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Room: The Written Keystones

Letters to the Minister

Jan van Toorn, Norá Békés, Steven Lenoir, and Goys & Birls (Paradyme) [printed by LenoirZwaan], Letters to the Minister, Offset print, 700 mm x 1000 mm, 2018.

In this section you will find the Initiator’s writing desk and in its drawers the palatial correspondence with the local government. You see, the ministers of the state needs to be informed about the numerous breakthroughs of typographic masonry. So it is that it resulted in a series of letters that centralise on the formative quality of visual languages and its crucial role in our society.

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First letter

Dear Minister,

I am writing to you on behalf of the Secretary’s Office of the Palace of Typographic Masonry. I wish to draw your attention to a unique phenomenon: graphic design. While it may not enjoy a very high profile, this discipline has a very long history and has constantly played a key role in the development of human society. Take the invention of writing, for example, some 5000 years ago already. And graphic design continues to have a major impact on our public space – our shared environment – to this day. Which is actually why I am writing you this letter.

Think of what would happen to a bureaucracy without figures and letters, forms, diagrams, sign systems, the arrangement of words and images in encyclopaedias, annual reports, websites and law books! It’s impossible to picture a world without graphic design – not just in a functional and administrative sense, but also in terms of ceremony and the imagination. A culture without pennants, symbols of faith, stamps, money, posters, album covers, buttons, corporate identities, designs for shops signs, festivals, etc., lacks orientation and opportunities for collective representation. You will probably agree that graphic design is of crucially importance as a public activity! But despite its undeniable significance, the discipline is not given the attention it deserves: as a carrier of meaning, it remains hidden behind the messages it conveys.

The graphic design profession is home to a wide range of perspectives and practices – I won’t be bothering you with the details. The one thing I would like to impart is that each time round, graphic design involves the marriage of art, science and technology. Graphic designers rely on their imaginative capacity, visual rhetoric and technical skill to create new order through a wide range of approaches. With their talent and ability to organise and manipulate text and images, designers can create new visual forms of communication, which link abstract patterns of thinking to everyday life. This sounds a bit magical – and in a sense, you could see it as magic. I like to call it a form of alchemy, with signs, ornaments and symbols.

What many people don’t know is that this magic can be used in two distinct ways: in an illustrative and a formative manner, as Penny Sparke sets out in ‘An Introduction to design and culture’ (2004). In its formative role, a design precedes the culture in which it is being produced, so that it becomes a means by which to construct and depict the values and ideas that ultimately become part of the social environment. In its illustrative role, a design takes its cue from the culture in which it is produced. It depicts and affirms existing ideas and values. In short: the formative role sets an interaction of images and counter-images in motion – greasing the wheels of social communication. In an illustrative approach to graphic design, these dynamics are discouraged – with social communication threatening to become rigid and ossified.

When you look around it’s difficult to ignore: more than ever, our everyday life is inundated with graphic design. Printed and projected images abound in our streets, in public transport, packaging, websites, print, displays, clothing, buildings, vehicles and everywhere else. As soon as we enter the public space, we are unable to escape the visual communication that ultimately forms our collective visual identity. And that’s why it’s so important to give this discipline the attention it deserves, and to pause and reflect on its role in our public space. I’m interested in hearing your views on this issue.

Yours sincerely,

The Governor of the Palace of Typographic Masonry

Second letter

Dear Minister,

Your reply to my first letter was enthusiastically received in the mail room of the Palace of Typographic Masonry. I’m glad to know that when I discussed the role of graphic design in our public space and collective visual memory, I was actually telling you something you weren’t yet aware of. Rest assured: you aren’t the only one!

For example, a lot of people haven’t heard of the aesthetic idealist Jean François van Royen, who entered the employment of the Postal, Telegraph and Telephone Service in 1904. Mr Van Royen was fascinated by the printed arts, and was far from impressed by what the State had produced so far: “Let’s stick to three words: the State’s printed paper is ugly, ugly, ugly – in other words, ugly on three counts: in its typefaces, typesetting and paper.” Convinced that art could be used to uplift the masses, Van Royen sought out some of the leading artists and designers of his day and used his influence to improve the service’s printed materials. After he passed away in 1942, the Postal Service set up a dedicated Department of Aesthetic Design in his spirit. Driven by a firm belief in the salutary effects of design, the Department strove to commission designs that were special, poetic, innovative or alienating and that contributed to the development and visualisation of new values and new ideas.

