It’s pretty delusive


It’s pretty delusive is een onderzoeksproject over de manier waarop we zouden moeten ontwerpen. Ik heb een grote hoeveelheid informatie over dit onderwerp verzameld en aan de hand daarvan een essay geschreven (zie onderaan deze pagina) en vormgegeven op een poster om de verbanden tussen de verschillende alinea’s nog beter aan te geven en de lezer de mogelijkheid te geven om het essay op zijn of haar eigen manier te lezen.

Vrij werk.


It’s pretty delusive!

While I was gathering information graphic design, I came up with some little thoughts and theories myself. I took some notes about that and that was the very beginning of this essay. The purpose of this essay is defining a theory to hold on to while designing, to help myself and other designers to create better designs that are related to and can me understood by the society.

Do you remember the last time when you were staring at the blank page on your computer screen, wondering when and if you would ever come up with your next idea? Well, if you keep sitting there it’s definitely not going to happen. Graphic design is not about locking yourself up in your vacuum, staring at blank pages and waiting for ideas to pop up out of nowhere; it is the opposite. In first place, graphic design is all about going outside, looking around and defining opinions and clear visions about all that you see. ‘Design becomes powerful only when it enters the domain of other discourses.’ [1] In other words, if the designer hasn’t got a clear purpose, the design will be meaningless. And that is where the form comes in – not earlier. Once the message is there, you will have to find the right form through which it can speak. I will explain this using some examples thought-out the history of graphic design from World War II until now.
So, the first thing you have to do is getting out of your office. ‘Design is related in some way to the society. The designer should remain free and working out of this vacuum to create “good design”. Too often the artist has found himself working in a vacuum, without the necessary opportunity to think and create and at the same time to provide adequately. The artist should function in society not as a decorator but as a vital participant.’ [2]
Meta Haven, studio for design research, is the perfect example of a designers vacuum. ‘This studio, based in Amsterdam and Brussels, is a think tank focusing on design, visual identity and the political. It’s current partners are Vinca Kruk, Daniel van der Velden and Gon Zifroni. Meta Haven’s aim is, through design research, to re-think political potentialities in design and to generate visual-theoretical discourses around both commissioned and non-commissioned topics, resulting in projects in the area of the hypothetical and the proposal, as well as in direct action. Meta Haven, in its current configuration, is functioning as a connective tissue between theoretical and visual positions. While the collective argues that new connections between design and theory are needed, at the same time it rejects that these should operate on the basis of a mutual license to restrict the other. In other words, Meta Haven argues for a design theory where the jouissance of visual imagination is allowed full space.’ [3] Meta Haven creates design that can be understood by other designers and design critics only. But you are not going to change the world if you define forms that can’t be understood by the main society.
Can designers do more crucial things? Yes, they can. Therefore I would like to go back to World War II. During the war designers had ideals. They knew what they wanted to achieve, because they were really fighting for something. ‘The German occupation in 1940 nipped all expectations for the future in the bud. The war forced everyone to adjust their goals, make choices and take risks. The establishment of the Kultuurkamer, a state “chamber of culture” set up at the Germans’ behest, meant the end of cultural freedom for artists and designers. Many, including Willem Sandberg, Mart Stam and Elffers, went underground. Bons and Treumann, too, worked on clandestine printing, each for his own circle. From being graphic designers, they now became forgers. The forged identity cards, permits, travel documents and all the other papers with which Dutch citizens constantly had to prove they were who they were and that they were going about their lawful business. “Never before had printed paper been so important and so crucial in matter of life and death, and never before, accordingly, had there been such widespread tampering with it.” During the war years the evolution of graphic design may have come to a virtual standstill, but the social relevance of the job was more important and had more far-reaching consequences than ever. Treumann employed his skill and precision to give people a different identity and thereby increase their chances of survival. With this craftsmanship he armed himself against an occupying power, against the German oppressors the persuasive powers of whose propaganda he had known all too well ever since his youth.’ [4]
