A Vision on Design
Stedelijk van Abbemuseum Poster 1957
Ladies and Gentlemen. May I introduce myself: I am a designer and I hardly believe that design today is an activity that is needed to help inter-human relationships. I am very sorry that I have to make this remark; it is a shame that design is not in the position to really fulfil the very important role that it should fulfil; design should and could serve society.
We, designers and producers daily produce tons and tons of printed material without properly knowing how this will affect the world and the people that live in it. All this material together forms a large part of the total visual environment and the result of it is exactly the same as the result of everything there is too much of; it pollutes the world. This is a visual pollution that is as dangerous as all other types of pollution. It is this theme that I should like to talk about today; for this is what I think a major designers’ problem.
I have been in this sacred hall once before as a guest of your society; it was on the occasion of an ATypI congress; a gathering of type designers and producers from all over the world. It was one of these events where we talked about the most important details of type design and where we believed that serifs or non-serifs were the crucial things; able to change the visual world definitely.
Sometimes design seems like some sort of religion. And not only type designers, but most designers in general are religious maniacs, who believe they create a new way of visual life through good design! But unfortunately their activities often have the opposite result!
The world is full of most different and ugly things, and full of badly designed printed things also; only a small part of a percentage of everything that is visible around us has been designed properly. And of course designers think it their task to change this! Unfortunately, each of those designers wants to get this change in the most original way; if possible in his on special way; signed by himself as the originator and hoping to be mentioned in the annuals of art – and other directors.
Designers are the greatest individualists, and because of this individualism they will most possibly never be able to change anything fundamentally in the world of visual communication at ell. On the contrary: the existing visual pollution is mainly getting worse due to this cult of design originality. We do not reed more difference and more original ideas! We all need to work on one idea, a simple idea, doing things in the same way instead of in different ways. Even if most biologists will state that human beings need different stimuli to develop harmoniously without frustrations of whatever kind, and that monotony is anti-human; it is my idea that this existing visual pollution is not a stimulus at all, it is a danger.
If I am against the pattern of diversification and originality, it does not mean I am in favour of monotony or uniformity. I only think we need more design on basic problems; I think we have to find a solid design grammar where a new starting point for design could be made from. Personal design solutions and interpretations would be more valid in this way and less subjective. The new visual variety, that could be the result of this new grammar, would be a variety within a visible framework, and linked to this grammar. May I make a comparison with the so popular football game; this possibly sounds very profane but it is a comparison that is clear. If eleven individualists tried to get the ball in the other goal, each in their own way, without rules, they would most likely lose the game. The strong set of rules and regulations, the grammar of the football game, the white lines on the grass, and the specific tasks in the team together with individual creativity create a team that can get the world cup.
In no direction of design does there exists any agreement today on how to play the design game. We all try to tackle the problem individually without knowing how others solved the same problems before. Daily, we solve the basic typography of the pocket book, and so we have thousands and thousands of basic designs for the pocket book, one being more basic than the other. Daily, we invent the wheel and we are proud of it, over and over again.
Another highly serious danger for basic design is in my opinion the mix-up with and influence of advertising. Advertising is mostly translated by 'originality' and 'diversity'. If you open the daily news-paper and look at the advertising pages you will see, in short, the same pattern of difference as when you open your mailbox at the end of the day. Each advertisement is as different from the other as possible. Packages in a supermarket are all different, book covers are all different, envelope sizes are all different, every quality of paper is different, every magazine is different, every label is different, every piece of stationary, every business card, every order form, every information sheet, every car lettering, every shop lettering, every poster and streamer is different... and so on ad infinitum. Very absurd.
The future job for the designer is not to be original and not to create difference, but to be the guide and to solve visual problems in a simple and clear way, to make true information understandable and readable. Originality is a danger for future designers. Their creativity should be explored in a more motivated way and not in the childish spoiling way of the advertising trends of today.
