Less is more, more or less (2)

Image: book cover for Prometheus, Niels Meulman and DK/ 1992

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Written by Gerard Forde
Published in Emigre Magazine, winter 1993

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Investing in Communication
DINGEMAN and NIELS feel that the esoteric nature of much Dutch design can be partially explained by the lack of communication between designers in HOLLAND. DINGEMAN considers that ‘there is an important rôle for the organisation of the job. Because people work alone, or with two or three people, they can’t invest in their profession, they don’t develop things, so they run after the crowd and after the clients. Developing new ways of telling something – that simply doesn’t happen. It has to do with individual originality, the glittering prizes.’
DINGEMAN and NIELS agree with the argument put forward by ANNE BURDICK in the last issue of Emigre, that designers are too busy chasing honours and making work that is destined for the muse to even care about investing in the industry. Because the rewards doled out largely on the basis of the visual aspects of printed work, many designers fall into the trap of creating a superficially unique style in order to win more honours and thence new clients.
Furthermore, this preoccupation with individual originality means that designers in the NETHERLANDS rarely discuss their profession with each other for fear of giving secrets away. As such they learn nothing from each other about technological developments, how to deal with finances, how to deal with clients and printers or simply how to convey a message effectively. DINGEMAN compares this situation with that of Dutch farmers in the 1950s who smugly clung into their small plots of land and refused to invest in new machinery or new techniques, the result was a ‘farmer slaughter’ when they were forced tot reorganise into larger, more efficient groups. DINGEMAN sees no reason why the same misfortune shouldn’t befall the graphic design ‘community’. LEX REITSMA’s article on the back cover of this magazine provides an interesting insight into the varying degrees of professional paranoia on the part of the designers contributing to this issue. LEX himself, during my interview with him, displayed an intense preoccupation with detecting possible cases of plagiarism in his ‘colleagues’ work while adamantly defending himself against the widespread accusation that his work is derivative of that of JAN VAN TOORN.
DINGEMAN thinks that Dutch graphic designers, ‘all fear that someone will steal something. But it’s idle. because after a few hundred years only a few designers will survive. Who will make the effort to find out about the thousand others? For example, in the golden era of Netherlandish painting in the seventeenth-century there was an enormously high level of painting and there were many brilliant painters. But of all those painters less than ten are remembered and that’s it. Painters were usually working with great studios where a lot of painters worked and learned the skills and the best of them like VAN DIJK left RUBENS’s studio to set up their own. But there was no point in everyone who could paint a brushstroke starting his own studio. That’s what happens in design and that’s only possible when professional level is low, when there is not a strong demand for quality.’
DINGEMAN and NIELS hope that designers will be willing to come down from their ivory towers to design for the masses and reinvest in industry by training new talent. But surely this model already exists in the person of GERT DUMBAR who through his corporate identities for the Dutch railway system, the postal and telecommunications authority (PTT) and most recently the Dutch police force has arguably the largest audience for graphic design in the country. Through his studio he has provided one of the most stimulating training grounds for graphic designers form all over the world.
Yet DUMBAR’s output could not be more different from the model suggested by DINGEMAN and NIELS. He has always championed a kind of design, which is complex and sometimes chaotic in its images and decorative in its effect. He has successfully proved that there is a place, and quite a large one, for this visually over-loaded design. Furthermore he has been able to sell this kind of design to a large number of blue-chips clients, not only cultural ones like the RIJKSMUSEM. Clearly he is doing something right. Maybe our two heroes have produced a far too limited definition of design?
DINGEMAN does not agree and believes that DUMBAR’s success can be attributed more to his charisma and the gullibility of commissioners than to the appropriateness or quality of his design. ‘He’s selling, he would have been great in vacuum cleaners, he’s got a talent for selling. That also has to do with the low professional level of the others, because they don’t know how to sell themselves and their products. They don’t care so they don’t give clients the feeling that they’re involved in the problems. In a way they have an arrogant artistic approach. DUMBAR plays with the artistic image of the designer, but on the other hand he is very dedicated to his clients and he’s very sincere.’
‘He also has a talent for picking out young, talented people who are enthusiastic. He’s very good in organising things and there are not many studios that can organise housestyles. However, there are no messages in his work, but that’s not something you van blame GERT DUMBAR for, that’s what the client wants and he gives it to them. We shouldn’t overestimate our position, we are part of society. At a certain moment, for whatever reason, a situation arises in which people have no wish to speak clearly and a designer suits them with a style that they like, because he doesn’t discuss it as a problem, he just takes it as a fact. From that point on he tries to make things that he likes and that other people like.’ Essentially we are left with design for design’s sake. DINGEMAN says, ‘there is no point in design for design’s sake. I think that design is at the crossroads of communication: it’s very important and it can’t be neglected when it is done well. Everyone who wants to communicate should go to a designer to discuss things first, before even making a brief. In general designers are asked to dress things up at the last minute. That’s their profession, that’s what they do and many of them do it very well.’

