20 years of graphic design

representation inhabits reality

GGG/DDD 20th anniversary,
Tokyo, 2007


20 years ago, I was an upcoming art critic with a special interest in design, and in the midst of a vigorous discourse: since the 1970s, a new breed of artists and designers was coming up, who developed a serious disregard for old disciplinary borders. These artists were mixing media to the point of driving critics crazy. I remember a heated debate at a conference in Amsterdam, around 1986, about this growing multi-disciplinarity and ‘multi-mediality’ of the arts at the time. ‘Why,’ one theatre critic said, ‘I see productions that I can judge in terms of the stage, but actually my newspaper should also send its art, music and dance critics in order to cover all aspects this production embraces, from video-art and sculpture to performance, dance and electronic music.’

That was exactly what I found so fascinating about that period. The new portable video equipment, for instance, not only made it possible to make a film without funding, but also to dance while filming. Or to incorporate moving images in sculpture. Designers had their own epiphany with the advent of the Apple Macintosh, which had been launched in 1984. It made mixing images and type not only easier but much more adventurous. The fact that both portable video and the Mac resulted in crude or pixilated images was not so much a disadvantage as a tell-tale sign of modernity and experiment. The stylistic constraints of the new media became a symbol of innovation.

In 1985, I was involved in an ambitious event in Amsterdam that wanted to highlight this new condition of the arts; namely that they were all becoming integrated in an amalgam of technology and mediated culture. We called it ’Talking Back to the Media’ and selected works from a wild variety of artistic disciplines – photography, film, video art, installations, performances, theatre, radio, music, and some strange mixtures of all of these – to show that the new condition of our culture was growing into proof of Marshal McLuhan’s concept ‘the medium is the message’. ‘Medium’, of course, not in the old artistic sense, but in the new technological one: that the (mass)media were not just industrial carriers of content, but to a large degree channels of cultural signification.

We thought it was about time that the content providers became aware of that, and talked back to the technology. I was curator for sound- and radio art in this program, and selected an early work by Peter Weibel (now director of the Art and Media Centre in Karlsruhe, Germany), entitled ‘Bach Komposition’. It was a simple audio tape in which Weibel played a recording of a stream of water at different speeds, slow, normal and fast, forward and backward, explaining with wry German gründlichkeit that whatever you do with this sound, it remains the sound of water. The sound of running water is the only sound that you can do this with. What I liked about it was that this straightforward demonstration made you aware of both the characteristics of the recorded material (water) and those of the medium it was recorded in (audio tape). In all its deadpan simplicity, it was a perfect exposé of the rubrics of deconstruction – an archetypal post-modern media-artwork.

Post-modernism, if you’ll forgive my rude summary, was the popular outcome of a philosophical school from France, post-structuralism, in which theorists like Barthes, Derrida and – later – Deleuze effectively dismantled the purposeful logic of modernism, stating that all meaning was dependent on and rooted in language. This not only meant that ‘truth’ became a rather variable concept, but also that ‘deconstructing’ language was an efficient way of understanding the workings of signification. As an art-historian and young writer, I was of course fascinated by these concepts, and I saw them functioning profusely in the avant-gardes of the 1980s.

Not much later, deconstruction became a buzz-word also in graphic design, to the point that you could abbreviate it as ‘decon’. Just like Peter Weibel had demonstrated with the sound of water, designers showed that reversing or mirroring letters and words, still resulted in ‘text’. It said something about the way we read, and something about the printing process. There were of course those who held that showing pixilated type and images merely illustrated the crudeness of the new digital tools, but for others it meant demonstrating or deconstructing the artificiality of the mediation of ­any content. For the young generation of designers, showing this artifice in the structure of messages became as important as giving form to the messages themselves – if not more important.

In a 1994 essay, Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller summarized the roots of ‘decon’. Following Jacques Derrida, they stated: “Deconstruction asks how representation inhabits reality. How does the external image of things get inside their internal essence? How does the surface get under the skin?” For a whole generation of young and experimental graphic designers, often educated at Cranbrook and CalArts academies, the answer was given by reversing the question: render the internal structure as the surface. There emerged a new ordering aesthetics that was not, as it traditionally was, concerned with the hierarchical division of clear-cut meanings, but one that challenged the idea of ordering – and the structure of meaning – itself. The premier task of what I termed this ‘aesthetics of transience’ was to show the abstract possibility of meanings and relations – how structure both generates and questions significance. In this view it is not the designer's task to fix answers once and for all. Every reader or viewer should do that for themselves. The design shows how that is done – provisionally.

