The world must change
- graphic design and idealism
Leonie ten Duis, Annelies Haase,
with contributions by
Henk Oosterling and Max Bruinsma
Sandberg uitgave no.18
Sandberg Instituut / De Balie,
isbn 90 6617 208 8
An ideal design is
is a notion of idealism which today is seldom discussed, and which simply
defines the future as: ‘not yet’.
of this phrase - by Ernst Bloch - is
subtler and deeper than you might think at first sight. Naturally, all
that is not, but may come, is not yet. What matters is what you want, isn’t
it? What you envisage – that is the ideal future. But Bloch meant something
else. Idealists are often inclined to regard the world as it ought to be
as a model that is beyond dispute, as a design which sets out the precise
details of how the future will look. That the present does not look like
it is the fault of the present. Bloch says that this vision of the future,
which is already complete and only has to be recognized to become reality,
can have a paralysing effect. The gap between ideal and reality can be
too large to be appreciated, and our fixation on the ultimate goal can
obscure the path towards it and cloud our view of the reality of the present.
Hence Bloch’s stressing of the not
yet aspect of all idealism, of every Utopia, of every hope of improvement.
The realization that the ideal has not yet been achieved forces the Utopian
to acknowledge the need to work for change in the present, starting from
the reality of the people and the society of today. The Utopian may have
a vision of the world as it might be, but he also appreciates that the
realization of that vision is a continuous process in which the ‘final
goal’ is a gauging-point rather than an a-priori outcome.
In Bloch’s short formula,
is more important than the not.
room for improvement
Man is not yet
The perfect world
yet to come
In design, this notion of
yet has now regained its relevance. On the one hand it is relevant
as an idea of practical idealism, in which the actual process of communication
is at least as important as the fixed end result.
By accepting the possibility
of leaving a design open-ended, by up to a point not finishing it, the
designer not only leaves room for the recipient’s and reader’s own interpretation
of the message – an emancipatory aspect, this – he also creates the space
for a personal standpoint. The design now suggests that this is how things
be – it opens a dialogue about the way it itself functions in the communication
process of which it is a part.
On the other hand,
in a computer – and which of us does not work with computers, these days?
– nothing is final.
you will change your mind and recreate your design from scratch. It can,
after all, be done. At any moment a few mouse-clicks are all you need to
cast an entire design in a completely different mould. Until the time comes
when it has to go to the press (or into the CD writer, or is broadcast
or placed on the World Wide Web), the design is essentially only a sketch,
yet. And if it is intended for the Internet, it remains, up to a point,
for ever not yet.
For designers trained in
a Modernist tradition this is a problem. In that tradition, of course,
the design is viewed as a model, as an immanent reality, almost as an article
of faith in which everything is predestined.
a design is not a proposal – it is a prescription.
designers will accordingly see every departure from that prescription,
every change of detail, as an infringement of something that has already,
in principle, been realized. It is finished – all it needs is to be made.
design is not not yet, but essentially already reality.
you are designing a website you are not going to get very far if you take
an essentially already attitude. In each new browser the design
will look different, and it will work differently. Almost everything that
the designer has designed can be changed by the recipient: the format,
the fonts, the images, the colours, the hyperlinks, the navigation. Which
monitor displays the ‘real’ design? Perhaps only the designer’s.
THE ORIGINAL REPRODUCTION
tension seems to have arisen between two essential notions of designing:
the originality of the design and the reproducibility of the product. If
a design is reproduced in surroundings which may go very much against the
designer’s vision, what then is the value of that vision? Or what is wrong
with the reproduction channels if the reproduction refuses to stick to
Perhaps it will be illuminating
to look for a moment at two different ways in which an original, a design,
can be related to a reproduction. When Mart Stam invented the cantilever
chair at the end of the 1920s, and Marcel Breuer developed that design
for commercial production, their original intention had been both to design
an 'ultimate reduction' of the concept of chair and to produce an object
of utility which could be manufactured by an industrial process cheaply
and in very large numbers. The cantilever chair has now become an industrial
and cultural icon – the 'originals', the first models and contemporary
production by Thonet, are now beyond the reach of all but museums and wealthy
private collectors. If you want an 'original' Stam/Breuer today, you have
to turn to 'authorized' production by the firms like Casina or Vitra, whose
chair is available from the more up-market furniture stores at around $500
apiece. However, this does buy you the certainty that the chair you have
bought conforms, in every detail, to the specifications of the original
This example demonstrates that a design
can be realized in more ways than one and still be ‘original’. What matters
then is that the design indicates a possibility, an as yet unrealized way
of tackling a problem.
