Het Paleis van Typografisch Metselwerk voert een correspondentie met de Minister. Dit is de derde van in totaal vier brieven.
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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.
The Governor of the Palace of Typographic Masonry