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Room: The Written Keystones

6. The Social Role of the Graphic Designer

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

While the Initiator of this palace was beginning his studies at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, Pierre Bernard gave a lecture that still, somehow, resonates in the palatial halls.

During the May ’68 events in Paris, Pierre Bernard (1942-2015) joined other students in occupying the workshops of the academy. Setting up the Atelier Populaire, they took the production process into their own hands. Every night, they screen-printed new posters, which they posted on the city’s streets the next day. In 1970, Bernard and his comrades founded the design collective Grapus, through which they continued their mission to change the world through graphic work and political action. By 1991, Grapus had disbanded, with Bernard continuing his collaborative approach in his Atelier de Création Graphique. That same year, he delivered a lecture in Minneapolis, entitled ‘The Social Role of the Graphic Designer’.

Pierre Bernard started by declaring that the graphic designer’s social responsibility is based on the wish to take part in the creation of a better world. He then demonstrated that this ideal can only be realised if the designer and client have a relationship of equality. This relationship is an uncertain factor, in which the commissioning party relinquishes control in the interest of freedom and poetry in the design process, allowing production to develop into a significant cultural activity. Without this complex interaction – this specific balance between co-authors – the collaboration has no raison d’etre. In a purely instrumental conception of visual communication, the design process could be replaced by a mechanical action: simply colouring inside the lines, with innovation coming to a standstill.

Bernard argues that “(…) the depth of the relationship depends to a considerable extent on the nature of the consideration the client has for the know-how of graphic design.” For this reason, he stresses, “(…) it will be absolutely essential, in the years ahead, to make graphic design known in its complete technical, intellectual, and artistic dimension.” To start, the designer shouldn’t be too modest to call attention to one of the key social functions of graphic design, “(…) broadening the cultural horizon of the public directly concerned”.

Unfortunately, Bernard and his ideals had at that point been overtaken by recent developments. 1980s America was in the grip of Reaganomics, and across the pond in the UK, Thatcher had proclaimed that ‘There Is No Alternative’ for a society that didn’t exist anyway (“And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families”). It had become a one-way street, in which the government steadily withdrew to make way for the private sector. This also led to the privatisation of the public space: flyposting was made illegal and the management of outdoor advertising locations was taken over by third-party contractors. Nevertheless, Bernard hoped that the moral values that founded graphic design would “(…) continue to underlie the awareness of many designers and students scattered around the world” and “(…) flourish openly within the different social realities to come”.

In the same year that Bernard delivered his lecture, I started studying Graphic Design at Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academy. As an ‘apprentice’ in this field, I was quietly instilled with the moral values that underpinned the profession. In ‘The Masonic Lobby’, the Palace’s entrance hall, I have visualised this tacit message, in the shape of puzzle pieces that fit together as the designer practises his or her craft – like the wheels of an inquisitive, playful, shaping machine. I find Johan Huizinga’s statement about games and play particularly apt in the case of graphic design: “Into an imperfect world, into the confusion of life, it brings a temporary, a limited perfection.”