Max Bruinsma,
editor, critic, teacher

interview by Steven Heller
(extended version)

Max Bruinsma, 44, is former editor of Eye magazine, the international review of graphic design. He studied architecture-, design-, and art history in Groningen and Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Before taking this post, succeeding founding editor Rick Poynor at Eye, Bruinsma was an established voice in the graphic design community of The Netherlands, where he worked as editor of the Dutch design magazine Items, published several books on (graphic) design, and taught at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Since departing Eye last year over a conflict with the publisher, he has been working in Amsterdam as an editorial consultant and concept developer of Web projects. As 'professor of visual essay' he is currently editing an upcomming series of publications at the postgraduate design department of Amsterdam's Sandberg Institute.
This interview addresses his views as teacher, editor, and critic and the positioning of graphic design in the nexus of art and commerce.

Steve Heller:
You are not a graphic designer by training, what drew you to this field?

Max Bruinsma:
The classic reason: I once wanted to become one. But after I was thrown out of the first year of art academy (I hated having to draw dried flowers – and it was my first time away from home…), I started to study art history. A negative choice, actually: anything to do with art… But the study soon began to fascinate me, especially the links that I found to exist between ‘autonomous’ and ‘applied’ arts. That still is a central interest of mine. When you look at culture at large in, for instance, the Renaissance, or the 1920s’ avant-gardes, you can't miss noticing that the intellectual discourse about art spanned the whole range of artistic disciplines. I am deeply interested in that intellectual, cultural, dimension of the arts. Graphic design is, in my view, a core discipline in this field; designers deal with cultural content, with the visual metaphors that we, the participants in that culture, use to describe and define our communicative environment with. So, in the end, my attention shifted from the practical to the intellectual aspect of design. Nevertheless I am grateful for having experienced, however summarily, some core aspects of design practice at the academy and in a subsequent series of jobs at local printers - design theory and criticism are meaningless, unless they have a rapport with practice.

Traditionally, art historians have marginalized graphic design as that distant cousin or the other thing that Theo Van Doesburg did when he wasn't painting. How do you reconcile your art historical with your design interests?

As an art historian, I am interested in the meaning of images. How does their language work? What do certain pictorial elements mean in the composition and context of a painting? What did they mean at the time the painting was made? That kind of questions. With the right training, you can ‘read’ visual art the way you can read a book. The same goes for the visual codes of architecture: you learn to analyse the brief, interpret the plans and elevations and ‘read’ the construction and, ultimately, the ‘architectural meaning’ of a building. In order to analyse and criticize graphic design, you combine aspects of these approaches. Further, I like the ‘story telling’ aspect of art critical or -historical writing, and I have a high esteem for good argumentation. The first time I read Ernst Gombrich’s ‘Art and Illusion’, I was more than half-way in the book, revelling in Gombrich’s almost perfect writing style and his seamless argumentation, before I realized that I fundamentally disagreed with some of the author's core arguments. He had seduced me - I loved that!

As the second editor of EYE magazine you shifted the focus somewhat from the cutting edge Post Modern type and layout designers towards interactive media and the nexus of art and design. In retrospect your magazine seemed to be much more of an integration of different disciplines. What were your reasons for moving in this direction?

All the arts generally function within the same cultural discourse, and today, with everything being connected and linked and all, this is even more intensely so. I wanted to reflect that in the magazine. A practical reason to shift the editorial bias was that the heydays of typographical expressionism, of what you've termed ‘faces on the edge’ are over. With Rick Poynor, Eye was a critical channel through which these designers were assessed and analysed seriously for the first time. Now they're all over the place, or nearly forgotten. I am fascinated by what is going on in the ‘new’, screen based, media – that's the stuff new paradigms are made of! Not specifically the hardware or software, but what is being done with it, and why. In this field we are witnessing the development of really new ways of interfacing content with ‘readers’ (the fact that you have to put ‘readers’ in quotes these days, is telling). I wanted Eye to be in the centre of that, not by reviewing the latest version of Photoshop, but by trying to find the rare designers or designs that suggest a mature, or even plausible, form for the challenges that these new contexts pose. It's dirty work: you have to – virtually - wade up to your eyeballs through the most desperate visual refuse before you find the gems. But they're there, somewhere, and I want to find them, and both critically analyse what's going on in these designs, and use them to try and tell the bigger, cultural, picture. Because I know one thing for sure: what is going to be made in these new media, the next decade, is going to change the way we communicate forever.

Do you mean with print becoming increasingly decorative (although not superfluous), it will be superseded by the information complexity (and the need to order same) on the web?