I would like to give another example. The British roadsign system designed by Jock Kinneir is a perfect and inter-nationally renowned system. What did the officials in my country do, after extensive travel to other countries and continents? They set up a sort of research program and the result was –of course – who would have expected otherwise, a new sign system. With a type face that is a variation on the one from the American highways and a non-spacing system, it looks like it has been set by monkeys. No designer was involved, only technocrats. In such a case, a designer most likely would have pointed to the English system after having done research, and he would have recommended to start from there!
A designer of the future has to have a strong training in systems and in consistent thinking. Furthermore, in my opinion he has to be aware of the basic laws of nature and science. He has to know the pattern systems that exist in crystallography and vegetal growth. He has to discover the order in space that exists everywhere; he has to learn clear thinking. With this knowledge he can create rules and basic lines of thinking for visual solutions, and probably this will lead to less diverse but more basic visual appearances.
If I speak mainly about designers of printed matter, it is because of the audience here today. At the same time I mean all other creative fields such as industrial design, architecture, town planning and landscaping, in which at present the same is happening as in the graphic field. Over-doing originality is happening everywhere.
Unfortunately I cannot show you my personal work and as a visualizer I feel incomplete. An English designer, George Him, called me a 'gridnik' once – it was the greatest compliment he could have given me. It was a result of my system, trying to find the basic grid first and then doing the design. Finding the basic logic pattern is 90% of the job, the rest can eventually be done by someone else. Most of my jobs are exercises in systems and trials in the consistent handling of components.
One of the main commissions I have is the design of all graphic and typographic work for the modern art museum in Amsterdam. Here I try to give information systematically about everything that happens and that is exhibited. If I were to do this in a very original way with a lot of personal expression, this would be my expression on top of the expression of the museum staff, on top of the works of the various artists that would like to make their ideas clear to the public. The result would be an original mystery.
If I could make all my students anti-originality-maniacs, I would be happy. They have to design future mass products that will not make people more happy because of their original shapes. Industrial goods — and print is also an industrial good — should be as neutral and as clear as possible, to make way for a better life without gadgetry.
It is my sincere belief that we serve the public much better by trying to create basic, clear design. There is enough variation in the functions that can be expressed. Some statements can be made:
• A traffic sign is a traffic sign, and it should be understandable.
• A letterhead is A4, it is nonsense to make it different.
• We read from left to right in this part of the world. That is why symmetrical typography only serves preconditioned aesthetic needs and is not basic.
• Packaging should show its content first of all and it should give clear information. We don't need any styling for that purpose. A telephone book is for finding numbers as quickly as possible, so we don't need advertising in it.
• A signing system for an airport has to lead people to the planes and to the services, so it should preferably be the same in every airport around the world. From these statements we learn also that normalisation is one of the main design tasks.
One more thing I would like to talk about. There is heavy traffic in trends these days. One fashion after another is changing in order to keep production going. Since the sixties we lost touch with the present time and we started to redesign the past. It began with the rebirth of Art Nouveau and Aubrey Beardsley had his second go. Then we saw the rebirth of Art Deco and the rebirth of the Thirties with Biba in the front row all over the world. Then the rebirth of the spray gun in the Fifties... soon we will find ourselves at the tail of the rebirth of yesterday's Sixties, as someone recently announced. Anxiously I will await the rebirth of today!, and the end of this nonsensical rat race. Possibly then, we will again be able to get back to our normal work, that is: solving visual problems.
I would like to finish my talk with some recommendations to whom it may concern:
• Stop designing new fashionable type, start using the existing ones in a proper way. Let us begin to sort out all the original, decorative types that we don't need at all — for the moment we can easily do with four or five basic [type] faces.
• Stop using all those different paper sizes — for the moment we can easily do with the A-range.
• Stop using all those different size systems for typography also — we can easily do with the metric system alone.
• Stop using all those fancy colour systems – we urgently need one universal system.
• Stop being original and stop copying the past, just solve the problems of today. You see, sometimes designers have to be maniacs!
(Talk for the Wynkyn de Worde Society London, 22 July 1974, typescript, slightly corrected)