The Dutch graphic designers MAUREEN MOOREN (1969-) and DANIEL VAN DER VELDEN (1971-) are in the vanguard of experiments to define a new approach to graphic design, which is both more appropriate and effective at a time when society is overloaded with visual information.
The transformation of our lives since the early 1990s by communications technology and global networks has profound implications for the role of graphic design, according to the Dutch designers Maureen Mooren and Daniel van der Velden. Believing that the traditional notion of the straightforward graphic solution is no longer relevant, they are committed to developing new ways in which graphic design reflects the eclecticism and confusion of a society overloaded with information.
Since meeting as students at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam during the mid-1990s and opening their studio in 1998 in Amsterdam, Mooren, born in Dordrecht in 1969, and Van der Velden, born in Rotterdam in 1971, have developed a series of responses to this scenario. In 2001 they redesigned the architectural magazine Archis, introducing provocative editorial and visual strategies that referenced other magazines.
Mooren and van der Velden’s design of the identity for the annual Holland Festival in 2005 addresses political and social instability in the Netherlands through the introduction of what they describe as: “an assertive yet ambiguous motif, something between an H, the silhouette of a building and a cross”.
Interview at the London Design Museum.
Q. Where did you meet and why did you start working together?
A. We met the Academy of Arts in Rotterdam – now the Willem de Kooning Academy – and started working together in 1998 obviously because we liked each other’s work and approach. There was no wish to become, immediately, ‘corporate’. That is why our office still operates under both of our names.
Q. Do you always work together, or do you only collaborate on specific projects?
A. In principle we work together, yet each of us carries out also other activities such as teaching and design research projects, notably the Meta Haven: Sealand Identity Project carried out in collaboration with the Jan van Eyck Academie.
Q. Do you feel that your education – design or otherwise – has influenced your current work?
A. In general our education was a very inspiring time, but the art and design world was very different then from now. This was just before the late 1990s boom in wealth and communications boom and internet fever, which, with all the communicational and informational changes that came about, has profoundly influenced graphic design and visual communication. What was taught to us in art school became in many respects old-fashioned in the new communications paradigm of informality, immediacy and cynicism, conditions essential to the internet era that were more or less unthought of before 1996.
We were taught in the early and mid-1990s, as many Dutch art and design students were at the time, that design should evolve around a central concept for each different project. With this approach, a high level of consistency is guaranteed, just as it is in conventional corporate design. At the same time, parallels rise with conceptual art practice which also exists around certain concepts, or self-imposed laws. The ‘concept-driven’-approach is as much an enabler as it is a limitation. Funnily enough, no recipe can guarantee quality – it only guarantees styles, approaches, genres. Key to our practice is, in any or another way, a relationship to language, even though our latest work is totally symbolic. Inevitably, this is in part result of our own inclinations, in part of our education, in part of our later development.
Q. What were your respective design influences? What drew you both to graphic design?
DvdV. I more or less ended up there while having before experimented with a wide range of affinities including drawing, writing, fanzine making and music, coming from a background with interests in art and literature. The discipline that best approached all of that, while still being a real job, seemed to be graphic design. As soon as I entered art school I found myself attracted mostly to art practice although I on some level knew I shouldn’t go that way. I saw in designers all kinds of abilities that I had under-developed, such as giving structure and keeping deadlines. On the other hand I saw most designers’ inability to escape from the idea of guided creativity. This increased my unease with the profession that seemed to be all about a kind of false pretense to solve problems.
The reason that I loved design was most of all because of designers as different as Alvin Lustig, Sandberg, Harry N. Sierman, Tanadori Yokoo and Milton Glaser, ranging from classical typography to psychedelic design. Another strong early influence was pop art: notably Robert Indiana, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Richard Hamilton. A very strong impact was seeing Indiana’s The American Dream, which was about a certain physicality of letters, figures and messages, establishing a very strong rhetoric. This I later found back in the work of Archigram, The Designers Republic and Mevis en Van Deursen.
