Jason Grant | Essays

Cultured Graphic Hygiene

Jan van Toorn, Van Abbemuseum, 1971

The poster above, by Jan van Toorn for the Van Abbemuseum, is a museum exhibition promotion but it is also a bold critique. It manages to disclose the banalities of both the art market and of accepted visual communication processes. The work represents Van Toorn’s career-long concern with reclaiming the media as a channel of communication, from its modern role of mere distribution, or worse, of obfuscation and deception. 

Regardless of how difficult, disobedient or messy a subject, most museum posters are courteous and clean, and nothing if not formulaic. A tasteful crop of a key image with sympathetic, unobtrusive typography. Or if the institution’s branding is involved, possibly a little less sympathetic and a little more obtrusive. Is there any reason why graphic design for museums and galleries shouldn’t be the measure of their exhibits? Can’t a poster, in its own way, be as good as what it’s promoting? Not the direct equivalent of a Picasso exactly, but at least as ambitious within its own field? How hard can it be to outshine a lot of contemporary art?

Jan van Toorn's poster presents a shopping list of artist’s names: Chagall, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Klein, Mondrian, Moholy Nagy and Picasso, ending with the tallied cost of the museum’s acquisitions, 273,969 guilders. The text, both typeset and handwritten, is in black and the entire composition is framed by a thick red border. Hanging under the horizontal red rule, the tallied cost is the largest single element, with the artists’ names stacked above it. The museum’s name is centered at the top as if heading official stationery on which the list has been scrawled. 

I tried hard to imagine any of the galleries I regularly visit creating something similar. I failed.

Ralph Schraivogel, Gross und Klein, 1997

Martin Woodtli, Trickraum, 2005

Sure, sometimes a potent, representative image unmolested by intrusive type will do the trick — not so much as a gesture of polite visual etiquette as a statement of considered graphic impact. But usually it just looks lazy. This is generally the case for even the world’s greatest galleries and museums. Predictable, safe and forgettable, breeding a kind of cultured visual hygiene.
Of course, Van Toorn is exceptional in a country of exceptional graphic design. The Netherlands famously produces some of the most adventurous visual communication promoting culture. And there are many other striking exceptions around the world. I’ve long appreciated the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich commissioning the likes of Ralph Schraivogel, Martin Woodtli and Cornel Windlin. Likewise, James Goggin’s subtle posters for the Tate transcend brand bullying.

Cornel Windlin, Frische Schriften, 2004

James Goggin, Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003
The success of Van Toorn’s poster is not just its memorable impact but also its reconciliation of the designer’s agenda and the client’s needs. The poster functions as a provocative promotion and a considered expression of the museum’s identity, suggesting institutional transparency and public accountability.
This is characteristic of Van Toorn’s work from the 1970’s onwards, rejecting modernism’s pretense of objectivity to reveal intrinsically manipulative visual codes and embedded points of view. Van Toorn sees dominant graphic design as a controlled, systematic visual language employed by designers ignoring personal political agency. He argues that this tends to veil the client’s motivations and establish opaque authority. In contrast, Van Toorn explores the visually unexpected and that which is awkward, and thereby insists on making room for public dialogue.
For many, a show starts not when the curtain raises or the doors open, but when an inviting poster or advertisement beckons. Here our expectations are framed and we are guided towards what is to be seen. The show begins in our imagination long before we have bought a ticket. And yet the very means employed to engage the public are strangely sterile. Their dull familiarity lies in their relationship to core strategies of corporate media and market imperatives. A museum’s visual communication enters a context colonized by commercial messages, and unless it stands apart will itself be colonized. Ideas are sold as products, and instead of discussion the public is offered condescension. This one-way process contributes to the public’s feelings of institutional culture as an elite spectacle. An audience knows real participation and engagement when they see it. But what they mostly see is a cropped artwork and tasteful type.
Philosopher Tony Fry’s new book Design Futuring introduces new ideas about the potential for practicing design. How can designers contribute to a sustainable future? We exist by destroying as well as creating — this is our inescapable condition. However, the damage we do mostly occurs not by accident, but by design. Fry proposes "redirective practice" as a way of redesigning design. Redirective practitioners aren’t just "designers as authors" or "graphic auteurs," but designers developing "forms of visual communication that devalue people's investment in systems, products, services and lifestyles that de-future, while at the same time, generating new ambitions and material desires bonded to life-affirming futures."
Fry admits the difficulties in instigating the practice in an industry with such stern ideological masters — an industry of service providers and passive problem solvers. Yet, it is possible and there are precedents.
Van Toorn’s forty-year-old Van Abbemuseum poster demonstrates the designer’s insistence on the social role of design, and proposes a more active engagement for both designer and viewer. The cultural forces that shape social change are the consequences of both humble and grand design. It may seem strange to be extolling the power of an inky piece of paper in an age of vast digital interactivity, but Van Toorn’s poster flags the future. It betrays much contemporary cultural promotion as limp and lacking, while illustrating the radical possibilities of visual communication.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design

