Forms of Inquiry was a group exhibition that originally took place in October 2007, at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, London. The exhibition, curated by Zak Kyes, later also toured through the Netherlands, France, and Sweden. Our contribution to the English edition of the exhibition can be seen elsewhere on this site, at 2007 / Forms of Inquiry. Right here, we would like to focus on our contribution to the Swedish edition.
The Swedish version of Forms of Inquiry took place in November 2008, at IASPIS, the International Artists' Studio Program in Sweden, located in Stockholm. For this exhibition, a special edition of the FOI catalog was produced, containing new texts. One of these texts was an e-mail conversation between us and the director of IASPIS, Magnus Ericson, written especially for the occasion. The given theme was Design and Ideology. The interview appeared in the catalog alongside an interview with Nille Svensson (of the fabulous Sweden Graphics), who was asked the same questions. By showing these two interviews next to each other, the intention of the editors was to reveal the differences and similarities existing between two studios both firmly rooted in typical North-European welfare states.
Shown below the full version of the interview.
Questions by by Magnus Ericson, answers by Experimental Jetset.
Design and Ideology
We agree; it's an incredibly large subject. Thinking about how to tackle it, we came to the conclusion that there are two possible ways how to approach the issue: we could either investigate the notion of ideology-as-design, or the notion of design-as-ideology.
The first notion, ideology-as-design, would lead us to explore the idea of ideologies as designed entities in themselves. This is not a farfetched notion at all; in fact, most ideologies did not evolve organically, but were clearly constructed, in limited amounts of time, by limited amounts of people. In other words, these ideologies were designed.
The most obvious examples of designed ideologies are of course the many art movements that sprung up around the beginning of the 20th century. Many of these movements (Surrealism, Dada, Futurism, etc.) did not solely propagate a specific artistic program, but very often, within their carefully crafted manifestos, offered a very complete view on the world ('Weltanschauung'). In that sense, many of the 'isms' coming from the realms of literature, painting and design can be seen as full-fledged ideologies.
In the context of designed ideologies we can also mention the way in which Régis Debray, in his marvellous 'Socialism and Print' (more about that essay later), describes socialism: as a movement fabricated by printers, typographers, publicists and librarians. In other words, in Debray's essay, socialism is not only designed; it is graphically designed.
And, to mention just one more example, let us not forget how many religions and belief systems are designed as well. Take for instance the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD), in which a small group of religious leaders compiled and edited the Bible into the form we now know it, during a brief cut-and-paste session that can only be seen as an act of design.
In fact, it is precisely the fact that many ideologies and belief systems are fully based on texts (scriptures, manifestos) that shows us the construction of ideology-as-design. Just as texts only exists in their designed form, ideologies only exists as designed entities as well.
The second notion, design-as-ideology, leads us down an interesting path as well. After all, the notion of design is intrinsically linked to the ideology of 'makeability': the idea that we are living in a world that can be understood by people, interpreted by people, and thus can also be consciously shaped by people.
In English, the word 'makeability' might not have the same resonance as the Dutch translation 'maakbaarheid'; but we can assure you that, in the Netherlands, the word 'maakbaarheid' is loaded with ideology, inextricably associated with social-democrac and the welfare state.
The notion of makeability and the notion of design cannot be seen apart from each other; there is no possible way that they can be separated (nor should they). It is only logical that the awareness of the fact that the world around us can be shaped by people (makeability) will automatically lead to the actual act of shaping the world around us (design), and vice versa.
In that sense, every designed object, every cultural artefact, is a manifestation of the ideology of makeability, an ideology summed up best by Marx' famous axiom "If man is shaped by his surroundings, his surroundings must be made human". (Or, to speak with Devo, "whip it / into shape").
Following this line of thought, every designer is an ideologist, whether he/she likes it or not.
It is this line of thinking ('design-as-ideology') that we would like to follow to its logical conclusion in this interview.
