The Secrets Of Grunge Design

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Shiny and glossy design elements are now officially outdated. Just like retro is becoming trendy again, grungy look appears to rapidly gain on popularity. And there is a damn good reason behind it. In our everyday environment we’re unlikely to find ideal geometric forms or pretty shadow effects as they are manifested by glorious Web 2.0-designs. The reality is different, and Web is definitely not an exception here.

Therefore designers often tend to explore the less ideal and more realistic design solutions which reflect the world we’re living in more accurately and precisely. Result: such elements give the design a more realistic, genuine look, a look one would actually expect in real life.

In such grunge designs dirty stains, torn images, “broken” icons and creased pieces of paper are as popular as hand-drawn elements1 and dirty textures. The main purpose of hand-drawn elements lies in their ability to convey a personality and an individual note. And dirty textures are often used as background images for navigation menus, photos and overall layouts. Usually these elements are regular objects from our daily life, replicated in their real form without any glossy effects.

Grunge Style ≠ Dirty Look

Few weeks ago we’ve already provided you with grungy fonts, textures, icons and brushes2. Since most designers were confused about the purpose of these “dirty”, “graffiti-like”, “urban” elements, it’s important to understand that grunge designs don’t necessarily have a dirty look.

In fact, grungy layouts don’t necessarily consist only of grungy design elements. The latter can as well support the design, giving it a more realistic look without making it look overcrowded or dirty. Take a look at Bart-Jan Verhoef’s blog3 presented below. Although the design has a number of irregular elements such hand-drawn doodles and dirty background image, it doesn’t feel dirty at all — in fact, the design is rather subtle, clean, elegant and in any case unique.

Screenshot4
Although the design has a number of irregular elements such hand-drawn doodles and dirty background image, it doesn’t feel dirty.

Sometimes it’s enough to add just few irregular (or dirty) elements to achieve a more realistic look. In online-shops and corporate projects it simply doesn’t work otherwise. In such cases small details influence the mood and define the perception of the users. Sometimes it’s enough to simply replace the background image of the layout with a dirty texture. This is exactly what Jeremy Zevin5 has done. Without a dirty texture his weblog would have a typical Web 2.0-design.

Screenshot6
Without a dirty texture used as a background image this weblog would have a typical Web 2.0-design.

Grunge Color Palette

In most cases grunge designs use subdued, dirty and dull colors. Brown, beige, grey and black are dominating colors. Vibrant shades of vivid colors are being replaced with more natural and subtle colors. The color palette below presents colors which are often used when it comes to grunge designs. The colors have been extracted from the screenshots listed below.

       
       
       
       

For instance, Satsu7 uses rather subtle colors; the design, however, doesn’t look boring. Hand-drawn elements support the overall design and give it an artistic touch.

Screenshot8

However, grunge designs can as well contain more vivid colors; however, in order to fit to the design, they are less striking and more realistic. Dark shades of green, blue and read are usual. Shop Moss9 and David Hellmann’s blog10 are examples of a vivid grunge design.

Screenshot11

Screenshot12

Trends In Grunge Design

  • Dirty textures and background images are almost essential in every grunge design.

    Screenshot

  • irregular lines and frames

    Screenshot

  • yellowed scotch tape

    Screenshot

  • paper- and photo clips, needles and various pins

    Screenshot

  • coffee rings, spilled out liquids and dirty stains

    Screenshot

  • torn paper and dirty edges

    Screenshot

  • dog-ears

    Screenshot

  • hand-written elements

    Screenshot

Joe Grisham’s site13 is exemplary for the elements listed above. Multiple grunge elements in use…

Screenshot14

…and EXP.TYPO15 is rather a collage than web design.

Screenshot16

The Grunge Gallery

red9ine

Screenshot17

Mindtwitch

Screenshot18

Pain is Good – don’t take it seriously, please.

Screenshot19

Olly Hite

Screenshot20

Webdesigner Ro

Screenshot21

Burn the Fields – for music-related web-sites grunge look fits almost perfectly.