But what looks like the same chair
can be had for less than a hundred dollars from less prestigious sources.
What’s the difference? The thickness and quality of the tubing and rattan,
the quality of finish, the shape of the seat and back. And there’s no ‘signature’,
no certificate of authenticity. Despite this, one could argue that these
cheap copies, even if they do depart from the original design in details,
do better justice to the idealistic social intention of that design: they
are no less elementary in their form, but they are truly available to a
mass audience of consumers.
The same example also illustrates
two aspects of the Bauhaus in 1920s Germany that were instrumental in shaping
the development and the teaching of design in Europe: originality and reproducibility.
it is no longer so easy to establish the relationship between the originality
and reproducibility so clearly. The idea that ‘originality’ is an attribute
of a product is beginning to look rather problematic.
the ‘original’ of an electronic product? This also applies to other, related
notions which are still being used but whose roots lie in an artistically
conceived idea of designing which it is now difficult to uphold. Aspects
such as the ‘handwriting’ or the ‘style’ of a designer used to be – and
still are – associated with the products that the designer makes. But if
the form of the product can be changed, is it then still legitimate to
speak of a specific handwriting?
And if the designer
chooses a different formal language for each product, can you still speak
of a personal
Despite all this, designers and
typographers, in the midst of a postmodern culture which holds that everything
has already been thought of before, and is nothing more than a re-sampling
of the existing, have hurled themselves as never before into thinking up
forms that are different. Seldom have there been so many personal styles
and have so many typefaces been designed that reflect the individuality
of their makers.
seem to exult in individuality as if in a last upwelling of self-expression
before everything is finally absorbed into a pool of existing images and
new condition, to use the language of Orwell, handwriting is a question
of software. There are now programs that can take a scanned model sentence
(the quick brown fox...) in your handwriting and use it to generate a complete
font, including italics and bold.
own handwriting as a typeface!
strictly formal interpretation of something that was once seen as ‘the
mirror of the soul’ – one’s own handwriting – is a sure sign that in contemporary
culture we must take terms like ‘personal’, ‘individual’ and ‘expressive’
with more than a grain of salt.
What kind of ‘individuality’ is conjured
up in a culture in which advertising and the media constantly stress that
can decide for yourself, that you decide what
like, that you will say who and what you want to be? Express
yourself – but don’t forget to do it by using products X, Y and Z.
has become a brand name,
and the individual a consumer composed
branded emotions and activities
THE MESSAGE INFORMS
this context, can a designer continue to be an autonomous individual with
a voice of his own?
in recent years there has been too much emphasis on forms and not enough
than the precise form of the end product, in that case, is the way it comes
about, the mentality with which it is devised and the analysis that underlies
it. It is becoming increasingly clear that, to the extent that it is legitimate
to speak of originality at all, it has to be sought in the world of concepts,
the world of the
not yet and not first and foremost in the world
here, in the personal interpretation of the designer, that there lies,
potentially, more individuality than in any kind of ‘original’ formal design.
|In a culture
which regards ‘individuality’ as an attribute of top-shelf brands, developing
a truly individual and independent vision is an act of idealism of the
first water. An expression of resistance to the immense pressure of the
media models from which, in our culture, very few can escape. Quite apart
from the question of whether these media models are intrinsically bad,
or whether they can be ‘unmasked’ at all, to use a Marxist term which has
lapsed into disuse, it can do no harm at least to subject them to a thorough
analysis, if only that we might understand the most powerful languages
of our culture – and be able to use them for a message of our own.
That is why it is so important for
designers to know their media, to have studied them and to truly understand
how they function.
now that new combinations of media – some of which are themselves new –
can deliver entirely new products, it is important for a designer to have
a thorough knowledge of existing media and technologies.
to obtain insight into the differences between old and new media and communication
processes and to realize that the old and the new are not radically opposed
to each other. In that sense, political idealism today has changed just
as much as the culture with which that idealism enters into dialogue.