While ‘salutary’ may be overegging it a bit, representing individuals, expressing emotions, depicting society’s political and economic structure remains a serious business. After all, isn’t an open-minded and critical public of fundamental importance for any democracy? At which point a visual communication that invites dialogue becomes a basic condition. In my experience, obstacles actually stimulate creativity: resistance and setbacks force us to give more thought to something. A certain degree of disorder tends to make us less complacent. That’s why complexity shouldn’t be swept under the carpet; unsettling elements removed from view. Rather, everything should play a distinct role in the representation of a variegated societal landscape. Surely, a society immersed in a diversity of opinions, forms and ideas will gradually adopt a healthy spirit of tolerance? And this – in addition to a critical and creative spirit – is one of the cornerstones of an active democracy!

Let’s go back to Van Royen and the Department of Aesthetic Design for a moment: they literally set an example. After the Second World War, there was a growing awareness in our country that formative design was to the benefit of society. Public sector players like government ministries, the central bank, universities and research institutes, museums and other cultural organisations gave graphic designers the freedom to shape their communications. The spirit of openness and democratisation of the 1960s threw open the doors of these institutions to the ‘opposition’. Designers could incorporate the voices of the citizens around them in their poetic designs. You might say that the representation of society was built from the bottom up, in a process of active exchange.

This created a distinctive design culture, which gave our country a unique look and feel: I’m sure you remember the lower case phone book, the poetic bank notes, the eminently legible signs at the airport and the provocative theatre posters. Graphic design offered new, alternate windows on the world, which were imbued with a unifying symbolism and played a formative role in the development of a spirit of community. Despite statements to the contrary, there was such a thing as a national identity: a diverse landscape covered with a broad palette of visual languages – from anarchic and unsettling to clear and immediate, from dreamlike and poetic to understated and functional. With all sorts of interaction between high-brow and low-brow. A pluralist and exceptionally colourful and characteristic collection.

In the 1980s, our country was widely seen as a mecca of graphic design. The Netherlands was internationally acclaimed for this fertile paradise, since the extent to which a culture leaves scope for imaginary innovation is one of the factors determining its overall dynamism. It comes as no surprise that in the same period, the Netherlands was also seen as a trailblazer in the field of active citizenship. Seems hard to believe nowadays, but that’s what happened!

Yours sincerely,

The Governor of the Palace of Typographic Masonry

Third letter

Dear Minister,

The Secretary of the Palace of Typographic Masonry just handed me your letter. After reading it, I understand why you would feel confused. You also ask me what happened to this fertile ideal of a pluralist representation. Allow me to tell you.

Over the course of the 1990s, your predecessors pushed society in the arms of the private sector. During what is now referred to as the neo-liberal era the public sector was not so much privatised as hived off, inspired by a drive to ‘boost efficiency’ and meet ‘targets’ that paved the way for achieving a return on prior investments. As a result, the public character of government bodies was steadily weakened. Citizens became clients. Communications with this new group needed to be frictionless; knowledge and culture increasingly were marketed using the same strategies as any other commodity.

The graphic design discipline was used to alleviate complexity, smooth over unsettling content and put a brave face on everything that passed its way. Take the concept of public relations, for instance. This led to a myriad of marketing and communication departments – even within purely public organisations – which could control this form of communication from above. In my previous letter, I mentioned the Department of Aesthetic Design. This department was dissolved in 2002 after being deemed a ‘luxury’. The public space was also privatised and controlled in a physical sense: flyposting was made illegal and the control of outdoor advertising was outsourced to private contractors. To make things even worse, the voice of independent political dissent was channelled into a number of professionalised NGOs, which also started to maintain a tight control over their public image.

Nowadays, graphic designers working for the public sector are basically handed a colouring page to fill in. The very idea that criticism, opposing views and ambiguity may be desirable for a healthy democracy has been swept off the table. Designers have allowed themselves to be co-opted by the so-called ‘creative industry’ – a phrase dangerously close to an oxymoron – and consciously or unconsciously work to play an illustrative role within pre-established formats. More rebellious spirits seek refuge in a niche that, by necessity, has become more and more self-absorbed. And we can see a strong investment in internationalisation, with organisations throwing off the context of local symbolisation – effectively removing this kind of colour from the palette of our shared imagination. Well, that basically explains how we have ended up with the simplified and uniform design found in today’s public space. A bland and inchoate collective representation, which speaks to or for no one in particular.

