Theory of Dirty

Improve your creative output with mistakes, perfection through imperfection, less shortcuts – more soul.

This essay is meant to destroy gatekeepers – even the ones in our heads – so we can creative with what we’ve got, in the service of what matters.

You probably learned to be creative digitally, and unfortunately that means taking as many shortcuts as possible to get to the result. I mean making things as easy as possible is baked into how we do things and hard to resist in this competitive society.

The result we desire is also influenced by the high production standards of ‘professional’ creative output – which has inaccessible until recently and which we still tend to want to emulate to elevate our art in others eyes.

Contained here are some ideas to counter that, which feed my creativity day in day out, in music production, visual design, web design and game dev.

They’ll make you immune to creative blocks, and will help you find new creative satisfaction in whatever you’re making.


Look, here are the main takeaways if you think this post is too long.

Create, yourself. 

Get into the process as if you were in kindy. Own as much of the process as you can. Embrace the naivete if you’re not an expert: things don’t have to be as polished as they used to.

Constructive process

When you make things, imperfections will be embedded in every layer. Your work will have a different effect. Avoid adding fake analog effects as post-process to achieve some kind of feel. Developed the feel as part of the process.  When you make things, there’s an unfolding process that you’re never in full control of and often leads to much more interesting and personal creations.

Quick Primer

Computers have democratised creativity, making it easier and faster to make things. But there have been real tradeoffs with this. When you’re creating as means to and end, you take as many shortcuts as possible, like using assets, or AI. This is less organic, less human, and encourages loss of skill.

Taking shortcuts

Now all that isn’t important when you’re not trying to be an artist. But digital production techniques are designed for efficiency, so it’s hard to engage in a full creative process in digital mediums.

For example, assets. When elements are sourced from third parties, they’re as good, clean and professional as can be. The opportunity for mistakes, and even a little naivete, is limited.

But look, I’ve been working with shortcuts since I started out creating digitally. For example sound loops and presets are built into my music production software, and WordPress themes and theme builders are handy starting points.

None of this is bad, they just tends to discourage process, in the name of making creativity more accessible, which is also really, really good.

An organic process for more personal style

But to be honest I regret starting with those shortcuts and wish I learned more in-depth processes. I wish I recorded more sounds and understood synthesis. Recently, I’ve started learning how to add the humanity back into my work by owning more of the process. There is ugliness, but there is more of me in everything, and I’m leaning into the grit.

Dirt is this term I use for this because it’s the opposite of clean, which is what you tend to get when you skip parts of the process.

But this is not about “dirty vs clean” with dirty being good. It’s really about improving your creative process, to recover integrity and humanity, and produce more interesting, personal, organic and ultimately, satisfying work.

That work I guess could end up being clean if you wanted it to and you had the skills. So hmmm. Anyway though, I’m sticking with “Theory of Dirty,” because for most people, that’s what it will mean. Embracing the imperfections of a high-integrity creative process.

OK so now how does this work in practice. Let’s start by breaking the concept of dirt down:

Elements of dirtiness…

Why do we like it dirty?


It’s the same reason we like anything: it makes us feel good. It humanises things, making them closer.


It’s unpretentious, redirecting focus to the intention, rather than execution.


Dirty is belies a process rich with thought and care, showing us that a thing has meaning and value for the maker, and inviting us to discover meaning and value for ourselves.


Imperfections tell a story, a story of the making, and over time, a story of the using. They lets us feel the weight of honest human endeavour. It connects us to the artist.

It also foregrounds non-technical aspects of the artwork like meaning and intention.


Dirt, or imperfections, invite us to use our imagination. There is more to look at, more to feel. Our eyes are stimulated, as are our minds: subtitles that hint at greater context, giving rise to open ended questions about it.

What isn’t it?

It’s not retro, romantic or hipster

We’re talking about a human appreciation for naturalness and imperfection. Maybe it makes things feel natural or accessible. It’s not hat-tipping to the past. These are all things that aren’t bad, but in terms of creativity and creative process, they’re a little… bothersome. 2010s were influenced by the hipster aesthetic, which was mostly shallow. Dirtiness conversely it the result of what we do, and if we specifically like it dirty, we do things in a way that will be dirty. But the medium is not the message.

It’s not analog

Later Steely Dan is 100% analog. But it’s not in any way dirty. Its tight. I remember dad using it to show me how tight the bass was in his new speaker setup (1990). In this theory we’re not arguing digital vs analog. Both can be clean or dirty.

I don’t blame digital, really, or even the computer. I blame the race to the ‘finish line’ they enabled.

