01 April 2009
In this second half of the article, originally published in TYPO magazine, author Zdeno Kolesár looks at Slovak design from the mid-1990s to the present. During this time, younger generations have transitioned between traditional methods and more radical approaches, confronting typography and layout in ways that often received both international recognition and criticism from older generations.
New Slovak Graphic Design
Zdeno Kolesár

In this second half of the article, originally published in TYPO magazine, author Zdeno Kolesár looks at Slovak design from the mid-1990s to the present. During this time, younger generations have transitioned between traditional methods and more radical approaches, confronting typography and layout in ways that often received both international recognition and criticism from older generations. Towards the new millennium, previous limitations on the profession were dispelled as design moved away from its "traditional utilitarian limits," and became recognised a core component of society.

[Continued from part 1]

After the mid-nineties, graphic design that was not oriented toward the commercial spectrum concerned itself more with feeling than with reading. This was a major part of alternative Slovak graphic design. Its structure varied - designers comic-book, punk, graffiti and techno poetics, as well as other underground forms of expression; they also paraphrased an official culture of the communist era. These designers often dissociated themselves from tradition on principle. The middle and older generation felt embarrassed at this kind of work: much of this generation was a legitimate and integral part of the subversive anticommunist culture, and yet the youth no longer respected them.

Martin Šútovec, one of the leading figures of this younger generation, writes in an essay called Comical Situation: "The older generation has to get used to the fact that in the late nineties young people are more interested in Japanese manga comics than Polish posters from the sixties. From our point of view, the sixties was not a 'thaw' period, but a time of LSD and smelly hippies. Not Polish posters but Robert Crumb and his Zap magazine." [6] The alternative aesthetics in his approach, and in works of his colleagues, were mostly applied in promoting underground music and theater, in books they often published themselves, and in magazines that deserve special attention.

Magazines like Park (produced by filip Vančo, Pavol Bálik and Richard Čisárik), Hugo (by Martin Šútovec and Pavol Bálik), or Vlna [Wave] by Ján Šicko, as well as other ongoing or occasional periodicals, brought this alternative graphic design to a wider audience. The production of magazines was a platform for the romanticism and enthusiasm of the young designers to confront the traditional issues of graphic design, such as the creation of lettering or layout. This typographic expressionism gained significant status in the layouts of Slovak magazines, but the radical David Carson style was applied only to a limited degree.

Above: Ondrej Gavalda, Expansion of the
advertisement, experimental project, 2007

In the international context of graphic design in the mid-nineties, a shift towards modern neoclassicism began to be implemented. This can be seen in the development of fonts by a star of Californian "new wave," Zuzana Ličko (born in Bratislava, incidentally). Obviously, this was not a turn toward classic modernism. We can simply speak of a hybrid and paradoxical postmodern modernism, or modern postmodernism. A taming of rampant emotion and over-inflated decor took place, but the postmodern emphasis on the humanisation of cultural production stayed in full force. We might mention that, in contrast to architecture or three-dimensional design, graphic design used the most modern technological tool, the computer, to obtain radical post-modern results. Thus, first syntheses of modern and postmodern principles appeared in graphic design earlier than in other art disciplines.

The beginnings of a critical approach toward post-modernism in Slovakia can be seen in Peter Bil'ak's above-mentioned work - Illegibility. This approach is more developed in his essay, "Transparency." It discusses an eternal dilemma of graphic design: "Should a graphic designer have a neutral position towards the message? Does a graphic designer have the right to interpret the message critically? The accent is on purity of communication. Does the designer attain this purity by a neutral approach, or, on the contrary, by a visual translation of the message?" [7]

The backlash from a 'design for feeling' to a 'design for reading' in Slovakia after the mid-nineties generated an increased interest in the most traditional graphic design discipline -type design. This discipline did not have much of a tradition in Slovakia. The key figure was Andrej Krátky who, in the beginning of the nineties, was a student of Jan Solpera, a representative of the strong Czech school of type design in Prague. A dynamic linear lettering (called Bradlo) designed by Andrej Krátky in 1995 won international recognition. The renowned FontShop Company provided its distribution. During his stint at the Academy of fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, Krátky supervised other young type designers - such as Peter Bil'ak, whose Eureka lettering won the laurels on the international scene. The same is true for the Jigsaw lettering designed by Johanna Bil'ak-Balušíková, Bil'ak's wife.

