FIFTEEN CASES ON THE EUROPEAN IDENTITY OF COMMUNICATION DESIGN
Europe got its name from a Phoenician princess who, according to ancient Greek mythology, was seduced and abducted by Zeus. The Rape of Europa, a story told, written and depicted throughout the ages, shows how legend, myth and storytelling are an integral part of European culture and are at the very foundation of its definition as a continent, or even as a civilisation. Grasping the “idea of Europe” is a formidable task which storytelling – rather than the definition of territories, languages or people – makes possible.
The European Design (ED) Conference, which took place over three afternoons from 9-11 May 2007, rests on that same tradition; not only was Athens (the birthplace of European civilisation) its first host city, but if there was a common thread running through the 15 talks and respective speakers, it was definitely one of narrative, of telling stories, not only through words, but mainly through visual communication.
Instead of falling into the usual design conference format — 45 minute “show-and-tell” talk slots followed by a Question & Answer session — the ED-Conference organisers opted to ask all the speakers to elect one particular project they had worked on and, following a short introduction to their work, to develop a case-study presentation. This suggestion was loosely interpreted by each of the speakers, but it proved highly successful, providing valuable insights into each work, its implications, results, successes and, in some cases, failures.
Following each presentation, Thierry Van Kerm, the conference’s Master of Ceremonies, conducted the Q&A session by inviting at least two inquisitive members of the audience to the couches on stage, where they could confront the speaker with their questions and start the dialogue in a closer, more direct way. The audience proved a bit reluctant at first, but slowly warmed to the idea and provided interesting, thought-provoking conversation.
The inaugural speaker was Slavimir Stojanovic, a house-hold name (some say with pop-star status) in his own native Serbia, and his adopted country, Slovenia. Stojanovic gave a personal perspective of the transition of Yugoslavia from communist federation to a capitalist amalgam of nation states, and the consequences for design, culture and recognition of intellectual creation after 1992. Through the work of his studio Futro (Future + Retro) for clients such as Ljubljana’s Moderna Gallerija — taking its short-lived, ground-breaking magazine MARS as the presentation’s main case-study — but also in his self-initiated projects (which range from a magazine to lamps, from books to garments), Stojanovic showed his intrinsic desire to belong to a global communication village, and share a language that resonates not only across the continent, but throughout the world’s urban, popular culture.
Jonathan Hubbard, representing the London-based branding giant Interbrand, provided an example of the company’s mantra: a successful brand should make everyone have the same idea of what its business is about. The implementation of this easier-said-then-done philosophy to Barclays Bank, a British company – yet a global brand – which specialises in “invisible products” was definitely not a simple task. Under the motto of “inventiveness”, Interbrand tried to claim a space for Barclays in the saturated banking services market in the UK. Using a new visual language, friendlier vocabulary and more importantly typical British humour and wit, it managed to add to Barclays a particular “sense of place”. According to Hubbard, this strategy will in the future, be implemented in the various countries and markets the bank operates in, and will also move Barclays closer to a “lifestyle brand” and further away from a financial institution.
Rasmus Ibfelt of Copenhagen-based e-Types showed two main projects, in which the concepts of “the culture of fashion” and “the fashion of culture” play an important role in two identities the studio has been working on. The former, applied to Danish fashion label Mads Nørgaard Copenhagen, explores the idea of integrity on a brand identity, using statements such as Yves Saint Laurent’s “Fashion is defined by what later becomes out of fashion” and the simpler “Speak Up” to convey the brand’s message. Placing the uniqueness on the people who wear the clothes, rather than covering them in logos, Mads Nørgaard stands for individuality and self-expression, rather than style adoption. For the Danish Royal Theatre, one of Denmark’s most important cultural institutions, hosting 168 opera, ballet and theatre performances a year in different venues, e-Types developed a complex “toolbox design” that can be applied to the Theatre’s daily needs by its resident design team. This identity scheme redefines the brand of the theatre, no longer depending on the various performance directors who shift the institution’s visual elements to their own needs and tastes. Rather, a solid, even if ever-changing, visual system updates and simplifies the Theatre and makes it, according to Ibfelt, come closer to the various audiences it caters for and is willing to attract.