I don't agree with that. Print will probably become increasingly precious, but that doesn't necessarily mean ‘decorative’. In a material sense, print can't be beaten. I for one wouldn't want to swap the sheer sensorial joy of contemplating a freshly printed magazine for any website. And you can order quite a complicated maze of information pretty well on a set of printed pages! Yes, a well made CD-ROM performs better than a printed encyclopaedia, and – if you know where to look - you'll find my telephone number quicker with an on-line computer than with a telephone book. So, hard core informational design will increasingly turn to newer media than print. But if you want to really see things carefully, like reproductions of artworks, or poster designs, or actually anything not meant for the screen, you'll still quite a while need the good old 4 colour 350+ dpi offset printed page! Not to mention the poetry of this medium – a book can be so beautiful, as an object!

With that in mind, what do you believe is the most important lesson that students should be exposed to today?

Order and edit: when working with the computer – and everybody does – you basically do two things, you order information, and then you edit it. This may sound somewhat abstract, but I am convinced that graphic design (any design) these days is about infinitely more than just making things readable, or noticeable in an enticing or pretty way. Design is about structure, order; it is a constructional activity. The fundament of design is structuring information in a way that turns data into meaningful messages. As Gui Bonsiepe says: designers are first and foremost designers of interfaces. This is the editorial core of the profession: in order to be able to structure data in meaningful ways, one has to understand the content and the audience and bring the two together – interface them. That is the essential lesson for graphic designers.

In earlier times students were required to know technique and technics, now they are exposed to theory and need a critical sensibility. How has criticism insinuated itself into the design discourse?

The Dutch equivalent of insinuating,‘insinueren’, means something rather sneaky… It reminds me of the general idea that criticism is somehow derogatory, or even parasitic. I’d rather say it is central to design. Design is a critical operation by itself: 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. So, just as any critic, designers should sharpen their analytical skills, and knowing theory and the cultural discourse are indispensable for that. But I want to stress something here: theory is not about making, it is about understanding, which is something quite different. A frequent mistake in designers’ reception of theory, especially deconstructivism in recent years, is that they often take it in as a how-to manual. That is nonsense: you can't build a design from the teachings of Foucault or Barthes or Derrida. That's like using the bible to cook a pie – you go to a cook to learn how to make a pie, not to God. God is for the bigger picture

Practically and theoretically, what excites you about graphic design today?

In my view design has superseded Art as the main source of visual metaphor in our culture. Graphic and product design, television, advertising – yes, advertising too -, these are the media through which our culture reflects itself. And even in the ‘autonomous’ arts, I increasingly see what I call a ‘designer’s mentality’: more than personal expression, or an idiosyncratic commentary on the world, or the condition humaine, art purposely addresses specific conditions and contexts, in much the same way as a design addresses a brief. The media and contents of art and design are merging, in a sense to the detriment of the former. And although I don't think this is an altogether positive development, I do think it is essential, and exiting.
‘Context’ is probably the most frequent word in my writing after ‘the’, and so you can imagine that I'm exited about a cultural environment where ‘context’ is the alpha and omega. I always ask for ‘the brief’ when I'm looking at a design, or an artwork: what is the context it is made for, how does it reflect that context, does it succeed in linking itself meaningfully to that context? I get exited when the answers I find to those questions amount to a deeper understanding of both the product or artwork, and the cultural milieu it operates in. And then I want to tell you that – that's why I write.

I feel that the words context and content have become something of a style in the late 90s. Everyone searches for context and produces content. Do these strike you as buzz words?

Yes, they do. They are threatened to become stale by over-use. On the other hand, the ‘style’ you're referring to is also a sign that there is a broad understanding in today's culture – not only in design – that everything is linked to everything else in one way or another, and that, in order to assess anything, you need to know how it is connected to other things. That's the context – a maze of links. The current use of the word ‘content’ indicates to me that the substance of messages is being perceived as contingent. It's bulk. It needs to be processed – contextualised – in order to become meaningful. So I think that the ‘buzzword’ quality of these words is more than just a verbal fad – they're as central to our perceiving of the world as ‘truth’ was in the 1920s.

As artists increasingly appropriate more of the graphic design language, what do you feel are the benefits of cross-pollination, if any?

This ‘appropriation’ proves my point that design provides the means and language of the visual discourse these days. But of course it feeds back in all kinds of interesting and rewarding ways; by being, as it were, drawn into the artistic discourse, designers start to consider themselves more as ‘cultural agents’ instead of mere subservient ‘problem solvers’. They have to do both: solve problems (meaning: answering briefs), and provide visual messages that are meaningful in a broader context. A closer contact with artists stimulates the latter. So, ideally this is a real cross-pollination: it is producing a new breed of visual communicators.

