Crossing Frontiers of Understanding

Lecture at the ICOGRADA / FRONTEIRAS congress,
Sao Paulo, April 29th and 30th, 2004

images from the congress and Sao Paulo >

Graphic design, or communication design as it is commonly called today, has a history grounded in two different sectors of society: business and culture. That is why it is traditionally called an ‘applied art’: communication design applies aesthetic criteria and contexts to specific cultural and economical functions.
In recent years, this dynamic interplay of ‘artistic’ criteria and functional demands has become more and more narrowed down to the realm of ‘style’. ‘Style’ in the sense of decoration, superficial aesthetics, the ‘icing on the cake’, the packaging, the ‘look and feel’, the ‘image’. It seems that design is increasingly focusing on the surface of things, on providing an aesthetic skin for information products.

I want to address some reasons for that apparently limited scope for communication design, and suggest a few ways to make the best of it ;-)

You can say, of course, that design should concern itself with the essence of information, not just its formal appearance. Typography, for instance, is more about balance, structural clarity, formal consistency, minute detailing, than about ‘coolness’, or ‘trendiness’. I would agree to that, of course, but I would also say: don’t make the mistake of separating for the sake of the argument, what is in fact intimately connected.

Form and function are connected in ways that become more and more intricate today. The old Modernist slogan "Form Follows Function", is still applicable, but these days, the opposite can be true to: "Function Follows Form". If a form is highly symbolic, for instance, it _can_ be used as a function. Traffic signs or brand logos are good examples of that.

I would like to go one step further, and declare that in a highly sophisticated information culture, with a heavy bias towards visual communication, in short, in the society in which we live,
form IS function.

The ‘mouse hand’ is a case in point: One could explain how this version of a specific state of a cursor on the screen is based on a formal association on the name of the pointing device, the ‘mouse’, and therefore looks like the kind of gloves Mickey Mouse is wearing to hide the fact that mouses normally don’t have hands.

That is the aesthetic, or if you will ‘art-historian’ look at this icon. But it is also a form with a function: it indicates a specific active state of the cursor. It means "click here".

Over the last ten years, the form and function of this little icon have become completely identical: it is a tool, an interface…


In today’s communication media, form and function have to a large extent become identified with each other.

Angola, early 20th century, "Tipos Indígenas"

In a sense, this has always been the case: every embellishment or aesthetic accentuation has always been (also) functional.

In so-called primitive cultures, form and function of body decoration, for instance, coincide: they identify a person as belonging to a community, an age group, a social hierarchy. By their decorative enhancements, people become ‘typified’, as this old postcard from colonial Angola shows...

The difference is a small typographic sign that has become the ultimate icon of branded culture: the ‘registered trademark’ sign, ®.

Victor & Rolf at "Wo-man" exhibition, Centraal Museum Utrecht, 2001. photo: Max Bruinsma
Victor & Rolf, 2001. photo: Max Bruinsma

In the culture of brands, form is everything. The formal expression of a brand _is_ its content.

Every detail of this dress by Dutch fashion heroes Victor & Rolf, once had an 'analogue' function: they were pockets, tool-holders, belts, suspenders, what have you, but in this dress, that does not matter in an old fashioned functional manner anymore: it matters as visual reference to things we know (to functions we are familiar with) — the main reason for using such familiar functional forms in this fashion statement is that the familiarity of such details makes it all the more clear to us that their old function has been filtered out of the process and replaced by another function: that of iconic overload. This dress is more a statement about the information society than about practical clothing. The connection to mediated visual culture is reinforced by using this specific shade of blue, also known in media circles as ‘color key blue’: the color used for projecting another layer of video into... The dress effectively serves as projection surface…

Such fashion statements are an indication of the ‘informatization’ of the surface. We are not looking at clothes anymore and, in a sense, we are not looking at the people who wear them either…

Vanessa Beecroft, performance, Venice 2000

Clothes, bodies, postures, are used to make statements, to transmit information in a way that never before was so intimately connected to the carriers of that information (or, one could say, that harks back to the ways ‘primitive’ cultures identify information and its medium…).

In Vanessa Beecroft’s performances, identically looking girls just stand in a gallery or museum room, naked or wearing only tiny bikinis. What are we, the public, looking at?