Enric Jardí, Spain
Enric Jardí presented two “alternative weekly” redesigns, developed from his studio in Barcelona, Jardí+Utensil, for the American newspapers Chicago Reader and Boston Phoenix. Both cases reflected a questioning of each publication’s core values, audience and placement, and the presentation of alternative visual solutions. However, and this may have been Jardí’s strongest contribution to the Conference, both end results were based on a compromise between the designers’ first options, and the client’s eventual necessities and choices. Another interesting concept introduced by Jardí, as mentioned by his partner Marcos Villaça (a.k.a. Utensil), was “the entropy of design”, or when a specific design or visual system starts breaking down through misuse and/or misunderstanding of its initial guidelines. Something which, as he explained through the “before pictures” of both titles, happens quite frequently in newspaper design.
Heinrich Paravicini of Mutabor showed how a small studio in Hamburg that started off with a magazine in 1998 developed into a 35-people design powerhouse. Having shifted from graphic design to brand experience design, Paravicini chose three of the studio’s main projects to illustrate the global, emotional design experience applied to three very different clients: From tea parties for Samova — a tea brand co-owned by Mutabor — to Audi’s Motor Show stands, he showed the process behind identifying or brands’ values and expressing them in the most accurate, intelligent and enriching way. Also taking cue from Mutabor’s own “brand interaction model”, the main project shown was Adidas’ product and packaging redesign, and especially the new concept store developed for the sportswear company. This case study was presented in detail, highlighting the role of the designer as a sort of an “orchestra conductor” of researchers, technicians, marketeers, product developers, publicists and even athletes who come together for a final performance, aimed at an audience of one: the brand consumer.
Studio FM Milano, Italy
On day two, Cristiano Bottino of Studio FM Milano, following an elaboration of the studio’s creative philosophy, chose the identity for Italy’s future MI, Museum of Made in Italy and Italian Design as its case study. This museum, to be housed at the iconic Palazzo della Civilità Italiana – a 1942 building in Rome’s E.U.R. area – will contain the permanent collection of Italian design artefacts and will also be a showcase for everything “Made in Italy”. Studio FM’s identity for MI uses the building’s characteristic arches to create a classical, easily identifiable logo to be printed everywhere, from olive oil bottles to shirt labels. Prior to the establishment of MI’s collection, Studio FM had already created an Atlas of Italian Design, a complex visual chronology of the styles, genres and individuals that shaped Italy’s creative and industrial output for over 100 years. And while the MI collection does not yet exist physically, it can already be browsed virtually, at MI’s “Second Life” location. Even though “Second Life” will soon be replaced by a better online experience, it none the less remains a valuable tool in exploring the Italy’s on-going design history.
Studio Dumbar, The Netherlands
Michel de Boer and Anne Miltenburg of Studio Dumbar, after a brief exploration of the Dutch Studio’s multifaceted portfolio, which ranges from cultural posters to elaborate corporate identity schemes, showed the latest work for one of their oldest clients: KPN, or the Royal Dutch Post. KPN has over the past 30 years undergone a series of dramatic restructuring phases, and now it has basically returned to where it was in 1977, when Studio Dumbar first started to work on its identity: it is once again The Netherlands’ Post and Telecom Company. De Boer illustrated KPN’s sinuous history through a series of “house styles” created by Studio Dumbar, before presenting their most recent challenge: this year the Studio was invited to pitch for the KPN’s new identity which, in De Boer’s own words, wanted to shift KPN from “Ministry of Telecom” to a lovebrand. Following an exemplary brief by KPN’s own marketing department, Studio Dumbar had, along with its competitors, only two weeks to develop their first proposals; and according to Anne Miltenburg, project manager at Studio Dumbar, this was only phase one of an extremely fast process. After winning the pitch with one of their six presented proposals, nicknamed “molecules”, it managed to implement the whole identity scheme throughout The Netherlands in just nine weeks, in media as diverse as vehicles, phone bills, mobile phones or billboards. For De Boer, the success of Studio Dumbar’s approach was based on knowing the client well, and more than that knowing their audience: the Dutch have literally grown up surrounded by identities and other visual elements created by Studio Dumbar, something he illustrated quite well during the Q&A session: “when we want to show our prospective clients our portfolio, we invite them to look out our window: they usually see some of our work passing by on the square below”.