Comments [34]

Hi Jason. Well said.

Van Toorn has been with us so long, yet is so singular as to highlight the extreme difficulties that exist in forming a politically articulate design practice that can carry a conversation among the mainstream profession. The example you chose is a classically "graphic" poster, but unskinned from the formal inventiveness that makes van Toorn a more palatable polemicist within the profession. Politics is on its sleeve in a way that references Hans Haacke's institutional critique of museums, from his 1971 cancelled Guggenheim show onward.

Although I don't know the history of the van Toorn poster you refer to, I imagine it caused less controversy than Haacke's non-exhibit did in its time. After all, it is design, not art, and its mongrel social function must include at least some degree of appeasement for the powers-that-be that commission its existence.

Both politically-motivated efforts, however, point to the difficulties faced by any designer (or artist, to a lesser degree) in shifting the role of the image in the management of social consciousness. After all, both are merely attempting to upset certain conventions within the safe and limited space of a museum. You correctly point out, however, that the same issues of colonization and passivity rule there that do outside the culture industry.

How much easier to challenge a museum than the whole of society! Yet as Tony Fry insists, that is precisely what we must do to build more future through our design "solutions." At least one model of practice, viz., van Toorn, already shows a way through visual communication. I agree with you and Fry regarding the need to reframe how we practice design, but it will be an uphill effort.
John Calvelli

Excellent essay. I find especially compelling your thoughts on the experience of an exhibition beginning with the media that advertise it. And I think that's a crucial aspect of the whole experience. Just as the book cover by which we're not supposed to judge--but do. And should.

completely agree that the museum exhibition poster should be compelling in its own right. why can't they rise to the creative heights and aspirations in the tradition of rock posters?

would love to see more unexpected work representing the iconic and unexpected works of great visual artists. seems like there should be even more freedom associated with the visual arts than with representing a rock band.

let it loose exhibition design posters.

great points.
oyl miller

'an industry of service providers and passive problem solvers'. Is anyone else insulted? My ideological master pays my bills.

Target, while no insult was intended, I notice you haven't actually disagreed. These are the very terms most of us use to describe our role. However for many, this is way too narrow a potential. Can we aim our exalted "creativity" at more than paying the bills?
Jason Grant

this is a non-article
it's lazy and formulaic

It should be noted that van Toorn did not practice this way of designing exclusively with museums and cultural institutions. He tried and tries to apply this to any kind of project where he can do so.
That is interesting and, maybe designers can learn a thing or two from thinking this way not only about conservative fine art world museum and gallery promotion work but also in commercial work they do as well. Van Toorn did this with his PTT work.

Mr. Grant writes this as if the only thing standing designers and their ability to produce more meaningful work, particularly for cultural institutions, is either cowardice or their own lack of fortitude. And while he does acknowledge the impact of "core strategies of corporate media and market imperatives" on the way that institutions sell themselves to the public, I think he ignores an even more obvious factor: which is the stubborn hierarchy between "art" and "design," which persists in many of not most of our most vaunted institutions. The reason that museum posters so often present a picture of the art with little else is that there is an ideology deeply internalized by curators and museum officials that prizes the reproduction of the work of art as having more integrity than anything that would or could be added to it, because the art is held as a higher activity. This is particularly strong in the presentation of contemporary art, where the artists work can even be seen encompassing the posters, the catalog, etc. When Jan van Toorn designed that poster it was at an interesting moment, when due to the times, and the undeniable power of van Toorns' compelling work, he was able to crack the code and present something "different." That poster was also done at the peak of a particular type of conceptual art, where other artists were doing work that was aimed at opening up the workings of art institutions, to reveal the social and cultural "construction" of the institutions as not being "natural" but very much the result of conscious value systems, authority, market forces, etc. You could actually say that van Toorn appropriated a method that was in the air at the time he made that work, and like many things made so perfectly for their moments, it retains a power. But while Jan van Toorn's poster is still a provocative work, I do think that the point of it - that art costs money, and therefore represents a decisions to spend public treasure at the cost of other things - is actually now a bit nostalgic. The workings of the art market and the adoration of all things for their high price have put the monetary value of works of art in front and center stage in a way that does not, and cannot, extend into a social critique, it's too far gone. But of course what remains is the example of van Toorn's having - or taking - the power to at least add something to the institutional message, and 38 years later that remains just as hard a "sell" it ever was - but not just because designers are "passive problem solvers." The redirection that Tony Fry talks about probably has to re-direct itself into other sorts of problems, entirely, than the institutionalized ones addressed by van Toorn's poster.
Lorraine Wild