Four years ago, Bil'ak-Balušíková and the Czech graphic designer Alan Záruba organised the e-a-t (experiment and typography) presentation platform, which reinstated the typography of the last twenty years in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It demonstrated that during this twenty-year period Slovak type designers had developed their skills and became equal partners to Czech type designers. The name of Peter Bil'ak, a Slovak graphic designer, has appeared in this article several times already. He has lived and worked in the Netherlands for a decade, but still keeps in touch with his country of origin. This can be seen in his effort to adjust fonts to the language specifications of Slavonic languages (e.g. the Greta font). Bil'ak's interests extend beyond the problems of graphic design. [8] He not only attends to general questions in communicating the message, but in part of his work we can also see that he uproots the traditional boundary line between design and the fine arts. In a 1999 Slovak National Gallery exhibition in Bratislava, he introduced a "typographic ballet", with changing lettering projected on the screen. Later, he co-operated in dance choreography.

Another distinct personality in young Slovak graphic design is Ján Šicko, co-founder of a multimedia group called Signall; his work also crosses over from graphic design and theater. In Šicko's works, the linear and mostly static medium of graphic design changes into a dynamic discipline, characterised by interdisciplinary work that includes movement and sound. Time media erode the material substance of graphic design. Whether we call Šicko's work graphic design in motion or non-traditional set design, what is important is how it communicates with the public, who are made to actively participate in the final product. Designers are professional communicators; thus design, according to Wolfgang Welsh, could become the art of the twenty-first century, though obviously he is not speaking of conventional design. [9]

Above: Living Underground I. (Podchodom vchod!),
workshop, 2005

We can find many examples of work where graphic designers refuse to be limited to the traditional roles of this discipline, and express themselves with self-confidence when dealing with the fundamental problems of art, or life itself. A good example is the work of Ondrej Gavalda, last year's prizewinner at the Students' National Design Prize.

In the seventies the term "total football" was introduced to name a sort of a Dutch football that put no limitations on the individual players' moves. I would suggest the term "total design" be used for the current expansion of designers' activities. An interest in making use of creative design strategies, whose primary strength lies in communication with the general public, can also be seen in the fine art. In 2001 Mira Keratová and Richard Fajnor initialised the Billboard Gallery project, in which visual arts was shown on billboards, first in Bratislava, and later in other European cities. This shift from advertising to artistic expression evoked a major response. Among the artists participating at this project, graphic designers were markedly present. They were able to get beyond their traditional utilitarian limits and move towards thought-provoking messages.

At the beginning of the new millennium a new movement began in Slovak graphic design. Much of this group rejects "sweet money poisoning" in the com-mercial sphere. It also refuses to be concerned with conventionally-defined aesthetic issues in design. We can simply state that, while in the mid-nineties of the past century the dominant position in Slovak graphic design was taken by form without content, with the beginning of the new millennium it is content without form. Marcel Benčík, a spokesman for this generation, states: "A current Slovak designer has to be an activist, organiser, promoter, theorist and journalist rolled into one." [10]

Above: Marcel Benčík, Agglomeration,
graphic design network, 2007

The entry of the new generation was accompanied by feelings of frustration that came from the lack of recognition in a society where the general public associated graphic designers with advertising agents. The first year of the Kupé design conference took place in the city of Žilina in 2005. Its topic, "The Self-defense of a Graphic Designer," mainly addressed the designers' community, setting out their sphere of existence. A move toward broader interventions in a socio-cultural environment could be seen at the Living Underground workshop, which took place in the same year, as well as in the Design on Wheels project in 2006. In this project, young graphic designers travelling in their mobile studio offered their services to towns and non-profit organisations in Slovakia. A trend toward a "Bauhaus" attempt to improve the lives of ordinary people can be seen in the continuing work of Kupé conferences and workshops called Living Underground (both of these conferences are entering their third year).

Even though a certain measure of narcissism is still present, it is certain that the young generation wants to leave the "ghetto" of graphic design. It plans to transfer its activities from hedonism and hermetic self-centeredness to broadly defined involvement in positively changing the things of this world. As in the ex-communist countries these words stink of leftism or even of communist ideology, I will borrow a quotation from English graphic designer Jonathan Barnbrook: "Design STILL has the potential to change the society and we should start by recalling this afresh." [11]

[6] Šútovec M.: "Comical Situation," DeSignUm, No. 1/1999, p. 54.
[7] Bil'ak P.: "Transparency," Academy of fine Arts and Design, Bratislava 1997, p. 46-47.
[8] Peter Bil'ak is also a co-editor of the leading Dutch periodical dot dot dot.
[9] According to W. Welsch, "...just like the 20th century was the century of art, the 21st century could become the century of design." W. Welsch: Aesthetic Thinking. Archa (the Arc), Bratislava 1993, p. 159.
[10] Benčík M.: Agglomeration. Network of Graphic Design in Slovakia, Academy of fine Arts and Design, Bratislava 2007, p. 14.
[11] Jonathan Barnbrook, quoted in Ch. & P. fiell: Graphic Design Now, Taschen, Köln 2003, p. 70.

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.