08 November 2006
Max Bruinsma
Max Bruinsma

Interview By Steven Heller

This interview addresses his views as teacher, editor, and critic, and the positioning of graphic design in the nexus of art and commerce.

Heller: What attracted you to the graphic design field?

Bruinsma: The classic reason: I once wanted to become a designer. But after I was thrown out of the first year of art academy (I hated having to draw dried owers), I started to study art history and became fascinated with the links I found to exist between "autonomous" and "applied" arts. When you look at culture at large in, for instance, the Renaissance, or among the 1920's 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. So my attention shifted from the practical to the intellectual aspect of design.

Heller: Traditionally, art historians have marginalized graphic design. How do you reconcile your art history background with your design interests?

Bruinsma: 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? 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 analyze the brief, interpret the plans and elevations and "read" the construction and, ultimately, the "architectural meaning" of a building. In order to analyze and criticize graphic design, you combine aspects of these approaches. Further, I like the "storytelling" aspect of critical or historical art writing, and I have a high esteem for good argumentation.

Heller: As the second editor of Eye, you shifted the focus somewhat from covering the cutting-edge type and layout designers toward a focus on interactive media and discussions about the nexus of art and design. The magazine was much more interdisciplinary in focus. Why did you move in this direction?

Bruinsma: All the arts generally function within the same cultural discourse, and today this is even more intensely so. A practical reason to shift the editorial bias was that the heyday of typographical expressionism is over. With Poynor, Eye was a critical channel through which these designers were assessed and analyzed seriously for the first time. Now they're all over the place, or nearly forgotten. I'am fascinated with "new", screen-based, media with 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". I wanted Eye to be in the center 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 wade virtually 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 analyze what's going on in these designs and use them to try and tell the bigger, cultural picture. Because one thing is sure: What is going to be made in these new media, the next decade, is going to change the way we communicate forever.

Heller: 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?

Bruinsma: 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 Web site. And you can order quite a complicated maze of information pretty well on a set of printed pages! But hardcore information design will increasingly turn to newer media than print: A well-made CD-ROM performs better than a printed encyclopedia, and you'll find my telephone number quicker with an on-line computer than with a telephone book. 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 need the good old four-color 350+ dpi offset printed page! Not to mention the poetry of this medium a book can be so beautiful, as an object!

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

Bruinsma: 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 in nitely 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.

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

Bruinsma: 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 does, designers should sharpen their critical skills, and knowing theory and the cultural discourse are indispensable for that. But 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.

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

Bruinsma: In my view, design has superseded art as the main source of visual metaphor in our culture. Graphic and product design, television, advertising 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 exciting. "Context" is probably the most frequent word in my writing after "the", and so you can imagine that I'm excited 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 re ect that context, does it succeed in linking itself meaningfully to that context? I get excited 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.

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

Bruinsma: 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, ultimately this is (ideally) a real cross-pollination: it is producing a new breed of visual communicators.

Heller: 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?

Bruinsma: 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 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.

About this article

The above interview of Max Bruinsma by Steven Heller originally appeared in the March/April, 2000 issue of Print Magazine's European Design Annual and appears here with permission. Copyright 2000 Print Magazine.

Max Bruinsma
Max Bruinsma, 43, is former editor of Eye magazine, the international review of graphic design. Before taking this post, succeeding founding editor Rick Poynor, 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 con ict with the publisher, he has been working in Amsterdam as an editorial consultant/concept developer of Web projects, including an educational portal for a cluster of vocational schools. He also teaches a course on visual essay at the postgraduate design department of Amsterdam s Sandberg Institute.

Print Magazine
Print is "America's Graphic Design Magazine."