Triggered by the new theoretical insights, two major new viewpoints, inspired to a large degree by the writings of Roland Barthes, underpinned this attitude in design. The first is that the ‘reader’ is in fact a co-author of the message, since he interprets not only the message itself, but also links it associatively with other messages – thus to a large degree delineating what the message actually means in a broader cultural context. The second, related, viewpoint is that graphic design can demonstrate this condition by laying bare the constructional skeleton of a message, and augment its interpretative potential by connecting all kinds of associative content to it. By confronting the reader with his own associative activity, the designer suggests that the reader should interpret – is interpreting – as well.

Loesch Human Rights
Uwe Loesch, Poster Human Rights, 1989

media about media
The ‘classic’ way of doing this, of referencing associated contexts, is exemplified by a poster by Uwe Loesch, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1989. The message, ‘Help take the edge off the daily reduction of human rights’, is rendered in simple red typography on a black background. You will miss an important point of this design, when you miss the cultural reference Loesch makes with the black wedge-shape that covers most of the poster and on which the typography is set: it is, of course, the blade of a guillotine, the execution machine that violated the rights and lives of thousands, at the same hands that had drafted the humanitarian declaration. I say ‘classic’, because this kind of cultural reference is age-old, and relies heavily on the condition that the viewer/reader shares a historic awareness with the designer. Without this, the critical meaning of Loesch’s poster is ‘unreadable’, and the poster simply illustrates the text by way of cutting an edge from the words ‘human rights’. A generational gap appeared to me, when I showed this poster to students of graphic design who were barely 10 years younger than I was at the time, and who completely missed the reference to the French Revolution and the problematic historic link between the guillotine and the Declaration of Human Rights. It was not because they had been sleeping during their history classes in highschool – it had simply not been a topic there. Not surprisingly, they found the poster rather boring, because to them it blandly stated a well know fact of contemporary life: that human rights are not universally respected.

While I am sometimes inclined to repeat the old Latin lament ‘sic transit gloria mundi’ (thus passes the glory of the world), this anecdote also suggests that ‘generation decon’ – and by extension post-modernism itself – is acutely a-historic. History, it was said in the early 1990s, is dead. What remains is a database of fragments, to be deconstructed and reconstructed at will. A whole culture is based on the assumption that one can ‘sample’ these fragments freely and that their meaning will be dependent on the way they are brought together, and by whom, more than on their inherent or historical meaning. The main difference between the ‘classic’ referentiality described above and post-modern or ‘deconstructive’ sampling is that the latter is to a large extent self-referential. A ‘decon’ design not only communicates a (client’s) message but also questions and probes how this message is communicated. The medium reflects on its own mediality. Thus the media have become a field of reference that is to a large degree self-sufficient: media about media.

Alan Hori
Alan Hori, Conference poster, 1989

the typographer's tool kit
This is true also for the medium of graphic design. Since the end of the 1980s designers have been re-interpreting the enormous library of signs with an inherent indicatory function, that is the typographer's tool kit. Composed of a plethora of typographical accentuations and punctuations, of pointers, lines, boxes, and frames, it was used in abundance to stress the constructional aspects of design – of the language of design. But do al of these pointers point to something? Do the lines connect or divide one thing from another? Do the boxes, brackets and frames isolate one message from another? Are the fat caps more important than the small italics? Questions that indicate the obsolescence of the old typographical law book! Virtually everything that has ever been invented to organize content and make meaning transparent, was used in the early 1990s for the opposite in free-plan compositions that in no way hesitated to suggest that any pointer could have pointed the other way and that any box could have contained something else as well. Typographical accentuation, this archetypal helper-language, became a language-game. Just like the mirrored letters we also often see in ‘decon’ design, this language game makes the reader aware of how the language of graphic design and the (print) media work. It does not necessarily enhance the communication of other content.

