The New North (1)

Image: poster by Neville Brody, 1988

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In the spring of 1998 – ‘it was fifteen years ago today’ – I decided to leave Philips Design to persue other opportunities. One of those was an invitation by John Thackara, the ten director of the then Netherlands Design Institute, to write a discussion paper on graphic design. At the time one could already see the upcoming changes in that field taking the shape of a revolution. The final paper required to be discussed in all kinds of ways, but before the ink was dry the institute collapsed and it came to neither a project nor a publication. In the past years I’ve reread my notions and ideas in very different situations. Although there’s a lot that I would state differently today (indeed far too many quotes), I’ve grown to appreciate The New North as an attempt to understand what the hell was going on with the amazing profession that I still call my own.

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In an interview Neville Brody stated in 1994:

The main point about Dadaism was a question mark. Why art? Why painting? And I think we are at the same junction in design and graphics. Why design? Why graphic designers?

He seems to heave a sigh while answering his own question: ‘Well, I’ve got no idea, and to be honest, graphic design is dead.’

These days many variations have emerged on Brody’s questions and answers. Do these reactions signify changes in attitude to graphic design and connected uncertainties? Another, different kind of reaction is formed by current feverish theorising on graphic design. Only recently have a great many studies and analyses of this discipline been published.

Traditionally, a graphic designer’s work covers mass communication and communicative mass products, such as advertising and paper backs. Characteristic of these categories are the sender’s dominance in the communication process, the scant attention paid to the receiver’s individuality, and the absence of interaction. Influenced by technology and culture, these characteristics are changing rapidly. Open communication systems are developing in which interaction is inescapable and essential, the position of the receiver is becoming increasingly stronger, and success depends on customised production and service.

The systems theory teaches that any field of study requires boundary lines and internal processes in order to remain independent in its cooperation with other systems. The shifts referred to will show whether, and how, graphic design will be able to meet the above conditions.

The New North is a project of the Netherlands Design Institute, whose starting-point is the problem defined above. In this discussion paper, I will present the problem from various sides. Below, I will outline the relation between graphic design, communication, and technology and introduce models for the following domains of knowledge: communication and graphic design. Finally, I will link the problem to a number of themes. This paper reflects both my own experiences as a graphic designer, lecturer and design manager, and my associative research in literature.


1.1 Culture and technology
In the twentieth century, technological developments are the source of people’s belief in progress. In The Magic Mountain (1924), Thomas Mann had the humanist Setembrini say:

Because technology increasingly subjected nature to itself, with the help of interconnections, brought about by it – the expansion of the road infrastructure and telegraphy, the overcoming of climatologic differences – it presented itself as the most reliable means to bring peoples closer together, to stimulate people getting mutually acquaintanted, to prepare a human balance between peoples, to eliminate prejudices, and finally to bring about general unity.

Technology bridges the worlds of dreams and reality. The film theoretician André Bazin called film an ‘idealistic phenomenon’. He assumes that the idea existed long before it became technically feasible:

Thus the old myth of Icarus had to wait for the internal combustion engine to be able to descend from the Platonic heavens. But it has existed in every human’s mind, ever since man watched birds – full of admiration.

Computer and software aided automation was developed after the development of the machine as a derivative of clock and windmill. Researcher Alan Kay explained:

The most important thing to understand about a computer is that if it were a book, then it’s a book that can dynamically read and write itself. (…) It is a language machine that deals with things that are like sentences, and can not only move those sentences around and hold those sentences and send them, but also read and write them. In a fairly open-ended way.

In his essay on ‘Lightness’, Italo Calvino sketched a digital coup:

Next, informatics. Although software would not be able to wield the power of its lightness without making use of the heaviness of hardware, it is the software that gives the orders and exercises its influence on the outside world and machines that only exist for the benefit of software and are developed to execute increasingly complicated programmes. The second industrial revolution does not present itself in the same way as the first one did, with crushing images – for instance: flattening mills and steel casting – but with the bits of an information stream running through circuits in the form of electronic pulses. The iron machines still exist, but they obey the bits, and these are weightless.