As we already established in the above introduction, design is intrinsically linked with ideology, so in our view, every designer is ideological, whether he/she is aware of it or not. This has been our opinion from the very beginning of our career. However, precisely a year ago, we read an essay that reaffirmed our beliefs, in a very enthusing and energizing way. That essay was 'Socialism and Print' by Régis Debray, published in issue 46 (July/Augustus 2007) of New Left Review (this essay was later placed online, under the title 'Socialism: A Life-Cycle').
'Socialism and Print' is the best article about graphic design that we read in a very long time, taking into consideration that Debray nowhere actually mentions the word 'graphic design'. No wonder, as during the period that Debray describes (the birth and early years of socialism) the word 'graphic design' was still non-existent. However, when Debray describes the versatile subculture of printers, typographers, librarians and publishers that turned out to be the cradle of socialism, it is not hard to see that the not-named-yet heart of this "craft-based network" (as Debray himself describes it) is what later became widely known as 'graphic design'.
It is a rollercoaster-ride of a read, in which Debray repeatedly shows the many ways in which socialism grew from a particular ecosystem, an ecosystem consisting of printing and typography. Debray calls this system the 'graphosphere', and situates this sphere in the period running from 1448 to 1968; in fact, in our own interpretation of his text, the word 'graphosphere' could as well be a synonym for 'modernism', a modernism starting with the Gutenberg Revolution, and ending with the rise of postmodernism.
In Debray's 'graphosphere', ideology is a product of design, rather than design being a product of ideology, which is an exhilarating revelation. Debray's enthusiasm is contaminating: it is not hard to suddenly see socialism as the political manifestation of graphic design, and modernism as the social manifestation of graphic design. Design is not a tool to spread ideology; it is the other way around.
"An Olympic marathon: the glow of a letter (...) passing from runner to runner, the heart of the message laying precisely in its transmission". The glow of a letter, the transmission as the heart of the message... Debray is talking about something eerily close to the modern notion of graphic design, and he places it right at the center of the socialist project.
At first sight, Debray's essay seems quite straight-forward. Debray sets out to explain the demise of the socialist project, and concludes that this demise is caused by the collapse of the 'graphosphere' and the emergence of the 'videosphere': the age of the image. Seen in this light, Debray's message is all-too-familiar: the end of history, the end of print, the end of socialism, the end of modernism – the dreaded mantra of postmodernism. But sprinkled throughout the essay, there are endless glimmers of hope. Many times, Debray suggests that his simplified time line ('logosphere, graphosphere, videosphere') doesn't have to be as linear and definite as it seems. Debray leaves a lot of room for a more dialectical model of progress – a model in which the future can be shaped by the ghosts of the past. Debray mentions words such as memory ("when it is cold outside, and the night is long, memory means that we are not alone"), the archive ("the medium of history as practice"), and most significantly, includes the following paragraph:
"The greatest modernizers inaugurate their career with a backward leap, and a renaissance proceeds through a return to the past, a recycling, and hence a revolution. (...) Behind the 're' of reformation, republic or revolution, there is a hand flicking through the pages of a book, from the end back to the beginning. Whereas the finger that pushes a button, fast-forwarding a tape or disc, will never pose a danger to the establishment".
The ghost of the past as an active agent of change, as a specter of the future. The very concept of hauntology (as described by Derrida in 'Specters of Marx') invoked. The notion of dialectical progress: a future being shaped through a active dialogue with the past. Our hope, our drive, all that we believe in; it's all encapsulated in this simple paragraph.
As we already described a few paragraphs earlier, we see ideology as a product of design rather than the other way around. We don't see ideology as something that has to be 'haved', that has to be owned or studied in order to design. To us, ideology is something that can be generated during the actual act of designing.
What we find so fascinating about graphic design is precisely that, in its ideal form, it is a perfect example of 'praxis': a synthesis of theory and practice in which each informs the other, simultaneously. In the true practice of graphic design, the artificial borders between manual labor and intellectual labor are torn down. Thinking becomes a form of making, and making becomes a form of thinking.
In 'Socialism and Print', Debray hints at a similar model of praxis, when he refers to both the professional typographer and the professional printer as quintessentially a "'worker intellectual or intellectual worker', the very ideal of that human type who would become the pivot of socialism: 'the conscious proletarian'".