Another good example of artists how really wanted to make a change is the Underground; a group of artists who gathered themselves after World War II and kept growing until the 70’s. ‘In the simplest sense, the Underground is the loosely organized collective of artists, writers, creative people whose work, while appreciated by each other, is not yet acceptable by the Establishment. Their language is a kind of code and usually it screams for revolution.’
‘An artist is a leader, however small his following, and the very substance of art sometimes overturning of the values of the society which nurtures it. The rebel fills an important function in that he helps to keep society mobile, challenges or upsets the status quo (“the only constant is change”) and always by his example promulgates the notion that there are alternatives.’
‘In World War II, it seemed simple. The line had been drawn that separated the right from the wrong. Partisans, guerillas, marquis: the Resistance. The legitimacy, the necessity, even, of the Underground were undisputable. The word carried then a pregnant significance, making a fascinating synonym of secrecy. Today, in the United States and in other countries where a similar movement is happening – Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, Argentina, Venezuela, Belgium, Holland, many others – the enemy is ourselves, our parents, our own popularly elected government. but instead of being secret, the modern activist is often more of a publicity agent than a street fighter. Only a few areas (bombings, underground railways for deserters, most drug use, abortions) are still kept secret, and even there, violators are coming out front. The technique now is to work on minds as well as bodies, an extension of Thoreau-Gandhi’s nonviolence technique for effecting change. Still in a minority but rapidly increasing are those who utilize violent means to achieve their ends – bombings, murders, violent disruption.’ [5]
But what about today? Me and most of my friends like to call ourselves “underground”. I even publish an underground ezine with a friend of mine and a lot of volunteers, no money involved. But what is the meaning of “underground” in 2010? It definitely has been changed since 1970! I think we are not trying to change anything anymore. It’s all about music and clothing nowadays. We are just being different without a real purpose. ‘Like so many other over-used words, “underground” means too many different things to different people. If it is still used by people who are Underground themselves (by any definition) this is mainly because no other word conveys so simple a whole class of people and their activities.’ [5]
But then where are the greater ideals of today? The ideals of the designers are not that clear anymore. The world has become so complex that it seems as if the designers simply don’t know what to do with all their freedom and what they would like to achieve. The few big ideals have been replaced with a lot of smaller ideals to choose from. So, if you managed to get out of your vacuum, take a look around and define a clear vision or a message you want to spread about a subject that really matters to you. There are no great ideals that one should fight for anymore, so choose whatever you want, as long as it matters to you and it’s not too vague.
Having done that, most designers tend to get back to their computer to create their designs. But what is a computer? ‘A computer is a decision-making system which can alter its own decision-making program as it proceeds. It follows that the decisive questions are: what exactly do you want the computer to do? and how precisely will you tell the computer to do it?’ [6] So, designing anno 2010 is making pre-programmed choices. It’s very important for designers to be aware of that to avoid that the designers of the programs you use don’t design a computer program only, but design their design, or what they think that is their design. The choices a designer makes, are maybe not his or hers, but even though the program makes them feel that way.
According to Vilém Flusser [7], this is what graphic designers do: they take an idea and impose it upon an amorphous piece of paper. They turn matter into form. But what if the tools they use (Adobe InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, etc.) are forms in itself already? We shaped our tools and our tools shape our designs, but that is definitely not the same as shaping a design by ourselves. So how can we create a good, and above all independent, design or form while we’re using pre-programmed tools like Adobe InDesign, if that’s possible in first place? Only by designing by hand? By using absolutely nothing that is made by anyone else? Of course I know that that’s not a very realistic or practical way of working, but as least it’s good to be aware of this to make more precise choices about every line you draw.

So, in short: good design – as far as there is a definition of “good design” – needs: a purpose, a clear vision or a message and a form through which it speaks, which is designed by you.

[1] Design, Writing, Research, Ellen Lupton & J. Abbott Miller, 1996
[2] Looking Closer 3, Michael Bierut, Jessica Helfand, Steven Heller & Rick Poyner (ed.), 1999
[4] De wereld moe(s)t anders, Sandberg Publication, 1999
[5] Countdown 1, Signet, 1970
[6] The computer in design, Anthony Hyman, 1973
[7] The shape of things, Vilém Flusser, 1999