Screenshot22

Team Green

Screenshot23

Scouting for Girls

Screenshot24

Adventure Trekking

Screenshot25

dtamas

Screenshot26

grantmx/designs

Screenshot27

Shaker Designs

Screenshot28

Lake Crackenback

Screenshot29

Moustache Me

Screenshot30

Lataka

Screenshot31

Design Sponge

Screenshot32

Extreme-Designer Thomas Schostok from Germany

Screenshot33

Darklight

Screenshot34

nYq

Screenshot35

CSS Addict

Screenshot36

Trozo Gallery

Screenshot37

Liquidesign

Screenshot38

loworks. Flash in use.

Screenshot39

Dot Comedy

Screenshot40

DesignBStudios

Screenshot41

CSS Rockstars

Screenshot42

a j miles

Screenshot43

Further Resources

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/01/03/hand-drawing-style-in-modern-web-design/
  2. 2 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/01/29/grunge-style-in-modern-web-design/
  3. 3 http://www.subdued.net/
  4. 4 http://www.subdued.net/
  5. 5 http://www.jeremyzevin.com/
  6. 6 http://www.jeremyzevin.com/
  7. 7 http://www.satsu.co.uk/
  8. 8 http://www.satsu.co.uk/
  9. 9 http://www.shopmoss.com/
  10. 10 http://www.davidhellmann.com/
  11. 11 http://www.shopmoss.com/
  12. 12 http://www.davidhellmann.com/
  13. 13 http://www.notyouraveragejoe.com/
  14. 14 http://www.notyouraveragejoe.com/
  15. 15 http://www.exptypo.com/
  16. 16 http://www.exptypo.com/
  17. 17 http://www.red9ine.com/
  18. 18 http://www.mindtwitch.com/
  19. 19 http://www.painisgood.com/
  20. 20 http://www.ollyhite.com/
  21. 21 http://www.webdesigner.ro/
  22. 22 http://www.burnthefields.com/
  23. 23 http://www.teamgreenonline.com
  24. 24 http://www.scoutingforgirls.co.uk/
  25. 25 http://www.adventuretrekking.com/
  26. 26 http://www.dtamas.dynamo.hu/
  27. 27 http://www.grantmx.com/
  28. 28 http://www.shakerdesigns.com/
  29. 29 http://www.lakecrackenback.com.au/
  30. 30 http://moustacheme.com/
  31. 31 http://www.lataka.com/
  32. 32 http://www.designspongeonline.com/
  33. 33 http://ths.nu
  34. 34 http://www.darklightart.com/
  35. 35 http://nyqdesign.com/
  36. 36 http://www.cssaddict.com/
  37. 37 http://www.introzo.com/
  38. 38 http://www.gotaqua.com/
  39. 39 https://www.loworks-store.org/
  40. 40 http://www.dotcomedy.com/
  41. 41 http://www.designbstudios.com/
  42. 42 http://cssrockstars.com/
  43. 43 http://www.ajmiles.net/
  44. 44 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/01/29/grunge-style-in-modern-web-design/
  45. 45 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2007/01/02/where-can-i-find-textures-and-background-images/
  46. 46 http://designmeltdown.com/chapters/DripsSpraySplater/Part4.aspx
  47. 47 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2008/01/03/hand-drawing-style-in-modern-web-design
  48. 48 http://luxa.org/tutorial_making_a_grungy_business_card.php

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Co-Founder and former CEO of Smashing Magazine. Sven is now writing Science Fiction Stories and looking for a publisher ...

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  1. 1

    I still like it clean :)
    Grunge feels like going back in time, like 2002 or 2003

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  2. 2

    I agree. 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.

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  3. 3

    Thomas van Zuijlen

    March 11, 2008 5:26 am

    Hmmm… I noticed before that you seem to be perceiving a trend towards grunge-ish design, but as to the commenters above, to me the grunge style seems like much more of a throwback than a step forward. I doubt the grunge style is as viable a design option as the clean 2.0-style simply because of the lack of site types it might be applied to. The strength of the 2.0-style (most definitely in its more nuanced, sophisticated incarnations) is that it can be applied successfully to smaller and larger (e.g. corporate) cases alike. To me, the examples from the collection in this article actually reflect the relatively narrow focus of grunge.

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  4. 4

    Good article, plenty of information here, and eye-candy of course! I myself am a designer, trying to get used to the new styles now.