Right after we graduated, there was a short period in which we were truly obsessed with Guy Debord's 'Society of the Spectacle'. In retrospect, it might have been a somewhat childish obsession, but it did influence our methodology profoundly, to this very day.
We are sure that most of you are familiar with Debord's famous essay, but if we had to explain it very briefly: in 'Society of the Spectacle', Debord critiques what he calls the 'society spectacle' (Debray would call it 'the videosphere', others would call it the postmodernist condition): a world dominated by images, representations, projections. A society of alienation, in which images are completely separated from their material base.
This essay was quite an eye-opener for us, and we responded in a very literal way: our aim became to create objects, not images. Our goal was to design pieces of printed matter that would refer to their own materiality, their own physical dimension. We wanted to design posters that would never imprison the reader in some sort of false illusion, some sort of floating image; instead, we wanted to design posters that would constantly refer to their own material base.
We tried to achieve this by literally showing the poster as 'just' a piece of printed matter, a sheet of paper with some ink on it. By using methods such as overprint, perforation, folding, etc., we wanted to focus on the poster as nothing more (but certainly nothing less) than a physical construction. Through a specific use of white, empty space, we wanted to reveal the paper, the material base of the poster. We also tried to make the poster point to its own materiality by way of 'self-referentiality': through employing references to graphic design itself, we tried to let the poster be totally honest about its role as a piece of printed matter; we really wanted to show the construction of graphic design as a medium.
(It is interesting: self-referentiality is often seen as a postmodern, ironic device; we see it as anything but. In our view, self-referentiality is essentially a modernist gesture, making transparent the conceptual construction of the designed object. After all, what can be more modernist than the wish to make a construction transparent?)
While we are writing all this, we notice that we are using the past tense, while in fact the above paragraph perfectly encapsulates the way we still work. We may have drifted from Debord a bit, but we still believe in this principle of showing the designed object as primarily a human-made construction. This methodology is indeed very closely related to the idea of makeability ('maakbaarheid') that we discussed in the first paragraph of this interview.
"If man is shaped by his surroundings, his surroundings must be made human": we absolutely believe in this. For us, 'human surroundings' are not surroundings that try to represent or reflect humans, or surroundings that are overtly responsive to humans, but surroundings that show their own physical and conceptual construction, surroundings that show that they are human-made. Everything that is made by humans, can be changed by humans: that's why the human-made always carries with it the possibility of change. To show surroundings as human-made, is to constantly open the horizon of change.
There have been numerous commissions that we turned down because of ideological reasons, political reasons, personal reasons. emotional reasons, sometimes downright silly reasons. We have certainly made mistakes: in retrospect, we have done a couple of assignments that we shouldn't have done, while we also might have rejected a few assignments that we should have done.
So we are certainly no saints. But in general, there are a couple of types of assignments that we always turn down. First of all, in our 11 years of existence, we have always refused to work for advertising agencies. And secondly, as long-time vegetarians/vegans, we have always turned down any assignment that is connected with the meat industry. Just to give two examples.
However, we don't think it are things like these that make a designer political or not. The way in which a designer selects his/her assignments, the question whether a design carries a political or commercial message, the political orientation of the client, etc. etc. – for us, things like these do not automatically affect the true political potential of the designed object. In our opinion, the true political potential of a designed object is foremost located in its aesthetic dimension. It is the aesthetical that makes the design political.
(And just to be absolutely clear: when we say 'aesthetic', we are not just referring to the composition of forms, but also to the composition of ideas, of references, of concepts).
David Carson (whose work we admire, by the way) once said that "graphic design will save the world, right after rock & roll does", which was supposedly meant as an ironic remark. However, this remark is only ironic when you assume that rock & roll won't save the world. We actually think rock & roll can save the world, and so can graphic design. To put it more concretely, we absolutely believe in the transformative, utopian potential of aesthetics.
