no.301 vol.52 January/February 1996


The Civilized Anarchy of Studio Dumbar

To say that Gert Dumbar is a very established designer, is a truism and an insult at the same time. In his long career he worked for most of Holland's major clients, such as the Dutch National Railways, the Royal Dutch PTT, Aegon - one of the world's top twenty insurance companies - The Rijksmuseum and the Dutch Police.

Despite his long list of distiguished clients, Dumbar's designs have always been controversial in one way or another. In his early days with Tel Design, his proposal to paint trains in a bright cadmium yellow outraged the client, but was successfully applied nonetheless. And Studio Dumbar's recent redesign of the identity of the police has met with severe criticism, but proves to be very effective indeed. The reception of Studio Dumbar's work is full of paradoxes: thirty years of criticism didn't prevent Dumbar from becoming one the most copied designers in the Netherlands. Studio Dumbar's techniques of three-dimensional typography, staged photography and his generous use of decorative elements like bent lines and dots (coined 'the measles' by critics), have been copied to such an extent that his name has become a verb: 'to dumbar' means: 'to be shamelessly decorative'. Meanwhile at the Studio, Dumbar has "strictly forbidden" all of these techniques and moved on to new stylistic frontiers.

Gert Dumbar seems to like it this way: established and recognized, he's at the same time still outside the mainstream, cultivating the slightly anarchic imago of Studio Dumbar. "I travel a lot", says Dumbar, "and I visit a lot of other design bureaus. And it always strikes me to see how much less hierarchical Studio Dumbar is in comparison. In many design bureaus you see a few stars surrounded by an army of slaves who work out their sketches. Nothing of the kind has ever happened at Studio Dumbar's! We cherish the originality of the individual designers; they produce concepts and sketches and then Michel (de Boer, co-creative director at Dumbar's) and I give our fatherly comments. We bring in our experience."

This working method of respect for the individuality and independence of the studio's designers, twenty in all, accounts for Studio Dumbar's multi-style output. Dumbar: "Our style is that we don't have one." Not a style in the sense of a well defined iconography, but there certainly are recurring aspects in the work of the studio. First and foremost there is Dumbar's merryness, his drive to add a playful touch to even the most serious commission.

A case in point is the redesign of the corporate identity for Holland's telecommunications company, the KPN (Royal Dutch PTT). The rather rigidly typographical logo, designed in three precisely defined variants for the three divisions of the company, provides a severe order that stimulates a high degree of recognizability, while at the same time leaving surprizingly ample room for playful variations on the established theme. Studio Dumbar created a vast range of decorative possibilities by 'deconstructing' the basic elements of the logo into simple geometric forms. The strict and simple rules that govern this - at times anarchic - play of forms and primary colors result in an abstract imagery that reminds you of the company, even when the letterhead 'PTT-telecom' is left out.

This merging of strict functionality and freedom of artistic invention is at the heart of what has internationally come to be known as 'Dutch Design'. Studio Dumbar has often been criticized of overdoing the artistic, decorative side, but Gert Dumbar is not impressed: "We are flexible and informal and it works as well as any other way... We like to laugh, and people tend to get suspicious when you have a good time in this calvinistic country - that's supposed to be superficial, not serious, irreverent... ow well, let them!"

Even when compared to their regular output, the posters that Studio Dumbar design for the local cultural center of Zeebelt, are irreverent indeed. Dumbar, co-founder of Zeebelt, 'sponsors' the theater by providing their posters and other publicity material. "It is the playground of the Studio", he says, "where we can experiment with images and typography in a way that is sincerely informal. We don't do that all the time - actually most of the time we're very serious!"

Nevertheless, 'too informal' was also a much heard critique on the corporate identity for the newly formed combination of national and municipal police forces in the Netherlands, three years ago. The old 'logos' were of the stern and heraldic kind; law book and sword for the municipal police, exploding grenade for the national police, both mounted in a radiant silver star. Studio Dumbar's Joost Roozenkrans conceived the combination of two elements of the old signs, the book and the grenade, transformed to a friendly beacon or flame.

For Dumbar the essence of the whole thing was "to let a new civic imagery prevail over the old violent military one. I'm a pacifist, I don't like violence and swords and grenades, so that seemed to be a sensible thing to do." And it was very much in line with governmental thinking on the role of the police in a modern society. So Dumbar's proposals were met with great approval from the client, but the public and the forces weren't too keen on 'softening' the image of the police as they perceived it.

Now that the rumor has faded (the Amsterdam police at first refused to adopt the new identity!), it seems to be very well accepted. With a big smile Dumbar presents the latest statistics: "Trough our new striping, police vehicles have become much more visible. People see them everywhere. So even when there's less surveillance, the public still think there's more! The visibility of the police has increased and people feel safer - now that's efficiency!"

Dumbar has proposed to design similar stripings for other public emergency services, like ambulance and fire brigade. And why not use this signage on a european scale, he says: "We're willing to trade our copyright for one symbolic ECU per european country. Consider it as a gift to mankind." It would not be the first time that the world benefited from a Studio Dumbar design: after being published in Graphis a decade ago, Studio Dumbar's set of hospital pictograms became widely copied. Dumbar: "We've seen these pictograms in hospitals all over the world... no, of course we don't go for the money here. They're well used and we're happy for that - it's our UNESCO-gesture."

max bruinsma