Rick Poynor | Essays

Those Inward-looking Europeans

In Emigre no. 64, three American design teachers – Kali Nikitas, Louise Sandhaus and Denise Gonzales Crisp – talk about a two-week visit they made to London and the Netherlands. A note of disappointment runs through their conversation. Nikitas observes how she has always been interested in what is happening in design outside the US. “I think everyone should look beyond their backyard,” she says. “It seems natural to have a dialogue with designers in other countries. But maybe our education was unique. And maybe the Europeans we met are content and aren’t looking elsewhere for any answers.”

The designers they visited apparently failed to show any interest in their work or in what is happening in the US. These designers, they say, are either ignoring history or unaware of it. Only one designer, Goodwill, seems to impress them much for trying to break away from what Gonzales Crisp calls “the dictates of Euro-determined design”. But poor old Goodwill is way behind the (American) times. If only he had been in contact with designers from Cranbrook, CalArts and Yale who explored these issues ten or fifteen years ago, he could have saved himself a great deal of trouble.

As a European, I had mixed feelings reading this. It contained more than a grain of truth, but it was also patronising. Europe is a collection of countries with a long and complex history. We speak many languages. To understand how design is evolving in any of these territories, you have to combine a sensitivity to local factors with a grasp of the broader, global issues that relate to design everywhere. You also need to understand the ways in which design in Europe (a safer way of putting it than “European design”) might be reacting against American tendencies and consider why this might be.

Few would question that, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, American graphic designers produced the most challenging design and design discourse. So successful were these “radical commodities” (as Rudy VanderLans termed them) that they were fully assimilated by commerce. After that, what? If we judge by its output rather than its design school rhetoric, American design is still looking for an answer. The debate that emerged around 1999 saw a shift to a more engaged and explicit design politics. It was time to lay cards on the table and some of the leading postmodernists, who had made the running in the early 1990s, sounded distinctly uncomfortable when asked to examine design in these terms. At the end of the Emigre conversation, Louise Sandhaus says, “We have got to get over the Adbusters mentality in academia. Instead of critiquing everything and complaining, we have the opportunity to really address our society and culture. . . . I want to emphasize the need to accept this culture as it is . . .” I have no idea how one separates addressing our society from the process of critique.

So what are the chances, at this point, of a genuinely international design discussion? Design Observer was started with the idea that some kind of transatlantic debate might be possible and revealing. Insularity is a human tendency wherever you go, although many Europeans have always looked beyond their borders – it’s often a necessity for economic survival. Contrary to what Emigre’s correspondents seem to think on the basis of a two-week visit, and this should hardly need stating, Europeans are continuously bombarded by the products of every form of American commercial and cultural endeavour, including American design.

Graphic design in Europe was certainly inspired by the experimentalism and energy of American design in the early 1990s, but from the second half of the decade, design in France, Germany and Switzerland, as well as the Netherlands (which seemed played out in the early 1990s) displayed a freshness that American design, locked into familiar routines, has arguably lacked in recent years. Other design economies, such as the Czech Republic, are emerging and Czech designers too are hugely receptive to ideas from overseas. Cultural development doesn’t proceed with perfect linearity, so naturally Europeans respond to their circumstances in their own ways. How else should it be?

Posted in: Education , Graphic Design, Social Good, Theory + Criticism, Typography

Comments [14]

I'll be a little extreem - but say that the three Americans are hardly "current" designers. They're more old-school academics. And I'm not surprised by the lack of interest in their work from the Europeans that they visited... their work isn't really up-to-date. And their academic theories are more relevant to the 80's Emigre crowd than the current kids doing the actual design work.
Bill Jones

As an American living in Europe I'm working to understand what "european" design actually is. This is one way I might think about this idea.

You have two tables, one for each continent, and a collection of European and American designers are allowed to fill the table with their own works respectively. The European designers immediately get together to divide the spaces and formulate a general program. The Americans go directly back to their studios and start creating. On exhibition day the Europeans show up early with their lot of great work and place things neatly on the table according to divisions. It looks ultra smart and clean. The Americans show up exactly on time (late) and quickly assemble their excellent pieces. The table looks like a mess - a beautiful gigantic mess that can not be avoided.

