Rick Poynor | Essays

Notes on Experimental Jetset

Experimental Jetset claim just about the most provocative and interesting list of influences I can recall any design team offering as an explanation for its activities. The fashionable Dutch design trio’s inspiration apparently includes the Situationist International, Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, the Dutch Provo movement, the Frankfurt school of philosophy, De Stijl, the Beatles, punk rock, fanzines, and various conspiracy theories.

I have to admit that the first time I really noticed their output, about three years ago, with the publication of the “Lost Formats Preservation Society” issue of Emigre (no. 57), I wasn't impressed: pages of monotonous, grid-locked Helvetica devoted to a less than gripping idea. What made me think again was the “Experimental Jetset vs. The World” manifesto that appeared a few months later in Dot Dot Dot (no. 3). Here, they demonstrated a breadth of reference, an economical subtlety of thought and a refreshing willingness to acknowledge and contest the “false images and representations” of contemporary visual culture that so many designers don’t even seem to notice, let alone worry about. They apologised for being naïve – this is often their strategy – but the brief text was an unusually knowing expression of intent.

Since then, they have made a series of statements, which are consistently well argued. There are three members – Erwin Brinkers, Marieke Stolk and Danny van Dungen – and whether or not their pronouncements are collectively composed, they are always presented as jointly authored, encouraging the sense that these viewpoints represent a considered and coherent studio philosophy. (Their anonymous publicity photo shows only a set of feet, which may not be their own.) It’s an uncompromising style of self-presentation more familiar from the art world and political groups than in the design business, where statements of purpose rarely rise above the level of bland promotional copy.

In a recent interview with Rudy VanderLans about their use of Helvetica, two key ideas emerge. First, that they always try to emphasise the physical qualities of a piece of graphic design. “By stressing the idea of design as matter rather than as an accumulation of images, we try to get away from the alienation of visual culture,” they say. By “images” they mean the representations used to attract certain audiences, and this leads to the second idea. “In our view, design should have a certain autonomy, an inner logic that exists independently of the tastes and trends of so-called target audiences.” Without this autonomy, design simply ends up reflecting back at the audience representations of things that it already knows about. Experimental Jetset compare the situation in design to contemporary politics. Increasingly, instead of presenting policies based on their own convictions, politicians try to discover what the public wants through market research and shape their policies to mirror these wishes.

This analysis makes a lot of sense, but as a rationale for defaulting so often to Helvetica, is it convincing? Think again about the exceptionally broad range of influences they cite – the energy, inventiveness, rich variety, and sense of cultural revolution in the Beatles’ work alone. Do such galvanic possibilities really distil down, in design terms, to something as unimaginative, un-engaging and ordinary as the world’s most overused typeface? Experimental Jetset argue that one way of endowing design with a sense of autonomous materiality is for it to be self-referential (that is, to refer to other designs). They believe that Helvetica’s combination of neutrality and self-reference allows the viewer to focus on the design as a whole and keeps “the concept as clear and pure as possible”.

There was only one way to test the truth of this assertion and that was to view and handle some of their designs, so I visited London’s Design Museum, where several of their projects were on display in an exhibition of recent European design titled “Somewhere Totally Else”. It was certainly the case, I discovered, that Experimental Jetset pieces such as We Are the World, a catalogue pack with removable posters created for the 2003 Venice Biennale, had a strong material presence – a function, in this instance, of using large areas of black and white on an unpleasantly glossy and non-tactile laminated surface. The Rorschach inkblot conceit used for the catalogue was, like the “Lost Formats” issue of Emigre, so overstated and dominant that it crushed the content. It was also true that their use of Helvetica could never be accused of diverting anyone’s attention from the purity of the “concept”. In fact, it was of no typographic interest at all.

On the way out, I bought a new book about the British poster designer Abram Games (1914–96), whose work has also been on display at the Design Museum. I sat down with the volume, subtitled “Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means”, in the museum’s café and began to look through its pages. Games invested his work as a visual communicator with a profoundly generous aesthetic sense expressed through a formidable mastery of craft. He endowed the visual world of his posters with an autonomous power beyond their immediate purpose that still communicates more than 50 years later. I admire the ingenuity of Experimental Jetset’s thinking. They have the makings of incisive critics of visual culture. But the aridity of their visual conclusions, at least as shown at the Design Museum, threatens to negate the values they otherwise defend.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Theory + Criticism, Typography

Comments [20]

It sounds, from the description of your experience, that Experimental Jetset have closed off to you, in each of their works, any possible discussion by the rigor of their concept. As if they had answered all possible arguments before they could be brought up. There aren't any loose ends. So there isn't really anything to grab ahold of. It is how what I have seen of their work strikes me. It is objectively sound, which leaves out the emotional or personal. So even when the ideas are great, it is difficult to engage them, to embrace them.
trent williams

I haven't seen the We Are The World catalogue yet, but I read quite an interesting article on it in a recent issue of Grafik (formerly Graphics International). It explains the ideas behind the inkblots and the gatefold/recordsleeve-like format of the catalogue. I think it was the November issue but I'm not sure.