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  5. 5

    Great round up! Love a bit o’ grunge me… Although, rather like some nice class C drugs out there I reserve this style for my own personal use and try not to push it on my usual clients.

    A single tiny element of grunge can spice up a plain, clean corporate site no end. Add too much though and your heading for trouble. Those corporate types will even warn you that a bit of the auld grunge design can lead to harder stuff!!!

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  6. 6

    Use whatever style fits the site you are working on. Using a style simply because it is trendy won’t produce a good looking website.

    Just imagine corporate sites such as apple or adobe in grunge … horrible, right?

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  7. 7

    Mhm I think too, that the grunge style isn’t that new. I like it but normally I wouldn’t use it for companies, they like it as clean as possible.

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  8. 8

    Surprised not to see Elliot Jay Stocks’ website in the list.

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  9. 9

    The only reason a style looks like it’s part of an age to you is because you are too deeply entrenched into a piece of that age to see what’s happening in the design world clearly. Step out. Stop being a tool of the times and recognize that style is relative to the mood you’re trying to convey, as Arnar has pointed out.

    Kids these days. Sigh. No sense of the conceptual.

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  10. 10

    I came across Bart-Jan Verhoef’s site the other day, very nice. It struck me that I’ve never seen a font as clean as Din used in a grungy/distressed context before. I think it works really well in this instance

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  11. 11

    I also have same opinion as zombiebr, Grunge style is out dated. In the present condition we can see people are giving more importance to simple, Smooth color schemes with some vector arts or nature illustrations..

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  12. 12

    I still like clean designs – I also wasn’t such s fan of pure 2.0-Designs. I think there is a special solution for every client. Of course there are new trends every year but good design will be long-lasting and memorable.

    But anyway this article comes very handy for an actual project .. :)
    Thanks for the good quality of content!

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  13. 13

    Great collection… beautiful… how to define my style? imaginepaolo

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  14. 14

    Thank you for quantifying “grunge”, it really cleared things up for me. I had been subconsciously equating it to dirty, but, like you say, it’s really not. With regards to “grunge” being outdated, it seems to be the word is outdated, not the styles of the samples shown here. The samples shown are very modern, they combine “clean” elements with grungy elements. Granted, it wouldn’t make sense for many sites to have any grungy elements (gotta keep the audience in mind, right?), but in some instances this style poignantly expresses the overall tone/mood/feeling of a site and its “brand”. It’s great to see the backlash against the shiny look of a few years ago, but these designs borrowed some of the other “2.0” elements that made sense (clean layout, whitespace, big type.)

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  15. 15

    It’s interesting to think that web design may have already reached the end of its history. I’ve spent a couple of years wondering, “where do we go next”, and if the answer is “back to where we’ve been”, that leaves us in a unique place in the history of design; we’re the first design discipline to reach a creative plateau after just 14 years.

    The reason for this is obvious, though. Past advertising mediums — print and video, for instance — had prohibitively expensive cost-of-admission, and were used chiefly for commercial interests. A corporation would spend a mint of a print campaign back in the day, and they wanted their money’s worth. Convention and proven techniques ruled the day, leading to very slow stylistic evolution. But with the web, you had tens of thousands of people with no startup costs and no accountability doing everything at once.

    Has it all been done? It’s looking that way right now.

    In a way, it’s a good thing (for designers working commercially, at least), because we have a finished “toolkit”, so to speak. There’s an established style that will suit any client, which lets us do our jobs much more effectively. But it makes you wonder what the future of web design as an art form will look like.

    Maybe increasingly cheap bandwidth and increasingly higher resolutions will give us something new — I hope so, anyway. But right now, I really don’t know where we go from here.

