Grunge Design: Why It's Cool to be Broken and Disheveled

April 15th, 2009 in Web Design Worldview

by: Matthew Griffin

In a recent 5 for Friday post I received a question from Hungarian designer Steve Herrmann.

Why is the visual appearance of NetGen broken and disheveled? Look at their page layout, their typography, images, clothing, mismatched styles, hairstyles,...Why?

In the past I've analyzed the worldview behind various design movements, but I've tried to stick to the ones that were very apparently berthed from a philosophy. It's easy, for example, to look at the fathers of the De Sijl movement and quickly deduce the connection between their philosophy and its practical outworking. But dissecting modern design trends is much more complicated. An oil-and-water-like mixture of postmodernism and pragmatism has made a tangled mess of the philosophical waters. In order to accomplish the task, we'll have to take look back at one of the cognates of postmodernism, twentieth century existentialism. But first I'm going to clear up some common oversimplifications Christians are often guilty of concerning grunge style.

Looking Through a Grungy Christian Window

There is a lot more at work here than a simple contrast between dark and light.

For Christians, especially those who are submerged in modern Christian culture, it's easy to make the mistake of looking at grungy design through the wrong hermeneutic glasses. We make a simple contrast of the grunge style which tends to be dark, corroded, and chaotic against the Biblical metaphors of good (light, life, order) and we come to the conclusion that the grunge aesthetic is simply the opposite of good—a symbolic rebellion against the aesthetic of God. This is an example of sitting in your own worldview while trying to understand another. You've got to get up off the couch if you're going to understand. There is a lot more at work here than a simple contrast between dark and light. I'll talk about the worldview at work in the grunge style in a moment.

The other mistake Christians make is more common among Christian designers. It's the mistake of accepting the styles of the times uncritically. Of all designers, Christians should be the most aware of the aesthetic culture of their day. To employ a particular style without first understanding its meaning and context is a dangerous game for a Christian to play in a fallen world. This is not to say that the style itself is necessarily evil, only that its use by Christian designers can be harnessed for evil if not properly handled.

Looking Back to the Existential Dilemma

As I mentioned earlier, the grunge style owes a great deal to twentieth century existentialism. Through the work of philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, mid-twentieth century creatives, and to a large extent popular culture, were introduced to the existential dilemma—the dilemma of existence. It is an understanding of human existence that starts right here with humanity; not with God; not with knowing; not with ideal forms. It starts with the raw facts: we are here, we have no intrinsic knowledge of how we got here, what we are, or even where "here" is. We appear suddenly in space and time with no knowledge of and no real choice concerning the nature of that appearance. It is as if we have been hurled at random into a void. This is the dilemma of every individual human. The rest of existential philosophy is the working out of this dilemma and, unfortunately, it would take up too much time to even present a few of the most popular solutions. But that is alright because the only solution we're concerned with is the one that produced the grunge aesthetic.

[Existentialism] starts with the raw facts: we are here, we have no intrinsic knowledge of how we got here, what we are, or even where "here" is.

The existential dilemma has been a ubiquitous theme in American movies and music for at least the last fifty years. Sometimes it is presented along with a solution; sometimes your are left hanging. But the dilemma is always the same. And out of the growth and evolution of existential thought during this time came the grunge rock movement of the late 1980s and 1990s. The modern grunge graphic style grew up right alongside grunge rock and I don't think you can truly understand the former without understanding the later.

The Emergence of the Grunge Aesthetic

Grunge rock has been used as the expression of a pessimistic answer to the existential question. It sees the "hurledness" of the human—the situation into which each human has been seemingly randomly placed—as ultimate bondage. Since we (humans) have no say in who we are at birth, or where our being will break forth into reality, or really anything concerning our existence at all, the only real good—the only real freedom—is found in breaking down and destroying the enslaving structures into which we are thrust. And this destructive attitude is not limited to specific structures (government, family, etc.) as in the punk rock movement. Rather, it extends out to every pre-existent structure a human encounters. It extends to the human body, nature, and even to the very means by which the grunge worldview has been primarily communicated—music. In an ironic twist, grunge rock uses music as a parody of life.