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to clarity in design is the confusion and sometimes the gross stupidity on the part of those who supposedly have something to say. In DINGEMAN’s opinion this was precisely the problem with the recent commission to design a corporate identity programme for the Dutch police. But if ANTHON, DINGEMAN and NIELS are so concerned with finding an distributing clear messages, one might ask what message one can find in an identity for the police?
DINGEMAN who worked on the proposal put forth by ANTHON’s studio asked himself the same question. ‘Is there a message in the RED CROSS? It’s meaningless and it means everything. It’s just a point of view. Everybody knows what it means. It’s good because it’s simple and it communicates. But thinking about it as a form, a symbol for healing people, there’s no connection. So it’s a signal.’ So the job as DINGEMAN saw it was to produce a signal for the police, something that embodied authority and which was instantly and, if necessary, urgently recognisable. It was not their vain task to produce a logo, because logos in his opinion are the luxurious preserve of companies, not civic bodies.
In their search for a symbol that would adequately and efficiently symbolise the multifarious and sometimes nefarious activities of the police – from helping lost children to find their mothers, to apprehending criminals, to beating up grafiti artist – they found (of course) that there was no such profoundly eloquent pictogram. The existing symbols were in DINGEMAN’s words, ‘rusty, old-fashioned militaristic bullshit’, a rampant zoology of macho heraldic devices. They took the least pompous of these, the eight-pointed star, the archetypical sheriff’s badge, which they considered to be a weak form and tried to give it a new strength: ‘We wanted to show that this eight-pointed star consists of two squares, that it’s very elementary. Then by by studying it’s three-dimensional form we tried to give it the idea of a jewel, something you could be proud of, something you might ask your husband or wife to sew on your new uniform. But we were also aware that is had to be the kind of motif that would work well on a car or a helicopter, something with strength and clarity – a signal.’
However, their proposal and that of PAUL MIJKSENAAR was rejected in favour of STUDIO DUMBAR’s. DINGEMAN believes hat the police misunderstood the whole poit of creating a new identity. ‘We were accused of meaninglessness, which is nonsense. Meaning is not only anecdotal, it’s also something that is just clearly recognisable. But those people thought about themselves as a company. They didn’t think about the public, only about their organisation, their structure. That kept them from recognising what we meant.’
‘Also we didn’t give them ‘modern design’. They wanted something flashy. Some kind of nouvelle cuisine in a tormented way and we gave them bacon and beans and they simply didn’t like it. They didn’t even ask themselves if it was healthy. We took an existing form and re-organised the cliché to make it clearer. We didn’t want to talk about horses, lions, swords and all that stuff.’
Clearly the attitude of those commissioning graphic design in the NETHERLANDS is largely at odds with ANTHON, DINGEMAN and NIELS’ brand of graphics with no added colours, flavourings or preservatives. However, DINGEMAN is optimistic about the future. ‘When you think of it as a movement, it may be a turning point in time. When you’re a consumer and you’re buying things, you don’t know anymore where they come from, how toxic they are, how well-made they are. You know nothing, you simply understand anything of your world. There’s a growing demand for clear messages, which don’t neglect the world’s complexity but explain it. When this demand grows the industries will be forced to produce things that have a clear story. The moment that the demand grows, it will be necessary to find a way in graphic design to speak out clearly, and this doesn’t mean that you should speak out in a dull or objective way, but it can be funny, inspired or artistic, but first of all it should be strong, clear and direct.’

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