I'm sure a discourse between continental designers can happen, but for one, context is everything and for the other, presentation is everything. Where to begin...?

This post and Peter Bilak's article 'Contemporary Dutch Graphic Design: an Insider/Outsider's View' (read it at www.typotheque.com) both raise the prospect of discussing graphic design in terms of national identity. This is an important evolution for design criticism. Though the body of RANT is dominated by predictable railing against style for style's sake, a new criticism seems to be taking shape in the margins of the design press: one that interrogates the connection between graphic design and the context in which it was created. Unlike art, there is no pristine gallery or gilded frame for graphic design: it is integrated with the social and political context in which it was created and this unique quality is an opportunity for us to distinguish our work and our criticism. The formal arguments of the Legibility Wars are no longer vital to the evolution of the field; we need critical writing that explores the where of graphic design as much as the how.
Dmitri Siegel

Most interactive designers that I've talked with from outside the US do keep an eye on anyone that is creating interesting work, regardless of location. I do have to wonder if it is going to become harder for European designers to accept US design without thinking of the current political climate and policies here. As the previous poster stated "[design] is integrated with the social and political context in which it was created."
Jarrett Kertesz

I would like to posit that these distinctions between modern/postmodern/neo-modern and european/american design are not only artificial but needlessly essentializing.

The use of design styles as historical markers masks several other more interesting trends that need to be surfaced such as the impact of networked digital technology on the profession and academia's response to design through the study of visual culture and visual rhetoric. Looking through these lenses, I maintain, affords one a view wherein Europeans, Americans, Africans, Asians, and Australians alike all struggle/revel to make meaning from a crazy mocha swirl of signs, cultural influences, and aesthetic approaches that may or may not speak of a movement or of a culture or people at all.

My hope is that more of us can move beyond the need to contain and classify as a method of studying design, take the critique inherent in the Adbusters/Culture Jamming school of thought and work towards a better understanding of design as rhetoric (if it is not rhetoric but personal expression then is it design?) within, as Dmitri remarks above, a socio-political context.

If we designers are unable to rise to the challenge there is a growing contingent of academics (Jay David Bolter, Richard Lanham, Matthew Soar, and Cynthia Selfe to name a few) along with this forum's moderators that are doing it quite well, thank you.
Gregory Turner-Rahman

European design clean and crisp and presented on time?
V's comment is clear by showing the artificiality, and sheer facility, of the term. As an European, something tells me that if we were to present "our design" it would be anything but fast or easy. Not only would the division of space on the table be a nightmare (we can hardly agree on common defense forces, or milk quotas, let alone design space), I would say the representatives from latitudes south of Vienna would still be chatting away sipping their expressos, cafés con leche and frappés after the start of the presentation, oblivious of what they would really want to show. But again, that is just one more stereotype that we would have to work on. And another thing: is Dutch, or Irish, or Czech, or even Portuguese design being created, discussed (and presented...?) exclusively by their respective nationals? Definetely not, and Peter Bilak is only one of hundreds of examples.
So what now? If the three American academics came to the UK and Netherlands in search of European Design, did they forget about the other 30-something nations that actually make up Europe?
Does this mean we should bring back the Grand Tour?
Design made in Europe (thanks Rick) is far too plural and "disorganised" - probably it's what makes it exciting - to categorise. Instead of defining people, influences, or styles, maybe we should start just sharing ideas, dreams, processes, and laughter - in our many languages, or in English, whatever comes naturally.

I just ordered my expresso.
Frederico Duarte

I just started reading "The World Must Change: Graphic Design and Idealism". Haven't finished Oosterling's essay yet, but presumptuously I support studying social histories of design and not forfeiting consideration of national boundaries. Also, and this is just an initial impression, but it looks like spots in England and the Netherlands (and the US) are more interested in theorizing design than other countries, and perhaps don't put as much emphasis on aesthetic styles. Why these in particular?

I just visited Portland's chapter of "A Roadshow of Dutch Design." As a student, I am always curious to what my place is in the design world. I found myself thinking that Dutch Design emphasises such a distinct style; does American design have an as recogniseable style? Do Europeans even use the phrase "American Design"? When I read this article I did notice that maybee they do. With the 80's and the 90's flourish of vernacular design, and the "Carson" and/or "Fella" design styles, we did leave an impact somewhere. But should we not embrace our nationalisms? When I think about Dutch Design, I think "Wow, This is Dutch Design". So accomplishable and so distinguishable, shouldn't we embrace these so called labels? Don't get me wrong, I think a Global Design Community would be a great thing. But wouldn't it also bring homogonization? Who knows untill it's tried.