The polarized political
opposition of the 1970s and 1980s has made way for the political correctness
of the 1990s (actually more a stifling form of politeness than of politics).
Attitudes have also changed towards that ‘voice of capital’, advertising:
today even political dissidents see advertising as a powerful channel of
communication along which it is also possible to disseminate ‘good’ messages.
Designers would do well to realize that
in a developed information society the relationships between content, form
and medium can no longer be established as unambiguously as it may once
have seemed, when the communication avant-garde nodded with enthusiastic
agreement at McLuhan’s slogan The
Medium Is The Message.
In today’s multimedia surroundings
there are all sorts of possible variations on that assertion:
medium is a message
the message constitutes
the medium massages
and vice versa
version of McLuhan’s adage is
The Medium Is The
in all of this changes is the need, as Jan van Toorn put it in the 1970s,
to ‘visualize the origin and manipulative character of the message in its
form’: that is, cast a message in such a form that it enters into a meaningful
– and critical – relationship with its cultural, social and informative
context: a necessity which becomes all the more urgent now that the information
society is beginning to show signs of becoming an information deluge.
One circumstance as a result
of which we talk of ‘information bombardment’ and ‘information avalanche’
is that the general public regard the vast majority of the ‘information’
aimed at them as a single monolithic mass. Even if all those messages,
sent through an unceasingly extending network of media, desperately present
themselves as ‘different’, they are still often perceived as part of the
deafening monotonous drone that accompanies the avalanche.
In a world that is so saturated with
media, undifferentiated information threatens, by its overwhelming bulk,
to swamp any real meaning. In such a context it becomes vital, rather than
giving the individual message an arresting form, to embed the message in
meaningful associations with other messages.
from this angle, designers are more than dressers, decorators or even the
engineers of messages – they are editors.
The editor of a magazine
or newspaper or television programme tries to find ways of linking the
diverse messages that he or she is presenting. The easy (or lazy) way of
doing this is to throw them into the melting-pot of the format. In graphic
design terms, this is the styling.
Another writer – and designer and teacher
– Gui Bonsiepe, proposes that from now
on we call all designers interface designers, on the basis that in times
of information overload it is more important to design the means of access
to information and navigation through it than the form of individual messages.
A more responsible way would be to
look for what might be termed links, themes and associations which can
join a wide variety of contents and references together in a way which
is itself meaningful. Comparable to what Charles Dickens called ‘links
of association’, the kind of culturally based connections that are
such a central concept in Steven Johnson’s book Interface
Although I would stress that the
individual forms of messages still play a crucial role in contributing
to the clarity of their contents, it is nevertheless clear that designers
who concentrate exclusively on the forms of individual communication products
fail to do justice to the messages themselves.
the editorial quality of the designer that determines whether the design
enables the recipient of the message to make meaningful connections with
the information culture of which the message is, whether we like it or
not, a part.
aspect of these connections is that they are unaffected by traditional
borderlines between disciplines.
are not the only ones to communicate.
Singular messages have
ceased to exist
agents they work within a
framework that encompasses such diverse media as
The same media are used by others too:
catalogues, magazines, computer and television screens, cinema, exhibitions,
Seen from this angle, designers should
be re-evaluating their role in multimedia communication. The designer has
effectively become a co-author and co-editor of messages, and operates
increasingly often in close cooperation with others.
directors, advertisers, politicians, salesmen, musicians, actors, supermodels,
In this context, the most important
contribution that today’s designers make to the effectiveness of a communication
product is a matter of ‘conceptual functionalism’ rather than visual virtuosity.
This new and extended role
for the designer has already been compared with joint enterprises such
as television, film and theatre. In these media, form and content are together
formulated by a collective of specialists in several areas. Designers are
increasingly often members of such teams of ‘form-and-content-givers’.
Their role as the bearers of sole responsibility for the form of the final
product is very much under pressure.
have unambiguous messages
and effectiveness of communication have become strongly context-dependent,
not least because the audience with whom the message communicates has itself
matured. In contrast to the impression created by many communication products
– from advertising to news bulletins – the recipient is usually not stupid.
culture, which has become a technological information culture, a high degree
of ‘visual literacy’ has developed in large sections of the mass media
experience of ‘reading’ the messages in advertisements, movies, television,
newspapers, magazines, strip cartoons, CD-ROMs, websites and the ever more
complex hybrid forms of these, has made ‘the audience’ keenly aware that
every communication has been ‘manipulated’ by its maker and is affected
by its context. This public experience of ’visual languages’ has both enlarged
the room for manoeuvre open to designers and at the same time deepened
their responsibility for the images and visual languages that they use.
possibility that a ‘visually literate’ audience will read things into a
communication product that the designer did not intend is very real.