Behind this thin veneer of graphic cosmetics, the government – which has been steadily withdrawing from the public space as it is – has become more or less invisible. In today’s arena, the voice of the public sector itself is ineffectual and almost drowned out by the noise. Could you say what’s on the banknotes in your wallet? Do you remember any of the theatre posters of the past decade? Any stamps? Do you know which house style the government has adopted, and what it wishes to convey with it? Our cultural and public institutions have beaten a retreat, and commercial players have enthusiastically stepped in to fill their place. In a world that is mainly understood in terms of public image, the capital-fuelled rationale of winners and losers is hardly questioned within a democratic dialogue. But I’m sure that by now you’ve reached the same conclusion.

Yours sincerely,

The Governor of the Palace of Typographic Masonry

Last letter

Dear Minister,

Thank you again for being so kind to respond. Your timely answer has found its way to the desks of the Palace of Typographic Masonry. In your letter, you ask whether it is actually a problem that graphic design is forced to move with the times. What’s wrong with its current illustrative, subservient role? You point out that there are more pressing things to be worried about. You refer to a severely dissatisfied electorate, the gap between government and citizens, dwindling trust, and a society that threatens to become torn apart by increasingly incompatible philosophies.

The examples you name couldn’t have been more apt! They’re precisely the kind of issues that can be traced back to the aforementioned tone of voice, as embodied by the public institutions’ current communication efforts. This tone of voice is a mixture of uniform directness, a narrative of ‘winners and losers’ and a simplified representation of reality that literally leaves nothing to the imagination. I believe that you have underestimated how problematic this neutral facade that the government has erected around its activities actually is.

Because a museum is not a corporation, a theatre is not a PLC, research institutes and benefits agencies shouldn’t be focused on maximising returns and a Ministry isn’t a retail chain. This smoothed-out layer of optimised public relations is not only inappropriate, it’s actually counterproductive! Tightly controlled visual communication obscures one’s underlying intentions and wastes a chance to encourage dialogue. When a public organisation always has a smile on its face, citizens don’t know when it’s really listening to them. It feels as if they aren’t taken seriously, and it becomes easy to lose faith. I suspect you have an optimistic view of the average citizen, in which he or she is self-sufficient, vocal, assertive and engaged. Indeed, this kind of citizen is crucial for a healthy democracy. But as I wrote earlier, your predecessors have actually surrendered the arena where this participation can take shape.

I imagine that by now, an idea has started to form in your head. I can almost hear you thinking: “Why do we still listen to anxious marketing and communication departments and pay huge fees to sycophants from the ‘creative industry’ to produce derivative and homogenous product to illustrate of empty core values like ‘flexibility’ and ‘transparency’? Why don’t we take advantage of the formative quality of independent design, this centuries-old tradition that has been honed to represent the world, do justice to social turbulence and enchant the public space with signs, ornamentation, symbols, poetry and diversity?”

Graphic designers need to be given room to lay new connections between abstract concepts and our everyday lives. Their designs need to be able to speak to citizens’ positions and visualise the associated complexity, concerns and emotions. Communication isn’t simply the icing on the cake – it should embody a concrete social dimension. The designer’s instrumentarium needs to be enriched with criticism, opposing views and ambiguity. As a member of our government, you need to consciously decide to let beauty, humour, irony and an array of different voices ‘do their thing’ and reinvigorate the exciting interplay of images and counter-images. With the wheels of communication once again greased, our society’s citizens can climb out of their trenches and take back the public space!

Feel free to visit the Palace of Typographic Masonry sometime soon! I’d be happy to give you a guided tour of our discipline’s numerous physical, technical, cultural and philosophical aspects, show some amazing examples from its rich history, its past giants and points of departure.

And I can point you to some of its most interesting practitioners working today, with talent, magic, passion for experimentation and imagination to spare. If anyone can serve the public good, it’s them. But don’t wait too long. Because we may be nearing the point of no return!

Yours sincerely,

The Governor of the Palace of Typographic Masonry