Helena Ichbiah, the “Ich” of Paris-based Ich&Kar (“Kar”, Piotr Karczewski, Helena’s partner and husband, was sitting in the audience) also stuck to the conference brief, and presented only one project, after a brief contextualisation of their studio. Ich&Kar definitely stand for small is beautiful: Ichbiah, Karczewski and two assistants “think big on small projects”, which spring from personal contacts, relations or networks, and where “the perfect brief” is replaced by friendship, trust and, to an extent, serendipity. This was the case with Condesa df, a boutique hotel in Mexico City for which Ich&Kar developed a comprehensive and unique identity: following an invitation from their friend India Mahdavi, the hotel’s interior designer, they designed pretty much everything that every guest comes in contact with in a hotel. From saucy matchboxes to press ads, from slightly unorthodox emergency signs to “Room Books”, all the various elements they could think of were created with a great dose of humour, jouissance even, describing the job as a truly enjoyable experience. And this was only possible, according to Ichbiah, through continuous dialogue and trust on the part of both the client and the designer, something she summed up quite simply with “You work with people who are like you”. This extends from the owners of Condesa df to Pierre Berger of the Yves Saint Laurent “Fashion House” (before, to her dismay, it was bought over by the PPR group), or to other designers, artists and musicians, placing again the emphasis of personal relations as an integral part of the design process.
Darek Komorek, Poland
Darek Komorek arrived in Athens from Warsaw less than 3 hours before his talk, but he managed to introduce the audience to his unique graphic style, developed over his 25-year career. Having been a disciple of Henryk Tomaszewski, Komorek showed the evolution of his mainly poster graphics from the 1980s — before, he said, “posters were replaced by billboards” with the advent of capitalism in Eastern Europe — to his latest work for festivals and other cultural events which make use of other media such as – yes – billboards, brochures and CDs. Komorek admitted to “selling” his distinctive graphic style to clients, using information only as a raw material for his own personal expression. By convincing clients his highly authorial work is appropriate to convey their message and values, he manages to continue experimenting with type, drawing and form, regardless of media limitations or even legibility.
Stockholm Design Lab, Sweden
Stockholm Design Lab was represented in Athens by Björn Kusoffsky, one of the company’s founders and partners. Now celebrating 10 years since their establishment and in the process of changing offices in Stockholm, this company is one of Scandinavia’s best-known graphic design studios, having worked for several local brands and institutions such as IKEA, Filippa K, Hästens, the Moderna Museet or the Astoria cinema chain, but also for the Japanese company Askul (for which they received a Packaging design Merit at the ED-Awards). One of their biggest challenges to date was, however, the complete redesign of SAS – Scandinavian Airlines. By applying the so-called Scandinavian values of simplicity, transparency and charm, they managed to refresh the three-nation airline’s image by stripping away logos from wet-wipes and many other elements otherwise carrying them and simplifying the colour scheme (even if this included some failed silver paint experiments on planes). More importantly SAS’s new image was achieved by treating its passengers as intelligent, sophisticated people. Giving passengers control, empowering staff and paying attention to detail, such as providing windows in airplane toilets, having food at the gates and giving away books instead of brochures, showed that there is more to implementing an identity than just following a logo manual. The very tangibility of its elements is challenged, not only by the removal of logos but by its use of poems or clever text on things like salt and pepper packaging. All in all, whispering often proves more effective than shouting when you’re trying to get your brand message across.
