08 November 2006
Peter Billak
Peter Billak

A few weeks ago, I participated in an evaluation of students' works at Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht. The students were defending the way they approached the designing of a publication which they have been preparing. While explaining their work, six students out of eight mentioned that they tried 'not to overdesign' the articles. Afterwards, a stormy discussion broke out as to what 'not to overdesign' means. I must say that ever since I have been living in the Netherlands, I might have expected such a discussion.

The tendency 'not to overdesign' can also be observed in the USA and England but in the Netherlands it seems to be strongest. The Netherlands have a long tradition of visual culture; it is quite logical that in the country which in the 1970s and 80s took the lead in graphic design, designers are now trying to reappraise it.

Only a few years ago, the greatest impression was made by the technical skills of designers and their capability to manipulate graphic software. This approach may be compared with the Victorian style which dominated Western Europe for almost one hundred years. The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century, and the new possibilities of printing, utterly confused designers and the two worlds of design and decoration merged into one. The result of today's technological changes is also decorative design, and today it is the computer which has brought an unprecedented mannerist and baroque character into the sphere of graphic design. The new possibilities of design caused a fragmentation of information and a forced, complex ambiguousness which came to be appreciated far more than simplicity and functionality. Designer's questions have changed and instead of 'what' and 'why, the designer has become satisfied with the question 'how'. Graphic designers have zealously looked at nice pictures and thought how they were done. Once you discover the answer, all that is left from the picture is only a collection of filters and tricks. Such design does not say anything, apart from showing off the designer's technical bravura. After years of celebrating a designer's individuality, the personal expression is reevaluated and the genuine question is not how to express the designer's ego, but how to communicate in the most effective way using the means available.

Schools of design put the emphasis on formal experiments without reflecting on their raison d'etre. This formality results in a complete loss of design values. Design, as a way of communication, fails and is manoeuvred into the position of a decorative element.

Thanks to the narcissism of designers, the word 'design' has obtained negative connotations. The natural reaction to such a situation is a rejection of design. The interest of designers moves from a demonstration of their capabilities and possibilities offered by contemporary technology, to the attempt to return to the essence of design and express it in a simpler way. The public need clear messages and not the complex messages from designer virtuosos. After a lengthy design feast, the time of sobering up and coming back to the rudiments has arrived. We could define a purism and a rejection of design as yet another style of the 1990s; similar trends can be seen in fashion, interiour design and architecture, however the return to the basics of design is merely a reaction to overcomplicated design and an attempt to return to the foundations of design on which it is possible to begin working. The American design critic Michael Rock says that anytime he comes to the Netherlands, he feels as if he has come to Legoland. Everything is so nice, tidy and colourful that one would be happy to twist the cute-coloured policeman's head off. Michael Rock probably hints at the production of Studio Dumbar which is very visible around the Low Countries. Studio Dumbar has designed corporate identities for the Dutch Post office, the Police, Railways and many cultural institutions. This work is an example of overaesthetised design. There is nothing to reproach it for because it is exactly what their clients wanted from them, but in my opinion it is baroque design and purely decorative.

In today's environment which is crowded with objects and colours, white space gains value, which is quite paradoxical when we realise that white space is often regarded as a lack of content. Nevertheless, white pages can present the most radical design. The book 'View to the Future' which is a collection of interviews between students and renowned Dutch graphic designers, includes examples of work from all the designers who participated. Karel Martens, one of the most respected Dutch designer, was asked to design the dividers. His answer was to leave them white, in order to relax the reader between articles. The white pages make a shocking and challenging impression here. (Not to) use white space is an important design decision. It takes years for one to learn to use it. When every single square centimetre of the landscape has been cultivated and every object is beautifully designed, then the natural reaction is to reject design. Despite this, it sometimes seems as if designers were paid according to the percentage of the available space they use or per used elements. I think that more is expected from design than simply filling up the space. A designer's work can also be his decision to do nothing. One of the most impressive interiors I have seen recently was a little cafe in London. A former butcher's shop, it was to be converted into a stylish cafe, and so the owners invited a professional interior designer. After a thorough examination, he decided not to change anything - even keeping the old name - Butcher. Now young people drink their coffee there sitting amongst meat hooks, and everybody is happy - the visitors, the owner, as well as the designer who was paid for doing nothing (or for finding the ideal solution).

More than enough examples of the opposite extreme can be found in design. How many times has it happened to you that in a shop you haven't been able to find your favourite product simply because somebody decided to change the design. Many of the redesigned corporate identities are unnecessary and are actually more of a liability to the companies than an asset. We have got to the situation when novelty is appreciated more than functionality. Does new really mean better? When everything becomes possible, limitations cease to exist and design becomes an endless search for novelty. New becomes the only criterion of design and this is incompatible with its fundamental idea of design: design as a medium, as one of the languages of communication.

Contemporary graphic design no longer reacts to its environment, the political, social, or economic situation, it reacts only to other designs. The design masturbation, design created with the intention of stunning colleagues- and winning design awards makes design a suspicious word. Design cannot exist in isolation from society and serve as a standard unto itself. Whether we like it or not, graphic design is only a secondary product of the development of visual communication.