We are looking at a reversal of a cultural phenomenon that post-modern psychoanalysis calls: "The Gaze"; In Beecroft’s performances, the girls she directs on stage become almost virtual, and our staring gazes become the real content of the performance…

Lisboa, photo: Max Bruinsma, 2004
Lisbon, photo Max Bruinsma, 2004

It sometimes takes such confrontations as Beecroft’s, between the worlds that visual culture and advertising try to keep separated, to become aware of the separation in the first place. There is a lot of information out there, that is actually trying very hard to keep _other information_ out of the picture. This is the first frontier, I want to address today: the barrier, usually known as 'context', between what is _inside_ a message and what is _outside_ it.

Peter Moser, poster, Bern 2001

Graphic designers are in a very good position to show the links between this ‘inside’ and ‘outside’…

This is a poster by Peter Moser, from Luzern, Switzerland, for the exhibition Happy, das Versprechen der Werbung, (The Promise of Advertising) in the Museum for Communication in Bern, 2001. I think everybody who lives in a modern city will see the reference to the advertising style of clothing brand Hennes & Mauritz. H&M uses top models to advertise cheep clothing. Their approach is a provocation in itself: H&M connects what people can afford (simple clothing), to what they cannot afford (glamour). Moser turns this ‘emancipatory’ act of seduction into a criticism of the way fashion advertising works in the first place: in stead of the ‘promise’ that is mentioned in the title of the exhibition, he shows the reality that it is connected to it: ordinary people in ordinary clothes…

Rob Schröder, 1998

Another way of showing the tensions between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of visual messages is to bluntly confront them on the bases of visual analogies. The method here is: what may look the same, does not have to _mean_ the same.

This staged photograph by Dutch designer Rob Schröder, from Wild Plakken, confronts two ways of protecting oneself from potentially damaging outside influences. The image suggests that veiling oneself from the gaze of others, is like protecting oneself from toxic gasses. The image says: "your looking at me is poisonous." Of course, the way it is saying it, and the context in which it stands, also imply a criticism of this attitude. I like that: a single image that uses visual rhetorics to make a statement, _and_ connect that statement to its cultural contexts…

Fashion is an interesting environment for making statements on social and cultural contexts. Because clothes are so embedded in our cultures, not just as garments, but, more importantly, as statements, as expressions of who we are, or want to be, fashion addresses our symbolic representation as much as it provides functional answers to direct physical needs. Fashion caters to our psychic, our symbolic needs as well...

Oliviero Toscani/Benetton, poster, 1991

On of the first to recognize the potential of this state of affairs in relation to advertising was Oliviero Toscani, art director for Benetton.

His series of sometimes shocking posters for United Colors of Benetton is so well known that I only show one here. What I like about these posters, is that they connect grand themes like life and death, joy and distress to the contexts of fashion. Of course, Benetton and Toscani have often been criticized for selling jumpers through cashing in on the world’s misery, but I think that is too simplistic; I have, for instance, rarely seen a more effective AIDS awareness campaign as that of Benetton. For design, there is an interesting lesson to pull from the collaboration between Luciano Benetton and Oliviero Toscani: that a client and an art director _can_ make a difference in a broader cultural context, if they take the potential of the media they use serious, and respect the hughe power these media represent. Toscani’s United Colors of Benetton posters show that advertising actually is a mass medium with a tremendous social and cultural impact…


If fashion is the culture of identity, then media, in todays mediated societies, represent the culture of communication.

Thanksgiving at Kirk's, Amsterdam 2002. photo: Max Bruinsma
Thanksgiving dinner, photo: Max Bruinsma, 2002

‘Conviviality’ is an old word for the kind of cultural communication that is at the heart of why we communicate in the first place: to feel good amongst each other. To exchange information on the things we care about and hope the others will too. The media with which we traditionally did that, conversation, eating and drinking together (we still have the word "symposium", which means ‘drinking together’, to remind us of that), have gradually been expanded and enhanced.

photo: Max Bruinsma, 2002
photo: Max Bruinsma, 2002

You might say that today, we have wired the old tools for conviviality. We can make them sound at great distances, and we can reinvent the ways we use them…

Peter van der Jagt, doorbell 'Bottoms up', Droog Design 1994

Technology allows us to turn things over and look at them in new ways. It also enables us to use them for their symbolic, rather then their functional characteristics. Technology has enabled us to separate the technical contents of a functional object and its formal appearance.