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  16. 16

    Grunge is a nice form of design, but it inreases the loading time of a site enormously ~> much pictures instead of web 2.0-gradients (1px * 150px for example)

    >> Just imagine corporate sites such as apple or adobe in grunge … horrible, right?
    Yeah.. that would be horrible :)

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  17. 17

    I tend to agree with the other commenters. Grunge style is played out. There’s not much there left to explore. In my opinion, I feel that the trend in web design will shift more towards warm, humanist design and incorporate natural textures (paper, wood, cork, etc.) into a cleaner and more elegant look than is capable with grunge style. There certainly is a place for grunge design; it just won’t be as ubiquitous as the whole glossy “web 2.0″ thing was.
    There are a lot of exciting things happening with typography and print design now. I’m almost bold enough to say that the whole 20th Century modernism / postmodernism pendulum swing is coming to a halt, to allow a new style to emerge. There’s certainly an Arts & Crafts revival happening in the art world now, and it’s bound to have implications on other disciplines as well.

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  18. 18

    Bart-Jan Verhoef

    March 11, 2008 7:25 am

    Obviously, the grunge look is not always a solution, just as the ‘web 2.0′ (or any other visual style) isn’t. It all depends on the specific project.

    Personally, I love the grunge style. Not just to look at, but also to create. It’s so much fun to create half a design (or just some details) with your bare hands, instead of doing everyting digitally!

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  19. 19

    Great List. Tend to design more on the clean side, but just been inspired to get a little dirty.

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  20. 20

    You’ve missed http://www.e-knjige.net/ :-)

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  21. 21

    I’m glad that everyone else agrees. I really dislike Grunge websites, some of them pull it off but for the most part, they are harder to navigate and put design before content.

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  22. 22

    Hey, great article! Thanks for the mention.

    I agree that the recent grunge resurgence is due in part to a backlash against the web2.0 style. Will it become as pervasive as 2.0 seems to be? Most likely not as it does have a narrower scope of sites that can utilize it effectively.

    To me, grungy and realistic details are classic design elements. A classic never goes out of style if used appropriately!

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  23. 23

    wow i like it, grunge! more stylish and unique.

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  24. 24

    The next time I hear web 2.0 I am going to jump off a bridge.

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  25. 25

    It’s funny to see posts with a certain type of design, draw such negative criticisms.
    I’ll have to agree with Ryan, grungy equates realism much of the time.
    If you don’t like realism, you must suck at Photoshop, sorry about your luck.
    Some of the detailed textures in these designs do create larger file sizes, that’s to be expected.
    Great artists don’t paint with the cost of the paint in mind.

    thanks for another inspiring list!
    Rock On!

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  26. 26

    WEB 2.0!!!

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  27. 27

    Amazing!
    Is this web 2.1?

    Guys you rock!

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  28. 28

    The grunge typeface used in the “Burn The Fields” band website is WAY WAY WAY TOO OVERUSED. It needs to never see the light of day again. It has been abused and misused to the point that it needs retiring. I believe it is either “Downcome” or “Dirty Ego” from misprintedtype. No offense to misprintedtype. The typeface could be used correctly, but I have not seen yet a good application of the font, other than the way it is shown on misprintedtype’s website.

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  29. 29

    Also, adding to my previous comment, in regards to the “Web 2.0″ misnomer and other styles…
    There is no design trend or style that anyone needs to follow, even though this article seems to hint at that.

    Design is not about trends although they do occur. Design is about using the resources that work best for the project at hand. Do not use glossy shiny orbs if your project does not dictate their use. The same goes for “grunge” designs.

    Sticking to trends is the mark of a lazy designer. Don’t settle for less just because its easier to use grunge for everything. Please only use styles where they are needed. It is crazy to see the design world change. Now with automated styles and horrible typefaces that clients have somehow been convinced to let designers use, nearly anyone thinks they are a designer.

    Just because you choose a different typeface than Times New Roman for your Word document, does not make you a designer.
    The current state of design needs a huge overhaul.

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  30. 30

    web 2.0 web 2.0 web 2.0!!
    ! Woot! Go ajax!

    nOOOOO

    Well it seems that the Radial is now overused. Great, thanx, I loved that shape. Oh look at me I’m a logo that needs a radial to focus on my icon. Wooooo

    What’s next. The fashion design theme, or is it the jittery coffee tea filled designer? And how do Coders promote themselves on the web?

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  31. 31

    I have to disagree … i don’t see the large businesses going grunge outside of companies selling fashion. the web 2.0 look is not so much a style trned to me as it is being smarter about communication.

    but i’ve been wrong before.

