The Wood and the Trees

It is often difficult to find an article on graphic design in advertising yearlies or art director annuals and if so it is often handled summarily. Yes it is true, designers are often difficult people, behave like they were artists and do not understand - to judge from the echos coming from advertisers and marketing people - what it's all about. In 1917, an advertising agency in Holland was already warning its customers: "Never to let an artist do the job" So in fact, little has changed in today's battle for a position in the market place.

The continued use of the word communication - along with its ponderous though obscure variants like integrated, corporate and total communication - indicates how increasingly difficult it is becoming for companies and organisations to reach the general public with their messages and images. They fail in rising above the everyday noise and often only end up contributing to it. In other words, the increasing complexity of our society means that organisations (or companies) have to adopt a new approach if they wish to survive. Nowadays we are confronted with a Babel- like confusion of languages, a deafening cacophony of sounds and an excess of stimuli, noises and images. The shouting stall holders are now too close to each other and potential customers walk by their ears being assailed by disks full of music on their walk-man.

We are continuously being submerged by waves of commercial images from the world of small and large businesses and adver- tisers are bending over backwards in order to surprise or irritate us each week with more kilos of multi-coloured printed matter or attack us with their fireworks through the t.v. screen. They use audio and visual cliches to recommend us the best of entertainment or inadmissible cosiness. The rhythm of the time is such that legibility tends to the most brutal or to the expressively unreadable. Headlights are now trying to catch more than rabbits. Flags wave at us in welcome and flap above so much shopping pleasure and the wind has to blow hard enough to turn this visual pollution along with its good and bad sides into a clear form of communication.

The fragmentary image given above of graphic design in Flanders since the eighties should not be read as an historic outline but more as a story in images. The examples it includes show differing and sometimes contradictory standpoints within an immense field of action that ranges from the smallest printing job to postage stamps, from ephemeral prints to complex house styles. This includes labels and logos, new typefaces, posters, packaging, layouts for newspapers, magazines, annual reports, book types from novels to encyclopedias, calendars, lettering, road signs, exhibition design, etc.. All this (and much more), which determines the face of the world around us is designed by individual designers or agencies. The material put on display is only a small sample of what has been designed over the last few years and is only there to indicate the main trends now being set by three striking designers who have earned their stripes and who have now acquired the status of ideal model within the still young history of graphic design in Flanders (as well as in Belgium and the rest of Europe).

The name of one specialist or the other will come to the fore depending on the role the printed matter has to play in the world. At one time it will be the copywriter, at others the graphic designer, the photographer, the illustrator, the printer or the client. They often remain anonymous - happily so in many cases.
Amateurs of print finally decide for themselves whether they wish to be involved in all these affairs and pieces of informa- tion. Does a postage stamp collector wish to know which graphic designer created his unmarked stamp? Let's hope so. There is more chance that the avid poster collector will know the name of the designer.
Printed matter serves an endless number of functions. Its contents are endless and varied. It can concern the form a particular letter or image created by a particular designer and then (mainly) printed by the printer. Which does not mean that content does not play a role here. On the contrary, the rela- tionship between form and content is a point of discussion that continues to arise between innovators and traditionalists, between amateurs and professionals and between designers and technicians in graphics. The contents of a magazine for example are most important, but if the text is presented in such a way that no one wants read it then no one will know what the maga- zine is about. If meaningless images only fulfil a colouring book function in an issue then nobody will be any the wiser. The discussion about whether the form or content is the most important is therefore superfluous: content always needs form. Finally, valuing print for its form - which is what we have tried to do in this exhibition - is only one way of approaching it.

In the period following 1980 there was a growing freedom and variety in the formal language of graphics (and its dialects) that stemmed from the social changes at the end of the 1960s. Design oscillates between the functional and the informative on the one hand and freedom and the artistic or the commercial and the aesthetic on the other. It is often attractive, not always clear, forms the basis for content and is often inspired by art movements and sometimes even by the notion of form for form's sake. Opposite the experimental and technique we find classical notions on form; facing expressiveness in word and image we find a tendency towards informational clarity and continuity.