We sometimes forget that that was not always the case. In the analogue world, the shape of a tool represents its function — it mirrors it…

photo: Max Bruinsma, 2003
photo: Max Bruinsma, 2003

This is where Form Follows Function. But in a mediated environment, things work slightly different: that is the second frontier, I want to address today: that between media and what they represent.

Exhibition 'Bright Minds...', Lisbon, 2003. photo: Max Bruinsma
Exhibition 'Bright Minds...', Lisbon, 2003. photo: Max Bruinsma

This is a vanishing frontier, and as designers and critics of visual culture, we should be aware of this fact: that media are increasingly becoming _part_ of what they represent. They are not just mirrors, that reflect whatever is fed into them — they are in the true sense ‘interpreting’ what they mediate. This interpretational character of media has, at least subconsciously, been acknowledged as soon as an advertisement stated: "as seen on TV", suggesting that the product represented on TV had, by that token, acquired a higher level of reality and reliability. …

Control, illustration: Adbusters, 2001

Through our media, we think we are exerting control over our environment. This can only be understood, if we think ‘control’ in terms of information, and not directly in terms of material reality: We feel slightly at a loss when confronted with undiluted reality, because we don’t know how to interpret it. In the process of mediation, however, reality acquires contexts that enable us to interpret the information embedded in it…

Chaos, illustration: Adbusters, 2001

Without an interface that facilitates interpretation, information is chaos. So, in my view, the first task of communication design is: to provide an interface.

Design theorist Guy Bonsiepe has this to say about interfaces:

"The interface goes beyond the duality of material/immaterial, it covers what they have in common. The design of the interface determines the scope for action by the user of products. The interface creates the tool."

That is a very interesting remark: "the interface creates the tool". Without the interface, the tool does not exist as information. We have no way of knowing what to do with a computer, if there is not a set of tools designed to make us understand and manipulate this instrument. Again, in traditional tools, the form of the tool would tell us what we could do with it. It is quite apparent what you can do with a hammer or a scissor. Our new electronic tools lack that self evidence.

photo: Max Bruinsma, 2003
photo: Max Bruinsma, 2003

In terms of communication, it is strange to see people who stand next to each other chatting through the interface of their computers. What about old fashioned conviviality? On the other hand, what is wrong with ‘simulated conviviality’, if it provides an environment for genuine exchange of information?

The guys in the picture are media designers who know each other well, and who are having a conversation with each other, with a live audience in the same room, and with an audience scattered around the globe. One of them could be answering a question that was just typed in from Moscow

Joes Koppers: 'Optional Time', interactive installation. photo: Max Bruinsma, 2004
Joes Koppers: 'Optional Time', interactive installation. photo: Max Bruinsma, 2004

Media facilitate conviviality — this is, I think, a notion that should become more embedded in the profession of design: designers create interfaces for people to inform themselves, communicate with others, play with each other. Interactivity becomes a fundamental part of design, the moment we start to see it less in terms of unilateral presentation of information, but in terms of how the recipients of that information can act on it.

This is what Bonsiepe means when he says that "The design of the interface determines the scope for action by the user of products".
To me, this image symbolizes an important aspect of that:

With her gestures, the girl in the picture is manipulating the image behind her. Why doesn’t she look at the image then? Because the real interface is on the other side: a display that shows how her actions affect the image behind her. She constantly switches her attention between the control medium and the medium which shows the results. As a performer in an interactive piece, she becomes part of it, her 'dance' is not the result of the design — it the content of the design!

screenshot: Max Bruinsma, 2000

Designers who forget the fact that what they do facilitates others in doing things they want to do, often leads to a dramatic loss of functionality. You can of course play with your users frustrations, as does this delicate little piece by a graphic design student from Detroit, but the bottom line for communication designers in a mediated culture is to not only know what their product means from the inside (that is, on the basis of what the client wants, or what the brief is), but to orchestrate the relationship of the message with the world that surrounds it.

'no mail', illustration: Adbusters, 1999

Without this constant flow of information, of communication, of identification through visual and verbal information, we can hardly exist anymore.