Do you feel that students are better off learning about art and commerce as two parts of a whole, or should "commercial" be separate from "art?"

This is a difficult question for me. I'm convinced they are parts of a whole, but on quite different levels. One of the good things, I feel, about the ‘merging’ of art and design is that art becomes more socially conscious than it has been for a long time. The ‘commercial’ is of course part of that social realm. But it is a very powerful and problematic part; it is inclusive by exclusion, by which I mean that commercialism tries to embrace everything, but discards the parts it can't reach. The cultural value of a design is very hard to establish in economical terms, so, often, it is discarded as being trivial to the problem that has to be solved. This is worrying me. At the same time, there lies a responsibility for us, art- and design historians and critics: to show that cultural value and commercial function can coincide in rather nourishing ways. Art and ‘the commercial’ will always be in an uneasy relationship. Which doesn't mean they can't communicate or co-operate… So, in the end, I think artists and designers should know both – and be pointed to the problematic aspects of the, er, intercourse between the two.

Whenever we talk about design I sense that you have a love of the object, but that there are overriding intellectual concerns. Is this a fair assumption? And if so, what are those concerns and how do they reflect in your critical writing?

Yes, you can say that. I love things of beauty – objects of desire! But I can't imagine how anyone outside my direct social environment would be interested in my personal tastes. As a critic, I need to go a step further. I honestly consider critics as ‘civil servants’, in so far as they provide information and insight, based on their acquired knowledge and experience, that is valuable for society at large. Which also means that they have a responsibility. I know this is an old-fashioned and politically incorrect thing to say in these non-judgemental times – but if I weren't convinced that the fact that I studied and contemplated art and design for over a quarter of a century entitles me to be both authoritarian, up to a point, and responsible to an audience, I wouldn't write a word. The intellectual concern in this is what it is in any field of inquiry: to understand. In that sense I'm like any craftsman: I want to know how it works… and then I want to make something that shows that... I like good craftsmanship (or should I say: ‘craftspersonship’?); for the love for the material product that shows in the care that goes into the making of it.

I guess an inevitable question for anyone who observes and reports on design, as you do, is What's Next? I know it's foolish to predict the future. But in observing and working with students and young professionals, what and who do you think is making a meaningful inroad?

I always get slightly uncomfortable when asked this inevitable question; I’d love to answer: “I don't know, I'm as curious as you are, and I’ll let you know the minute I see some…” Problem is, no-one accepts this perfectly true and honest answer! But then you have to revert to the stale mantras that everybody mumbles: New Media, New Media, New Media… They're entirely accurate and utterly boring. I'm not a pundit – I'm a writer. So the real answer would have to be: “read all about it in the latest issue of whatever magazine I will publish my findings in next!” So, please, don't ask me to predict the future…

I said I wasn't going to ask you to predict the future. I lied! From your vantage point, in what direction is graphic design going to turn?

Well, since you insist: I think graphic designers will be more like editors than like form-givers. Since they will increasingly be part of ‘meta-disciplinary’ teams that will have to address a multitude of aspects of multi-faceted communication products, I feel they should – and will – become aware of their core activities. And those are not primarily formal activities. Any DTPer these days can make something that looks amazing. The software does that for you. But you need real knowledge and experience – and talent – in order to be able to prepare a meaningful context, and a meaningful structure, for those amazing looks. As an editor, I am still thrilled to witness what a good designer can do for the editorial clarity of a magazine, or a catalogue, or a website! Of course I'm not talking about arranging the words here, but about how all the necessary elements on a succession of pages (the words, the images, the accentuations, the pacing, the navigation etc., etc.) are arranged into a composition that merges the disparate elements into a whole that is more than the parts.
A good and simple test for this is: take a bunch of pictures and printouts of texts and arrange them carefully on a table. Then have a look at the book that is made out of those by a good designer. See? Now imagine that it's not printouts and pictures, but 10 Gigabyte of raw data on a couple of Jazz discs. I'm telling you: organizing content in ways that make it visually present is already an increasingly hard thing to do. Making it visually meaningful is even harder. Mending the parts together, that's what will become increasingly complex. I think that is becoming a central concern for designers.

And how can we educate towards this eventuality?

It's not an eventuality – it's a pressing need. Teach them to be visual editors; make them acquainted with the subtleties of visual narrative; have them analyse the visual culture around them; empower them to be critical; teach them to learn from and co-operate with other communicators – film- and tv makers, editors, musicians, theatre people, architects, writers, artists; And most important: teach them to use their tools for a purpose that is worth their skills, not just for dolling up the surface; ultimately graphic design is not about prettifying data, it's about turning them into meaningful messages.

max bruinsma