Designers, instead of looking for the solution for the real world, create their own imaginary worlds far from reality. The essence of this conduct reminds us more of Disneyland than the real world. A designer's world is sentimental and beautiful, just as that proposed by Walt Disney when he was building his first theme park. Disney managed to create a new,completely isolated world into which you can only get if you accept Disney's vision of the better world, a world full of a nostalgia for something which has never been implemented and something which is more real and better than reality.

The contemporary director of the Disney corporation, Michael Eisner, is considered to be the Medici of our time due to his interest in modern architecture. Eisner invited the world's best architects to work on buildings for Disney World. These architects only confirm the state of today's design. Design has become isolated and elitist.

The fact that it can be done in another way is also proven by thesporadic attempts of people who believe that the principles of design do not change and that placing the contents into context has always been the nature of design. At the end of last year, Michael Rock and Susan Sellars opened the, first museum of design where objects are put back into their original context instead of being removed from their natural environment. The aim of the Museum of the Ordinary is to point out the invisibility of design in the municipal environment and appeal to the public with the intention of explaining what design is. The Museum is defined by four points in New York City and comprises thirty streets of Manhattan. The Museum of the Ordinary is the complete opposite of a static and isolated museum - the Museum and the city are identical and present an integrated whole. The collection of this Museum is extensive indeed. It contains all the objects which happen to be in the given space. Rock and Sellars directly answer the question how to exhibit contemporary design by pointing to its context and helping the public in how to regard design. Shiny glass exhibition cases do not say anything about the state of contemporary design and an object, being taken away from its environment can only suffer when its natural function, reason and connection become lost. The permanent character of conventional design collections works against the ephemerality of design, and it is a street which can disprove this misunderstanding.

Although such a project may be understood again as another ironic attempt from the rank of elite designers, Michael Rock and Susan Sellars pointed to the crisis of contemporary design and strengthened my opinion that a true understanding of design depends on comprehending its historical, social and economic milieu. Design has a temporary and culturally distinctive character. The role and relevancy of design can be alternated by an insensitive treatment or by a misunderstanding of design's aim.

Authors' non-design
Although the reaction to the overcomplicated design of the 90s could have been expected, it is interesting to see the way in which it has developed. Graphic designers and design theoreticians have spent the last thirty years trying to find a definition of the design profession. They have tried to discover the principles which would clearly distinguish professional designers from amateurs. They discussed licenses, a requirement of university education etc. Designers passionately discussed the question of authorship in design. As soon as the position of a designer was clearly defined, the designers now deliberately renounce it. They renounce something which they never really had - recognition of their profession. The attempt of designers to distinguish themselves from amateurs with computers has turned through 180 degrees and today many designers try hard to get as close to these amateurs as possible.

In this respect today's design is thirty years behind the theoretical literature. In the late 60s Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault redefined the function of a writer. Barthes's quote: 'the birth of the reader for the price of the author's death' contributed to the refutation of the popular myth that the author is also the owner of the text. The question is not 'what the author wanted to say' anymore but 'what the work says'. We forget to have a look at what graphic design contains, but we look to see whether it contains that which we were promised by its creators. In this way the public is being deliberately fooled, and looses its natural active role. Therefore the designer is not the owner of the form but of the contents.

Design itself ought to be about a denial of ownership, and enable another interpretation of design. When graphic design ceases to be separable from its creator, then it is no longer functional. The designer's work must be able to be judged regardless of the designer's reputation. The question of who designed it should be the last one asked. This could help to improve the accessibility of the content in design.

The end
There is an enormous difference between what the public thinksabout design and the professional discussion presented at a symposium like this one. However, before we begin to convince the public about the importance of a new design, we should think whether it is really necessary. Frequently we, ourselves, are the answer to the question of what is the cause of design's low prestige in the eye of the public. It is pointless to pat backs appreciatively within the circle of our friends and talk about how good we are, and that it is only that the public doesn't understand us. Design is not about decorating, illustrating or embellishing things. Design is to improve things and create new values. Design is rather a question than an answer. We ought to learn to correctly word these questions.

About this article

The above article by Peter Billak appears here with permission from Dot dot dot Magazine. Copyright 2001, Dot dot dot.

About Dot dot dot
Dot dot dot is the title of a new graphic design magazine intended to fill a gap in current arts publishing. We are not interested in re-promoting established material or creating another 'portfolio' magazine. Instead, we offer inventive critical journalism on a variety of topics related both directly and indirectly to graphic design.

About Peter Billak
Peter Bilak is a graphic designer based in Den Haag, Netherlands, working mainly with typography and electronic media. His work has been presented in magazine such I.D., Items, U&lc, Graphics International, etc. Designer of fonts for FontShop Intenational, founding editor of dot-dot-dot, graphic design/visual culture magazine, contributing editor to Dealeatur and Designum magazine. In addition to his design practice PB gives talks and presentations regularly accross Europe.