MM. When I was a child, my father predicted that I would work with letters later in life. What that meant I think he didn’t know, and neither did I at the age of twelve. I was totally addicted to office supply stores – paper, staples, Post-Its, envelopes and stamps. I think that I somehow got my interest in type and paper at birth.
Before going to art school I discovered Neville Brody, among others. Once at the academy, my interest in design increased by the confrontation with contemporary art. My favorite artists include Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Lawrence Weiner, Christopher Wool and Joëlle Tuerlinckx. Discovering art provided great help in dealing with design differently. Meanwhile, I discovered interesting graphic designers such as Tibor Kalman, Mevis en Van Deursen and The Designers Republic.
Q. You claim to be interested in the relationship between fiction and design. Can you expand on the nature of that relationship?
A. The relationship between fiction and design developed under the direct influence of inter-personal communications on design; an influence that is, as we said before, linked to the rise of the internet, mobile telephony and email. During the rise of these new and powerful communications media, the inter-subjective has started to replace the objective. The old-fashioned record store is replaced by the peer-to-peer exchange of music files over the web – which, in turn, gave rise to the digital music store. The form of the letter – in the disguise of e-mail, SMS and MSN – becomes dominant over almost all other forms of written communication.
At the same time, graphic design has become more than ever a slave of the events it is communicating; facts invading lives infinitely more exciting, lives in which the events promoted by graphic design will only fulfill a marginal role. These events are announced from an objective position that denies the inter-subjective communications network that opposes it. We thought to reverse this by announcing the events in a fictional context, see for instance the ROOM invitations we made for a Rotterdam-based artists initiative started by Karin de Jong and Ewoud van Rijn.
Another example is the role the detective plays in the book Oscillations which we made with the artist Manon de Boer. This detective is researching from his own paranoid, forensic-driven point of view, the construction of the book and the clues he finds there. In that sense, he is the inter-subjective link to the reader who takes distance from the story. The introduction of fiction could be equaled to a voice, which is also present in a magazine like Archis. Ultimately in Archis this fictional voice coming from design doesn’t become the all-embracing container of the content, but rather, a reaction, a counter-voice. In many ways though that voice embodies the most advanced editorial claims one can make.
Q. In your design for the Dutch architecture magazine Archis you use styles borrowed from other magazine to indicate the nature of the content of the articles. Does this approach indicate that you have lost faith in the idea of a singular, effective graphic solution?
A. Absolutely. There is no design which can be seen independent from information overload, from which design is in part profiting, in part suffering. That is, singular, simple solutions are only effective when the problem is reduced to pre-information overload conditions or other conditions which pre-suppose a tabula rasa. Conditions such as: “We just need a recognisable logo�?. Or: “We just want the information to get across�?. These kind of approaches are reactionary responses to a compexity that is too difficult for design alone to overcome. In that sense Archis is not a solution from the client’s self-defined inside, but one based on their outside, a relentlessly full magazine store from which different typologies are being quoted and stolen.
Q. Similarly, rather than designing an identity for the Rotterdam Design Prize you created a parasitic identity, constructed from the identity of other institutions. What was the idea behind this approach?
A. Again, the idea is that a graphic identity is relational rather than absolute. This was executed in two successive projects, in 2001 and 2003. During the first year, we conceived a series of two fax sheets as our flyers, and two newspapers as our publications. Spam email was also added to the communications strategy. In 2003, the approach was based on layers: envelopes within envelopes and book covers within book covers, concentrating on design history. For instance we commemorated the typographic battle of Helvetica versus Arial. We also commemorated the Bic ballpoint pen, as well as writings on design by the artist Richard Hamilton.
Q. For the last three years you have designed Newspaper Jan Mot, an A5 newsprint promotion for the Jan Mot Gallery in Brussels. What were your reasons for choosing the newspaper format?