Day three kicked off with Manuel Krebs’ “Money Making” odyssey. Krebs, half of Swiss studio Norm (the other half, Dimitri Bruni, stayed in Zurich) described, following the customary introduction to the studio’s mostly type-oriented work, their long and intricate commission to redesign the 9th Swiss Banknote Series. For this commission, the Swiss National Bank invited 12 design studios in 2005 to present proposals during a six month period; Norm won first prize, after being voted by a committee including people such as philosophers, writers and art curators. Their proposal, tackling several aspects of the Swiss confederation on a micro and macro scale, used elements such as an embryo, the Declaration of Human Rights, a gold bar or a rendering of the HIV virus to portray a contemporary version of the country, addressing key areas of Swiss life such as sport, science and pharmaceutical research, applied geography, finance and art. However, some of these elements, such as the HIV virus and a human skull as a watermark on the highest-value banknote (an allusion to the age-old concept of vanitas), whilst questioning the very nature of Swiss identity and representation, went too far for some people: as soon as the results came out, much of the Swiss press attacked the proposals for their promotion of “disease and death” and for their “un-Swissness”. For the second phase of the competition however, the top three studios on the competition were invited to further develop their proposals for the total of six different banknotes (10 to 1000 CHF) and the printing of one of the notes (50 CHF). Norm redesigned their proposal and to some extend compromised on some of their initial designs, going for less abstract, more informative proposals and dropping the skull and the virus for other less controversial elements. Krebs also elaborated on the intricate details that go into the design of banknotes: from several security devices to grids and adjustment of symbols, and 4000 dpi printing on the exclusive SNB Mint offset machines (for which they created, together with Jürg Lehni, their own offset raster pattern). This new redesign did not, however, satisfy the needs of the committee of 12 bankers and PR representatives that judged the second round of proposals: another of the three finalist studios won the final commission for the banknotes (to be released in 2010); Norm’s two-year work on the project was eventually rejected, and all print tests destroyed. In the end, as Krebs said, “Bankers know how to make more money with money” and you can only push boundaries, preconceptions and stereotypes so much.
Yiannis Haralambopoulos of Thessaloniki-based Beetroot Design Group showed two main case studies of the studio’s work. First up, their identity for meta:05, Thessaloniki Association of Architects’ fifth exhibition of architecture, for which they played with the word/concept of meta (Greek for after or next) and applied it to elements that played on a “fourth dimensional” level. From the folding invitation and the “discoverable” website and CD-Rom, to the exhibition layout and even the use of the typeface Meta by Erik Spiekermann, all aspects of the exhibition were thought through in order to express one underlying theme. Another architecture exhibition allowed Beetroot not only to work on an international level, but to address controversial issues which aren’t usually associated with this discipline. The Cypriot representation at the 2006 Venice Architecture Biennale carried the theme of “Porous Borders”, and focused on Nicosia’s “Green Line”, the no-go zone that separates the Greek and Turkish areas of the only European capital left divided. By stirring the debate on the issue, and proposing ten projects that according to the project curator restore “porosity” to the area, this representation aimed at discussing the very boundaries and influence of architectural practise. Beetroot’s identity for the project was mainly expressed through a thought-provoking logo, for which Haralambopoulos not only showed the final result and applications but also preliminary sketches. From a more literal approach of “a green obstacle” between two individuals to the final, more open to interpretation symbol — a juxtaposition of black, green perforated, and white circles — it was possible to understand the refinement of ideas and application of concepts that were at the core of this project. This symbol was later applied extensively to all aspects of the Cypriot representation, from the exhibition design to the catalogue, along with a green line visual element that explored uninhabited spaces, echoing Nicosia’s extreme case of European borders.
Halvor Bodin, Norway
Halvor Bodin, who according to himself is these days 70% designer and 30% artist (and keeps both portfolios securely apart), gave a personal account of the Norwegian Black Metal scene and its influence on both low-brow and high-brow contemporary culture. Following a chronology of his own work in graphic design, film, advertising, publishing and visual art, Bodin focused on this peculiar universe, for him the last of the sub-cultures only now beginning to be explored my mainstream media. In an age when everything, even Satan-worshipping bands with homicidal and suicidal vocalists and their church-burning fans are commodified, Bodin showed through his work for black metal bands Satyricon and Darkthrone that the designer must take the challenge of updating a band’s image without losing its core brand values. Most of his talk was dedicated to “Black Low – The Punk Movement Was Just Hippies With Short Hair”, a banned art exhibition he worked on with Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard. This was just one of the projects they have collaborated on since 2002; their projects also include other exhibitions and art projects, as well as the Extreme Metal kash® VISA credit card for the IKANO Group, IKEA’s sister financial company. Exploring Black Metal imagery, literature and music, Bodin showed images of the exhibitions, catalogues, videos and other materials in which he explored an “intuitive” — and often self-indulgent — approach to the selection and display of content.