great essay. packed with ideas. i don't think it's saying van toorn only designed for culture or that socially engaged practice should be limited to this territory. it's saying something very important that many designers won't face or find excuses to ignore. design now mostly enables ways of relating to and participating in the world that threaten everything we cherish. but some designers are refusing this function and working for a different future. i agree that it's possible and necessary. i think it's actually the most important and urgent task. thank you for saying so.
jorge costa

Lorraine, I'm not sure where I stated or implied the ONLY thing standing in the way of designers producing meaningful work (can work be anything else anyway?) is personal cowardice or laziness. I'd strongly agree the individual is operating in structural bind, but I also wouldn't want to suggest designers are all unconscious or unable to shake it off.

It seems a cop-out to cite the obvious historically specific conditions of the production of Van Toorn's example to avoid acknowledgment of the necessity of contemporary engagement. It's an 'interesting moment' now. I admit the difficulty of redirective practice. I know how hard it is. I reckon many designers see themselves as passive problem solvers because their value in a persuasive ideological system is affirmed by this role. It's not a decontexualised choice. There's a million reasons why what Van Toorn and others do will struggle - but as the ecological and human crisis deepens - not a single reason not to act anyway.
Jason Grant

Nowaday, Too many Dutch style visual graphics are flourished in the field on design in Korea. Regardless what 'style' is popular, to centered on a particular style is not a good tendency, I think.
Amber Jeon

Jason: I was moved to write my response, not because I have a problem with your your larger idea that graphic designers can and should engage in “redirective practices,” but rather with your sub-theme, which seems to state that museum posters are a problem crying out for a solution. You misread me if you think that my interest in the “historically specific conditions” of van Toorn’s poster is an avoidance of anything. Look, I adore van Toorn, his career and his work: yet of all the things van Toorn has designed, that poster is perhaps most useful to designers today to illuminate the difference between “then” and “now.”

The point of my sketch on the context of that poster, the relationship of what van Toorn made to what was then a leftist cultural critique that had entered the realm of late 60s and early 70s conceptual art, was simply to say that van Toorn was addressing a “problem” that is no longer quite the same. His van Abbemuseum poster baldly addressed the desire to make explicit what were then hidden social “structures” and to question the use of public funds to engage in the “banalities of…the art market.” Even in Holland, the state no longer supports art at the level that it did when van Toorn used the “reveal” of the expenditure to rip the lid, so to speak, off of the museum. And the attachment of a dollar figure to the enjoyment of art was a provocation in 1971; whereas now the dollar figures of art sales are published in the paper along with weekend movie grosses. And in both western Europe and North America, cultural institutions are pretty much tied to corporate giving: I guarantee that any designer working on a van Abbemuseum poster today has to contend with the same long string of logos and branding that festoon so many museum posters, and which delineate, for all to see, exactly where the cash is coming from.

While van Toorn remains a powerful example of the socially engaged designer, I can’t imagine that he would agree that the same media and strategies that worked then are still the most relevant. In fact, the problem seems to be not that there is hidden information that needs to be revealed, as much as there is too much information that needs to be represented and re-shaped in a manner that can reach an overwhelmed audience.