It’s not the meaning

Dirtiness of any form shouldn’t be the intention. For example, taking photos just so you can have a grainy photo. This is a part of dirtiness as a result of artistic process. The art would still be art without the dirtiness. The dirtiness just makes it more human, relatable, and hints at the process, the magic.

It’s not post-processing

There are effects everywhere to make something seem older. They usually take a finished process and apply the kind of destruction that you’d see in a particular type of medium, like VHS. These are all about the effect, like the hat-tipping mentioned above. And as we’re talking about creativity, we’re going to ignore these because they’re applied after the thing is made. Of course that’s not to say you can’t use them creatively, but let’s face it it’s a little cheap. Not that a lot of art in the digital sphere isn’t cheap.

The best examples of dirty are analog as analog lends itself more to dirty (but by no means exclusively). I have a book of posters from punk bands. This counts highly. From a purely design standpoint, these posters are pretty uninteresting. But their low-end production methods make them pleasurable to look at, to mull over. There are stories everywhere… the fingerprints of the artist are clear. Its unskilled, careless, on top of plenty of medium and capture noise.


Dirty shouldn’t be a style, it should be come from the method. The process should be a dirty. Even if the results are the same (they won’t be), a dirty process is more fun.

At one end, you’ve got dirt as a completely incidental result of process, where dirt is incidental to the intention of the art. In the middle you’ve got encouraged or teased dirt, where the dirt is incorporated in the message. At the other end, you’ve got art that exists as a medium for the dirt, where the dirt is what the artist wants to achieve.

You can buy a photocopier photoshop template that will run your image through some processes to affect a photocopied look. Or, you can get a photocopier. One of those is easier and cheaper than the other. But one should not be an option. In design, maybe… whatever, I mean you’ve sold your creativity to business so what does it matter anyway? But in Art? Noooo.

Constructive vs Destructive

Now you can fake that in digital, getting most of the way perhaps. But it will be a destructive process, not a constructive one – and that’s different. And you’ll be going for a look, instead of making a thing. That’s different too. To someone looking at the results, perhaps it won’t matter how it was made (I’d wager that over time, the constructive process will be come out on top), but to the person making it, there’s a world of difference in mindset. In one case, you’re wagging your tail. In the other case, you’re chasing it. Wait- is that what ‘the tail doesnt wag the dog’ means?

Zines too – when made with a photocopier… not so much when they’re made to look like they’re made with a photocopier. (But who has a photocopier?)

Restricting yourself additive process can help in this regard. Think about how when writing with a manual typewriter you aren’t able to change words already written. If you want them to be different, you need to re-write. It’s a completely different process, one which lends itself to the artefacts of process. In electronic music, try not deleting sounds but capturing your production at different stages and re-working the samples into itself.


It can be naivety (naive art), which I personally think of as art made by people who are inspired to make, but don’t have a high level of skill in the medium. This isn’t to say what they make is bad, people love naive art. It takes a fair bit of courage and also a fair bit of disregard for gatekeepers (they can really get in your head and stop you making things sometimes). To me, the underlying structures and meanings of art is more important than the competence of the production. When I think of this, I think of punk rock,

That brings us to our next topic….


Making something in the computer, with no process, is easier, and requires less investment of time and material. The downside of this, artistically, this means a lack of commitment. I know in my own case, I was able to explore many creative roads, digitally, and that has effectively meant I never travelled very far down them – or at least not all the way. None of them needed to pay off because I had only really invested my time.

The upshot of all this is that I now have an incorrect understanding of the value of time. I think our generation is beginning to understand where we have gone wrong here, and we are starting to slow down a little.

Again, digital workflows are fine, but consider not taking advantage of all the shortcuts people tend to take with digital, and create your art with as much manual input as possible. It sounds like I’m arguing for absolutes here – but really I’m just looking for ways to improve my process and evolve my own creativity – and unlearn some bad habits.

Social Creativity

One of the advantages of real-world processes, is that they are more social. When physical resources are required, you need to get off your chair and out in the world. Sometimes you might need to do whatever art socially.

I feel like younger people get this, whereas people in their late 30s and 40s might be slightly damaged due to the infatuation with digital processes they that has dominated the last two decades.

While I’m not advocating explicitly for analog, I guess the workflows I think would work best with dirty are not computer-based, or are perhaps in and out of the computer.

In my early 20s I and worked in Melbourne while producing music late into the night in my bedroom. I would walk past many clubs on my way home, attracted, but shy. Even at uni for design in my 30s, I would avoid group work. As a creative loner, I would love to go back in time and be more social with my art.

Don’t be like me! Get out of the computer! Join a club and meet people who love what you love!


