would argue that masterfully-done decoration and ornamentation are inherently sustainable, whether it is on the surface or is the surface itself. One of the oft-forgotten tenets of sustainability is pride of possession, wherein an object becomes a keepsake, thus preventing it from creating a void that must be filled. One could argue that the best-decorated pieces of architecture are sustainable simply for the fact that they won't be replaced, and therefore will not create waste. The art deco movement produced many such pieces, and is arguably more sustainable than equivalent pieces of the modern movement as a result.

The graphic design industry is currently on a sustainable forestry kick, but the problem remains the same: people continuously dispose of our work, but our work is often not designed to be disposed. Meanwhile, original prints and scrolls, the first examples of typesetting as an art, have not been thrown out in hundreds of years despite (and, indeed, because of) their ornamental nature. Perhaps if we focus on ensuring that our work will not be disposed by utilizing ornamentation as the art form it once was, a more sustainable industry will result.
Sean Flanagan

schmuck leiter

rhymes with...

book writer

foreign homonymity/graphy/phony permitted.

that's all I got to say.


Inaudible Nonsense:"Sometimes, the client is right. The concept just gets in the way."

That just means it's a bad concept.

With a background in Industrial Design, I learned that the aesthetic of a design is often a result of the processes that are used in its manufacture. My problem with graphic designers has always been that this is just not a big consideration (a silkscreened graphic appears as it does BECAUSE it is a screen print, not because it is a Photoshop plug-in). Whenever I work on a Web design with a print designer it becomes all too obvious that they are far too interested in surface. I don't have any problem with decoration. I do, however have a problem with inappropriate decoration.

Great article! i will visit your site permanent for more useful article
Graphic boards

Graphic decoration is not a solution, it rarely communicates, and it has, to my knowledge, never changed the world. There is no question one can derive appreciation from beautifully presented expression, but it all ends there. What remains is sentimentality. Rarely does a singularly beautiful design resonate with me as compared to an individual designer who has so succinctly presented a message that shakes me to my core.
Robert Dweck

graphic decoration always communicate. It may not be a classy message, but it always say something... most of the time effectively. And why do all designs have to change the world? Or even have deep meaning. Or even beautiful? Isn't it a common knowledge that design can be disturbing, and that it can sacrifice aesthetic for the sake of communication?

Although I would love for the business card of my local florist and my dishwasher to be designed with Swiss style, I live in the real world, and I have come to appreciate the various degree of design intelligence, aim at different types of targets, made by people from different education background.

Design can reflect the personality of a person, it can sell toys to children, it can helps adult masturbate(designer of pornographic video cover is a designer no matter how hard you want to change the encyclopedia definition to try not to include them).

Design, like love, has started to become something that is trying to be made exclusive by the elitist who studies at the concentrated feel (for love, that would be those PhD poets), when in reality, the word supposed to cover wide range of activities. To me, all it takes to be a designer is for someone to try to communicate something. If it's ineffective, it's a bad design, if it's effective, it's a good design. Nothing doesn't communicate. You standing there saying nothing communicate something.

Like I said in my earlier post, every dish a chef creates, he designs.

Where I am studying, angry teacher who are mad at his student sometime claims "you will never be a good designer if you keep behaving this way." He never said, "you will never be a designer"
Panasit Ch

Sean Flanagan's comment on decoration/ornamentation as a sustainable design strategy is very attractive. While designing for pride of ownership does pull deco into a function, the idea creates a balance between strategies of beauty-as-primary and function-as-primary.
Joshua Herbert

Decoration and function are not necessarily opposed to each other. In historic design, ornament is often used to define or underscore structure. Friezes, moldings, and decorative details in architecture are not slopped on like paint, but follow the lines of windows, doors, cornices, floor divisions, supports, brackets, and more. In a traditional carpet design, ornament is used to divide and fill space. On a printed page, borders, dingbats, and flourishes often serve to frame and emphasize content, drawing the eye to central elements. Ornament thus often has a visual function, which becomes evident when you stop to look.
Ellen Lupton

This discussion recalls what my instructors drumming into us throughout my time as an interior design student at Parsons in New York City in the early 1980s.

