21st International Graphic Design Festival
Graphics in Concert
In all their diversity, the products of graphic design have one thing in common: they are meant to be seen by great numbers of people. Graphic – or communication – design is essentially about display, about exhibiting a message in such a form that it communicates to many. Seen in this light, you would say that making an exhibition of graphic designs is completely in accord with design's purpose. There is, however, a problem: the aim of an exhibition of graphic designs is to show the designs, not the messages they serve.
Considering design's mission, its raison d'être, an exhibition of graphic designs is as pointless as a museum display of musical instruments. As silent objects, barred from being touched and brought to life by the hands of skilled musicians, the instruments are alienated and orphaned. They are not meant for the eye, but for the ear, to which they cannot sing anymore. In the same way, a poster is silenced when its message does no longer resound. A book remains dumb when it cannot be read. Like musical instruments, graphic designs are no aesthetic objects per se, but aesthetic carriers of meanings beyond their own physical presence. They are not the message, but the medium. Take away their context – the message they carry and the reasons for communicating it – and they mediate only themselves. They become works of art, to be admired for their elegance or high craft, masterpieces of skilled designers, who for once step into the limelight they aimed to have staged for their client's message, not for themselves. For many designers, therefore, exhibiting graphic designs feels like exhibitionism – showing features that one would usually cover.
In 1993, the Dutch graphic design collective Wild Plakken – then consisting of Rob Schröder and Lies Ros – was asked to compile and design an overview exhibition of their own work of the past two decades, for the Centraal Museum in Utrecht. As ad-hoc editorial member of the collective, I collaborated with them on the contents of the exhibition and its catalogue. The central question that arose immediately was that focusing on the work instead of the messages, on the designers instead of the causes they applied their talents to, felt almost like a betrayal of their core principles as designers. Wild Plakken was an activist group, a small collective of designers with a mission to give a strong personal voice to social, cultural and political messages. They were famed for their bold posters for the Dutch Communist party and its Green-Left successors in the 1970s and 1980s, and acclaimed as sophisticated visual editors of books, catalogues, magazines and program brochures for cultural events, theatre companies and the Dutch National Opera. In all these commissions, Wild Plakken combined a craftsmanly distance with a highly idiosyncratic approach to typography and choice of images. They were not designer-authors in the current sense – they did not seek fame as star designers – but authors all the same. Or better: co-authors of messages created collaboratively by everyone involved – writers, directors, actors, artists, photographers, designers, printers, builders. Their politics were personal. They would not design for clients whose messages they could not wholly support.
For Wild Plakken, to exhibit their work – and themselves as designers – purely on its design merits, was an embarrassment. On the other hand, the work could be seen as representing a design mentality, an approach to graphic communication that transcended the individual messages it carried. So the exhibition became a statement on how to design public messages from a personal point of view – and on exhibiting graphic design. It was ruled out to frame and hang series of posters on the museum's walls, which would reduce them to being autonomous artworks or mere illustrations of the designers' style. Posters are meant for the street, not for the museum. And with the events they once announced gone, the causes they championed won or lost, they served no real purpose anymore. Except perhaps as signs of their times, as graphic witnesses to the social, political and artistic themes of their day, and as examples of how to address these themes through design. But how to show their dynamism, their dependence on a social and cultural context in which they were once absorbed like swirls in a stream?
We decided to show them as what they basically were: memories of things and themes past. Hundreds of posters were photographed and shown in five parallel slide projections, each series accompanied by a voice that recounted why they had been made, and which causes they had advocated or what wrongs they had criticized. The five voices were carefully arranged in time to avoid the choir becoming a cacophony, but the resulting experience was slightly chaotic nonetheless. It reproduced the abundance of messages, the parallelism of voices that is so characteristic of the street, of the bustle of public life. But the arrangement did that with the means of design. The presentation epitomized the designers' stance that a design should not be seen for itself, but for what it represents. In other rooms, other media were given a analogous treatment. Dozens of magazines were displayed as a cascade of leafs whirling towards the museum's floor – or away, towards the ceiling – as a representation of their fleeting existence. There were, of course, moments and places in this exhibition in which the viewer was given the opportunity to look closer, to study works in detail, and most of the catalogues and books on display could be leafed through and read. But the central statement of the exhibition's design was that design products are not discrete aesthetic objects. That their aesthetic arrangement serves a well defined purpose. That form does not only follow, but is content.
In this project, I was a participant on more than a curatorial level. We were acting as friends who wanted to make a collaborative statement. More than a decade later, I curated a large exhibition for the Experimentadesign biennial in Lisbon, called "Catalysts! The cultural force of communication design." As the exhibition's main curator, I wanted to reproduce the collaborative effort that had been such an essential aspect in the Wild Plakken exhibition. And make a statement about exhibiting graphic design as well, which meant that the design of the exhibition should be considered as integral to the show's content. I invited six very different designers (Jan van Toorn, Fernando Brizio, Pierre di Sciullo, Erik Adigard, Rob Schröder and Ed Annink) to each co-curate and design a section of the exhibition. This way, the visitor could not take the exhibition's design for granted. The exhibition became visible as design. And the various designs asserted themselves as personal interpretations of the exhibition's contents and themes.
In a sense, this show was more museal then the one in Utrecht, ten years earlier. It consisted of a choice of hundreds of items by a great number of designers worldwide, from posters to books, leaflets and multimedia. And the work was framed or shown in display cases. But we made no distinction between 'original' prints or digital reproductions. Any graphic design is reproduction, so why be precious about the fact that a poster or a book is a vintage copy? For art historians that distinction makes sense – the age, material and print quality are indicators of the object's origin and provenance. But for us, this was not the main point for showing the designs. They were selected for their visual quality and the particular ways in which they stated their messages. We tried to show the design discourse behind the objects. Our statement was that design is a personal voice, not neutral information. The exhibition's designs were personal commentaries of their respective designers on the contents of the exhibition. You could say that we gave the contents of the exhibition, the works we selected to tell our story with, to the designers as instruments to play with, to make music with, to interpret. When I re-staged this exhibition two years later in the Museum of Communication in The Hague, together with Ed Annink, we thoroughly redesigned it, to fit the museum's space and audience. The same music, played differently by a smaller ensemble. Here, the posters were put on small poles and placed throughout the room, as a scaled down variant of the way they would visually intermingle in the street, in the busy visual surroundings of public space. Like musical instruments in an orchestral composition, they should be heard in concert, not as single and solipsistic voices.
Graphic design is the art of orchestration, of dialogue, and exhibiting graphic designs is like telling a story by quoting other stories, making music by sampling the music of others. Which is the nature of graphic design itself; it uses type, images, texts and visual metaphors often made by others, often conceived for contexts other than the message at hand. To a large extent, graphic design is the craft of arranging pre-existing content. So an exhibition of graphic design is the re-arrangement of arrangements, a new narrative told by a choir of sampled voices. And the design of such an exhibition cannot and should not conceal the fact that it is a voice within the ensemble. Thus, the messages that each item in the exhibition once carried may have lost their context and their individual purpose, but they have not been reduced to isolated works of discrete aesthetics, however beautiful they each may be. They have become participants anew, serving a new message that, again, transcends their physical and formal bounds.