The media through which we become who we are have a message: if you are not privy to this new communication space, you simply cannot communicate in the modern world.

This condition is summarized with exquisite irony in the anonymous image that I took from an issue of Adbusters magazine in the late 1990s. The image is a ‘modification’ of a standard pop-up message from the popular email program Eudora, which in its original configuration just informs you that there is no new mail. By simply adding two lines of written text, the whole thing acquires aspects of an ‘expulsion from Paradise’ — you have succumbed to the lure of the snake, eaten from the apple, and are consequently thrown out of the garden of Eden. To me, it’s a classic image, both symbolizing the rise of a new medium and the epochal impact it has had on our social intercourse.

screenshot: Max Bruinsma, 2003

From my own experience, I can tell that our new communication media facilitate intense contact over long distances — my girlfriend and I live 750 kilometers apart, and we value the ways media can bridge the lack of physical communication when we are not together. I rely on design to make that experience possible. How do my media enable me to communicate with my love? How do they facilitate conviviality?

photo: Max Bruinsma, 2002
photo: Max Bruinsma, 2002

Of course, it is up to me and my partners in communication to make our being together through the media available to us a rich and fulfilling one. But the design of the medium dictates the frontiers of our creativity.

Paul Elliman, lecturing at De Waag. photo: Max Bruinsma, 2002
photo: Max Bruinsma, 2002

In a mediated culture, we are alone, when our media fail us.

Communication design helps us to cross the frontier of ‘immediacy’: by giving us the tools to mediate.


We live in an iconic world. Icons summarize a culture of images. Every message around us, whether printed, televised, or published on the internet, every message has a meaning, not just in itself, but as part of all the other information that surrounds us.

anonymous photo

Communication design basically shows us how to navigate this information labyrinth. Interface design — and I agree with Bonsiepe that principally _all_ design is interface design — delimits the gamut of action available to us.

This image is to show that interface design (and a signpost is the ultimate analogue interface), is as much about translation as it is about giving directions. The message here is ambiguous (which way is "this way"?) but in this case the ambiguity can be traced back to a faulty translation of the Japanese text, which in fact reads: "either way". Now it makes sense: you can go any way, you’ll get there anyhow.

As it is, it’s a nice involuntary example of a clash between verbal and visual language (and of languages in general), resulting in a 'broken' interface.

anonymous photo

When verbal languages fail us, we can always rely on images, as long as they are used in the right way. This ‘right way’ relies heavily on what we know of the iconic content of the images.

In this case, I think, that content seems clear, even if we can’t read the verbal message: "fish swimming in this water will end up dead." But the visual rhetorics displayed here, connected to our own knowledge of contexts, might also tell us not to dump waste water into this river or lake, because if we do, we will kill the fish. Or it might just mean that we should not drink the water from the pipe, because otherwise we will meet the same fate as the fish. Finally, it could be a statement about pollution in general: if we dump our refuse in a clean environment, we will die, just like the fish do.

What I like about this multi-interpretability is that however you translate this visual message, the basic content remains the same: "foul water kills fish". How do I know that it’s dirty water? Because the fish dies! It is amazing how a simple visual tautology can result in such rich content! (I could go on for hours about this image… but let’s continue…)

T-shirt, photo: Max Bruinsma, 2001

Icons are signs and signs are signals. Icons, wisely used, can provide an interface across languages, as signals that directly tap into our understanding of the world. This works on a simple symbolic level, as in the image above, that needs no explanation, but — and now I’m coming back to what designers are good at — icons have a great potential for mixing.

Chaz Mavyane Davies: 'Race icons', 2001

Mixing metaphors is a cardinal sin in literature, but in visual languages, it can be a rich source for complicating simple icons in ways that make them small visual essays:

This, I think is a splendid example of such a visual essay that is based on mixing visual metaphors.
It is an illustration for Rhodes Review, for their special edition on the race summit in South Africa, 2001, by Zimbabwean designer Chaz Mavyane Davies. By just making the usual icon for ‘a person’ black and white, Davies would have made a statement already: since we associate this icon with the separation between men and women in toilets, we would have concluded that black and white are separated - a rather neutral observation. But by adding two elements from Christian iconography, Davies adds an acute interpretation, or ‘point of view’: "blacks are the devil and whites are saints". Now the iconic language acquires another level: that of pigeonholing. Apart from mixing visual metaphors, Davies mixes different cliches and in the process even succeeds in making us stop at the fact that this is at all possible: can such intensely despicable cliches be so strong as to be immediately recognizable, even after a rather complex rhetorical operation? Yes, they can.