So maybe all I really care to say is that if designers are going to be activists, the question of where to direct their energies and work is paramount. And whereas we can all hope for some of the more enlightened institutions to become enlightened patrons, and support those that do, the “structural binds” of museums in particular may render many of them unfit as targets for the sorts of design activism that I think you are advocating. Thus the tension (for me, anyway) between your larger point, a gorgeous and intelligent 38 year-old poster, and the idea that museum posters today are a suitable medium for “redirective design” addressing such problems as the “ecological and human crisis.”

Lorraine Wild

I think its difficult to act like these promotional materials aren't being used for one purpose—to sell admissions. In many respects, I find asking cultural designers to do more than "courteous and clean, and nothing if not formulaic" work is similar to asking for posters promoting Coke to not display the Coke logo. It will happen in very rare circumstances, but to believe it is the correct direction seems misguided at best.

I love the Museum for Gestaltung's posters—but I also recognize that they are promoting something very different than what many museums promote (which is to say its not a museum that does major retrospectives of "branded" artists). Much like the Criterion collection in DVD packaging, they use their relative obscurity (and the fact that most people will not immediately recognize direct imagery even if used) to create something enticing that speaks to the theme—and not the brand. But, as has been noted by Criterion designers, if they do get to design for a film with a known star, you better believe 9 times out of 10 that person is on the cover (The same is true of MGZ—you're slightly stacking the deck by not showing some of the more "traditional" posters they have done for more "known" artists: Bucky Fuller, Max Bill, Bruno Munari. These certainly don't attempt to upend the complexities of each designer)

The economics of museums is dictating that "courteous and clean, and nothing if not formulaic" is certainly a safe way to be sure visitors show up with certain expectations. I can't say that in today's turbulent economic moment I wouldn't do the same in their situation.
Derrick Schultz

Lorraine, I was never arguing for a replication of Van Toorn's specific strategy, especially in relation to a disclosure of the contemporary art market or such. My point is more or less that "where there's a will..." I don't think museum posters are "crying out for a solution" - their solution already works, because however provocative or radical the art it is, without critical mediation it is further commodified and neutralized. Isn't it a well worn communicative dissonance?

I can't speak for Van Toorn, but I'm not so sure the glut of information means much is exposed, certainly not power relations, manipulative market myths or the mechanisms of exploitation. So won't that which is concealed, as well as revealed, always need to be addressed if designers are to promote an understanding of structural inequities? How can I act with no appreciation of my social power? I'd agree that we're overwhelmed and confused, but not just by quantity and complexity. Forgive me for quoting Foucault: silence and secrecy are a shelter for power. It's just that much contemporary "silence and secrecy" is carefully calibrated mass-media noise.

Your last point about designers "going to be activists" is for me right at the heart of the problem. I know a few designers, and not many would ever consider themselves "activists". And yet all of them care about their families, friends, their neighborhood and the environment. They've all got the motivation and capacity to be engaged or redirective designers - they don't need to be "activists", or even designers for that matter, to start designing a sustainable future. For as long as designers alienate ourselves from our communities, ignoring the reality of our own experience, making excuses for our complicity, don't we resign our potential?

I don't think the structural binds of cultural institutions are more prohibitive than many other options, let alone the bonds of broader ideology. As for what's a suitable medium for redirective design, how about just something?
Jason Grant

It's clear that museum posters operate under the same conditions as all other client-commissioned design does. I don't believe that Jason's example is meant to suggest that there is an activist potential in museum posters that doesn't exist elsewhere; in many ways, museums operate under more severe constraints – über-constraints really, a more generalized but insistent series of image strategies that define the social relationship between instrumentality and its art-sanctioned opposite.

I think it correct to say that there is an opening which exists now in this "interesting moment" that can (and I think) should engage designers. Following both van Toorn's and Haacke's 1971 art world activist gestures there came the disco era, born-again-ism, Reaganism, and Bushisms. During this epoch we had more image laid upon us than Picasso could paint in a century. It's time to unravel some of that the best we can. My interpretation of Jason's example is that images can (sometimes) reveal rather than conceal. Since there seems to be a disconnect between the world as we experience it in our everyday lives (busy but entertaining) and the problem of unsustainability (speculative but portentous), it would make sense to attempt to find image strategies, like van Toorn's museum poster, that can poke revealing holes in our passivizing screens in order that we can better gauge the health of our collective real.