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  32. 32

    I agree, grunge is for bands, although I would use it for an old fashion car repair place (dunno the exact word in english, bear with me!), I think one of the sites was for that.

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  33. 33

    The “grunge” design treatment has been a small part of the web since the mid 90’s. It always “appears to be gaining popularity,” but it never really does. lol!

    Nice collection of sites though!!

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  34. 34

    Congrats, you’ve started a nice discussion here. Seems to be an emotional topic. Interesting…
    Thanks, Christine

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  35. 35

    While there are some interesting design elements in some of the examples, I find that most of it adds up to a lot of eye clutter. But then again, it all depends on your target audience. I prefer a cleaner design.

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  36. 36

    tzGrungz ..eh a couple of dodgy, sweeping statements there Picasso!

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  37. 37

    It’s a good idea to ask yourself what you want to express rather than what is “in” or “out.”

    What is web design turning into a Fashion statement? I don’t want to think of myself as following trends, I would like to think of my profession as making the right decisions. Trends are good to watch, but not to live by.

    Also, If it works for the right client then use it.

    Their will always be someone saying “Oh that’s so out” If it works for what I’m trying to say, conveys a message that needs to be conveyed then it’s a good choice.

    Every style has it’s place in this world.

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  38. 38

    It may be hip.. it may be coool.. but I don’t want to look down a toilet bowl when I’m trying to book a flight online. Each design to it’s own place – Some places may be more ‘trendy’ than others but gritty realism will never sell that much stuff!

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  39. 39

    Hi there!, nice work, i have the link of a “grungie” website from a band,

    http://ort.laurentlazard.com/andru/flia_gomez (spanish link)

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  40. 40

    Personally i dont like the grunge style, or the way that other designers treat it.

    Grunge is good for the print but for the web it suck. Users need information, not the beauty (or the dirt in this style).

    Grunge is based on to much grafic and a lack of white space. On all the example sites above the text is hard to read and to interpret. And also i dont think that Grunge style is gaining popularity

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  41. 41

    You guys should consider using sites that combine minimalism and the grunge style like http://www.ziked.com

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  42. 42

    grunge? new trend? haha! please, wake up people!

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  43. 43

    I actually found the few samples of the grunge design visually stimulating.

    I admit that I found them really refreshing.

    Thanks for the information.

    0
  44. 44

    Great article, grunge works for blogs, arty sites.

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  45. 45

    this site has interesting header too http://stylizedweb.com/

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  46. 46

    Love this stuff.

    Blasphemy: I’m doing my own design just because I like to tinker. I’m striving for a Steampunk design, but see a lot of grunge ideas that I would like to incorporate.
    (If you look, do it in FF, IE is borked.)

    Fun to see what real designers are doing!

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  47. 47

    Bryan D. Hughes

    March 11, 2008 1:11 pm

    Great article.

    I see a lot of comments condemning designing with the trends, but I would advise that it is important to understand them even if you don’t use them. Deconstruction of trendy design can reveal clues for low-latency communication by understanding what is instantly understood.

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  48. 48

    Grunge is, I think, more an way to make the web look a bit more humanistic, to give it some texture and depth. Not that this can’t be accomplished in other ways. Sometimes that little big of dirtiness makes a website feel more like a real thing, rather than a bunch of boxes rendered out in different colors.

    Then again, maybe it’s because my own desk is a mess.

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  49. 49

    to me this whole ‘grunge’ design trend really just seems like another flavor of the overall ‘web 2.0′ one.. i mean, in terms of underlying structure, most of the designs above have the same basic breaks from old-school web design that made web 2.0 appealing in the first place: larger fonts, big bold graphics and section divisions, and simplicity in terms of informational conent.. the main difference is only when it comes to specific graphics, which end up with a more organic, distressed style. These elements, despite their ‘grunge’ label, are still VERY clean as is the end-user experience. I’m rambling, but what i guess i’m trying to say is that i really don’t feel that there is enough of a difference between ‘web 2.0′ and ‘grunge’ to start drawing lines in the sand between design trends.. they’re both part of the same trend.

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  50. 50

    Grunge design is great and necessary to help keep “clean” design honest. But I think it’s even more fun when the lines blur.

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