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Room: The Written Keystones

5. First Things First: the all-powerful lure of advertising

Théo Miller, The Witten Keystones (spread 5), offset, 210 mm x 297 mm, 2020.

Those who are focussed primarily on plain communication tend to over emphasise efficiency while neglecting the layered depth and wide array of variety in visual languages. This goes directly against the grain of the typographic mason and this palatial’s intrinsic values.

In 1964, the British designer Ken Garland and 21 colleagues published the ‘First Things First’ manifesto. In this declaration, the signatories expressed their concern about consumerism’s increasingly tight hold on society.

Mainly aimed at fellow graphic designers, ‘First Things First’ calls on them to reject the increasingly powerful lure of the advertising industry and focus on what the signatories call ‘worthwhile purposes’: graphic design that can benefit society. Garland and his colleagues wanted to be more than just cogs in the wheel of a commercialised industry, in which the designer’s task amounts to little more than stimulating consumer demand. They imagined “(…) a reversal of priorities in favour of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication”.

This plea shows that at the time, the gulf between graphic design and advertising was gradually deepening. In tandem with the economic apparatus produced these commodities, advertising was becoming more and more international, centralised and increasingly uniform. The ‘representation’ of freedom in advertising is mere illusion – a kind of sham diversity – since the underlying strategy is exclusively trained at boosting consumption and creating what is effectively a monoculture.

In the Palace of Typographic Masonry, I celebrate a graphic design approach that is small-scale and multiform and that is preferably part of a local cultural fabric. A form of communication that strives for honesty and seeks dialogue rather than a one-way conversation – building a lasting relationship with its society. Still, for all their good intentions, designers can occasionally be drawn to totalitarian approaches. The Palace of Typographic Masonry also houses a number of moving examples of hubris on the designer’s part. ‘The Annex of Universal Languages’ includes a modest collection of attempts to banish misunderstanding, bickering and wars, in which the language barrier is seen as a tangible expression of humanity’s imperfection: by designing a visual language that can be read by anyone, the designers believe they can bring about world peace. This has yielded a wide range of solutions: from ideographic systems to an all-connecting lingua franca, and from Utopian alphabets to iconic pictographic scripts. The unattainable ideal of a flawless common language has mainly served as a catalyst for even more new forms – only adding to the diversity and richness of the existing patchwork. Although perhaps this is sooner a blessing than a curse for freedom, peace and humanity.

As in nature, diversity – a palette of options – is a precondition for survival. A society that is organised on a smaller scale presents more opportunities for variegation. This could clearly be seen in the Netherlands of the 1960s. Graphic designers – often without any formal training – were able to capture the new spirit in their poetic design, giving new shape to a culture that increasingly opposed the existing establishment. In a progressive wave of participation and democratisation, institutions opened their doors to colourful new contributors like Anthon Beeke and Swip Stolk. The representation of society was built from the bottom up, in a dynamic interaction of perspectives.

During this period, the Netherlands was seen as a ‘vanguard country’ and a paradise for designers. Assured of their position, they were able to build up a lavish range of expressive options. The director of the aforementioned Department for Aesthetic Design of the Dutch PTT – the country’s most exemplary client – offered the following advice to designers: ‘Don’t forget poetry!’ Between 1966 and 1985, this Ootje Oxenaar – himself a designer, created the most wonderful banknote series in the world, full of inimitable symbolism, personal details and unusual colour schemes. Universally admired, these banknotes were even given their own affectionate nicknames.

Born in 1972, I grew up with the shared poetry of the Snipe (100 guilders), the Lighthouse (250 guilders) and the Sunflower (50 guilders). Surrounded by such graphic riches, I developed a strong desire to become part of the community responsible for these marvels.