H. Bleiberg

Couldn't find the Grafik article online. I did find a website that seems related to the catalogue:


and a better picture of the cover of the catalogue:


H. Bleiberg

And I found this article in which the catalogue is mentioned by the director of the Design Museum as one of the best designs of 2003:


Combined with Poynor's article, I now have a rather strange image of the catalogue in my head... Glamorous Aridity?
H. Bleiberg

The use of Helvetica and the reference to PiL's 'Album' sleeve in the Design Museum interview suggest to me that what interests Experimental Jetset is generics: the association, in the history of 20th century corporate graphic design, of a sort of puritan-protestant economy of means (and surely Swiss grid-graphics are protestant par excellence) with immense, reified capitalist power.

The paradox of this is the paradox of capitalism itself: the facade of pared-down rationalism actually hides a lot of voodoo, a lot of magic thinking. EJ play with this paradox when they mix rational forms like tight grids and Helvetica with irrational, dream-triggering, messy shapes like the Rorschach blot.

I'd hazard a guess that their collectively-issued statements (accompanied by photos of their shoes) might be pseudo-rational and fetishistic in this same way: to propose design-as-matter and design's 'inner logic' might sound very rational, a sort of demystification, but on another level isn't it an ironic game you can play with the fetishised signifiers of Protestant-capitalist instrumental rationality, rather than rationality itself?

Showing their shoes instead of their heads is what gives them away. People who show their heads are rationalists. People who show their feet... fetishists.

Regarding: "Experimental Jetset argue that one way of endowing design with a sense of autonomous materiality is for it to be self-referential (that is, to refer to OTHER DESIGNS)..."

Having read the Emigre interview, I had the impression that when they were talking about self-referentiality, they weren't talking about "referring to other designs". How I understood it, it had more to do with the designed object referring to itself, referring to its own context, or referring to (the medium of) graphic design in general.
Whatever that means.


Sebastian L.

Thanks for the links, H.B. And thanks for your gloss, Sebastian, on the question of what Jetset mean by "self-referential". Looking at the Emigre interview again, I think perhaps both our interpretations are correct. They do mean "referring to the medium of graphic design in general", but our awareness of how the medium has used Helvetica must derive from actual pieces (other designs) - hundreds of them. But probably I put it too crudely in my post.

As a matter of fact, I sympathise with their desire to produce design that refers to itself and to its context as a way of asserting the materiality of the medium. Without this internal acknowledgement of what it has been, of its own traditions, practices and conventions, design is unlikely to achieve that much-longed-for parity with cultural forms that take self-referentiality for granted as a sign of their cultural significance. One of the depressing things about so many designers who achieve wider attention is that they make a big show of letting us know that they prefer to look outside design for inspiration - to art, film, architecture. This attempt to gain themselves some extra cultural capital would be fine if they didn't, in the same breath, report that most design was of little interest to them. So Jetset's confident self-referentiality is a positive thing in my book, as an extra layer in design. It's just a shame that it has to be, in their own words, so "humourless and dogmatic" and needlessly tied to Helvetica.

Which brings me to Momus's point about their stance possibly being an "ironic game". In the Design Museum interview, they appear to be saying that they don't intend to be ironic ("or even deadpan"), though confronted by their typographic fixations, people sometimes assume that they are.
Rick Poynor

Quite frankly, I think it'd be a little terrifying to meet members of Experimental Jetset in person. Never have I been quite so confused by a body of work. Firstly, I wonder if the work is any good. Secondly, I wonder if it isn't outstanding, essential, and new. When I wrote about them in the same issue of Emigre that Rick cites, in an essay about "Default Systems Design" (www.studio-gs.com/default.html), you'll notice I carefully hedged my bets. The work has the hyperliterate lack-of-communication displayed by a lot of grad students out there. Is this intentional? Hard to say. Is this lack of intentionality troubling? Also hard to say. The attitude of the work seems to come to us via an aloof posturing that Rick points out is familiar to the art world and to politics, complete with mainfestos and earnest hand-wringing about whether or not it's worth it all. Are these statements sincere or sarcastic? Is it possible they're just lazy? Experimental Jetset's new essay for DOT DOT DOT #7, "Lazy Sunday afterthoughts," opens the door to this terrible possibility (www.dot-dot-dot.nl/issue7/issue7_sample.html). One thing is certain: I don't want to be accused of not getting the joke. Provided the joke is there. Which it is. I think.

