So what do we talk about when we talk about design? The British design critic Rick Poynor noted a strange fact: whenever graphic design topics appear in the Western mainstream press, such articles always start with some kind of justification – what design really is and why it is important. Imagine, says Poynor, if every piece of literary criticism started by explaining what literature is.
But it only reflects the fact that the term ‘design’ is usually associated with consumption and luxury: ‘designer furniture’ (should it be taken to imply that the other, industrial, mass-produced, cheaper furniture does not have designers?), designer clothes, drinks... ‘Designer items’ are pretty but mostly useless objects that are supposed to ‘beautify’ your living space as symbols of social prestige. When the local papers call someone a dizajner, it is usually a tailor, as we used to call them, or maybe a fashion stylist. ‘Hair designers’ are pretentious overpaid hairdressers.
So, what do we talk about when we talk about design?
For one possible answer to this question, we turn to the exhibition ‘When We Talk About Love’, by the graphic designer Borut Vild in the recently opened memorial gallery of Milica Zorić and Rodoljub Čolaković in Belgrade.
The former family villa has been converted into an impressive gallery space designed for the presentation of contemporary art. The gallery is managed by the team from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, since the museum building is still unfinished after several years of renovation. It was no coincidence that they chose an exhibition about visual communications, and more concretely the work of Borut Vild, to open the new exhibition space to the public.
The exhibition avoids the logic of retrospectives and is not limited to the (already highly problematic) gallery exhibition of graphic design works. On the other hand, the author himself says that he found it hard to present his own design as a process, because he does not record the process of creating his works, he does not keep any sketches, since he does not consider them to be especially valuable or interesting.
‘I wanted to shape the exhibition space with design. Not with walls, partitions, but with design, project relationships, sizes, rhythms...’
In five sections – Spaces, Contrasts, Letters, Systems, People – presenting book design, visual identities, typographic experiments, political statements and humorous intimate projects (‘Don’t Ever Leave Me’), and the relation with working and living environments, this exhibition provides an inspiring insight into the author’s attitude to design.
Borut Vild is certainly one of the leading contemporary graphic designers in Serbia and beyond. His work and involvement in design promotion and visual culture education is significantly associated with the circle of curators and scholars who gathered around the projects of the Fund for Open Society and the Centre for Contemporary Art in Belgrade in the 1990s. At the turn of the century, they moved from the alternative, non-institutional scene to the central institution, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade. In a series of collaborative projects, Vild did not merely provide expert visual design for projects and present them in publications and catalogues. As every good designer should, he actively participated in all project phases and therefore regularly found ways to integrate their contents and graphic design as much as possible. Because of his character, knowledge of design history, and active reflection on the use of the printed materials he designs, Vild is able to play with different styles and visual languages. Aside from works that were serially made for particular purposes, like his book designs for the Belgrade Circle, each of his works has a completely different format, layout and choice of fonts. Aware of the financial and technological constraints, without the fireworks of a glamorous production, he manages to achieve the maximum in communication.
Born in Murska Sobota, he came to Belgrade to study and stayed there. The Belgrade Faculty of Applied Arts, where he graduated from the Graphic Department, was a unique institution in former Yugoslavia, teaching not only the classic graphic skills, but also what we now routinely call graphic design.
‘The word design means many things today,’ says Vild. ‘It is an ever-changing area that constantly expands and collapses. That is why I prefer graphic design. I shape things with graphic elements. A clear job makes people satisfied.'
In spite of all the limitations that his current experience sees in the old system of artistic education and the faulty professional knowledge he obtained at the university, he did learn the basics of classical typography, calligraphy and book design. Graphic work helped his visual sensibility, photography helped his framing abilities, but the most important thing for most of his later work might be the introduction to the art of typography and the concrete training to write and draw letters, adopting the logic of moving the pen, the thickness of lines and their connections. Typography is what Borut considers the ultimate royal discipline, which has been given too little attention in the post-break-up countries. This neglect horrifies him. Serbia has a special problem, because the Cyrillic script is institutionally enforced as the national script. However, most of the available digital Cyrillic fonts are nothing but rough adaptations of Latin fonts. When he was the art director in charge of redesigning Politika magazine, he insisted that two families of fonts should be specially ordered from the famous typographer Jovica Veljović.
