Experimental Jetset claim just about the most provocative and interesting list of influences I can recall any design team offering as an explanation for its activities. The fashionable Dutch design trio’s inspiration apparently includes the Situationist International, Jean-Luc Godard, Stanley Kubrick, the Dutch Provo movement, the Frankfurt school of philosophy, De Stijl, the Beatles, punk rock, fanzines, and various conspiracy theories.
I have to admit that the first time I really noticed their output, about three years ago, with the publication of the “Lost Formats Preservation Society” issue of Emigre (no. 57), I wasn't impressed: pages of monotonous, grid-locked Helvetica devoted to a less than gripping idea. What made me think again was the “Experimental Jetset vs. The World” manifesto that appeared a few months later in Dot Dot Dot (no. 3). Here, they demonstrated a breadth of reference, an economical subtlety of thought and a refreshing willingness to acknowledge and contest the “false images and representations” of contemporary visual culture that so many designers don’t even seem to notice, let alone worry about. They apologised for being naïve – this is often their strategy – but the brief text was an unusually knowing expression of intent.
Since then, they have made a series of statements, which are consistently well argued. There are three members – Erwin Brinkers, Marieke Stolk and Danny van Dungen – and whether or not their pronouncements are collectively composed, they are always presented as jointly authored, encouraging the sense that these viewpoints represent a considered and coherent studio philosophy. (Their anonymous publicity photo shows only a set of feet, which may not be their own.) It’s an uncompromising style of self-presentation more familiar from the art world and political groups than in the design business, where statements of purpose rarely rise above the level of bland promotional copy.
In a recent interview with Rudy VanderLans about their use of Helvetica, two key ideas emerge. First, that they always try to emphasise the physical qualities of a piece of graphic design. “By stressing the idea of design as matter rather than as an accumulation of images, we try to get away from the alienation of visual culture,” they say. By “images” they mean the representations used to attract certain audiences, and this leads to the second idea. “In our view, design should have a certain autonomy, an inner logic that exists independently of the tastes and trends of so-called target audiences.” Without this autonomy, design simply ends up reflecting back at the audience representations of things that it already knows about. Experimental Jetset compare the situation in design to contemporary politics. Increasingly, instead of presenting policies based on their own convictions, politicians try to discover what the public wants through market research and shape their policies to mirror these wishes.
This analysis makes a lot of sense, but as a rationale for defaulting so often to Helvetica, is it convincing? Think again about the exceptionally broad range of influences they cite – the energy, inventiveness, rich variety, and sense of cultural revolution in the Beatles’ work alone. Do such galvanic possibilities really distil down, in design terms, to something as unimaginative, un-engaging and ordinary as the world’s most overused typeface? Experimental Jetset argue that one way of endowing design with a sense of autonomous materiality is for it to be self-referential (that is, to refer to other designs). They believe that Helvetica’s combination of neutrality and self-reference allows the viewer to focus on the design as a whole and keeps “the concept as clear and pure as possible”.
There was only one way to test the truth of this assertion and that was to view and handle some of their designs, so I visited London’s Design Museum, where several of their projects were on display in an exhibition of recent European design titled “Somewhere Totally Else”. It was certainly the case, I discovered, that Experimental Jetset pieces such as We Are the World, a catalogue pack with removable posters created for the 2003 Venice Biennale, had a strong material presence – a function, in this instance, of using large areas of black and white on an unpleasantly glossy and non-tactile laminated surface. The Rorschach inkblot conceit used for the catalogue was, like the “Lost Formats” issue of Emigre, so overstated and dominant that it crushed the content. It was also true that their use of Helvetica could never be accused of diverting anyone’s attention from the purity of the “concept”. In fact, it was of no typographic interest at all.
On the way out, I bought a new book about the British poster designer Abram Games (1914–96), whose work has also been on display at the Design Museum. I sat down with the volume, subtitled “Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means”, in the museum’s café and began to look through its pages. Games invested his work as a visual communicator with a profoundly generous aesthetic sense expressed through a formidable mastery of craft. He endowed the visual world of his posters with an autonomous power beyond their immediate purpose that still communicates more than 50 years later. I admire the ingenuity of Experimental Jetset’s thinking. They have the makings of incisive critics of visual culture. But the aridity of their visual conclusions, at least as shown at the Design Museum, threatens to negate the values they otherwise defend.