Current 11/2008

Design Wrecking Ball

The result has been a government that addresses its citizens in a accessible and contemporary way. Surprisingly, this is still extremely rare. For some reason, governmental communication is often neglecting even the basic rules for using comprehensible language or accessible typography. It is as if governments are in a constant fear of losing status and authority. Therefore, a kitschy neo-classical (Roman/Greec) style is adopted in the hope that it helps to rule. A notion that is just as bizarre as it is persistent. The Dutch public institutions had distanced itself successfully from all this. Building goes slowly. The Secretary-General of the Dutch Postal and Telecommunication Services is always mentioned as the one who started in the 1920s the movement towards well designed public printed matter. Between the 60s and the 90s the Dutch public sphere witnessed a complete visual transformation. The recently opened - and unique - Dutch museum for graphic design would be half empty when all public design would be taken out of its collection. 

wrecking
The Dutch Prime Minister explaining his concept of 'new'.

Alas, demolition may go excruciatingly fast. The wrecking ball is a very effective tool. The work of generations can be undone in a few years or even faster. And that's what happening right now with the rich heritage of graphic design for the Dutch central government. A recent 'one-logo' operation for the Dutch government will erase decades of highly professional dedication. Surely, graphic design has a limited functional life. It needs to be adjusted or replaced when it starts to be inappropriate. But that is not the consideration behind this operation. Learning about its background leaves one shocked in disbelieve. I have been intensely involved myself in the visual transformation of the Dutch government and I remember from my first client encounters the wise advice that politics should never ever get involved in visual identity operations of public institutions. Politicians are the essential captains of the ship of State - for as long as it lasts, which maybe very short - but the maintenance of the vessel is better left to the civil (public) servants. Unlike politicians, governments must take a long position without exception, they are our last resort. And the quality of the public institutions is quintessential to reach this goal. Regrettably, this wise advice has been rejected by the politicians once they discovered the power of visual communication. The result has been disasterous accumulating in the 'one logo' operation. This operation was severely handicapped from its outset since it was initiated by the Prime Minister. Was there any quality as a compensation? Well, no, I'm sorry to say this but the whole enterprise has turned out to be very much like a Fawlty Towers performance. With the Dutch Prime Minister, Mr Balkenende in the role of a short version of John Cleese. Absurdity is the ruling factor, but not for amusement. Mr. Balkenende is one of the weakest leaders in Dutch political history, now in his 4th cabinet, going from one crisis to the next because he couldn't manage the individual ministers in his team properly. Ultimately, he used his power to create at least some kind of unity through a visual identity operation. Mr Balkenende is not only Prime Minister but he also heads the smallest Ministry of all others, one that is formally responsible for the public relations of the nation, but was never really interested in visual identity programs. Too big, too tedious and not glamourous. Other media, like tv were considered way more sexy and important. His Ministry was the last of all to follow the governmental visual identity transition and the result has been very traditional and by far the least compelling of all. In fact, there is no know how to speak of about identity operations in his Ministry. Nevertheless, his Ministry embarked on one of the major visual identity programmes to create one overhauling identity for the Dutch government. An international tender was issued, where only a few Dutch agencies where shortlisted. The tender was held twice because his cabinet collapsed again after the results of the first were received. And finally a logo was selected that was identical to the logo already designed a while ago for his own tiny Ministry. A design brief that instructed the participating design agencies to built on the Dutch tradition of ground breaking graphic design awarded in the end a design agency that had the nerves (or most likely was advised) to hand in a design they had already designed for their patron before. This is the first time in history that a logo design brief was issued on a letter with a letterhead that carried already the winning logo design. One would assume this would only be a reality in an Egyptian sitcom, well, it seems to be also a reality today in a nation that used to have a reputation in graphic design and governmental integrity. The official arguments behind this many millions of Euros costing operation are just as convincing as the proces of selecting the 'one logo' design. A more sensible visual order will not be created as intended by stamping a mediocrely crafted coat of arms on all printed matter, websites and buildings. Quite the contrary, the activities of the government are way too diverse to use one prominent logo with only text to distinguish the different Ministries or other bodies. No sensible information designer would ever recommend doing that, It will only creates anonymity and confusion that will even be further enhanced by the fact that a lot of other institutions also use a (poorly designed) Dutch coat of arms. This 'one logo' even fails the most basic test of being a unique distinguishable mark. The second argument that maintenance costs will be reduced, is best considered a political spin. Any relation with reality is no longer required for this popular line in the business of politics. There is no central account that makes cost reduction a verifiable statement and - as said - the departmental management of this operation is highly inexperienced to put it friendly. The claim that the public service would be supported by any of this in any conceivable way is a show of ice cold cynicism at zero degrees Kelvin. (And the Dutch Prime Minister is still pondering why public trust in politicians has dropped so dramatically on his watch) For me personally it is rather perplexing to see the Dutch government return to where I once started. A 19th century concept of a state's visual identity. The once uniquely enlightened Dutch government is now investing heavily to get dressed as the British major in Fawlty Towers. Dutch governmental buildings will get a visual touch of army baracks. Exceedingly interesting times.

 

Europeana, the European digital library

Nevertheless, 'Europe' stands for the 'old' continent (The Old World) in Western eyes. The continent where the 'New World' loves to seek its cultural history, occasionally.

 

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Without a doubt, there are a lot of places in Europe where cultural treasures are kept. These collections will never be brought together in one central place. That would be senseless. But what can't be done in the material world can be done in the digital universe. On the 20th of November a digital library is launched at http://www.europeana.eu, bringing together famous cultural collections from the UK, France, Spain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands for instance. France - always eager to sell itself as the 'Cultural Country' in Europe - has contributed so far about half of the collection of about 2 millions items. That is lightly over the top. But the French are used to talk about Europe as if it's the new name for a restructured France. Hopefully, the contributions will be a bit more balanced in future. (Europe counts 49 states). The Dutch Royal Library seems to be in charge of the maintenance of the site. This typical division of duties is a bit of an odd habit in Europe: France has a disproportionate influence on the content, Germany pays the most for the operation and the small countries do the work. (The Italians often stand aside, being too busy with staring at big boobs on tv and the non-stop comedy show of PM Berlusconi).

Updates

Thomas Couderc work updates

Thomas Couderc has updated their work, see it here.

Clément Vauchez work updates

Clément Vauchez has updated their work, see it here.

Alexandre Dimos work updates

Alexandre Dimos has updated their work, see it here.

Yu Guang work updates

Yu Guang has updated their work, see it here.

Alan Chan work updates

Alan Chan has updated their work, see it here.

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