"Oh," says the prospective client, "you're an interior decorator."

"No," we were told to respond, "I'm an interior designer. Decorators put vases of flowers on tables: I do real work."

L.M. Cunningham

Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality.
-- Ruskin
m. kingsley

isn't it a given that the unification of form and function is better than either alone?

ms. lupton and m. kingsley (via ruskin) are spot on; interested parties should look up the writing of james trilling or denise gonzales crisp on the subject.

there is absolutely nothing that is unaesthetic, or arguably, undecorated. even a black and white wireframe contains myriad formal decisions. it is precisely that series of decisions which make design work.
jay harlow

I would whole-heartedly agree with the idea that decoration and function are not opposed (decoration always serving some sort of framing function) and it is desirable to have them in balance. However, I sense a counter-argument in this thread that places decoration outside of the functional field of framing. A decoration where the function doesn't require naming or meaning. I'm interested and a little uncomfortable with what falls under that idea and would be curious to know more.
Joshua Herbert

I have a mixed feeling about graphic designers being referred to as strictly decorators.

While as graphic designers it is our job to portray a message in a pleasing aesthetic that is appropriate and meets the demands and standards of both the client's and one's personal needs. I feel it is how we portray that information to the masses that will determine if decoration is indeed Graphic Design. While our main focus should reside on the ability to understand the information we are presenting quickly and clearly. Sometimes decoration design is what the client may be looking for, it all depends on the target market.

I feel it that the amount of decoration applied is determined by the client and consumer's needs. I follow and compete in multiple "action sports" The trend these days in multiple magazines, and advertisements is basically senseless collages (decoration) that eventually promote the product, brand, or athlete. As we all know, popular image sells. The designers for these magazines and ads must concentrate more about style and aesthetics because that is what the companies are promoting and the consumer is buying. In my eyes this is making them effective Designers, while they may understand all of the typographic rules etc... They choose to ignore these rules in order to meet the needs of the client/consumer

Ross Dantonio

Decoration without meaning is bad... To form visual elements without content or underlying meaning is not purposeful. To extend purpose to visual elements is what drives the designers message and moves away from "decorator". To comprise something entirely out of ornament or Psychedelic is art, not design.

On the subject of duping the public with ornament: one could say art in general is a way of duping the public to buy something. People like things that are colorful, shinny, evoke imagination, etc, so is it fair to say that the entire world or art and design is the worlds greatest scam to make a buck?

I myself enjoy ornament to a certain extent... Not to make this blurb sound like a tired out rant on how ornament is bad or decoration is dead, and how the perfect designer should be... but purpose is what drives a designer. If I take nothing from my studies, I would take that something visually pleasing doesn't have to mean anything, but as a designer, or decorator, whatever one wishes to call it, I want my audience to perceive a message. Elemental purpose.

Some designers are great because they are exemplary decorators.

But they are great because they understand design and decoration in context and not for the act of adding curlicues.

Michelle French

Always I am hearing concept/content in a manner which places it "vs" ornament and style or form. They are inseperable and mutually informative- whether the end result is austere or opulent. The talented designer can always keep them connected, where there is no choosing one or the other, because one is nothing without the other.

Ornamentation can be viewed and applied both semantically and syntactically. It can serve both functional and decorative purposes. Ideally form and function re-enforce one another.

Ornamentation can be used like a language of coded signs. It can also add value to an object by being beautiful according to some set of shared values. However, the syntax of the ornamentation (the elements that are used and the way they are organized) has meaning in and of itself in that it reveals the values that helped created it. The Corinthian, Ionic, and Doric orders in Classical Western architecture reveals something about Greek and Roman society, just as Islamic calligraphy and the Arabesque provides some insight into the values of traditional Islamic culture. Furthermore, the fact that some people still use the Classical Order in contemporary architecture reveals something about the people that use it, sponsor it, and admire it. The same goes for all other historic or emerging styles.