As we already explained, our world view is somewhat shaped by Debord's idea of the 'spectacle society', and also by a slightly Marxist notion of alienation. In short, this means that we actually think we are living in a state of constant alienation. This state of alienation is not just one of many problems; we see it as the underlying problem, of which all other problems are, to a greater or lesser extent, merely symptoms. The only way out of this alienation is the "liberation of the senses", as Marx called it. In our opinion, this "liberation of the senses" can certainly be found in the de-alienating power of aesthetics.
Let us be clear that we are absolutely convinced that we are living in a world of extreme misery. Billions of people are starving to death. Day after day, innocent men, women and children are being killed, tortured, raped. There is no justice, no meaning, no logic. We are living in a valley of utter darkness. The fact that we are stupidly lucky enough to be part of the small percentage of people who live in considerable wealth doesn't make us feel better at all; the continuous feeling of guilt is a torture in itself, and we do carry it around like a shadow. Add to that the unspeakable cruelty that we, as humans, inflict on animals. Millions of living creatures are abused, mutilated and slaughtered everyday. Pigs, who are supposedly smarter and more sensible than cats and dogs, are born into a living nightmare: they are robbed from any love and affection, kicked around, castrated without anaesthetic, locked into brutally small cages, electrocuted, and skinned while they are barely dead. What we, as humans, do to each other is one thing; but what we do to animals is so extremely sadistic, so merciless; it's impossible to capture in words. These are the things that really keep us awake, night after night.
So how can we justify, to ourselves, the fact that we are spending all of our time on the micro-aesthetics of graphic design? How can we explain to ourselves all the hours, days, months and years that we put into wordplay, abstract composition and obscure pop-cultural references?
Herbert Marcuse asks himself the very thing in the beginning of his marvellous essay 'The Aesthetic Dimension'. His first sentence is this: "In a situation where the miserable reality can be changed only through radical political praxis, the concern with aesthetics demands justification". In the rest of the essay, he explains in crystal clear words why the concern with aesthetics is fully justified; more than that, he shows that aesthetics is a form of radical political praxis in itself. In fact, Marcuse states that, in order for an aesthetic practice (Marcuse uses literature as an example) to be truly political, it should stay clear of explicit political messages:
"Literature is not revolutionary because it is written for the working class or for 'the revolution'. Literature can be called revolutionary in a meaningful sense only with reference to itself, as content having become form. The political potential of art lies only in its own aesthetic dimension (...) The more immediately political the work of art, the more it reduces the power of estrangement and the radical, transcendent goals of change. In this sense, there may be more subversive potential in the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud than in the didactic plays of Brecht".
Note that, when Marcuse says 'estrangement', he actually suggests 'de-estrangement'. In a world that is already alienated, the truly de-alienating will appear as something alienating. Or, better said: only alienating art has the power to de-alienate. In the words of Marcuse: "On the basis of aesthetic sublimation, a de-sublimation takes place in the perception of individuals – in their feelings, judgments, thoughts; an invalidation of dominant norms, needs and values". For us, Marcuse is talking here about Marx' "liberation of the senses". And we do think that what Marcuse describes here not only holds true for literature, but for any aesthetic practice, including graphic design.
This idea, of the transformative, utopian (and thus subversive) potential of aesthetics, is often ridiculed, obviously by critics, but also by designers themselves. Designers are generally very good at self-depreciation: "I'm just drawing pictures", "what do I know?", "it's not rocket science". In contrast, it is interesting to note that it are exactly those with concrete political power, the leaders and rulers, who are very much aware (and afraid) of the subversive power of aesthetics.
We recently read the autobiography of the musician Caetano Veloso ('Tropical Truth', a very inspiring book), and in it, Veloso describes (among a lot of other things) his detention: in 1969, both he and Gilberto Gil were arrested by the right-wing Junta of Brazil. Ironically, Tropicalia, the musical movement started by Gil and Veloso, was often attacked by the Brazilian Left for not making any explicit political statements; and yet it were Gil and Veloso who were captured, and later exiled from Brazil. In a startling passage, Veloso describes being interrogated by one of the military captains: "He [the captain] alluded to some of my statements to the press in which the term 'deconstruct' had appeared, and using it as the keyword, he denounced the insidious subversive power of our work. He said he understood clearly that what Gil and I were doing was much more dangerous than the work of artists who were engaged in explicit protests and political activity".