One of the clearest examples of a self-aware existential statement in grunge rock can be found in Kurt Cobain, one of the fathers of the modern grunge movement. Kurt used disconnected lyrics and garbled vocals to assault established structures. In this way he was able to communicate a message of anti-structure without hypocritically using a cohesive lyrical system to do so. For the instrumental side of his work, he incorporated coincidental elements of musical performance, such as feedback, which had traditionally been considered undesirable. This was a kind of auditory rust that acted as an extension of the anti-structure message.

Nirvana's "Nevermind"

Now let's look at some of the art and design that accompanied the pessimistic existentialism of Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana. Nirvana's breakout album "Nevermind" featured cover art (pictured right) that was as unique and arresting as the music itself. It pictured a lone detached human baby swimming under water after a dollar bill. Without understanding the basics of existential philosophy, this album cover could easily be dismissed as random silliness or, at most, a sophomoric attempt at an anti-materialism message. But that would be a mistake. This baby is a picture of the existential dilemma. He has been hurled into a watery void; no one is there to assist him; no sign is there to comfort or direct him. All he can see is the pre-existent structure in front of him (money) so he swims for it, but we can see that it's a trap as the money is attached to a fishing hook. Understand that the point is not the evil of money per se. The money could be exchanged for any symbol of pre-existent structure. Notice also that the style of the cover is actually quite clean cut—not at all what we'd expect from grunge design. There is no dark grittiness, no rust or rotted wood, no graffiti-like typography. Here we see a profound example of how philosophy precedes style.

Nirvana's Next album "In Utero" (pictured below) continued in the spirit of "Nevermind", featuring an angelic figure whose skin has been removed to reveal her organs and muscles. Metaphorically, her angelic exterior has been pulled away to expose her for what she is—a pile of flesh, bound by the pre-existent structures of her own body. On the back of the album is a closeup shot of a mass of human fetuses randomly strewn about. Again we are confronted with a picture of the human "hurledness" into a chaotic mass of tiny human bodies. It was shortly after recording "In Utero" that Kurt Cobain took his own life in what I consider a hemmingway-like fist shake at the final structural barrier left to destroy—the human situation itself.

In Utero Front
Nirvana's "In Utero" Front
In Utero Back
Nirvana's "In Utero" Back

The aesthetic that grew out of the grunge movement of the Nirvana era was, well, grungy. The creatives who adopted the grunge worldview started utilizing visual devices and themes that symbolized anti-structure. Quite naturally their visual vocabulary consisted of rust, grime, and decaying organic matter. At first the the grunge aesthetic was subversive and antinomian but as grunge seeped slowly into mainstream design, it eventually became a corporate institution itself—one fixture in the pantheon of marketing tools. Today, I would say the percentage of designers who truly embrace the grunge style as an outworking of their own philosophy is small. Postmodernism has absorbed grunge into the "dude, that's cool" rainbow of all-inclusive design theory. But Christians should know better.

Christianity vs. Grunge: Round One

How should a Christian designer approach broken and disheveled design styles like grunge? I explained earlier that Christian designers should understand grunge design and handle it carefully, but that is pretty vague. The first solid step to understanding your relationship to design styles borne out of unchristian philosophies is to separate the thing from the philosophy. Is it wrong to depict grime and decay? No. In fact, the Bible talks quite a lot about grime and decay, both in literal and symbolic form. It's the philosophy supporting the grunge style that's the problem.

Mind Twitch
Interactive Media Designer Michael Boucher - Mind Twitch

Christianity and existentialism agree to some extent about the human condition, though they differ in their understanding of its cause. They can both agree that humans experience a sense of "hurledness" when it comes to existence. In fact, the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible is probably one of the best expressions of the existential dilemma ever penned. But the similarities end when Christianity smashes existential angst with one doctrine—the doctrine of revelation, the Bible. Revelation in the Christian system is vital when contrasting Christianity with modern existentialism. And this means it is an especially vital doctrine in our time because existentialism and its child postmodernism are quickly becoming the dominant philosophies in western culture. Revelation completely crushes the existential dilemma because revelation is the point at which the infinite (God) reaches into the finite and explains the situation. Revelation relieves the anxiety of finitude by providing a guide from the only truly reliable source of truth—the all-knowing God and creator. You can see then why the debates within the Christian community surrounding the inerrancy and infallibility of the sacred scriptures run so hot. If we give up the doctrine of dependable revelation, we have lost everything. It is truly the crux of the divergence of existentialism from Christianity