Perhaps a museum poster example is significant as it foregrounds the "bad ecology" that exists between art and design [Bateson: "There is an ecology of bad ideas, just as there is an ecology of weeds."]. It's even more than a stubborn hierarchy, it's a self-reinforcing and unsustainable relationship. Art sustains us (as a general phenomenon), yet it operates in a self-imposed bubble outside of social agency; design (as it has been practiced since the industrial revolution) is massively unsustainable, in addition to having massive social power.

We need to rework this bad ecology into something that sustains and has social power. That could make for a very interesting time indeed.
John Calvelli

Art sustains us (as a general phenomenon), yet it operates in a self-imposed bubble outside of social agency; design (as it has been practiced since the industrial revolution) is massively unsustainable, in addition to having massive social power.

I think this statement sums up the crux of the difference between Mr. Grant and Ms. Wild. Mr. Grant (and Mr. Cavelli), in an almost nostalgic manner, seems to willfully pass over the history of almost forty years of art practices in museums that continuously challenge the status quo of the white box, the notion that a museum is necessarily an elitist institution, the frame of the work, and society itself to make the always valid if not quite simple point that design, and even the museum poster (what few are produced), has a role in societal debates. The art within Cavelli's (and Grant's?) bubble was burst decades ago.

Ms. Wild suggests that Mr. Grant explore more deeply the historical and design circumstance of the production of not only van Toorn (putting him more concretely in his time if not his place) but of art practices, and museum and curatorial practices - as a prelude to her questioning whether 1960's strategies have the same resonance in 2009 that they did in 1971. I agree with Wild's point, if one wanted to design a resistance today, perhaps attacking 21rst Century culture, in the form of the 20th Century museum poster, while not irrelevant, may not be quite as relevant.

There are institutions such as banks, land developers, hedge funds, etc. which seem far more worthy design opponents then cultural institutions, which at best are places of refuge from the insanity that surrounds us, and at worst are passive recipients of some of the decade's spoils. In this last regard at least, Mr. Grant has a point.

Nevertheless, I stand with Wild - while not absolving art institutions - they, more than most, seem to be conscious of their "Foucaultian" role in culture. Designing posters to "reveal" this misunderstands and demeans too much of the art of today, and directs the energy of designers towards cultural phenomenon and institutions that largely self-redirected themselves decades ago.
Baron Heidelberg

There is no doubt that even the art of the last century took on social issues and challenged the museum and white box's walls - beginning with dadaism. But I think Mr. Heidelberg is too optimistic to suggest that the more recent attempts of the last 40 years were at all successful. The supposition that nostalgia is inherent in an examination of the potential usefulness of a previous practice is, I should say, simply part of an avantgardism that seeks to replace the current domination for a new variety.

But that being said, focusing on land developers, hedge funds, et. al. is a good idea, for designers and others. I think van Toorn took a small step in that direction by focusing on finance and not aesthetics in his poster. I think the misunderstanding comes from considering Jason's example exclusionary rather than as one of many ways we need to act for the future.

The recent art you refer to does challenge, but design needs to join its powerful social agency to the exclusionary efforts of a few artists who affect, mainly, museums, collectors and art markets.
John Calvelli

Van Toorn’s posters are to be taken seriously not because they represent a social conscience, but because he (and his sympathetic museum director) took his work seriously as a full-fledged form of cultural practice. Van Toorn’s posters record an attitude toward social critique that was particular to its time (as already pointed out by Lorraine Wild). The fact that that such an attitude has essentially become mainstream (or, more accurately, is being promoted to be mainstream) makes Van Toorn’s work a timely topic but what is troubling is the implicit dismissal of that which falls outside of a Van Toorn orbit.

It just seems that as graphic designers we are constantly told that our work paths have only two choices: “make work that saves the world” which is of essential value, or “make things pretty” which makes us minions of the evil corporate machine. There never seems to be an understanding that as graphic designers we also have the option to preserve a bit of culture of the now. Graphic design grants us the ability to express ourselves through a creative outlet (and earn a decent living), it also enables us to reflect how our pop culture sees itself, and to preserve how our classic values have developed and represent the beauty of those details for new generations to admire, experience and cherish. The ability to express and embed values is by no means a small accomplishment. Yet among graphic designers, cultural “value” is constantly undervalued, dismissed and derided: it simply serves no use.
David Cabianca

[N.B. URLs have been removed otherwise the DO website thinks this is a spam posting.]

