Can a designer assume a role of absolute neutrality within the communication process? After reading The Debate (Het Debat), the transcript of the 1972 debate between Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn, I began to wonder about ‘neutrality’ in the context of graphic design. What does something or someone being neutral imply?
In a political context, neutrality refers to the impartiality of a state during conflict between other states. In reference to color, a neutral quality is ascribed to hues such as white, light grey, and beige; essentially any tint that, in western culture, is not considered to have sufficient evocative qualities. This ‘lack’ allows us ignore them when paired with other colors, patterns, or when serving as a backdrop for the display of something more visually demanding.
The very notion that anything graphically designed could be neutral is a complete fallacy. However small the gesture, subtle the decision, designers assume an inherently subjective role. Design deals with abstract thought and visualization, and abstraction is a process of interpretation and communication. By taking part in this process, we contribute a layer of aesthetic and ideology to the content that is given to us, which is in turn communicated to the audience who interprets both the author’s message as well as that of the designer’s.
In my opinion, kitsch is the opposite of neutrality. Its overly emotional, melancholic, and often decorative formal qualities and aesthetic make it a fitting antithesis. Kitsch objects are at home in folk culture and often have deep sentimental value to their owners; the aspects of niche culture and the book as ‘fetishized object’
Responding to The Debate through the lens of a ‘kitsch aesthetic’ is an attempt to critically evaluate neutrality, and reinforce my argument that it does not exist within design. Coincidentally, this approach revealed the two opposing sides, Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn, as being not so different as they may have appeared in the time of the debate.
“Subject over object” and “Subject is no object” are two takes on the saying, “form follows function:” in my opinion the ‘mantra’ of modernist (graphic) design. “Subject over object” is more in line with the ‘general’ meaning of “form follows function”: the subject, or content, of a message is more important than the object itself: it dictates what the object should look like and how it should function. Conversely, “subject is no object” is essentially the antithesis to that idea: we have so much information today, so many opinions, interpretations, and individual voices, that the objects through which we communicate are really not indicative of their function in a ‘traditional’ sense. A phone, book, drawing board, and a television are exactly the same device now. The abundance of information is consumed through a selection of devices. It also can be read in the following way: we are driven by material goods, (false) images, and superfluous objects—what is said is less important than how something looks because we are more interested in the representation than the actual ‘thing.’
Poster size: 13" x 19"