The philosopher Charles Taylor, contrasted three ‘evils’ of modern industrial society with the tremendous achievements of technology. First, he mentioned individualism, an ideal gradually gone off the rails. Next, he criticised current opinions dominated by calculation and economic applicability. Finally, he concluded that many citizens have ended up in a vicious circle of estrangement from public life.

1.2 Digital design
Graphic design developed in the wake of technology and industrialisation. Originally, the graphic designer was the industrial designer of the graphic product. As a specialist, he contributed to the mechanised production of identical documents. The stability of the graphic industry – after the Gutenberg Bible, the printing industry hardly changed for about four hundred years – and its orientation on standardisation resulted in a limited role in graphic design for technology. Micro-electronics and digitalisation radically changed this. The digital production of means of communication superseded the analogue production of print, thereby creating fresh opportunities.

In 1984, the Apple Macintosh, the first ever graphic design computer, was introduced. The excellent approximation of (laser) printed results on the screen brought about a breakthrough. The Macintosh created a fundamental separation within the graphic design profession. There is the one group of designers that uses computers and software as tools and adheres to its analogue ideas. The second, much smaller group, consists of designers who study digital media with the help of a ‘language machine’. Through programming, they research, for instance, automation, convergence, and dynamics.

In the 90s, the development of the Net sharpened this split. The ‘analogues’ have been occupied with printing and the aesthetics of Websites, whereas the ‘digitals’ have moved into the direction of database publishing and information architecture. New specialisations developed in these fields – also from other disciplines. The influence of software on communication increased rapidly. The marketing strategist Regis McKenna told:

I gave a talk to the top executives of Procter & Gamble a few months ago, and at the end of the talk, one of the VPs raised his hand and said: ‘Does this mean that, in the future, our ad agency will be a software company?’ I thought that was an insightful question.


2.1 The poetic function
In 1960, the linguist Roman Jakobson presented a lecture on language and poetry. In it he described communication in a diagram which presents six factors: context, sender, receiver, medium, code and message. Each of these factors determines a function in a language, which in itself is a code. The following functions are used in varying combinations and hierarchies:
– The reference function springs from the context and places communication in a neutral, objective framework.
– The expressive function expresses the attitude of the sender as regards the message.
– The address function addresses the receiver emphatically, for instance, by using the imperative.
– The linking function is determined by the medium. It sees to it that communication begins, continues, and stops; it also checks whether this medium works. An example of this is: the receiver saying ‘mmm, mmm’ during a monologue to indicate that he is listening.
– The meta linguistic function plays a part when the code itself is discussed. Somebody may ask: ‘What does that word mean?’ or ‘What do you mean?’
– The poetic function refers to the message. Jakobson stated that:

Any attempt to reduce the sphere of poetic function to poetry or to confine poetry to poetic function would be a delusive oversimplification. Poetic function is not the sole function of verbal art but only its dominant, determining function, whereas in all other verbal activities it acts as a subsidiary, accessory constituent. This function, by promoting the palpability of signs, deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects.

Selection and combination characterize verbal behaviour, according to Jakobson. The choice of words takes place on the basis of equivalence (similarities and differences in meaning), whereas the order of the words is a question of influencing and contiguity. The poetic function projects the principle of the selection axis on the combination axis. Why do we say Fortnum & Mason, and Barnes & Noble and not Mason & Fortnum or Noble & Barnes? Because the one combination runs and sounds better than the other one.

I take Jakobson’s diagram as the model for graphic communication. Firstly, because language is its pivot. Secondly, because of its relation to poetry. The psychologist Nico Frijda wrote about communication and the associative structure of man’s memory:

Apparently, the individual is better equippped for poetry and theatre than for ordinary human communication.