When looking at other disciplines, one takes note that our society continually establishes institutions that preserve artifacts of cultural (and monetary) value, and that we preserve those values not simply within the objects themselves, but by the container entrusted to be their guardian. Works such as those by Ando, Zumthor, or Gehry speak volumes about the society that created them. And they give us the hope that at least at some level, that our society, for all its misfortunes, misery and injustices, is still worth preserving. It is not easy to describe why something such as the Brother Claus Chapel designed by Peter Zumthor is of value just by looking at it (which is how we tend to treat graphic design). Value is a matter of context, both historical and cultural:

“The Chapel, dedicated to Niklaus von Fluehe, called Brother Claus, was donated by farmer Hermann-Josef and Trudel Scheidtweilerand, and built by local farmers on the edge of his field. Zumthor used a technique called ‘rammed concrete’ where farmers poured a layer of concrete over a teepee of timber every day for 24 days, leaving a texture similar to that of rammed earth. The timber was then burnt out by colliers, using the same process as making charcoal, leaving a charred inside. An oculus at the top is open to the sky letting in rain and light. Filtered light also enters through holes in the walls.”

The efforts of these local farmers and craftsmen to erect a tiny space, far from any significant traffic and the easy access of visitors, using laborious, imperfect craft techniques, suggests that something other than “functional necessity” is being celebrated. It almost absurdly surreal to have taken such protracted efforts to build something so insignificant. The beauty of the chapel—its meaning—lies within the effort that surrounds it: the effort to build, to visit, to experience.

If it sounds like I am advocating for a disengaged aesthete’s position in graphic design, I am not. But I do recognize that most graphic designers are not going to be making work that will “save the world” or involve a social conscience. Nor will most graphic designers be making work that will be collected by museums as examples of culturally significant artifacts. Rather, most graphic designers will make work that simply satisfies a need. My point is that in addition to satisfying that need, there is the possibility that however small, the work that is produced by the vast majority of practicing graphic designers satisfies a need within themselves, satisfies a need within our culture now and preserves the memory of where we have come from, so that perhaps much like Van Toorn’s poster, in time our own work will be valued by others.
David Cabianca

Are Wild's & Heidelberg's comments wilful misunderstanding or just a lack of imagination? It is obvious to me Grant is illustrating an example, not necessarily advocating a lonely assault on the art world. As Calvelli said, they are 'considering Jason's example exclusionary rather than as one of many ways...'

I would ask what they have to gain from such a misreading? Seems the same old story - defending the status-quo.
G Burke

I admit to having an impaired imagination, since "museum posters" in my town largely consist of silk-screened vinyl strips hung on outdoor poles two stories up, to be viewed at 35 miles per hour: so I'm obviously am having trouble seeing them as vital sites of social resistance, "redirective practice" or opportunities for...what? I agree with the larger goals that Jason Grant proposes, but it's precisely his proposal that cultural institutions provide some sort of sweet spot for re-imagined practice that seems sort of "status-quo-ey" to me (and what prompted me to write to begin with) given that it goes into territory already (admirably) explored within graphic design's canon. I agree with David Cabianca's points about the utter necessity of graphic design as a participant in the culture, a capturer of time, and an expression of value (and definitely his observation that cultrual practices are undervalued) but I can name a whole pile of people who already practice in ways that wrestle with that. I guess if I misread anything here, it's in thinking that the thing that Grant was advocating, as van Toorn was in 1971, was throwing design at the deeper structural problematics of the moment - which, at least to me, don't really seem to be embedded in the museums (as they might have been in 1971) - but maybe elsewhere, in the realms that Mr. Heidelberg described, and which seem to beg for design strategies that might include, but certainly would need to go beyond, rectangular pieces of offset printed paper. Or those vinyl thingies.
Lorraine Wild