Jonathan Barnbrook’s Manson
typeface was inspired by an ‘urban tribal’ culture, and in its primitive
logo-like formal language reflects an (essentially post-punk) subcultural
awareness which adopts a provocative stand against the prevailing taste.
Hence the name – that of a notorious ritual serial murderer – which has
caused considerable offence to many in the culture of political correctness
in the United States (after which Barnbrook rebaptised his font to 'Mason',
the name of an American general, who was not entirely incontroversial either).
To that extent the provocation is consistent and, up to a point, intentional.
It was a different matter, however, when it emerged that German neo-fascists
were using the same typeface for communications which were thoroughly objectionable,
to Barnbrook as to others, because they saw in it formal echoes of the
ancient runic alphabet so beloved of the Nazis. This kind of thing would
not be so painful if the formof the letters had not been a major element
of the message. No one would blame Adrian Frutiger for the fact that his
Univers typeface is also used by racists. Barnbrook is more open to such
criticism – even if it is essentially erroneous – because the form of his
typeface can indeed be associated visually with an aesthetic which, since
the Nazis, has been heavily charged. There is little that the designer
can do to stop this kind of ‘abuse’ of a design – the neo-Nazis were clever
enough to purchase a licence to use Barnbrook’s typeface.
The example shows up how important it
is as a designer to think about the context in which the design is created
and into which it will be absorbed.
of the significance that may accrue to a design or a visual language, it
is as well to be aware that a visually sophisticated audience effectively
becomes a co-designer.
sense too the designer is increasingly becoming, as Bonsieppe said, an
interface designer. A design today is rarely a substantive, realized product.
More and more often it is a proposal which gains its final form in the
interaction with the audience – for better or for worse.
DESIGN AS CRITICISM
must once again realize that their ultimate task is neither to order information
nor simply to decorate it.
The ‘reinforcement of the
message’ (another basic tenet of graphic design) can sometimes mean that
you make the message less accessible, rather than handing it to people
on a plate. In an age when contexts, references and interpretations are
often more important than the raw data themselves, it may be the path leading
through those data that contains the most valuable information. The true
message is then: how to enter.
designer can inject his own attitude into this ‘navigation’ between pieces
in an applied art – which is what design still is – traditional notions
such as structuring and reinforcing a client’s message still apply. But
there are more ways of reinforcing a message than simply getting it to
look different from other messages. You can also try to show the connection
That connection, after all,
exists by definition – at least, if we assume that terms like
- all key concepts in the
postmodern information culture – are not merely theoretical figments of
the imagination, or a ‘virtual model’ of an intellectual concept, but practical
Even more than the indispensable theoretical
frameworks do, the reality of the information culture demonstrates, to
anyone looking out into the world with an alert and practised eye, the
extent to which the words, the images, the sounds and the gestures with
which we are presented by a labyrinth of media communicate not only with
us but also with each other. The point is that such an awareness expands
the perspective for action for the ‘information consumer’, and hence also
his freedom of choice and interpretation.
design, in essence, is a criticism of the context for which it has been
design ‘activates’ those contexts by offering an understanding of, a comment
on, or an alternative to them.
One of the most ‘idealistic’ attitudes
that a designer working in this environment can have is, as I see it, the
will to increase awareness of these complex inter-connections in our media
culture, and, above all, to increase insight into their nature and content.
To be able to contribute to this, a designer must be able to call on more
than aesthetic and technical knowledge.
must realize yet again that the core of their profession is analysis: a
even if only temporarily – imposes meaningful structure on the chaos of
possible meanings and references in the information culture’s hall of mirrors;
the one-dimensionality of things that are taken for granted – however politically
correct they may be
its originality, regardless of the medium or the ultimate form, from the
independent, well-informed and well-argued vision of the designer;
in true ‘metadisciplinarity’ – achieves a real integration of form, content,
technology and media;
may, because it is never
finished, always not yet, be termed idealistic.