Trozo Art Gallery

Now, returning to grunge design... Christian designers are free to use decay as a visual tool within the Christian worldview. The Christian aesthetic is more complex than a simple chart of do and don't colors and styles. At the center of the Christian aesthetic is God himself in all his glory and truth. We can illuminate his character directly by using styles and visual devices that symbolize and communicate his holiness. But we can also negatively illuminate his character by exposing his antithesis.

Use the grunge style to the glory of God, but the minute you step outside Christianity and embrace the existentialism of the grunge aesthetic, you are out of line. Following this same line of thought, we should take time to analyze grunge design as we encounter it, recognizing some of its elements as good and true and others as false and evil. For example a particular website emulating the grunge style may be technically excellent and effective in its stated purpose, and for these qualities we can and should praise it. But if the underlying philosophy is wrong and its purpose illegitimate in the Christian worldview, we must temper our praise with criticism of these aspects. You may want to read my article Analyzing Web Design Through the Christian Worldview Lens for more detail on this subject. In the end, twentieth century existentialism and Christianity are completely incompatible, and Christian designers need to know why so we can properly attack this rampant falsehood in our generation and the generations to come.



Posted By: Timothy Long on 04/15/09

Great insight, Matt. I'm finding that the more I mature spiritually, the less enjoyment I find in creating and/or looking at art with a palpable aesthetic of darkness. It's a huge concern of mine that the practitioners of the faith are seemingly unable to create art that reflects the goodness and light of God. "Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." (John 8:12) His light and goodness ought to be manifest in our works of creativity, as well as the creative process. I don't possess any disdain towards grunge art. I love the aesthetic of it. And I don't think there is any intrinsic or consequential value to something that is dark in color or messy. I think that if a person creates a grunge design (for example) by a shallow desire to produce that certain aesthetic, because it "looks cool" --- big deal. If the design is a geniune reflection of their thoughts and feelings, that I suppose is a different story. All in all, I like your ideas. Christians ought to reflect the light that is inside of them, even in their artistic works!

Posted By: nate on 04/15/09

great insights here. hadn't drawn the connection between the design and worldview, only as separate things. i often think of it in terms of music. when recording was done by analog, records, tapes, the desire was to have it sound as clean as possible. once digital came around, the opposite desire. the sound is naturally clean so people try to make it sound like an old record or an old tape. none of that negates what you are saying here, but it seems that the effort is to make things look more hand-drawn, more organic, less corporate and digital. what do you think?

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 04/15/09

@Timothy: Thanks, great comment. @nate: I completely agree. There are innumerable motivations for moving to design styles that are akin to the grunge style. Many of them have nothing to do with what I proposed here. The move to more organic "human" style is a great example.

Posted By: Faith Smith on 04/15/09

Great read Matt, even for a non-designer. You bring great insight to the page. Thanks.

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 04/16/09

Thanks for ready, Faith.

Posted By: Rosie on 04/29/09

The In Utero album cover is not an angel with peeled flesh - It is a Transparent Anatomical Mannequin which has angel wings added to it which blows your theory out. Also Kurt is spelt with a K. Research Matt!!

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 04/29/09

Rosie, sorry about the typo. I fixed that. But the fact that the figure is an anatomical mannequin doesn't really change any of the symbolism and definitely doesn't "blow my theory out". After all, what is an transparent anatomical mannequin but a human with its flesh pealed away. The picture we are faced with here is a parody of the angelic attributes classically attributed to mankind. Now, maybe they didn't think it out that far; I don't know. Nevertheless, I think the grunge worldview finds a great example here.

Posted By: Media Designer on 06/19/09

Yes, cool insights. But being a Christian doesn't mean that you stay away from any artform that may allude to darkness. As a creative, there are many corners of my life and experience that need expressing somehow. Creating helps deal with the intangible and wrestle with the dichotomies that make up life. I always thought grunge, as a style, just meant weathered. We are all weathered.