Wes Anderson films are dirty. The fingerprints of the filmmaker are all over them. There are subtle and human imperfections everywhere. Camera shots are always straight on to the background, but the lenses are wide, distorting the lines. You can see the flim-making – it’s not invisible like it ‘should’ be.

All this is deliberate. However in the directors commentary on the Darjeeling Limited, Wes takes a phone call. And leaves it in. Dirty bugger.

Wrong notes, bumps and static, these things let us feel the humanness of art. Electronic musicians not quantizing their melodies to the beat. Or not even quantizing their beat to the time.

Perfectly Inhuman … or humanly imperfect?

Digital production can give us things that technically correct and realistic, but we’re waking up to the fact that realism ≠ immersion. We can suspend all kinds of sensibilities when it comes to the surface level of things, but what we can’t suspend is a need for deeper connection with art.

Dirty Framing

This applies to capturing images, but could be translated to other mediums. Dirty framing means things like dirty lenses, shooting through windows or other imperfect screens. It distorts the image, but is wholly natural and often translates to a sense of place and time.

Wong Kar Wai’s films are dirt extravaganzas. The dialog is only loosely connected to the ‘plot,’ as if everything is slightly off tangent. Aside from questionable white balance and saturation, his frames are often abstracted with refraction, reflection, angles, and what looks like diffusion filters the kind which are becoming popular in photography. Handheld camerawork with no or little stabilisation. It’s not like there is no care put in. The compositions, lighting, it all looks very deliberate. But once the scene is set and the camera is rolling, things play out very naturally and freely.

Wong Kar Wai’s cinematographer is Andrew Doyle. Usually there is no specific shot list, instead the crew turns up to a location with a script (or not), and looks for inspiration in the location. This means going over time and budget, but leads to unique synchronicity.

Check out Why THE BATMAN Is So Beautiful | A Cinematography Video Essay.


Reproducing things, for example digital to analog and back again – a technique used in many mediums, is a good way to introduce dirt – usually a constant, slight dirt, unless the margins are captured in some way.

The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails was recorded in the mid 90’s on an early version of Pro Tools running on Mac. Reznor digitally captured analog performances which were treated and arranged the software before being recorded back to analog tape (or something like that – more on the process here). The main point is the back and forth between digital and analog, using both or either when it suited the creative vision. This made The Downward Spiral unique and as timeless as it is hard to listen to in parts.


This medium is a great one to explore dirt because the mainstream still thinks a good photo is “technically perfect,” and there are so few creative photographers compared to the rest.

There’s a lot of ways to do it: grain/noise, ICM (intentional camera movement), focus, off-framing, dirtying the frame, diffusion (or other filters), off white balance, long exposure, resolution, saturation, and multiple exposure – all ways to dirty up your image.

Daido Moriyama has popularised “are, bure, boke” – or “rough, blurry, and out of focus.”

The most common way to achieve dirt in photography, is to use grain or noise. This is mimicking older mediums. Most digital photos are so clean these days that most apply noise it in post, but you can also shoot at higher ISO to achieve noise. Some cameras also apply a noise filter automatically, which I use without too much guilt. Shooting at high ISO isn’t always practical. This is why other ways to achieve noise are perhaps better.


Photo filters (and post processing film simulations) are right on the borderline for me. They finish my photos in a way that feels part of the process, but yet they are filters you whack on your art after the fact. They make your photos look analog, but they also make them look… better… and here lies an important distinction: the intention behind your digital process.

As an alternative I’ve been experimenting with setting the simulation in camera, as well as limiting the effectiveness of the camera in other ways. This definitely results in a less ‘usable’ photo (not that I ever ‘use’ my photos), but always a more interesting one.

This started as an attempt to inject some fun into photography, to bring the creative process back into the tool and back into the moment.

As captured, using in-camera settings.

I’ve also been messing around with writing on my photos, digitally, using procreate. This is a great example of a digital process that incorporates the human element.


You could think of glitch art as the art of digital destruction becoming creation. It’s great because not only is it all about the process- how things are copied, transferred, displayed, it’s about stressing the underlying system in ways that produce unpredictable results: the process is an attack on the medium itself. It’s a great conceptual example of dirt, because the dirt becomes the actual art (there is no art without the dirt here).

Glitch art is pretty technical – you’re screwing with digital systems in ways that are much more likely to break them completely than result in some pleasing artefacts. But you could translate the interruption into other mediums. Any level of jitter in the “background” of the medium might be a way:

Dirtiness is hard

I’ve been longing to get back to a more natural state in my creativity. But with the conveniences of digital, it feels weird to be going out of my way to make something more natural. The more I do this though, the more I learn that it is worth it.

I’ve been wondering what it is I like about analog – and specifically, dirty analog.