Still, the visualizations – typographical or otherwise – of the structures of communication have helped in fostering visual communication. To the point that the role of the visual image in our time seems comparable to the role it fulfilled in the church in the Middle Ages. At that time, over-complex texts were summarized for the illiterate in conveniently arranged, standardized public images. The portrayal of a saint or of an event from the bible was meant not so much as an illustration but rather as a sort of pictogram, behind which was hidden an extensive moral and historical program. In our culture, this is the way visual images work in public spaces, on television, in advertisements and in the press. But do they still refer to a message outside the visual language they constitute? It has been said many times that images from the Gulf wars, with their on-board views from cruise missiles, looked like they were clips from video-games; that the crude feeds from digital cameras employed by ‘embedded’ journalists in Iraq felt like scenes from Massive Multi-Player Online Role Playing games. In other words, that the ‘reality’ these news images seemed to refer to was that of a virtual world, rather than the real one. Here, indeed, representation seemed to inhabit reality.

Kathrine McCoy, visual essay on the environment, 1991

This may be an inherent condition of today’s media, and one that is of course greatly enhanced by the advent of a new medium in the 1990s that changed not only design, but the world at large: the internet. Still, even the internet not exclusively references itself – although some would disagree with me here. How to use the visual language of graphic media to address serious problems outside the medium, is demonstrated by one of the arch-mothers of ‘decon’, former Cranbrook chair Katherine McCoy. Her 'visual essay' on the complicated connections between the environment, the scarceness of raw materials, the energy required to process them and the needs of human beings is a brilliant contemporary example of the way visual images can replace text: This entire complex story has been written without using a single word, but it is nevertheless comprehensible to everyone, rendered in the form of a mathematical formula with visual images instead of ciphers. The images used are iconic, instantly recognizable media-clips, and the form is definitely structural, but here the allusion transcends media- and design self-referentiality.

When used in such a way, visual language becomes a tool for critical reflection and commentary in the media, not just about it. This aspect of contemporary culture has become very important: 'coding' visual images in such a way that they can be 'read' coherently, so that they constitute – if need be even without words – an intelligible story. More and more, not just designers but also the public at large, helped by digital cameras, Photoshop and internet applications, become ‘authors’ of images which are sampled from the exponentially growing on-line ‘thesaurus’ of visual images and edited into new ones. A typical example is the combination of three media icons – the famous portrait of Che Guevarra, the globally recognizable features of Osama Bin Laden and one of the world’s most familiar brands, Nike. This design by Dutch activist Jasper van der Made, aptly titled ‘collateral image’, is a tricky little visual essay. Of course, Bin Laden is seen by some as a new Che Guevara, as a liberating revolutionary, but why does ‘Bin Che’ have a Nike swoosh on his cap, instead of Che’s star or Osama’s crescent moon? Is his revolution being sponsored by American capitalism? Bin Laden was financed by the American military before becoming their worst nightmare. Has the ‘revolution’ become a brand like any other? Rebellion is promoted by various brands as a viable life-style... There are by now countless variations of ‘visual words’ from the media which have been sampled, combined and altered to become new ‘visual phrases’ – left open for new ‘readers’ to interpret.

Jasper van der Made, ‘collateral image’, 2004

In a sense, over the last 20 years, I have become a bit torn: on the one hand, I have always been enthusiastic about the growing sensibility both designers and audiences show for the referentiality of visual messages. The fact that an image stands for more than it superficially depicts is by now widely accepted and a wide-spread understanding – if only tacit – has developed that visual languages are languages indeed. On the other hand, it seems that this language more and more only speaks about itself. In other words, a highly sophisticated visual grammar is used more and more widely, but for increasingly limited purposes.

20 Years ago, a new breed of small, portable media equipment and the rise of the personal computer facilitated a merging of various media formats. The result was a personalization of media usage. Individuals could now employ electronic media on a scale that before was only accessible to institutions, i.e. the media industry. Since the advent of the internet in the 1990s, these productions could increasingly be disseminated on a hitherto unthinkable scale. These developments have helped create a visual language that is now globally used and understood. What we express and communicate in this global visual language both reflects and shapes our cultures. Just as 20 years ago, designers remain in the forefront of those who can deepen this language. For a language is only as rich as the culture that communicates through it and the authors that use it, be they amateurs or professionals.


In: Exhibitions – graphic messages from Ginza Graphic Gallery & DDD Gallery, 1986 – 2006,
Dai Nippon, Tokyo 2007, p 257/264

See also:
Max Bruinsma: The Aesthetics of Transience, 1997

max bruinsma