This is an interesting article and point of discussion. Let me expound upon a few spontaneous thoughts.

As a European (British-Swiss) working in the U.S., like Poynor, I have mixed feelings about the Emigre article. However, I find the argument put forth particularly pertinent with regards to the U.K., or London. As a frequent visitor to London myself I'm always quite stunned by what I too see as a rather conceited and inward -looking design community, talented as it may be. But I agree with Poynor that design in the US, broadly speaking, is stagnant currently, with a few notable exceptions, and design in Europe, as a whole (and Switzerland in particular) is more eagerly exploring new territory.

A note to Bill Jones: I would be willing to bet that you have not seen much if any of the work by Denise Gonzales Crisp. And if you have I'm amazed that you find her work 'un-current' or by implication, un-progressive. Investigate a little further and I think you will find she is one of the most interesting, challenging and talented designers working in the U.S. today. But of course, it's a subjetive thing.
Julian Bittiner

Michael Bierut recently took issue with an example I gave in a lecture of a student project that — to my mind, at least —represented a kind of inward-looking (read "myopic") point of view. "Sometimes," he pointed out to me gently, "something can be just beautiful."

I think Michael may be right about that.

But on a topic more related to this thread, Julian's comment above about the work he sees in London being "inward-looking" reminds me of a sporadic debate Rick Poynor and I have had over the years about the general state of UK vs US design: I've always maintained that any place where the default typeface is Gill Sans is a place I 'd be pretty happy to spend time. (The same can not be said of design here, though many would argue this is a good thing.) Rick argued the opposite: in his view, this Edward Johnston derivative monoculture was neither timely nor particularly interesting.

I think Rick may be right about that.

Am I responding to a British vernacular that, anglophile that I am at heart, simply appeals to me on a personal level?

I like the idea of moving beyond that which we need to "contain and classify" — but a part of me believes that such classifications add a kind of deeper meaning and understanding to the work.

Am I right about that?
Jessica Helfand

okay, i would prefer to email rick directly but thought it might be fun to join in the conversation.
i never in my wildest imagination expected such attention to be paid to the SHORT conversation written in "Rant."

it seems that the lack of writing in the design community has led to an intense focus on articles that do not warrant so much attention. Our "travelogue" was a conversation and a set of observations.

our travels this past summer gleamed a different experience. i regret that we have not followed up the first "rant" with a second "?."

honestly, i'm happy that rick, whose work i admire, found something in the article that warranted comment.

i am still recovering from hearing at 39, with a career that i feel is just starting, that i am "over the hill."
there is no way to comment back without sounding defensive...so i'll shut up and trust that those who are interested in knowing more, will ask questions and those who understand what we were trying to do will continue to make thoughtful observations from which we can all learn.

kali "the over the hill designer"

Kali, thanks for dropping by. I wouldn't take that "old-school academics" remark too seriously if I were you.

Was this article too small to warrant discussion? Well, for me, your conversation was an interesting piece and I did, as a European, have a strong reaction to it. If you publish something in Emigre, especially in an issue as argumentative as "Rant", you have to expect it to be noticed and considered. Or why publish it at all?

This is not aimed at you personally, but can I suggest that instead of endless laments about the lack of design writing, the important thing now is to get on and do some. If academic writers did more original research in this area and if they shared some of their findings with broader audiences, both the practice and the culture of discussion would benefit in every way. I hope you'll find a venue for your latest reflections.
Rick Poynor

does anyone have a link to 'goodwill''s work? or any other european design work worth mentioning?

manuel miranda

Goodwill (Will Holder) doesn't have a website. There's some of his work in the recently published False Flat (Phaidon).

He's actually quite an inspirational teacher at the Rietveld Academy (together with Experimental Jet Set, Stuart Bailey, Jop van Bennekom, etc. etc. Linda van Deursen is head of the department, and it shows.)
Roy Walker

Jobs | July 12