Juli Gudehus: Genesis, 1997

The power of visual rhetorics is, in short an underestimated aspect of visual communication. There is a lot of experience with telling complex stories in iconic images in comic strips and movies, but in graphic design it is rarely used for content other then the simplest of commercial messages.

Trying to remediate a story as deeply rooted in our western cultures as the Bible in visual icons seems almost blasphemous. Still, this 1997 attempt by Berlin based designer Juli Gudehus to tell the first book of the bible in modern hieroglyphs, is an interesting attempt at testing our knowledge — not of the bible, but of icons! The endeavor itself is a sign of the times: icons are fast becoming a universal visual language…

Müller & Hess: "the impossibility of neutrality", visual essay, Eye # 32, 1990

This means that visual communicators can use them, not only to translate, but also to interpret the messages they communicate

By compiling an alphabet of pictures taken from what is considered iconic images of Swissness (chalets, tidy mountains, traditional outfits), and combining these with similarly iconic visual clips from the world-encompassing networks of news, sports, war and sex, the Swiss designers duo Müller and Hess state that local and global visual references start to mix: anything written in this ‘glocal’ visual dialect will reference the world at large.

Müller & Hess, visual essay, Eye # 32, 1999

Müller and Hess add to this a comment on their own national culture when they write a sentence in this 'visual Letraset' that translates as "The impossibility of neutrality", whereby this two-spread piece they made as visual essay for Eye magazine becomes a poignant criticism of their country’s ‘neutral’ international status.

Piotr Szyhalski: 'interactive poster', 1996

In Piotr Szyhalski’s small piece from a series of ‘interactive posters’ as he calls them, interactivity and time based process are used to visually underline the text. Again, a well known method of visual rhetorics, but hardly used outside advertisement and comics. In this kind of dynamic visual rhetorics, there lies a huge potential for serious information and communication, and for engaging the recipient of that communication in the experience and awareness of it…

I am showing these examples to remind of the fact that visual communicators use visual rhetorics, visual metaphor and visual language all the time. As cultural agents, which means as professionals of visualization that help shape our culture, designers share a responsibility for the quality of that culture. That is the last frontier that I want to address: the border between meaningless and meaningful images.


What it boils down to, in my view, when we discuss frontiers in terms of graphic design and communication design, is that the designer has a responsibility in facilitating _other_ people to communicate.

The main frontier to cross in communication design, is that of the culture of sharing, the culture of exchange.

Tejo Remy: Chest of drawers, Droog Design, 1991

To use this image as an analogy: design is about how to bind things that others make together.

Structure is an important way to start: structure information in ways that make it accessible to others: facilitating access is like giving out a passport: if designers help their users to cross frontiers of cultural knowledge and experience, and facilitate them to exchange and share information and experiences with others, then design has answered its first and most important brief: to build interfaces.

The economical, social and political conditions of people are rarely within direct reach of design. But the cultural conditions are, and they are an important factor in preparing for and fostering change in the other areas. Indirectly, design can work as an 'agent', much as a catalyst does in chemistry. I like what Webster's says under 'catalyst':

1 : a substance (as an enzyme) that enables a chemical reaction to proceed at a usually faster rate or under different conditions (as at a lower temperature) than otherwise possible

2 : an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action

Especially the second definition reads as what would be my definition of a designer who chooses to work as a 'cultural agent'. Besides serving outright propaganda for a cause (which might be quite necessary in some cases), visual communication can help in crossing borders by trying to bridge the gaps between social, cultural, economical and political sections of (different) societies. Crossing borders for people, in terms of visual communication, principally means enabling them to better understand the cultural and social contexts enveloping their reality, to connect their reality to other realities, to broaden their view and deepen their insight. By assisting open and honest information exchange, visual communication ultimately supports social and economic development.

Max Bruinsma, Sao Paulo, April 2004

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