In other words, those who dabble in very concrete political power (the leaders, the rulers) are all-too-well aware of the subversive potential of aesthetics; it's surprising that not more designers are.
We see both art and design as aesthetic practices, so we certainly think that both have the same subversive potential, the same transformative power. We realize this is a leap of faith, as nowhere in 'The Aesthetic Dimension' Marcuse actually mentions graphic design; he focuses very specifically on literature. But then again, when we look at Marcuse's definition of aesthetics, we think he is describing something that is very close to graphic design as we know it. Marcuse describes aesthetics as "the result of the transformation of a given content (an actual or historical, personal or social fact) into a self-contained whole", and we certainly see graphic design as the act of transforming given content into self-contained entities.
Moreover, in the beginning of the 'The Aesthetic Dimension', there is a page containing acknowledgments in which Marcuse thanks his son Peter, "whose work in urban planning led us to common problems". If the premise is that literature and urban planning both deal with common aesthetic problems, it is fair to say that graphic design deals with aesthetic problems as well.
But then again, Marcuse might have been horrified by the idea of graphic design as an aesthetic practice. In the end, we are dealing with our own interpretation of his writings. In the same way the book shapes the reader, the reader also shapes the book.
Absolutely. Our work is a direct result of the welfare state, a clear manifestation of it, and we are very aware of that. This whole notion of social-democracy, of makeability (maakbaarheid) is encapsulated in the inner-cells of our work.
This we also recognize in Nille's work. He might disagree, but when we look at his work, we really see the language of Swedish social-democracy in the 60s and 70s, the context in which we assume Nille grew up. In the same way, our work is formed by the language of the Dutch social-democracy in which we grew up.
In that sense, we really are children of the welfare state. We shouldn't shy away from that incredibly interesting cultural heritage.
Many designers and critics coming from countries unfamiliar with this typical Scandinavian/Dutch model of the welfare state have a very one-dimensional take on the relationship between design and social-democracy. In their view, the design mentality that exists in our countries is the direct result of government funding and subsidy systems. Needless to say, this view is completely misguided.
In fact, the situation is the other way around: our collective design mentality is not a product of our subsidy system; our subsidy system is a product of our collective design mentality. Subsidy and funding are very conscious acts of design, committed by the welfare state to shape itself, a tremendous process in which the designer becomes part of the collective, and the collective becomes part of the designer. This process is definitely not something to be cynical about.
We think it is significant that both we and Nille are now experiencing the dismantling of the welfare state, which basically means the destruction of the things our childhood memories were filled with.
In our case, this dismantling only strengthens our desire to keep referring to the language of social-democracy, against the tide of neo-liberalism. We want our graphic design to serve as a sort of memory, a subjective archive, of social-democratic aesthetics.
Debray writes in 'Socialism and Print' about the archive as a "medium for history as practice", and argues that "the story of communism – as revolutionary utopia, not bureaucratic dictatorship – has been a tale of archivists and old papers". The story of social-democracy – as aesthetic language, and as childhood memory – will be a tale of old papers as well; we are designing those papers right now, in the form of posters, catalogs and t-shirt prints.
There was a time that we were a bit reluctant to call ourselves modernists: the designation 'modernist' always felt too much like a honorary title, something you had to deserve rather than something you can just call yourself. Also, 'modernism' always seemed so hard to define; there are so many interpretations of it.
However, if we take our own interpretation of modernism as a starting point, we certainly think we can be considered modernists of some sort. For us, modernism can be defined by two propositions: the assumption that we are shaped by our material environment, and the assumption that it is possible, even desirable, for us to shape this material environment. Since we can safely say that these are the principles we work and live by, we would definitely place ourselves in the modernist camp.
Our relationship with past modernist design is more complicated than some people might think. It is certainly not so that we believe that our work is automatically modernist because of a certain choice of typefaces, or a certain way of placing the type. Referring to the aesthetic language of past modernism is not a modernist gesture per se; but in our work, we think it is.