You will recognize lovers of the black graphic art by how they receive a new book: they open it and sniff the pages, taking in the smells of paper, printing inks and glues. Borut, the child of the director of a printing house, learned these smells from his earliest age. Already in high school, he did various odd jobs for his father, from cleaning and packing to copying and designing. After graduating, he worked as a graphic editor in a newspaper. Today, he points out how he was shaped by these experiences in the printing house, a big system that observes a strict pace of deadlines, while today’s designers can graduate without setting foot in a printing company, which is a problem. Knowledge of technology, of the entire production process, is what makes it possible to use it creatively.
Borut is not an ideological designer using revolutionary rhetoric, but his design activities (much broader than the production of graphic artefacts) have a prominent understanding of the social role of design. For this reason, he is more than a hunter of exceptional design advances; he advocates a continuously increasing average and general standard, what we call the visual culture of a society. It has been shown by his participation in several educational projects: in the 1980s, he was a non-affiliated contributor to Školigrica, an innovative educational project where artists worked with preschool children; in the 1990s, he worked for the Centre for Contemporary Art, was involved in the informal educational project of Schools for the History and Theory of Images, and finally was hired by the Faculty of Media and Communication at the University of Singidunum, where he works today.
He was one of the organizers of ‘Designer: Author or Universal Soldier’, a non-profit international conference intended for design students and young professionals from the entire region. Last year, the conference was opened with an exhibition of Milton Glaser and a lecture by Steven Heller. This year, the second edition of the conference will be held from 23 to 26 March in the Belgrade Cultural Centre. It announced lectures, workshops and exhibitions of Experimental Jetset and Daniel van der Velden (Metahaven) from the Netherlands, Paul Buckley, art director of the publishing house Penguin USA and the designer Ingsu Liu, Aleksandar Maćašev, Nikola Đurek, while Mirko Ilić with his students will comment on their works and projects.
One motivation for such educational projects, according to Vild, is the obvious everyday inability (and therefore a lack of interest) of the wider public to read political meanings and messages all around us, which makes us more susceptible to various kinds of ideological and market manipulations. ‘We have turned into a civilization of images, but nobody taught us to read images,’ he says. The fact that we have eyes does not mean that we can see. For example, this is what makes it possible to have so many advertisements and political messages with offensive, sexist and chauvinist content, which do not generate any public reaction. The contemporary designer has the responsibility to recognize his role, not only as a creator of nice things, but also as a ‘soldier of capitalism’, but a soldier who can defend public rights. His role is not only to make the public consume, but also to educate people practically, to make the public able to politically understand the visual world of the contemporary society of spectacles.
With this goal in mind, this year’s conference looks back to get our bearings in the present and in our work for the future. The main topic will be the attitude towards the recent history of design, particularly Socialist Modernism in Yugoslavia. We can only assume what it is. The term itself will certainly inspire ideological confrontations. Academic knowledge of the content of that term might be non-existent, but it cannot be denied that a concrete experience exists. It is yet to be documented, analyzed and conceptualized.
Vild does not see Modernism as a formula, a design style, but primarily as a world view. A Modernist foundation is most visible when one trusts simplicity, avoids excess, reduces the plan to basic elements that can send a message effectively. Such dedication, often interpreted as putting the content before the author, helps him to freely deconstruct, incorporate or reinterpret vernacular, uneducated graphic language. It is complemented by a subtle sense of humour, which never turns into a joke, a trick that would quickly grow old.
One of the basic concepts of Modernist ideology, the grid, is not a set of design crutches guaranteeing an acceptable result even in worst cases, but a way of thinking, of reflecting on the social aspect of visual communications. The organization of graphic elements on paper is similar to the organization of space. Reflections on space quickly take us to the issue of the environment as the reflection on the relationships between humans themselves and between humans and things, as well as the influence on the social milieu.
For Borut, the Modernist ideal of an aesthetic living environment is not just a remote social ideal. If we want to change society, it might be best to start from ourselves, since concrete results are most visible then. As a lover of beautiful things, he carefully forms his living and working premises, which is pointed out at the exhibition in the Spaces section. As the exhibition does not follow the logic of showing chosen masterworks, living spaces are not organized into hyper-designed clean environments with ‘designer’ furniture. They consist of carefully arranged groups of paintings and photographs on the walls, shelves full of books (Borut is one of those designers who actually read), favourite objects that include the works of the best artists and designers, while others are completely anonymous. For example, this is obvious in the customization of finished mass-produced objects. In his kitchen, ordinary glass jars from Ikea get handwritten labels. Such linking of the personal and the social, micro-levels and macro-levels, aesthetics and politics, instead of their separation, contains the answer to the question what we talk about when we talk about design.