Digital as the transfer medium, not the medium.


Being dirty in production means the dirt of one stage will feed into the next, so dirt accumulates – here hidden, here poking out.

In Electronic Music

Sonic Youth is dirty. The dirtiest, maybe, if you don’t count the 5,6,7,8s who sing with no regard for frequency, in their second language. But it’s not just loosey goosey analog music that can be dirty. Electronic music is evolving this way too.

In the 90s you needed a room full of heavy, power-hungry and prohibitively expensive equipment to make professional music. But in 2005, I had a track released that I had made exclusively on a computer. I would not be able to have done this in the 90s without a next-level level of commitment.

So I can’t say that we shouldn’t make things with computers. And I don’t want to! But maybe it’s fun to limit the involvement of the computer sometimes, and producing sounds in the real world, and use the computer to put it together. Great dirtiness is found this way – in play. Achieving dirtiness deliberately takes the fun out of it. It still might be fun to listen to, but I’d bet not as fun.

You can get dirty in sound by modulating digital sounds with analog ones. For example, changing the volume of a track by side-chaining in another loop. In my track Gravity in Space, I ran a noise gate over some of the sounds and modulated like that. Once I had setup how it worked, it was out of my control, and that’s what I wanted.

Electronic music is by default clean.

Using textured samples directly in your music is a bit cheaty and potentially not that dirty.

Tips for electronic musicians to get more dirty

In 2004 I bought a world music sample CD to help me produce the kind of music I liked. I was shocked to realise all the samples were already in my favourite music.

Try record your own sounds. Mix them with your digital sounds in weird ways, like modulating midi and plugins with side-chains. Skip quantization on some, or most, of your tracks, especially when it isn’t really necessary.

Stop buying plugins and sample packs to get more sounds and start working with what you’ve got.


Strangely, a lot of metal and grunge isn’t that dirty. There’s distortion, but it’s well controlled and pretty consistent over time. Smells Like Teen Spirit (my actual favourite song) and much of Nirvana’s Nevermind fits this, especially in contrast with Nirvana’s other music. Metallica’s Enter Sandman is another example.

Hole’s Live Through This is a good example of a grungier grunge.

My favourite dirty musicians

These are some artists who make music that reveals the process. I love them because they didn’t have to go through whatever process to make their music, but they did, because they like it. Feel free to suggest a listen below.

Dirty web design

Dirty means different things when applied to different medium. If you take the laziness of Sonic Youth vocals and translate that to the web, what have you got? Dirty on the web could mean raw, unrefined websites. It could mean graphically dirty elements, but I don’t like this because it would need to be done carefully to ensure the content is accessible. The web is a complex and volatile medium which you can break easily even when not being experimental.

Most of the time in web design as it is today you’re designing containers for content, meaning you create templates that will be reused, such as the layout for this page.

It’s hard to think of what dirty web design is. Web design is a very subtractive process. People don’t often use the web naively. But one example might be Myspace profiles at the peak of the early (1.0) net before Javascript fucked everything up in the early 2000s. Another might be Geocities, or early 1.0 user-generated pages in general.

In writing

I admit, I’m not much of a reader. But dirty writing could be writing that gets distracted, that lets the author jump around a little….. disjointed plots, writing that maybe even shows some of the process. Of course, it wouldn’t be spelling mistakes etc, but it could be a relaxed use of ‘rules.’

The convenience paradox

It’s easy to produce in digital, but paradoxically, only when youre doing it in predictable ways. It’s sometimes harder to do something new, when you don’t have the ‘software’ for it, or the digital skillset. There’s a learning curve that isn’t there in analog, and sometimes that makes it harder, to the extent that a creative will choose to do something else, something they know how to do, and abandon their inspiration. This is fairly tragic, and I’d like to encourage anyone who encounters this feeling (because it is barely conscious most of the time), to think about how they might achieve what they want in weird, unplanned or analog ways.

The AI generated creative Future

In the short term, AI is set to replace a lot of creative output for business. Services like canva make it easy to combine elements, services like Chat GPT make it easy to produce content and generate ideas, and products such as Dall E and allow non visual to create the images they need.

In the long term though, mainstream use of AI in the creative process will mean the art of human makers will be more valuable. Less people will be able to create new and unique art from scratch, and the ones that do will be those that value process. People interested in creating art will avoid the kind of shortcuts we take today because there will be no point in partial processes (why not just use the AI). The creative arts could even bifurcate, with means-to-an-end, commercially driven, AI assisted production on one hand, and more personal, process-driven art on the other. This isn’t a bad future at all, I just hope AI generated things will be labelled.


Further reading & watching