The art within Cavelli's (and Grant's?) bubble was burst decades ago.
I believe that Mr. Heidelberg misunderstands my point. To say that art sustains is not to point to a golden age of landscapes, abstractions and other pre-1970 art that doesn't challenge art institutions. Art sustains, in part, because it has continually challenged institutions, though admittedly sometimes more than others. It's been almost a century since the two inaugurating 20th c. avant gardes – futurism and dadaism – overtly challenged the white boxes of their time. As is well-known, the first reverted to fascist commodification while the latter has had a more enduring (!) influence on art and its institutions as well as on design.
I think we need to go back even further in order to go forward, to the closely spaced inaugurating events that surround the separation of art and design as disciplinary activities: the invention of the term "fine arts," the development of an industrially-capable steam engine; the entry of art history into the University, the industrial and design innovations of Wedgewood, and the publication of Kant's Critique of Judgment, forming the philosophical foundation of art for art's sake.
Design from that point forward becomes wedded to industry while art seeks its refuge within the constraints of elitist institutions. This is neither to blame only designers for industry's unsustainable effects nor to condemn art for allying itself with means of support. Both have boxes they exist within.
Some artists today, however, are embracing what many professional designers find it difficult to do, namely, to engage intractable social problems with activities of social design that are both aesthetic and critical. How much more interesting, and more effective, it would be if more designers redirected their practices along similar lines.
Towards the end of Objectified, Gary Hustwit's recent movie following Helvetica, the elder statesman-designer Dieter Rams suggests that design in the future will be about survival. None of us should wait, like he and Phillipe Starck, until we retire until we realize and act upon this, methinks.
Big questions are being asked and great opportunities abound to define new ways of practicing. Let none of us be nostalgic about the way things have been in design, art, or anything else over the last few decades or centuries. We can only create future for ourselves in full cognizance of our defuturing past.
John Calvelli

John Calvelli:

How much more interesting, and more effective, it would be if more designers redirected their practices along similar lines.

Why would it be "more interesting and effective"? According to whom? I find design plenty interesting as it is was practiced and is currently practiced. In fact, one lifetime isn't enough time to write about the richness of discourse that is latent in the discipline.

Excuse me but Objectified is about industrial design. And Dieter Rams and Phillip Starck are industrial designers. How's their socially conscious graphic design practice coming along?
David Cabianca

Why would it be "more interesting and effective"? According to whom?

Well, apparently it would be more interesting to me and not to you. As far as effectiveness goes, it depends on ones aim. My aim as a designer is to solve problems, not create them. If one's design solution—regardless of discipline—eliminates future rather than allows for more future, I consider that a problem, not a solution. Effective design would effect a future.

The problem of unsustainability is possibly insurmountably difficult to look in the eye—just as World War I presumably was for the Dadaists. It's hard for any of us to know how to approach it. Might we be able to make the insurmountable at least as interesting for ourselves? If we want to talk of our now, let's engage now and contribute to future latent discourse.

As noted, Dieter Rams is retired, or at least trimming his Bonzai trees. Starck tantalizes us with his retirement too. Unfortunately, their social consciousness comes too late for us to benefit. Maybe there still is the possibility of a few Rodchenkos, Heartfields, van Toorns and ??? to help us redirect for our own time.
John Calvelli

Just a few more random comments that I hope have some bearing on Jason's initial post and following comments:

First, I think the choice of a 1971 poster is an interesting one. It was around then that we first, as a society, began to understand that the earth was a finite resource and that there were limits to growth. We were only beginning to fathom the potential consequences that were outlined in the 2007 IPCC report on human-induced climate change.

Second, unlike the dadaists, whose work emerged from the aftermath of a global war; or Rodchenko in midst of a revolution; or Heartfield in the buildup to the next global conflagration; or even van Toorn, whose work follows the flare-ups of the late 1960s—the work we are to do in our time stands not in a relationship to an aftermath, but to a "pre-math": a crisis whose effects are yet to come, even if we understand they they (presumably) will. How do we respond to a crisis we can see?

Maybe this is what makes it "interesting," yet also why it is so hard to convince many visual communicators. There's nothing to see. Then what will our vision be? Unlike Heartfield, say, the Nazis aren't breathing down our back.
John Calvelli

Totally off-topic. Just a compliment to Jason Grant for honoring Dutch grammar. Indeed, when the name is written in full ('Jan van Toorn') the prefix 'van' starts with an undercast v. But when only the last name is mentioned ('Van Toorn'), the word should start with a capital V. Don't know if this sits well in English grammar, but this is how the Dutch do it. Good to see that Grant pulled it off the correct way.
Okay. Back to more important issues.

Govert de Haan

I think what unites Ms. Wild's, 'Mr. Heidelberg's', and Mr. Cabianca's posts is a call for a more complex, nuanced, and involved commentary on Mr. Van Toorn’s outlook, one that does its complex subject a little more justice.