A. Jan Mot came to us with rather constrained ideas about size and budget. The only way in which his preferred A5 format could be made productive would be by making it a miniature, a downsized something else, but what? We quickly decided that it should be a downsized newspaper, for reasons connected to ourselves, Jan and Brussels. The exact reasons… no idea. It was an intuitive decision. Perhaps because we thought that a miniature newspaper, printed on real newsprint, would be just beautiful.
Q. In an interview with Jan Mot you said that you realised his publication would have to “fit him like a glove�?. Do you feel constrained by the needs of your clients or do you enjoy dealing with very specific demands?
A. In the case of Jan, we feel a very personal relationship with him. This meant that there had to be something undeniably personal about the publication. Jan came to us really to try something else, attracted by some of our work but appalled by other pieces. Instead of deepening that gap we searched for a bridge to his gallery based on what it was instead of trying to make it something it wasn’t. All the same, Jan Mot cannot be compared to a general client. If a client manages to communicate very specific demands to us without appearing professionalised to do so, we’ll work with these demands as treasures, for they most likely contain something interesting.
Q. What is your favourite piece of graphic design in general?
A. There is no definite answer, but the 1949 book cover by Alvin Lustig, Lorca: 3 tragedies, definitely qualifies.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. We’re redesigning Archis into Volume, a collaboration between Archis, OMA / AMO and Columbia University. Volume comes in a plastic box designed by 2×4 in New York. For Volume, we would like to develop a new typology of magazine, the fluorescent philosophy reader, that is. We’ve also designed the identity and publicity for the Holland Festival, an ambitious yearly music and theatre event taking place in June 2005. For this Holland Festival we invented a new sign, which is kind of ominous and political, and a new step in the development of logos.
There is overwhelming evidence that Dutch design, from a historical and critical point of view, is seen as an extension of the Dutch welfare state of the 20th century. The rational, reasonable, liberal, protestant, democratic foundations of Dutch society were mirrored by either design work that directly amplified such values, or by experimental work emerging from the protected enclaves which the welfare state maintained for the arts. In this wealthy, consensus-oriented climate, ultimately resulting in the Polder Model of the late 1990s, there was progressively less political space to conquer for design as there seemed to be no losers and progressively more dependence on the rapidly disappearing paradigm of the so-called “good state�? to make the full-scale confrontation with privatisation all the less painful. For many years socio-political conditions which once seemed foreign or exotic to the quintessential state of Dutchness, have changed the situation. Holland is now a country where right-wing parties define the political agenda and politicians compete in exploiting xenophobic, populist fears and hopes; Dutch citizens are now statistically close to Italians in their mistrust of the sitting government. At the very least, the picture has become more complicated and layered than before, making touristy cliches about the Netherlands’ cleanliness, open-mindedness, tolerance, and preference for straightforward simplicity unfit to do the job of saying what the country is.
In a nutshell, we are up for the re-evaluation of the quintessentially Dutch. It is no surprise that the corporate identity for an institution like the Holland Festival, is seriously affected by the situation described. The existing Holland Festival logo, designed by Anthon Beeke in 1995, says HOLND FSTVL in red and blue Franklin Gothic Bold. It is a celebration of being Dutch: no nonsense, simple, red, white and blue, a Dutch tricoleur of post-war happiness. Thus the Holland Festival is connected to Dutch identity through its colours. After the rise – or more greater visibility – of international radical terrorism, the subsequent economic depression, as well as other striking events in Dutch society, it would be naive to reinforce stable and therefore safe ideas about Dutch identity into a new logo for a new era. As a result, we have designed not a logo, but a sign. There is a slight but important difference between the two. A logo is a translation of a functional programme of demands, is to a certain extent a product of corporate culture, where intentions are totally rationalized before they become form. An organisation deciding on its logo is like a marriage based on a dating profile. Whereas a sign is capable of attracting a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations despite its presumed clarity. And what exactly is this sign? Is it a building, a gate, a cross, a fence, a condenser, a crossroads – a grave? The sign does not obey the same rules as the logo: the sign is free to exist beyond its host. The Holland Festival sign has the freedom not to stand for the Holland Festival. It is completely open to interpretation.