Small world, big family

inside Geoff McFetridge’s tower © La Triennale di Milano

Imagine you’re 14, or whatever age you were when interests suddenly became career options. You’re taken to a graphic design exhibition at Milan’s Triennale museum and while you’re there, it hits you: this is what you want to do for the rest of your life.

Graphic Design Worlds doesn’t tell what its subject is, was or should be, nor does it have a grand narrative or pedagogic agenda – which is not a bad thing, for this is an increasingly complex, expanding discipline. Yet judging from what’s on show, you may want to think twice before signing up for this world.

Over thirty designers were invited by curators Giorgio Camuffo and Maddalena della Mura to show their work in installations of varying degrees of scale, complexity and ambition. This international, close-knit family of professionals share roughly the same generation, Y chromosome and education – most of them, including many of the Italian participants in the gallery’s central room, either live or went to school in Holland or the UK.

Their worlds range from the weirdly wonderful (Åbäke) to the rigourously normative (NORM), from the bafflingly cryptic (Elliott Earls) to the obsessively specific (Studio Temp) and the rigidly casual (Dexter Sinister). There’s a wall of sentences with a one-liner appendix (Zak Kyes), a life-size studio photo (Na Kim), a crowded-room-within-an-empty-room (M/M Paris), two towers (Geoff McFetridge, KesselsKramer), a hut (Anthony Burrill) and plenty of posters and books.

Being a teenager in 2011, you’re certainly intrigued by how these worlds are made mostly of ink on paper or paint on walls – not pixels on screens. Apart from a sign with the word INTERNET on it (Mieke Gerritzen) and columns of printed web articles about WikiLeaks (MetaHaven), there’s little evidence of a graphically-designed digital world. Are you suddenly into graphic design because it makes for a welcome, if anachronistic break from your online, screen-mediated existence?

The works on show (with exceptions, most notably from KesselsKramer, Experimental Jetset or De Designpolitie) are best described as bursts of design self-expression – you’ll learn to label non-commercial, often self-initiated work as such. This makes for an extraordinary showcase of visual authorship, yet fails to reveal the extraordinary breadth of outlets and outcomes with which design professionals actively shape our ever more complex media exposed lives. Captions or introductory notes to each installation were also intentionally left out, adding cluelessness to your sensorially overloaded gallery experience.

As with many other design-for-the-gallery shows, this one lacks now (context), how (process), them (society) or why (depth), thus presenting an exceptional, disappointingly safe and benignly irrelevant version of its subject – design as teenage contemporary art. It also feels more like a post-millennial show of yesterday’s “poster designers” (there’s a small-world, big-family, old-boys club for you) than a reflection on graphic design in the world of today.

Once you leave the Triennale you’ll have time to learn about clients and deadlines, serif and sans, advertising and propaganda, data and information – the real world of graphic design. You’re likely to study the subject before earning a living by turning words and images into vehicles of persuasion or inquiry. For a head start, pick up the show’s antidotal catalogue: its 356, A5-sized pages pack highly readable, thought-provoking essays, earnest interviews and a vivid debate among the show’s Italian participants, which will make you get involved into the issues relevant to your future peers. That’s if you don’t change your mind and choose to do something else with your life.

This review of the Graphic Design Worlds exhibition, which was on show from January 26 to March 23 2011 at the Triennale di Milano, was published on the 2/2011 issue of items magazine. Op nederlands, natuurlijk.