The Swiss and German traditions of constructivism and func- tionalism form the basis for a type of rational design that tries to be as objective as possible in combining typeface and image by using a given set of rules. This approach is analyti- cal, and is very useful particularly in the way it allows form to be determined by the function and content of a work. As a representative of Functionalism and an upholder of marketing ideas, Piet Vandekerkhove therefore put his customers' products first when he set up his advertising and consultancy agency in 1978. He preferred this to getting stuck in personal stylistics. Moreover, in his concern for providing highly communicative graphic products, he avoided noisy padding. Consistent quality is better than the occasional hit (though the one does not necessarily exclude the other).

There is enough freedom and space for play within this func- tional framework to allow a designer to develop his/her own aesthetics. Despite its many variables, this approach has produced a general idiom of design that has now become a sort of international code. That is why designers now using this type of design can allow themselves to be much freer in their work than say Piet Vandekerkhove or Luk Mestdag ten years ago.

Another aspect of this method, which is also reflected in Luk Mestdag's character is its research on legibility and on new typefaces that go along with fast developing techniques of communication. The most committed and politically conscious variety of functionalist design, which tries to influence the message through image function and content and in which the designers opinion plays a clear role - e.g. by highlighting certain aspects of image or typeface - has become less contro- versial in recent years, but still continues to provide a more nuanced image of its originality. Their commitment and orig- inality can be seen on the sign posting project for the airport in Zaventem.

The Conceptual
Pop Art, the Fluxus movement and Visual Poetry left their mark on design at the end of the 1960s. Image and typeface became forms of unity or of anarchy. The freedom taken by these designers was limited to the extend that it had to fit the contents and function of the job being done. Nevertheless, design remained strongly interwoven with the designer's person- ality. Everything was useful and everything was possible. Past and present were mixed; all existing typefaces and images were used and all techniques and materials were allowed. Risks were taken regarding trends and cliches but always using well thought-out irony. The (artistic) conceptual work by Jaak Van Damme fits perfectly into this trend. His catalogues for the Wout Hoeboer exhibition (1983) and the Transavantgardia (1988) exhibition at the PMSK in Ostend are fine examples.

Typographic Design
The counter pole of this energetic expressionism in design is now being carried out by young designers who are approaching the tradition of typography in a new way. They wish to combat elusiveness and extremism by taking great care in placing letters on the page and by using very little images. The meaning of image and typeface and particularly that of the contents of the trade are now undergoing important changes. Will typeface not end up being kinetic like images and therefore become mainly mobile and less clear or will it suggest movement by editing a series of freeze frames like on MTV?

It is striking, at a time when scanners seem set to replace cameras, how photographs have become the form of image most used today. Computers have also become essential as an aid and as a means of manipulating design. The technical possibilities of colour and colour supports (paper and plastics) have therefore increased enormously and the quality of printing and photography has now reached a generally high standard. Hand drawings are used less often today, even though they do belong to the designers's arsenal and carry more (abstract) meaning than a photograph which always remains an exterior. Will technique become aesthetics?

In our race to discover new possibilities and trends in design, a return to sources and historic values is perhaps needed. There is a need for depth and clarity of vision regarding the future of graphic design. In the meantime, these two approaches - racing onwards in the maelstrom of economy and its counter pole of research and insight - will continue to exist alongside each other.
Because the ranks of designers are continually being swelled by those leaving academies and art and graphics schools each year, there is a danger of a growing mediocrity and uniformity. Large differences must continue to exist and certainly large differ- ences will continue to exist in quality and approach. All companies and clients that use graphic designers in communicat- ing with the world, should become acquainted with the latest developments happening and about to happen in this area. There will always be new trends and young designers will approach their work with a different frame of mind, view on life and in a different ziet geist than their predecessors. This is clearly visible here. The quicker the new developments occur, the more uncertain the directions to be taken become. The quality of the design remains of primordial importance and this can only be judged from the experience of those working in this area.

How has the designer succeeded in becoming an mediator who is independent of the printer and the compositor and will this remain so? How does the process of exchange take place between technical possibility and artistic interests? Which role does design play in the economy? Where do Flemish designers differ from their colleagues in Wallonie and abroad (or is this the case)? How much of all printed matter is actually designed? What is the role of graphic design in society, ecology (here to woods and trees are involved), the economy and in culture? No answers has been given to these underlying questions here.

We can only examine and see final results: the silent evidence of what is lived and experienced in printed silence.

Misjel Vossen