Let me hedge my bets once more and set up a formula that's not new: Artists must present their work as they wish. I've seen a lot of artists speak on their work in misleading or uninspired ways. Sometimes this is disappointing, but more often it's useful and fascinating. Artists are not artists sometimes and wall plaques at museums othertimes. More and more often, artists are like brands - which is why you see more overlap between the design and art worlds now than ever before - you wouldn't be sold Coke one day and then have Coke explain how they sold you Coke the next.

Experimental Jetset are interesting first because of the clamor they've caused and confusion they've fostered. But, in discussing their work and the work of others like them, since I predict there'll be more (digital art is the next frontier and design is intimately bound up with it), we should try to move past this empty posturing and look at two things. The first is an attention to the "thingness" of their things that is new to graphic design. Sincerely or ironically, Experimental Jetset professes to express the "A3ness" of an A3 sheet in the same way that William Carlos Williams wanted to make plums just be plums. This is a new idea, and what I think is meant by "self-reference." Not a reference to the cultural history of design, but to the object itself. The second thing to look at are feelings. Designers don't talk about their feelings much, but they should. The work of Experimental Jetset displays - I think quite intentionally - apathy, laziness, listlessness, boredom, and a sense of loss. The computer has changed the way design is made, but it's also changed the way its makers feel about making it. A sense of possibility has given way to endless hours in front of screens in darkened rooms. So perhaps Experimental Jetset, in this regard, is being honest with you. For all their fibbing, they're telling the truth. Is that what art's about?
Rob Giampietro

I don't buy it. These are the games people play when they don't want to tell you how they feel. Like a teenager who says "just leave me alone." They get a rise out of you without revealing anything. Their cleverness is engaging and intimidating (off-putting) at the same time. But being smart is not a clear expression of emotion or of any kind of truth. It is an attempt.
trent williams

Smart beats clever every day of the week. These guys are clever.

If Experimental Jetset were really that great, then why did they name themselves after what is undoubedtly Sonic Youth's worst record?
Steve Reeder

Hrm, cleverness occupies your boredom. It's not so bad.

EJ would be happier if they weren't so precocious. I get the feeling that they long to use Helvetica as a jobbing font. But at least they're honest and don't pretend to be anything they aren't.

There is so much more interesting and visually stimulating work out there at the moment, that boring nerds like Experimental Jetset don't even register.

The Design Museum people really should get out more. I've always found Rick Poynor's views very interesting and this time I think he's right to express doubt.
Francois Piccolo

Monkeys were the first bipeds in space.
Ben Weeks

Apathic, lazy, listless, off-putting, intimidating, precocious. Boring nerds. Monkeys.

Quite an all-out attack on a group of people who only graduated a few years ago.

Calisto Rocca

I was very happy to learn about the activities of and the resultant interest in Experimental Jetset. Not only were their recent comments on the use of Helvetica incredibly thought-provoking, but also established EJ as truly a group of respectable thinkers who are at the forefront of the almost-forgotten movement toward the inseparability of theory and practice. They deserve all the attention they can get, despite the fact that they use Helvetica in the same way that Andy Warhol used Campbell's soup cans so many years ago.

Their confession of naivete is obviously an invitation for design thinkers to question and explore their line of thinking. This is a line of thinking which happily reintroduces the Frankfurt School and its German philosophical roots into the discourse on design. This, to me, is a more promising avenue after the more obviously and attractively aesthetic French post-structuralism has run its course. It reopens a wealth of thinking for designers to explore: aesthetics, the philosophy of history, phenomenology and hermeneutics among other things, but most importantly, rationality (the essential constructive element of design which has been neglected for some time now).

That EJ's philosophy is heavily reliant on Adorno's aesthetic theory and falls under the spell of dialectics and the "monological", Cartesian, self-referentially-rational "philosophy of consciousness", which Habermas later overcomes, makes for a good start toward a neomodern design movement which attempts to solve the problems of design rationality. Obviously, in the wake of postmodernism we are looking to build up new foundations for ourselves within the context of our newly-acquired radical consciousness of relativity. The first obvious step is to take a look at our modernist roots, not to make an empty retro-use of style, but in order to salvage what was great and necessary about it. EJ indeed takes the obvious approach, one that we can't be content with, but we should recognize it as a valuable step.