If the goal of decorating is to enhance value by making something more beautiful, the way a society or individual accomplishes this will reveal the values of that society:

What materials are used (gold, stone, bakelite plastic)?
What motifs are used (floral, geometric, typographic)?
How is it organized (hierarchically, modularly, randomly)?
To what objects is it applied (objects meant to last forever, object meant to be disposed of quickly)?
What reason was it applied (to inspire, to draw attention, to shock, to overwhelm)?
Who benefits from it (everyone, only the middle class, only the elite class, only the ruling class)?

Whether a designer views themselves as a problem solver, communicator, innovator, or decorator, I think the most important thing is that they have some idea what they are doing, even if their only goal is to make something nicer.
kai salmela

great article by the way. its nice to read so many thoughtful posts. any article that results in readers becoming thoughtful writers is a success.

Got a PPT deck to "clean up" the other day. On page 12 of the deck, instructions read: "Designer:please make this pretty."
Michele Champagne

good article... however, the euros have pizzazz?
that is meant to be funny right? the euros are, in my opinion absolutely dreadful...
especially to people here in holland, you should see the old
dutch guilder notes designed by 'ootje oxenaar',
now that was pizzazz in money design terms...
or the swiss bank notes... but not the euro!

"Graphic decoration is not a solution, it rarely communicates, and it has, to my knowledge, never changed the world. There is no question one can derive appreciation from beautifully presented expression, but it all ends there. What remains is sentimentality. Rarely does a singularly beautiful design resonate with me as compared to an individual designer who has so succinctly presented a message that shakes me to my core."

Simply put.

Thank you.
Allan Lee

Martin: the CR Blog had a great interview with Ootje about his guilder designs:

John Coulthart

I always found it ironic that in one of his works, Loos ended up building a non structural column just to give symmetry to an interior. Or how Mies Van de Rohe wrapped in steel a group of columns that had to be built in concrete to comply with fire extinction requirements, only to give the columns his signature steel look. So much for form following function.
As the writer of this article points out, all time-periods are responding to their predecessors, usually in a radical manner. Designers are by definition concerned with the aesthetics of things, and have the tendency to want to leave their own mark; to innovate.
But as long as there is no dialogue between content and form, designers are simple behaving like the married couple fighting over wether having a home full of memorabilia and decorative items or having
a "simple" and minimalist space.
Every home is different. And ideally, it looks and feels like home to each one of its inhabitants. It should respond to everyone's needs.
Graphic Design is no different. Think of content (and client, and audience) as the inhabitants of a graphic design piece. The designer should make all these elements feel at home. And, unless you want to repeat Le Corbusier's machine of living, your designs will look different depending on who are the inhabitants.

What is aesthetics? Looking good (decoration)? Or communicate well?
I think graphic design is aesthetics that helping to do well meaningful communication. The road sign ages are aesthetically well design without decoration.
Jayesh Raut

a book I came across today which is worth reading: The Function of Ornament.
kai salmela

I attend SVA where within my particular curriculum lives a divide of designer as decorator vs. designer as thinker; decorator gets lumped with non-thinking in terms of concept or meaning of a design. This is in response to students who depend on their exploration of the computer rather than exploring the relevance of their design to the assignment. That divide makes sense in this context but in the working world I fear the ideas and opinions of those of us that are great aesthetic decorators will be ignored; kept in dark offices to make beautiful the design ideas of others.
Joshua Winship Carpenter

Mr. Heller,

It seems to be that what you are referring to as exemplary decoration in a way that could be considered as when decoration becomes "substance and meaning" in which functions and serves a purpose within a design. It is also to be considered that beauty, whether through decoration or not, is created by a Kantian aesthetic moment.

Perhaps I've been afraid to face the stigma of the "D", but I originally felt that like the term decoration does not provide an accurate portrayal of a functional aspect of design. When done well decoration creates an atmosphere to which semantics are culturally posited to help tell a story. However, this is decoration. Thank you for alerting us to what we more specifically should fear from being; only decorators and/or bad decorators.
Paul Stonier

Jobs | June 13