Open! Design & Concept, Russia
Stas Zhitsky of Moscow’s Open! Design & Concept showed solely his studio’s work for the Russian RICH juice brand, a refreshing new addition to the local juice market. This new “low-premium” (high quality at an affordable price) juice brand should, according to the client, stand out among other brands and should aim at market leadership. Open!’s concept, after analysing the competition and ignoring market specialists (for Zhitsky the real monsters in the industry) or market groups (why listen to criticism from non-specialists?), was to clean up the clutter in juice packaging and make it simpler, bolder and more sophisticated. Photographing real fruit and making it fit inside an imaginary circle over a white background resulted in a range of over five different juice varieties in Tetra Brik packages, which with the addition of bold typography and a sense of proportion, was very successful on the supermarket shelves. To Zhitsky, “A good design is explainable by words. If you have something, an idea, you have good design”. And this case cannot be further from the truth. Rich, well packaged juice, sells — regardless of what the marketeers say.
Why Not Associates, UK
David Ellis of Why Not Associates delivered the final talk of the conference, and addressed mainly the British studio’s major “type in the public space” projects, focusing on the Flock of Words type path for the English seaside town of Morecambe. Having already created a typographic memorial to Eric Morecambe, the town’s most famous son and a well-known comedian, Why Not received a British Lottery Grant for a large-scale installation linking the town’s railway station to the sea-front. This collaboration with sculptors Gordon Young and Russell Coleman resulted in a 320 metre stretch of pavement celebrating the written word in many of its demonstrations — from the Bible and the Declaration of Human Rights to Chaucer — and set in various materials and shapes using Eric Gill’s typefaces (Gill’s carvings adorn the interior of Oliver Hill’s Art Deco Midland Hotel, now being restored to its long-lost grandeur). Inspired by the ornithological richness of the area (Morecambe Bay is one of Europe’s largest wildlife bird sanctuaries), the path brought local talent and craft not only in the sculpting and implementation of the piece, but also in local text competitions, inviting the local inhabitants to be part of the artwork. This changed ordinary people’s perception of the value of costly art projects in public space, which can often be seen as a capricious and wasteful use of public money. And this probably was Why Not’s most important contribution to the project – altering the public’s perception of the role such art projects can play in their communities. As designers, their work is first seen as the end stage of the creative, artistic process (the sort of packaging of the artwork approach) but through this and other examples shown – such as the infamous Carlisle curse monument – they managed to explore the whole breath of collaboration: from identification of necessity to expression of intent, from observation of intangible elements in context and history to the final formal achievement.
After three days of attending the conference and a total of 15 talks, one can only remember so much, and indeed the stories told by all the speakers create a sense of continuity in all of the work shown and explained. And if narrative was the form of expression, there seemed to be another common thread running through all the talks: the creation of identity. Be it the identity of a brand, of their own personal “creative positioning”, or even of their own countries, the increasingly important question of a “designed identity” as our only identity left was made visible through this conference. When all ideological systems seem to have failed, when religion now increasingly separates rather than unites, and when borders in Europe both collapse and grow taller, where is a “European identity” to be found in communication design? Is it contained in the postcode of the offices where most of the work is produced? Is it in the increasingly multinational, multicultural makeup of our societies? Is it within our (European) clients?
As with the European Design Awards, this Inaugural European Design Conference offers no easy answers. However, there was one thing that seemed to provide a clue to all these unanswered questions. During the three days of the ED Conference and Awards, Apeiron Photos and Corbis organised a poster exhibition called Mapping (Europe), where 30 Greek designers were invited to design posters that would refer to the idea of a map of Europe. Among a plethora of maps, graphs, statistics, languages and other information on the continent, one poster stood out: someone had made a line around the inside of poster’s edges with a marker, and wrote “my borders” in the bottom. This poster, by Dimitris Gazis, is a powerful commentary on the whole discussion behind “European Design”: if you are a European (which Dimitris Gazis expresses to be) anything you wish to create is thus restrained only to the borders of medium (such as the poster, the graphic design medium par excellence). Other issues — provenance, heritage, education, civilisation, geography, even style — are secondary. In the end, whether you’re Greek, Finnish, Byelorussian prinsor Maltese, or anything else for the matter, you need only to claim your European identity. And when all other restraints are removed, the possibilities for European Design are then truly endless. Let’s hope the stories will be as stimulating in Stockholm next year.
The events were sponsored by Corbis and HP.
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