Posted By: Matthew Griffin on 06/19/09

Media Designer, I agree with your first statement and I think that is clear from the last paragraphs in the article. I don't, however, agree that darkness and decay are acceptable creative devices simply because artists need an outlet of expression. In the Christian worldview "expression" is a welcome side benefit to the creative process. But in the art community in the last centuries, it has developed into the purpose of art. It sounds like this is where you're coming from. I tend to stand with classic Christianity's view of art as a communicator of truth.

Posted By: virag (as for that, that's hungarian, too) on 06/25/09

With the words of Kurt Cobain (who - as some say, I sadly don't know whether it's true or not - was a christian for some time, too): Peace, Love and Empathy. Though I don't really agree to your article due to my not being religious, it was quite interesting to read. Thank you.

Posted By: Karel Zeman on 07/14/09

Great In-depth analysis from you Mathew. I have read your post two to three times, because I have very little knowledge about grunge designs. I think grunge should stay on the band websites, cleaner is modern, give it time and grunge will be back in, it always comes crawling back. Can I get more information on grunge designs from you. If you provide me that will be great, because from your post it looks like that you have extensive experience.

Posted By: Hormone Replacement Therapy on 07/21/09

Excellent post! I completely agree. There are innumerable motivations for moving to design styles that are akin to the grunge style. Many of them have nothing to do with what I proposed here. Thank for nice information

Posted By: Quran on 07/22/09

Superb post and brilliant ideas for web developers and designers. keep it up

Posted By: Matthew Griffin on 07/22/09

Thanks, Quran.

Posted By: web solutions on 07/23/09

TROZO layout is amazing. the first look of this layout explains the human nature in quite artistic way

Posted By: FHA mortgage rate on 07/23/09

WOW ! wonderful ideas. That will really help all the web designers and developers. Great job Matthew. Keep it up

Posted By: Islamic School on 08/06/09

Humm Amazing Ideas for the web developers and designers they take advantage from this post.Thanks a lot for the nice information to share.

Posted By: Web Designing on 08/11/09

Hi, Mathew, I would agree that your ideas are really awesome. I would like to adapt some of your ideas in my designs.

Posted By: Reverse Mortgage on 08/11/09

Hi, Brilliant work Mathew! Thumbs up for a great work and for sharing with all of us. Simply, great! Thanks.

Posted By: Julia on 08/12/09

Great article.

Posted By: doradztwo marketingowe on 09/27/09

Thanks for great article. Especially i appreciate a explanation of covers of Nirvana albums. I`m big fan of this band, but never read about symbols of those covers.

Posted By: web development in dubai on 09/29/09

well i read this article but unfortunately i cant understand and also made search on google but not find relevant information. kindly u guide me i am interested to read and understand this article

Posted By: Energy on 02/10/10

All in all a great article to read, I just printed this out to hand out at work tomorrow. But my eye-catcher was Nirvana - ooh what memories from the good old days when I listened to Nirvana all day long and a bit more :) - this band is a legend, nobody can beat this band in my top favourites list, thanks for the memories :) David Sims

Posted By: Jeff on 03/28/10

I honestly think that most of the time, the reason that we like grunge design is not because it's a symbolic rebellion against the aesthetic of God - I think it's because grunge resembles the earth, which was created by God. Look around us, nature isn't clean and monochromatic - it's a canvas of dirt and grunge - and God created these things. Perhaps creating clean, manmade looking design is a rebellion against the aesthetic of God? =) obviously, I don't really think that.. I'm just throwing an alternate view in the mix ;-)

Posted By: Matthew Griffin on 03/29/10

Jeff, thanks for commenting. Actually, I agree with you. There's nothing "unchristian" about using organic textures and patterns in design. God created us to fit this world so naturally we will enjoy those. There are different reason for the use of grunge, though, and I think the simultaneous rise of the grunge aesthetic with the grunge worldview is undeniable. I only think as Christians we should be aware of the connection. We shouldn't reject grunge or organic design. We should reclaim it.

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