I applaud and appreciate the general enthusiasm of Mr. Grant's gesture, but what is being highlighted is the room for improvement. The constructive commentary and counter-commentary helps to contextualize the original post which is what it needs as this is well-trodden ground.

My interest is in the reminder that design, though seen from the fictitious angle of an isolated discipline, both reflects culture at large and constitutes it, the two always inextricably linked. Isolating one particular expression of Van Toorn's work and career without more substantially explaining its relationship to Dutch culture and 'Dutch design' that evolved/evolves from it, risks merely skimming the surface.

I'd like to know more about the ideas behind, and the context in which the Windlin, Goggin, Woodtli and Schraivogel posters were made. For example, what was the working relationship between Goggin, Eliasson, and the Tate, how did the design come about? Same for the Windlin poster. Were the inflated letters made explicitly for the poster? What were the terms of the commission? Considering the possibilities for critical agency in design in the US has to be done through its own particular socio-economic and cultural lens.

To be fair, this overall short-coming is also evidence of the medium of the blog pushing up against its own boundaries, at least in this current format and with respect to this particular and complex subject.

Julian Bittiner

Thanks for your comment Julian. I appreciate your desire for a more complex and lengthy piece, but it really wasn't meant to be that kind of essay. It was intended as a brief intro (a skimming for sure) to some ideas that might trigger discussion and further interest. Hopefully there's room for different approaches, all with their specific value in this context, regardless of the perceived limitations of blogs.

Many thanks everyone for their thoughtful responses. If only it was "well trodden ground"...
Jason Grant

It’s great to hear designers talking about redirection. Thanks, Jason for sparking this off with your article. But as the conversation has progressed, redirective practice has been evoked in increasingly vague ways. It’s a rich idea that deserves more attention. Tony Fry has written about it in ‘Design Futuring’ (Berg, 2009). Redirective practice encompases both the self redirection of designers and the redirection by design of material and immaterial culture away from unsustainability and towards sustainment (there’s much complexity in this move, which I won’t go into now). The important point is that redirective practice points to something new – beyond the pseudo independence of art and the service model of design. At the same time it's not absolutely fixed - it needs lots of people working on/at and doing it.
Anne-Marie Willis

I really admire that poster and had not seen it before. Thanks for sharing.
Max Batt

Please do not lump me into the same barrel as Mr. Cavelli. He and I have very different notions of present practice and its opportunities. His sense that artists have led the way to criticality is just too silly to rebut. There is massive amounts of design (anyone remember "massive change") in the past thirty years that has commented first and designed for service purposes second. Please do not make me cite more examples of redirected practice; let me just say that artists have a different type of license than designers but there are plenty of classes of design licenses and plenty of different design drivers out there. I am appreciating Mr. Grant's post a bit more as the design clowns begin to dance on the heads of design pins.
Baron Heidelberg

The bitterness and defensiveness of some of these responses is to be expected. After all many of us want to just keep playing the game. But the game is up. With so many apparently mesmerised moving to the same beat, for me the point of this excellent essay is to STOP dancing on the head of pin. Which dead white man had carved on his tombstone that the philosophers have interpreted the world, but the real point is to change it?
Mark Williamson

Lorraine beat me to it in articulating the point that the contemporary ‘corporate giving’ structures on which many cultural institutions rely provide an equally transparent revelation today of exhibition economics through the simple presence of their logos on the poster. With Tate, for example, the scale of the corporate sponsor(s) for a given show tells you everything you need to know.
James Goggin

Baron Heidelberg and I seem to agree more than he might want to admit. 'Criticality' is neither the monopoly of artists or designers. But there is a relation between criticality and action which needs to be examined and changed. The criticality of art seldom changes the world, at least in the material ways design can. You can have a lot of criticality and little effect. Design always changes the world in material ways. We need more criticality precisely for that reason.

Neither is an exemplary practice; each is simply reproducing its place in the world as it is; namely as unsustainable. There are certainly some interventions, like Massive Change or some of Vito Acconci's which shift the discussion or practice; even Tibor was (possibly) able to effect some redirectional change.

I don't think this problem is how to dance on pins; rather it is about how much muck we are able to stand in, while either attempting to ignore it or begin shoveling ourselves out of it. There are many ways to go forward. I like the notion that we can attack the problem at the root rather than dickering around with pruning the branches.
John Calvelli

Jobs | July 21