18 March 2009
This Feature is the first of two parts of an article published in TYPO magazine by Slovakia-based author, Zdeno Kolesár. Through analysing the development of communication design in Slovakia over the past two decades, the author shows its current influence on public life and premises that its role will become increasingly predominant, even as it becomes less apparent to the public eye.
New Slovak Graphic Design
Zdeno Kolesár

This Feature is the first of two parts of an article published in TYPO magazine by Slovakia-based author, Zdeno Kolesár. Through analysing the development of communication design in Slovakia over the past two decades, the author shows its current influence on public life and premises that its role will become increasingly predominant, even as it becomes less apparent to the public eye.

Recently the press has informed us about the resolution passed by representatives of the Dutch city of Drachten, in which they agreed to dispose of traffic lights and traffic signs. This idea is the brainchild of Hans Modermann, a Dutch traffic specialist. The aim of this resolution was to reduce the number of accidents and make pedestrians' lives easier. Modermann's idea of a "shared space" [1] is also supported by the European Union.

Is this the beginning of the gradual removal of graphic symbols representing prohibitions and commands, and the removal of information systems and other graphic design from public life - all in the name of democracy and the elimination of state control? Will advertisements become the only implementation of the graphic design? [2] My article expresses the opposite conviction - I believe graphic design will influence public life even more strongly, but strictly defined symbols will be replaced by the more civil ones, perhaps even by almost invisible forms of visual communication. Perhaps the "human age of design" is approaching, the age Tom Mitchell dreamed up more than twenty years ago. [3] I will try to support my hypothesis by analysing the development of graphic design in Slovakia over the past two decades. Much here is utopian; but utopias that have not come to pass have nonetheless shifted trends at least a little bit forward.

Slovakia's starting point in graphic design is quite sound - a proper technical background in typography has been built since the sixteenth century, and advanced lithographic workshops came about in the nineteenth century. At the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which included Slovakia until WW I) was one of the important centers of the European art nouveau. A newly established state - Czechoslovakia - was among the prominent centers of interwar modernism. In the years 1928 through 1938 there was a School of Arts and Crafts in Bratislava, whose instructors included internationally known adherents of the local avant-garde, such as Zdeněk Rossmann and l'udovít Fulla. The Bauhaus figures László Moholy-Nagy and Hannes Mayer lectured here as well.

World War II meant a dividing line. Afterwards, graphic design in Slovakia developed under different conditions. After the takeover of a reinstated Czechoslovakia by the Communist Party, only areas useful to political propaganda were preferred and heavily supported. This was the political poster. Other areas of graphic design could only timidly contend with the political poster. In the mid-fifties this came to include the cultural poster; then a broader range of graphic design disciplines developed in the sixties. In 1968, after the repression of all efforts to humanise the communist regime, design "fighting" for the communist party took over once again. This slowly degraded into empty clichés and filled up the streets; it was, however, invisible to the general public. The revolutionary year 1989 revived, for a short time, the significance of the political poster, which (using technically improvised solutions) was aiding the fall of communist supremacy. Streets were filled with posters, and in the minds of the middle-aged population, this evoked memories of the year 1968. This time, fortunately, there was neither an occupation nor the restoration of communist regime. Democracy was established and the transformation of economics, industry and public life followed.

Above: Peter Bil'ak, Illegibility, book project, 1995 (top); Transparency, book project, 1997 (bottom)

In the nineties, a change in economic conditions brought about a graphic design boom in the post-communist countries. A dramatic rise in demand for commercial graphics (which became a major sphere of employment for graphic designers), combined with arrival of new information technologies, opened a new era of graphic design development in Slovakia as well. Its traditional applications (poster, traffic sign, packaging and others) were modified and became a part of more widely formulated programs. The quantitative increase did not, however, automatically bring with it higher quality: lack of invention often hid behind the anonymity of advertising agency production.

The antithesis of this commercially-aimed graphic design, known for being slick and non-confrontational, was the experimental formations. Their most important centers were the educational institutions. Before 1989, there were approximately 20 students of graphic design completing Slovak secondary schools yearly, but only five to six students graduating from universities. After this transition year, the existing schools underwent a fundamental reorganisation; several new schools were established and the number of graduates started to grow apace.

