Article for Progetto Grafico 28, 2015.
Progetto Grafico is published by AIAP (Associazione italiana design della comunicazione visiva).
The past decades have seen numerous debates concerning the role of the designer. Considering themselves alternately as artists, authors, editors, servants, critics or sometimes all of these roles at once, designers have constantly been trying to redefine their positions and their possible fields of work.
This constant attempt at reimagining roles might not be completely unrelated to the progressive removal of designers from the overarching process of visual communication. A seemingly unstoppable downgrade from “conceptor” to “fabricator” started taking place as the golden age of Modernism was ending. Ideals of integrity and design for a better world, with clients and designers working as equals on idealistic, large-scale programmes, chafed against new ways of envisaging communication. For better or worse, marketing and communication management inserted themselves between client and designer from the 70s onwards; the creative position designers assumed previously shrunk accordingly.
These new methods rubbed design until the golden age turned into what we could perhaps call a “brass age”, where the designer is encouraged to produce a surface of visual communication that is low-risk, consensual and market-friendly. The rise of the focus group (and its intrinsic average taste) as ultimate test bench has encouraged commercial clients to forgo ambitious, utopian or even just innovative design programmes if they could not prove rapidly profitable. Integrity and innovation are now less desirable than ever; the market is largely ruled by consensus.
Although cultural institutions are usually more open to strong design approaches, they are increasingly forced to submit to imperatives that were reserved for the commercial world until today. Profitability and performance are now required of cultural institutions, inexorably replacing the initial missions of collecting, conserving and studying.1 The institutions’ communication inevitably suffers from their rampant commodification; Jason Grant even talks of “brand bullying” in his aptly titled article Cultured Graphic Hygiene (2009).2
If today designers train in universities and are bestowed Bachelor and Master degrees, then there must be something else to the job than simply art-working in the brass age; there must be a way of creating a discourse that goes beyond “making the logo bigger”.
In his 2006 essay Research & Destroy, Daniel van der Velden asserts that the role of the designer as we idealise it is in peril. In order for designers to survive, they need to redesign themselves into producers of knowledge, a model radically different from the Modernist, which conceived the designer as an objective, functionalist problem-solver using systematic approach. This type of design practice is not entirely new. In the past, it has been adopted as a mode of practice (even if only transiently) by designers who might even not have been conscious of it. It has been known under various names: design as author, as editor; design research, speculative or critical design. Although these terms cover various grounds, they rejoin in the idea that there is something to be expressed by the designer.
Oft-quoted media analyst Marshall McLuhan provided the design world with a strong argument to support this idea—both in content and in form – in The Medium is the Massage (1967). Working as equals, McLuhan and Quentin Fiore achieved an object that is much more than the sum of its parts. Another classic example of a strong editorial voice is Jan van Toorn's 1971 poster for the Van Abbemuseum. Grant accurately describes the poster as “museum exhibition promotion but […] also a bold critique. It manages to disclose the banalities of both the art market and of accepted visual communication processes.”2 The designers’ input goes beyond surface styling: it is editorial. Similarly, Grapus (1970-90) embraced design as a means to “change life”.
Van der Velden proposes to go further, producing design that ultimately becomes the content. This is what “design research” proposes: a self-initiated, knowledge-producing way of using design. As van der Velden points out, the most challenging graphic design produced today is “one generated by the designer himself, a commentary in the margins of visual culture.”3 Designers who become their own “assignment givers” create the most advanced design by assuming a position of developers, embracing it “as a discipline that conducts research and generates knowledge – knowledge that makes it possible to seriously participate in discussions that are not about design.”3
This model of practice is what van der Velden's studio Metahaven is most famous for. Founders van der Velden and Vinca Kruk gained international recognition and remain to this day one of the rare studios to have made research such an important part of their practice, and with such ambition. Metahaven see “design as a tool used to inquire, to research, to anticipate. Also, design as an instrument to imagine.”4 A direct parallel can be drawn with investigative journalism, in which journalists provide a thorough investigation of a topic. This is exactly what Metahaven do, producing graphic objects that support their research on topics such as politics, social networks, corporate identity, Black Metal logos, state surveillance, or economics. Their attitude towards media is uninhibited; as Van der Velden, “work can exist in many places as long as it is out there and not just in your head.”4
Although the studio’s work looks striking on its own, its complexity often requires a form of paratext for the viewer to be able to access the research output. This is a particularity shared by many design research projects. The process of design induces a simplification in its message (which needs not be reflected by simplification of its form). Although complex ideas can be layered in a design, the domain of expression remains that of the image, which is prone to interpretation and asks a certain level of education from the viewer. The paratext should then not be seen as a crutch, but as an opportunity to exert the role of designers as producers of knowledge, achieving depth and breadth in their projects.
That Metahaven is one of the rare example ever mentioned in exemplary design research is probably a reflection of many factors. To begin with, it is difficult to make it a sustainable practice. Although Metahaven manage to piggyback some commissioned projects to do research, most of the work they do is funded by commissioned design, grants and teaching. Then, the amount of work that needs to go in ambitious research projects is far from negligible, and diffusion channels are limited. The relative lack of recognition by peers and the general public might not help younger designers to take that road either; it certainly makes it hard to find local models, tutors, and a wider audience. On top of that, the sheer aspect of intellectual engagement might be off-putting to some; it goes way beyond the kind usually asked in universities.
There is a form of terror in making work that nobody helps you realising, or that is hard to judge. Do issues of style and taste become irrelevant in judging work that primarily deal with producing knowledge? I would argue not; however, when looking at research projects, it is important to acknowledge both sides of the coin.
Metahaven’s recognition as well as their advanced design language has inevitably led to a form of mimicry, limited to the projects’ surface rather than their intellectual depth. Perhaps we are stuck in a “chicken or the egg” situation: although Metahaven are in no way saying that their way of doing is the only one, they are the only role models leading the field of that form of research. Our duty is now to encourage and support designers with that interest, in order to see alternative leaders emerge. They would in turn force a recognition of research in order to become the design world’s next models.