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Room: The Written Keystones

7. There is such a thing as society: shadow over graphic design’s role in society

Théo Miller, The Witten Keystones (spread 7), offset, 210 mm x 297 mm, 2020.

Representing ideas and values in the public space through politics, religion, science and art, seems to be a low ebb at times in which only the economy appears to be relevant. With a declining valuation of visual languages, so too does the territory of the typographic mason seems to get smaller and smaller

With the advance of the Macintosh computer, designers gained control over many aspects of the production process traditionally shared with other workers from a variety of backgrounds. Postmodern designers sought to develop their own ‘style’ and explore the burgeoning range of options presented by DTP. Graphic design was given access a seemingly bottomless box of tricks; visual and formal virtuosity took centre stage. Indeed, by the mid-1990s, the professional debate seemed to have crystallised in a clash of different styles. On the one hand, there was the new wave of intuitive ‘visual pyrotechnics’, driven by an urge to experiment and underpinned by ‘post-structuralist’ and ‘deconstructivist’ theory. The visual style propagated in the pages of ‘Ray Gun’ magazine (creative director: David Carson) and the work created by the students of the Cranbrook Academy of Art (headed by Katherine & Michael McCoy) were imitated on a wide scale. At the other end of the spectrum, there was a new movement towards clarity, as represented by the Benetton advertisements (photographed by Oliviero Toscani) and the work of Tibor Kalman, in which sophisticated impact of a design lay in the care of its construction.

In 1994, graphic designer Andrew Howard published an article in British graphic design magazine Eye entitled ‘There is such a thing as society’. In it, Howard writes that this in-fighting seems to completely ignore graphic design’s social role and purpose. In Howard’s eyes, the views expressed in the ‘First Things First’ manifesto appeared as radical as they did 30 years ago. He explains that “(…) there are no areas of our personal lives that are not subject to the social pressures of the marketplace”. Designers need to consciously establish a perspective on where and how they fit into this scheme. But this also gives rise to uncertainty: there is a lack of imagination when it comes to what constitutes meaningful work, and this leads to “(…) a gradual erosion of enthusiasm and creativity”.

Howard’s 1999 article led to an updated version of the ‘First Things First’ manifesto, signed this time by a group of 33 members of the global graphic design community and simultaneously published in a range of international design magazines. But at the same time, it became clear that cultural and commercial positions were by no means diametrically opposed. A new hybrid form had developed within design, in which commercial and elite positions could exist side by side. This was the graphic equivalent of the ‘Third Way’ politics pursued by ‘New Labour’ in the UK and the Netherlands’ Partij van de Arbeid. Many of the signatories to the manifesto did contribute to advertising, marketing and brand development – albeit often behind the scenes. And at the ‘client end’, cultural institutions and public agencies had long since made the transition towards more commercial forms of communication.

In the Netherlands too it all amounted to an obscure game, with players constantly shifting position. And designers were obviously playing for stakes rather than substance. As a student, I still had the 1993 exhibition ‘Graphic Design in the Netherlands – A Century’ (Museum De Beyerd, Breda) as a point of reference, but my footing was becoming increasingly unsure. Nevertheless, I wanted to be able to survey the field, and in the Palace of Typographic Masonry, this has resulted in ‘The Gallery of Modernity & Nostalgia’, in which I’ve placed the key players in Dutch graphic design between 1993 and 2018 along an axis that leads from a moulding to an illustrative role.

Was it even possible to still venture off the beaten path, crack the code or formulate a true alternative? The only domain that still seemed to be relevant – from the former perspectives of politics, religion, the economy, science and art; all in a common cultural context – was the economy. Everything had been reduced to quantifiable and manageable units, to checklists that could be ticked off – so it hardly came as a surprise that there was no room for subjective imagination. In 2002, the Dutch PTT, which had since been privatised, closed its Department for Aesthetic.