It seems the post-revolutionary generation, which played a major role in the shift from the old regime, wanted to compensate for all that previous generations had considered taboo. "Socialist realism" under the supervision of the communist party took a stand for univocal and clear legibility of information. If we set apart the stupidity of the empty slogans and symbols declaring the building of "our motherland," we can speak (with reservations) of a modernist concept of production.

On the other hand, the formal experiments in Slovak graphic design at the beginning of the nineties corresponded with the culminating international stream of post-modernism. The energy accumulated in the revolution was transformed into authentic emotional saturation, and at the same time into the intellectual distance that marked the works from the studio of l'ubomír Longauer at the Academy of fine Arts and Design (VŠVU) in Bratislava. In the post-revolutionary years Mr. Longauer played the role of a "Slovak Tomaszewski". l'ubomír Longauer, much like the key figure of the Polish poster school (Tomaszewski), became a catalyst of energy springing from the youth. Some of these, like the superb Emil Drličiak, partly adopted the virtues of the Polish poster, which were developed in the Slovak environment by the above-mentioned l'ubomír Longauer and his contemporaries: Pavel Choma, Jozef Dóka and Vladislav Rostoka.

At the beginning of the nineties, most of Longauer's students began to depart from the expressive cartoon images and hand lettering. These students typically showed an intellectual humor verging on sarcasm, due to which their activities were often restricted to school presentations for a limited audience, and to small exhibitions. This ironic detachment is very well expressed by the name Longauer's students took: The New Awkwardness. The dadaist atmosphere of this studio was confirmed when Professor Longauer was awarded an honorary doctorate of New Awkwardness.

Above: Ján Šicko, Vlna, magazine layout, 1999

Soon, hermeticism of form began to compete with intellectual hermeticism. The hermeticism of form was supported by the entry of digital technologies, which in Slovakia happened approximately five years later than in the western world. In his 1995 study called Illegibility, Peter Bil'ak points out: "Right after having gotten rid of the primary technical problems, we have found ourselves bordering on computer mannerism." [4] The study came about during his stay in the United States, where it was also published as a book. We can say that, thanks to Bil'ak's work and his theoretical reflections, the Slovak graphic design scene in the mid-nineties kept abreast with the world. Peter Bil'ak says in the above-mentioned study that after a "primitive" period when computer graphics were limited by technical possibilities, a period of perfectionism followed, in which designers completely faded behind the sophisticated forms of their works. After this, an endeavor came to humanise design work, in order to revive the "...complexity, randomness or imperfection of manual work. Computers were used in this way to create a deliberate disorder and accidentality." [5] Bil'ak's book Illegibility is a superb work of hermeticism in graphic design in both its contents and layout. The young designer has defined the limits of hermeticism, as his formal experiments often made the function of visual communication problematic.

[To be continued]

[2] In 1999, British critic Rick Poynor republished a manifesto entitled first Things first, originally written in 1964. Therein he states that from the times when his older colleague Ken Garland warned of the excessive commercialism of graphic design, the process has advanced so that instead of socially beneficial activities, the overwhelming majority of graphic designers are oriented toward dubious commercial commissions, such as the promotion of dog biscuits, sun-tan lotions or cigarettes. He calls attention to what is probably the last opportunity to thoroughly consider the substance of graphic design and utilise its potential for meaningful tasks. This manifesto, with Poynor's commentary, was published in 1999 in the following magazines: Adbusters, AIGA Journal, Blueprint, Emigre, Eye and Items.
[3] Tom Mitchell defines the "human age" of design as the stage following the "age of hardware" and the "age of software." [Mitchell T.: Product as Illusion. In: Thackara J.(ed.): Design After Modernism. Thames and Hudson, London, New York 1988, p. 208].
[4] Bil'ak P.: Illegibility, Reese Brothers Inc., Pittsburgh 1995.
[5] Bil'ak P.: Ibid, p. 46.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2008 edition of TYPO magazine and has been republished with permission.

About the author
Zdeno Kolesár is a design theoretician, curator, lecturer, and writer. He regularly gives talks on design both in Slovakia and abroad, he is an author of a great number of texts, articles, and books on design (Chapters in Design History, vol. 1, 2; Chapters in Graphic Design History). He lives and works in Bratislava.