Their work, more than any other group that I know of, calls for serious intellectual exploration and expansion, in order to advance an "autonomous" discourse on design. Here, finally, is almost the basis for a book-length intellectual critique and study of graphic design on the level of architectural theory. Unfortunately, there are very few individuals out there who have the ability along with the willingness to do this.
Tom Gleason

In dot dot dot 3, there is a manifesto by EJ and some commentary about its context:

"Instead of speaking, they handed out a manifesto written especially for the occasion, and simultaneously showed a movie that was so boring, the audience was forced to actually read the text. The movie simply showed Experimental Jetset sat on the roof of their studio watching the eclipse. The whole audience watched them watching the eclipse for 30 very long minutes."

Did anybody attend this "Exploding Aesthetics" lecture series in Amsterdam in 2000? Either that, or does someone know what this commentary is supposed to be saying? I initially took it to be a proof of our inability to read, and our fascination with images no matter how banal. I assumed that nobody read the manifesto because the imagery overpowered it, and it reminded me of a project I did.

In a show full of run-of-the-mill Swiss (and the occassional rebellious "Carsonesque") design at my school, I hung my project: ten pages of a book, traditionally set in Sabon, no images, just text filling the pages. I got some experience with micro-aesthetic concerns, but the main point of my project was to force people to see the content. Not only did nobody read it, but some people didn't even see it, even when I told them "my piece is in the hall on the left", and even when I told them "it's the pages of a book".

This effect was more interesting to me than any "success" my project might have had if it looked prettier.

The point is that people have certain expectations about what design is, and these expectations determine what they are able to see. EJ may disagree about this; I don't know them: I personally think that EJ's work is good, but nothing new unless it is seen as integrated with their thinking, which many primarily-visual people are not willing to do.

Now, have I totally misinterpreted the explanatory caption? It is left open to interpretation--the grammatical error ("sat") is a clue that something about this situation could have been said more clearly if more time was put into the explanation. Surely that audience wasn't uninterested in reading!
Tom Gleason

damn, still quite aways from getting to adorno and habermas. what 'problems of design rationality' are there? and what have EJ salvaged from Modernism?

as for the results of the 'Exploding Aesthetics' lecture, i think there was a lot of toying with anticipation of experience, not wanting to miss something. (an eclipse is full of doom! there are some things you'd rather miss, and you need to get off your butt.) you can't miss anything with this lecture but exercising a loss of patience when it could have saved you time. making the call just needs to be easier.

if EJ is substantially concerned with addressing designers on some projects, what they're calling for is similar to what has happened to art and architecture. maybe design will end up with its own stewart brand in the future, but they've got a head start so we don't need to wait so much.

"'...Design should have a certain autonomy, an inner logic that exists independently of the tastes and trends of so-called target audiences.' Without this autonomy, design simply ends up reflecting back at the audience representations of things that it already knows about..."

Wow. That's a damn good point.

So good, in fact, that I'd think most revolutionary developments in self-expression (including design, obviously) would possess that innate autonomy of which EJ speaks, that willingness to break away from audience expectations and explore a respective medium's farthest reaches. (Practitioners might include James Joyce, Sun Ra and Lenny Bruce, for instance.)

It's such a classic, fundamental idea, but it often and easily goes overlooked.

Having said that, and having seen only a small sample of their portfolio, it seems to me that EJ relies a bit much on the expository footnotes tacked on to their design work, with their discourse a bit too stoic, stern and altogether removed, at least for my tastes.

They admit their "humourless and rather dogmatic way of designing" is contrary to much contemporary Dutch design, which they call "overly personal."

Hmmm. It all seems kinda cold. I like some blood and guts and bad dreams -- you know, the human element -- mixed in with my dialectical analysis. But that's just me.

Their work may indeed have formidable theoretical value, and cause the viewer to question the general nature of things and whatnot. But, of the pieces I've seen, the pure graphic element doesn't do much on a gut level for me, at least not yet. Taking all this in, an Italian expression comes to mind: "All smoke, no fire."

Nonetheless, I'm happy to withold judgement and check out more of their output and ideas. Still, one shouldn't constantly have to explain why one's design work is worthwhile, right? I mean, that sort of magnifies its weaknesses after a while, doesn't it?

After all, the greatest theoretical systems never made a bad jazz piece sound good, nor made a shoddily constructed piece of architecture more structurally sound or habitable.

"If Experimental Jetset were really that great, then why did they name themselves after what is undoubedtly Sonic Youth's worst record?"

Yeah, you said it, Steve -- when I first heard EJ's name, I thought exactly the same thing!

Maybe "Evol" or "Sister" just isn't a sexy enough title for a design studio in the Netherlands.

Jon Resh

Thanks, Momus.
That was good.

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