Elderly graphics: so bad that they’re good

lderly graphics: so bad that they're good by Still/Loud
“Share if you agree”. Sheung Yiu, Still / Loud

In 2017 we have already seen new memes flood the internet — try salt bae, trash dove. Of course, memes come and go, but in Hong Kong there’s one kind of meme that keeps on giving — “elderly graphics”, 長輩圖.

So what are elderly graphics, you ask? You can’t possibly miss one when you see it. The term generally refers to a genre of images — so embarrassingly unsightly that today’s digital natives would never think about posting one — but widely forwarded in instant messaging apps like WhatsApp, usually by your dad, your aunt or any older family member. They have a very distinct retro low-tech aesthetic. The most typical one is usually composed of typography reminiscent of Microsoft Word clip art overlaid on kitsch photographic imagery, such as a lotus on a pond. Often, they carry uplifting messages like motivational quotes, seasonal greetings or even health tips — things you’d expect from your older relatives. Every aspect of elderly graphics looks like a cruel joke to graphic designer. Their makers are newcomers to internet culture, yet they seem designed to go viral online. They are so bad that they’re good.  

The phrase 長輩圖 did not appear until 2015. Rumour has it the first wave of elderly graphics originated from Taiwan, born from senior computer classes. However, like many viral trends, the chaotic and unpredictable nature of elderly graphics makes it hard to trace them all the way back to one point. The consensus is that the transmission of elderly graphics are accelerated by apps like LINE and WhatsApp. As more late adopters sign onto the internet, they bring along their creativity, long lost familial bonds and Microsoft text art. 

I receive my fair amount of elderly graphics. Holidays and festivals are peak times. Motivational quotes in 新細明體, the Chinese ‘Times New Roman’, top an array of orange flowers for New Year; a drawing of a family sits beneath “Happy Father’s Day” in bold red text, embellished with a thick neon green border. On a normal day, I might get a photo of an hungry-looking kid, paired with a message about gratitude. At the bottom of these images, a call for action: forward this to your friends if you agree. The 1990s had email forwards; today we have these.

I sent a few pieces of elderly graphics to independent curator Amy Yuen Mei Chow and asked the graphic design guru what she thought about them. Predictably, she was frustrated. “This is the result of a lack of appreciation in arts and design,” she said, and noted it wasn’t limited to the elderly. She told me she’s received these graphics from people her own age and even younger.

Every aspect of elderly graphics looks like a cruel joke to graphic designer.

It’s true: my aunts and uncles — still decades away from retirement — have sent similar messages to me too. I asked my aunts where they get them and sure enough, there are websites where you can download elderly graphics. It’s as if everyone who was not on Facebook before 2010 came together and decided that elderly graphics is now their official online language.

In hindsight, it is almost laughable for me to expect a serious visual analysis of elderly graphics, because their purpose is simply not to be pleasing to the eyes. “I believe we shouldn’t judge these images from a aesthetic point of view,” Amy told me, “but for their honesty and kindness.” The point of elderly graphics is to communicate a simple message. Under the exterior of hideous graphics and outdated fonts is a genuine desire to break the ice and start a conversation with the youths or just among their peers.

“I guess it’s like a gesture of being connected.” That’s the conclusion I got from my friend Andy, a young designer in his 20s. No design mumbo-jumbo, No anger nor disdain. As our grandmas, grandpas, aunts and uncles finally take their first steps into the Internet, we see these people who once taught us how to walk struggling to log onto Facebook. These “Internet babies” mumble and fumble, type their first text messages, navigate the web and occasionally open some email viruses.They have still yet to wrap their heads around digital literacy and internet culture, but without knowing a thing about memes, they have already created one for themselves.