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Room: The Written Keystones

9. Research and Destroy: generating your own meaning from your own resources

Théo Miller, The Witten Keystones (spread 9), offset, 210 mm x 297 mm, 2020.

To be taken seriously again, typographic masonry will have to develop a form of counter-design and emphasise the need for innovation in philosophically imbued visual discourse. Yet can today’s practices stand up to the fragmentation and competition that is tearing the profession apart?

In his article ‘Research and Destroy’, published in the Dutch journal Metropolis M in 2006, Daniel van der Velden (1971) observes that designers are increasingly at risk of becoming the proletariat of the creative sector, quietly executing whatever assignment lands on their plate. Graphic designers who reject this process tend to establish themselves as ‘auteurs’, no longer engaging with current issues in any meaningful way. More often than not, work that is lauded as ‘important graphic design’ is merely personal commentary scribbled by the designer in the margins of visual culture.

Van der Velden believed that design can circumvent this trend and reconnect with society by taking on the role of ‘developer’. To be taken seriously once again, the design field will need to develop a form of counter-design and emphasise the need for innovation in the philosophical discourse. Van der Velden argues that social and political engagement is indispensable for realising structural changes in society. In his view, designers often have a very noble self-image, but also tend to hide behind false modesty. It is time for graphic design to identify a vocabulary that can be used to describe the profession’s in-depth development.

Van der Velden went on to become one of the most successful exponents of this approach. In 2007, the graphic designer and writer joined Vinca Kruk to found Metahaven, a studio for design and research. Indeed, Metahaven’s work – both for clients and self-commissioned – regularly touches on political and social issues. However, the platform for their provocative graphic design objects has increasingly shifted from the public space to the confines of the institutional ‘white cube’.

The emphasis on entrepreneurship and the call to become a developer also weakened the spirit of solidarity within the profession. It had become ‘every man for himself’, and graphic designers – who according to curator Andrew Blauvelt should be able to generate a meaning of their own from their own resources (10), took the dearth of serious critical journalism as a cue to build new, original contexts around their work. This spawned a range of manifestos and led to wide-scale self-promotion: the stale air surrounding the term ‘graphic design’ was sprayed with all sorts of novel sub-labels like Conditional Design, Surface Design, Critical Design or Performative Design.

And I was as enthusiastic a participant as anyone. In 2007, I borrowed Hendrik Wijdenveld’s phrase ‘typographic masonry’ as a badge of honour, restyling my existing oeuvre into an urban landscape in the exhibition ‘TM-City’ for the International Poster and Graphic Design Festival of Chaumont. In the street plan for the city’s eight districts, I plotted out my key sources – from A.M. Cassandre to Yayoi Kusama and from Ashanti textiles to the Wiener Werkstätte.

Around 2009, the process of fragmentation and competition in the profession had been more or less rounded off. This is easy to see when you look at the goings-on surrounding the commission for a new house style for Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Then director Gijs van Tuyl had wanted to set a new standard in terms of procurement, selecting five studios to pitch their idea. As could be expected, things took a different turn: Van Tuyl was succeeded by Ann Goldstein, who dropped the winning proposal – by the French designer Pierre di Sciullo (1961) – without even bothering to substantiate her decision. Di Sciullo’s house style was never used. Film maker Lex Reitsma made a documentary about the affair, and it is painful to witness the shallowness and stunted vocabulary underlying the Stedelijk’s move. But perhaps even more painful was the deafening silence on the part of the design community. With such a lack of solidarity, the profession proved its own worst enemy.