On Cute: A Note For Design

When in crit, there is a frustration among many of my peers when their work has been called “cute.” They tell me professors and designers do not know how to discuss their work beyond the calling of it “cute.” In fact, for many of my peers cuteness has become a pet peeve of theirs, a feeling where their work is not taken seriously in critique. In general, contemporary style is hard to pinpoint in critique because most of it is not worth analysis since it is a short-lived trend. However, I would argue that “cute” design has lasted a significant amount of time to not let it be just a “trend.” Cute design is not going to go anywhere in the near future, so we should critically discuss its implications.

In today’s graphic design education, designers are taught history through the lense of swiss modernism, tracking the following and breaking of rigid grid structures and sans-serif type. Modernism is the basis of graphic design education; In type one classes we are taught modernism for readability and beautiful subtlety. However, the tone of modernism is overwhelmingly serious, comparing design to structural guidelines that akin more to math than art.  In spite of post-modernisms’ interests in the kitsch, the camp, and the cute, there is a lack of celebration-or critique-of these agendas in contemporary design conversations.

Cute design’s appeal comes from the friendly type and attractive colors that seem accessible. When done properly, it provides an aesthetic quality that is unpretentious, yet visually interesting. Cute design plays to our nostalgias and our sympathies. I want to theorize cute design which means addressing some of it’s problems first.

Designers have weaponized cuteness through its mass appeal and friendliness. Cute design is gendered.  From conception, there is a difference between a bib with a truck and a bib with a cute character. Our psyches are trained to see cute design as female. Paired with the aesthetics of infants (big head, big eyes, and small bodies,)  cute design can seem like it is patronizing its feminine audience.

Hello Kitty, for example, is a Sanrio character designed with no mouth and considered a cornerstone of Kawaii culture. Spokespeople for Sanrio have stated that Hello Kitty does not have a mouth because they want people to “project feelings onto a character.”  However, creating a character with no mouth advocates values of submissiveness to a female audience. Hello Kitty can thus function as a dangerous cultural icon. Gender and cuteness will be linked inherently through late capitalist marketing; however, using it to condescend femininity is where cute design’s danger comes into play.

In the west, Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney have becomeone of the most ubiquitous cultural icons. Mickey Mouse jump started Walt Disney’s multimillion media empire. Cute is its most powerful commodity. It has capitalistic motivations to sell stuffed plushies, printed notebooks, clothing...anything and everything. Cute aesthetics are highly marketable and operate successfully within capitalism. Designers must acknowledge that its uses are mainly capitalistic. Companies abuse cute aesthetics in varying ways, from merchandising to branding, cuteness provides a costume to capitalism.

Silicon Valley tech companies are perfect examples of capitalism by sneaking around in a cute costume. Recently, tech companies have been using vector drawn illustrations of miscellaneous colored characters. These characters represent diversity and community perfecting a “progressive” and “beneficent” appearance. These cute illustrations hide the fact that tech companies are not diverse, and have proven to gentrify their communities and reduce the values of community and diversity with easy illustrations.

Buck TV’s Alegeria System for Facebook.

Humaaaans is a mix and match illustration library to easily create diverse vector characters.

More of this phenomenon is highlighted in this aiga article.

It’s not that companies and individuals cannot use cute aesthetics, rather a more informed use of cuteness is needed. Designers have to recognize the reductionist standpoint of cute, so they can use cute in a non-problematic way.

Cuteness is inherently lowbrow, it is commercially successful, and hardly part of higher pedagogies. Judith Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure deals with priveledging the naive and non-sensical. The reason why, I, the writer, am advocating for cute design’s narrative as an “alternative pedagogy.” There is a lot to be learned from studying cute objects like Hello Kitty, or the design of Animal Crossing. Cuteness is representative of things that make the mundane magical, so-called “flavored coating over a bitter pill” (Owen Fernando.) Cuteness has value built from bringing out the innate child and builds “play” as designers and designers thus will offer visual stimulus of “playing.”

One current cultural product that has become an almost therapy is Animal Crossing New Horizons.

Animal Crossing’s New Horizons is a Nintendo Switch game where players interact in mundane chores for hours. The visuals, user experience, and gameplay are overwhelmingly cute providing a therapeutic experience to gamers. New Horizons is a perfect example of cuteness as a powerful aesthetic. It is a highly successful slow game that has saturated the global market.

The user interface, illustrations, and design decisions are perfect examples of cute design. User interfaces’ outside of gaming have been rigid and defined in global modernisms. However, Animal Crossing’s employment of cute strategies provide a much needed refreshing tone to what UI can be. Even if it’s  a game, there are lessons to be learned from Animal Crossing New Horizons.

Within some graphic design bubbles, certain individuals and studios are operating in the use of cute.

These designers operate in a vernacular, in which they combine illustration and typography. Playing around with form and readability, cute design breaks from modernism because it allows for cleverness and play. Certain design aesthetics speak of inaccessibility and work in an “aura of theory,”  however cuteness does the opposite. Cuteness is upfront and easily understood, but this means it has hidden under our design radars. Designers should be discussing how and where “cuteness” has been used and adding it to our graphic design histories.