exhibition, Fund BKVB, Amsterdam, Summer 1999
Design has become a way of communicating. Its use is a given; no instructions are needed. What counts is how a design is employed in the visual culture that surrounds us. Less than a guide, the designer these days has become a co-user, a participant. The handbook has become a series of ways of employing. A way of working - an employment.
The fourteen designers who are presented here under the multi-interpretable title Mode(s) demploi are not a well defined group, but their chance encounter in this exhibition does result in a portrait of a generation. A young generation of designers, brought up in the information society and in the midst of an explosive multiplication of media and means of communication. Right from the start, they have grown familiar with the central instrument of the late 20th century, the computer. That is one thing that connects them - they are part of the first generation to which the computer is natural.
Their predecessors were pioneers, the first designers-with-the-mouse. They used their new powerful tools like someone uses a new BMW: see how fast it can go. In 1989 I met a designer who proudly held up a computer-made book in front of me and exclaimed: This is five gigabite!
Thats done now. The youngest generation of graphic designers has familiarised with the computer, which is now their self-evident tool and medium. They dont have to explain what a computer does, or that it can go very fast indeed. They dont have to explain what the Internet is. They dont have to come up with completely new metaphors for the new hypermedia. The pioneering has been done - although a lot remains to be researched and refined. So, they return to the old questions: how does one structure information? What is the role of the image? How do content and form relate? What is the relationship between text, image and accentuation?
The first, and most eye catching, result of this reflection is a radical simplification of the designs - calm has settled on the pages and screens once again. One seems to reach back to modernist typographical models only ten years ago considered hopelessly outmoded, to the stern principles of the grand- and great-grandparents. Helvetica and Univers are arguably among the hippest letters of the late-1990s and the coolest dance flyers show 8-point text in neat slim boxes with lots of white space around them
Seemingly diametrically opposed to this so-called return to elementary typography is a shift in the traditional hierarchy between text and image. The image - and here I dont just mean pictures - has undergone a remarkable evolution since the rise of the computer. The image has become word, and the word image. The typographical accentuation of a word or a text now has more than simply a decorative or functional reason - it adds a layer of meaning to the content. The formal aspect of typography not so much guides readability in the strict sense; it focuses the readability of the interpretation. The modernist motto Form Follows Function has made a full circle to arrive back at: Form = Content.
The generation on display here sees no contradiction in this apparent tension between the sparseness of modernist typography and an abundant use of imagery. For them, the dividing line between verbal and visual language has become porous. Visual culture and language no longer are at opposing sides of the Great Divide between high and low culture, but have become entangled, parts of a new multimedia culture to be. With these young designers, the layering of their predecessors has given way to a more balanced approach. Text, imagery and structural accentuation no longer engulf each other in a swirl of data, but complement each other in new forms of verbal-visual narativity.
A parallel, more formal aspect of this new multimedia culture is that style has been bared of its encompassing ideological characteristics. It has become a part of the arsenal of content elements with which a message can be visually enhanced. So if the form of a design these days seems to hark back to the typography of Emil Ruder or Wim Crouwel, that does not necessarily mean that the designer in question underwrites Crouwels adagium of static-free information or Ruders honesty. It could even be that the designer has no idea whatsoever of what Crouwel or Ruder are about.
To me it is hardly conceivable that a designer could function without being acquainted with these and other heroes - sic transit gloria mundi! - but one has to realise that the new generation apparently finds other sources more important than the Canon of graphic design. The experience this generation - as viewer, user, participant and designer - has gained from television, computers, Internet, multimedia, advertising, music, film, all these sub-media of todays information- and entertainment society, is considerably broader than that of their predecessors. No wonder they make their own personal choice from this mer-à-boire and this choice may very well differ from what the ancien regime considers to be irreplaceable basic knowledge.
Yet, the terms television generation, or computer generation, which are bound to come up in this context, are too easy stamps. They are superficial labels that disclose nothing of the quality of the intellectual and formal reflection of these designers on their media and their cultural and communicative contexts. This quality, it may be said with some emphasis, is remarkably high in this group of designers. They are part of the visual culture that surrounds them, and they add their things to it. Not blindly, but deliberate, analytic and argued.
If there is one word that is at the basis of the work of all these designers it is context. The deluge of images from the one is not just about the individual pictures; it tells of the context from which they are drawn, and to which, together, they will return. The typographic precision of the other does not constitute a return to the absolute principles of the Basel school, quite the contrary; it is a style quotation that consciously addresses the complex contexts of seemingly neutral messages.
These designs are useable in the sense that the reader themselves has to find, by reading, the instructions for use: in which context do form and content of this design coincide? More than riddles - that would be rather childish - these designs are language games in the way Lyotard described them: a play with meanings that click into their slots when one recognises the underlying codes, the connections. The contemporary citizen of the information society has become a well-practised reader of such language games. The experience with the fast changing perspectives of television soaps, the bizarre logic of advertisements, the symbolic poetry of videoclips, the turbulent narativity of the news, the visual hierarchies of newspaper and magazines, the clickable universe of hypermedia, these form the basis of the contextual connections in the work of contemporary designers. The computer is the instrument that brings together all these aspects, in moving and still imagery, in sound and text, in interactive or linear form. At the same time this tool, the computer, is also a medium in McLuhans sense: it is a constitutive part of the message. With a variation on McLuhan, one could say that in todays visual culture the computer is an extension of the imagination.
That means that it is of relatively little importance for the use of the computer as a medium, in which form or material, or through which channel, the design is produced. One is often tempted to look for the influence of the computer medium in specifically computer-own environments like cd-roms or websites. However, a new and fascinating aspect of the computer is that it is a medium and a tool at once, which can principally incorporate all other media - or, for those who cherish the idiosyncrasies of older media, which can sponge off those media. In that case, this exhibition is a fine example of media-parasitism: it is my firm conviction that the generation shown here embodies todays multimedia culture - and yet they show almost exclusively printwork! This is not a paradox, it is proof - albeit indirect - that what we are dealing with here is multimedia printwork. Paper communications that trust their readers to bring their experience with other media, with the whole complex and associated construct of late-20th-century visual culture, in reading and interpreting these printed messages. To address that faculty of interpretation is the main instruction for users of this generations work.