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, 1999
isbn 90 6617 208 8

An ideal design is not yet

There is a notion of idealism which today is seldom discussed, and which simply defines the future as: ‘not yet’.
The meaning 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, then, the yet
is more important than the not.
There is yet
room for improvement
Man is not yet
truly free
The perfect world has
yet to come
In design, this notion of not 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 might 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.
Perhaps tomorrow 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, a possibility, not 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.
In modernism, a design is not a proposal – it is a prescription.
‘Old-fashioned’ 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.
The design is not not yet, but essentially already reality.
Now if 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.


A great 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 the design?
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 design.

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.

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.

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.

Today 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.
What is 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.

Designers 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 languages.
In this 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.
Your own handwriting as a typeface!
Such a 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 you can decide for yourself, that you decide what you 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.

I® has become a brand name,
and the individual a consumer composed of
branded emotions and activities

DO®is Nike
Be®is Calvin Klein


How, in this context, can a designer continue to be an autonomous individual with a voice of his own?

Perhaps in recent years there has been too much emphasis on forms and not enough on ideas.
More important 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 of products.
It is 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.

Particularly 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.
If only 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:

the medium is a message
the message constitutes the medium
the medium massages the message
and vice versa
[The original version of McLuhan’s adage is
The Medium Is The Massage]
What nothing 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.
Seen 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.

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 Culture.

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.

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.

It is 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.
One important aspect of these connections is that they are unaffected by traditional borderlines between disciplines.
Designers are not the only ones to communicate.
As information agents they work within a framework that encompasses such diverse media as
paintings, books, catalogues, magazines, computer and television screens, cinema, exhibitions, installations,
The same media are used by others too:
writers, artists, directors, advertisers, politicians, salesmen, musicians, actors, supermodels, TV makers...
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.
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.
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.
Singular messages have ceased to exist
So too have unambiguous messages
The content 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.
In our culture, which has become a technological information culture, a high degree of ‘visual literacy’ has developed in large sections of the mass media audience.
Intensive 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.
The 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.
In terms 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.
In that 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.


Designers 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.

The designer can inject his own attitude into this ‘navigation’ between pieces of information.
Of course, 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 between messages.
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 reality.
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.
Every design, in essence, is a criticism of the context for which it has been produced.
A good 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.

Designers must realize yet again that the core of their profession is analysis: a critical eye.
A design
which – even if only temporarily – imposes meaningful structure on the chaos of possible meanings and references in the information culture’s hall of mirrors;
A design
which questions the one-dimensionality of things that are taken for granted – however politically correct they may be
A design
which derives its originality, regardless of the medium or the ultimate form, from the independent, well-informed and well-argued vision of the designer;
A design
which – in true ‘metadisciplinarity’ – achieves a real integration of form, content, technology and media;
Such a design
may, because it is never finished, always not yet, be termed idealistic.
© max bruinsma