The reason why, in our work, we often refer to the aesthetic language of past modernist movements (and especially the language of so-called 'late modernism') is twofold. On the one hand, referring to historical modernism is for us a way to achieve the 'self-referentiality' we already discussed a few paragraphs earlier. In our opinion, by letting graphic design refer to its own modernist history, the construction of the medium becomes visible, which we see as a modernist gesture.
On the other hand, the references to late modernism in our work have a clear emotional undertone. For us, late modernism is the context in which we grew up, our childhood, our natural language, our mother tongue. In our work, we are actively investigating late modernism, because it is the material environment that shaped us. This makes our emotional motive also a modernist one.
A paradigm shift for sure. As we have seen, Debray places this schism in 1969, with the rise of what he calls 'the videosphere'. Others situate this rupture around 1989: the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the evaporation of the Iron Curtain.
It was inevitable that, after the age of modernism, we would experience a backlash, almost a regression to pre-modern times. Because that is how we ultimately see postmodernism: as a slight return to the period before modernism. (Of course, it isn't an actual return; in true dialectical fashion, it's more of a synthesis of modern means and pre-modern ideals).
If we had to sketch, in a couple of seconds, in a few simple sentences, a general time line, it would look roughly like this:
1. / Pre-modern times, in which we are governed by untouchable forces from above: the laws of the jungle, gods, superstition, Platonic ideas floating high in the sky.
2. / The age of modernism, in which we free ourselves from these forces from above, and see the world around us as something that could and should be interpreted and shaped by ourselves.
3. / The postmodernist condition, in which we believe again in the laws of the jungle (free market capitalism) and untouchable forces from above (the 'market', the 'public', the 'target audience', the 'shareholders', etc.). Not surprisingly, this age is also characterized by a new uprising of religiosity (Islam Fundamentalism, the Christian Right).
To get back to your question, we are definitely aware that we entered the age of postmodernism. What does this, in concrete terms, mean for graphic design as a practice, as a craft?
First of all, we see the rise of the advertising agency in the cultural sphere. In areas that used to be the natural habitats of independent designers and small design studios (areas such as art institutes, book publishing, theatre, etc.), we see that the role of the graphic designer is getting increasingly marginalised. In an attempt to shed their ideological ballast, more and more of these cultural commissioners turn to advertising agencies (dressed up as hip communication agencies). This institutional desire to shed ideological weight can not be seen separately from the widespread phenomenon of privatization, and the dismantling of the welfare state.
Secondly, we see more and more attempts to rename graphic design: 'visual communication', 'branding', 'innovation', 'design research', 'service design', 'concept development', 'image building', etc. etc. All these labels deny the material base of graphic design (printed matter) by cutting the ties that bind us to graphic production methods. These are deliberate attempts to let graphic design dissolve into a visual culture without memory, without ideological weight, without material ground, without terra firma.
Thirdly, we see that the role of printed matter is under attack, not only by the obvious online ('virtual') means of distribution, but also by methods coming from the sphere of printing itself: printing-on-demand, digital printing and other quick print media. With this, it looks as if we are at risk of losing the stubborn permanence of printed matter, its universal dimension and ideological weight, its 'slowness' so to speak (Debray speaks of the "delayed-action mechanism" of printed matter).
This is a very bleak picture indeed. What can we do? (And when we say 'we', we specifically mean us three; we aren't so vain that we automatically expect others to share our concerns).
As Debray writes, the 'graphosphere' (modernism) collapsed "when print lost its lead", which we think is a very interesting metaphor. Obviously, lead refers to typesetting, but it can also refer to a weight, a counterbalance, a sort of anchor needed to keep culture grounded to its material base. Print might have lost its lead in a literal way, but we think it is still possible to let graphic design function as a ballast, as a weight to keep culture grounded.
For Debray, the 'graphosphere' might be over, but for us, the struggle has just begun. We do believe we can keep the 'graphosphere' alive, if not as a dominant force, then at least as an underground movement, as an undercurrent. True, graphic design is being marginalised, but let's not forget that margins are in fact graphic spaces; the margins are ours.