Finally, the model prevents tenacious misunderstandings as form is taken as a function.

I presume that we can apply this model to graphic design as the discipline that processes messages into visual codes. With graphic design products we also encounter all the linguistic functions. The reference function dominates in the layouts of newspapers and instruction manuals. In the Paris ’68 posters, the expressive function stresses the makers’ indignation. The addressing function often irritatingly obtrudes in direct mails: ‘Congratulations! Mr Kuilman, you have won a prize!’. In graphic user interfaces clocks and greying bars fulfill the linking function. In this way the computer informs us that it is ‘thinking’ or ‘busy’. The poetic function determines the image of graphic designs in musea. The original purpose of the documents then plays a secondary role.

Please note that I am not pleading for a one-sided linguistic approach of communication and graphic design.

2.2 Context and relevance
Roman Jakobson’s diagram describes the communication between one sender and one receiver, who use the same medium and code in a mutual context. I have adapted the model in order to discuss the influence of individualisation and the crumbling of media and codes on mass communication. In the adapted diagram, one sender communicates with two (or more) receivers and the influence of each participant on the medium, code, and message is shown. Besides, sender and receiver are presented in a context of their own – with elements shared.

The importance of the context – not only as a physical environment, but also in a social, cultural, and personal sense – is discussed by the linguists Sperber and Wilson. Central to their theory is the concept of ‘relevance’. Relevance increases whenever the influence of information on the ideas and opinions of the receiver increases, without it requiring more effort from the receiver. They point out that the receiver is not an unknown person in a grey mass, but an individual. Because of the identity of the receiver and the specific context of the communication there will always be relevance-for-an-individual.

Using relevance, Sperber and Wilson differentiate between strong and weak communication. Strong communication reaches a maximum effect with minimum effort; in weak communication, however, the processing requires much effort. Because strong communication is unambiguous, the receiver regards the sender as the owner of the message. The interpretation of weak communication leads to the identification of the receiver with the message. Because identification with brands, organisations, and products is important, weak communication can then be a strong, effective, means. Already in 1925, Mart Stam and El Lissitsky wrote:

Advertising influences the public through assertions, even more so through propaganda, and most powerfully through suggestions.

The context concept is also used in the analysis of the cultural styles of mass communication. Context is called ‘high’ when a community shares many values and information. In cultures with a high context, communication can be indirect, using less text and more images and symbolism. In that situation half a word is enough to the wise. In cultures with a low context, text, argumentation, and facts are stressed.

2.3 Affect and effect
For a better insight into the workings of communication, a proper understanding of perception is required. I make use of a model for the processing of mass communication that distinguishes four stages in the receiver’s processing.
a. First, the retina is stimulated – the receiver sees something.
b. As soon as the receiver sees something, the first, affective, reaction follows – he feels something. Affective reactions have specific characteristics. They are general, inescapable, difficult to recall, and they have their own place in a person’s memory. When the first impression is negative, the process is cut off. The receiver turns away, walks on, continues to zap, or browse.
c. During the cognitive transformation, the information presented is processed on the basis of the affirmation of the first impression. The receiver thinks, connects ideas, and gives them a meaning.
d. Finally, a second affective reaction follows. The receiver draws an emotional conclusion. Something changes in his knowledge, attitude, or behaviour.

Much information never reaches the first stage of this model. The daily number of messages – in Europe about 1500 per person – looking for a receiver is so enormous that they cannot possibly all be noticed. Due to this, attention becomes increasingly costly to both sender and receiver.

The excess of messages also creates a permanent distraction. Saul Bellow contended that distraction could be both inviting and damaging. Its negative effects are: a volatile and superficial communication and culture. About its tempting characteristic he noted:

Pascal, a great observer of such things, said that the happiness of highly placed persons was due to their having a crowd to amuse them. ‘A king,’ he wrote, ‘is surrounded by men who take wonderful care never to let him be alone and think about himself.’

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