Design's Delight
Design's Delight
Design's Delight
Design's Delight
Design's Delight
Design's Delight
Design's Delight

Design's Delight

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The design community needs a model to look up to, someone who balances the number of designers operating in the commercial sector.

Jan van Toorn
“In a world in which channels of communication are as clogged with pollution as the environment, the Dutch designer Jan van Toorn is seeking to reverse some of the damage” writes Eye Magazine on Van Toorn’s aim “to rescue the media from its role as a distribution network for dominant ideology, and to reassert what he sees as its legitimate function of communication.”

“In my opinion designers are connected to the existing order” said van Toorn. “That’s the reality and you have to deal with it. But within that you can still make a choice about your position in the field, depending on your background and ideas, and then if you want you can be a hindrance. And I would like to see many more hindrances.”

Jan van Toorn was born in 1932, and is one of Holland's most influential graphic designers. Central to his approach is the application of content-based strategies, resulting in a design practice as a form of visual journalism. Opposite to the more self-contained designs of the modernist tradition, van Toorn is always striving for designs that are open to different ways of seeing. His approach is crucial for the development of (not only) Dutch critical design practice. We could see his design practice as a powerful demonstration of graphic design used as a means of commentary and as a tool of critique.

To understand the principles of critical practice, we can actually compare van Toorn's approach with the one from his collegue Wim Crouwel. Both of them designed posters for a similar client and had the same communication goal, both designed back in 1972. In these two posters you can see a completely opposite approach - a formalistic one from Crouwel and an analytical and critical approach from van Toorn.

In the same year, these two guys as "giants of Dutch graphic design" gathered in Amsterdam to publically debate on the occasion of a joint exhibition of their works. Aileen Kwun wrote in the Surface magazine, that Crouwel, known for his proto-digital typefaces, argued for a rational, neutral approach that cast the designer as a visual translator. According to his words, a designer must never stand between the message and its recipient. 

Van Toorn had an opposite opinion about the role of graphic designer and design. In this debate he insisted that design was inherently subjective. He explained that he was always driven by cultural and political currents and that graphic design can not be neutral and objective, because it has a social meaning and social goals.

The discussion is one of few within the world of graphic design that puts design into such complex assumptions and doubts about the role of designer. It was a strong demonstration of two individuals absolutely refusing to compromise on their opinions. It was still a very positive moment that influenced many designers, design theorists and researchers to reconsider their practice, design thinking and approach.

Since the 1960s, Van Toorn has used his design work to unveil the social and cultural implications of mass media. Using physical acts of cut-and-paste, he often combines media imagery into new statements. Though his theoretical books and his commercial work he emphasizes to us that visual communication is never neutral, the designer is never simply an objective conveyor of information. Van Toorn is critical, political, and in some cases polarizing. As an educator at universities and academies in the Netherlands and abroad including the Rhode Island School of Design, van Toorn urges his students to take responsibility for their own role within the ideology of their own culture. Van Toorn warns us that design has ‘become imprisoned in a fiction that does not respond to factual reality.’ 

Full book

Design and Reflexivity by Jan van Toorn

Symbolic Forms Are Social Forms
Symbolic productions represent the social position and mentality of the elites that create and disseminate them. As ideological instruments, they serve private interests that are preferably presented as universal ones. The dominant culture does not serve to integrate the ruling classes only, however; “It also contributes,” as Pierre Bourdieu describes it, “to the fictitious integration of society as a whole, and thus to the apathy (false consciousness) of the dominated classes; and finally, it contributes to the legitimation of the established order by establishing distinctions (hierarchies) and legitimating these distinctions.” Consequently, the dominant culture forces all other cultures to define themselves in its symbolism, this being the instrument of knowledge and communication. This communicative dependency is particularly evident in the “solutions” that the dominant culture proposes for the social, economic, and political problems of what is defined as the “periphery”—of those who do not (yet) belong.

By definition, the confrontation between reality and symbolic representation is uncertain. This uncertainty has now become undoubtedly painful, since, as Jean Baudrillard puts it, the experience of reality has disappeared “behind the mediating hyperreality of the simulacrum.” A progressive staging of everyday life that gives rise to great tension between ethics and symbolism, because of the dissonance between the moral intentions related to reality and the generalizations and distinctions of established cultural production.

For an independent and oppositional cultural production, another conceptual space must be created that lies beyond the destruction of direct experience by the simulacrum of institutional culture. The point is not to create a specific alternative in the form of a new dogma as opposed to the spiritual space of the institutions. On the contrary, the point is to arrive at a “mental ecology” that makes it possible for mediating intellectuals, like designers, to leave the beaten path, to organize their opposition, and to articulate that in the mediated display. This is only possible by adopting a radically different position with respect to the production relationships—by exposing the variety of interests and disciplinary edifices in the message, commented on and held together by the mediator’s “plane of consistency.”

Subversive Pleasures
Despite the symbolically indeterminable nature of culture, communicative design, as reflexive practice, must be realistic in its social ambitions. In the midst of a multiplicity of factors too numerous to take stock of, all of which influence the product, the aim is to arrive at a working method that produces commentaries rather than confirms self-referential fictions. Design will have to get used to viewing substance, program, and style as ideological constructions, as expressions of restricted choices that only show a small sliver of reality in mediation. The inevitable consequence is that the formulation of messages continues to refer to the fundamental uneasiness between symbolic infinity and the real world.

This mentality demands a major investment in practical discourse in those fields and situations where experience and insight can be acquired through work. This is important not only because it is necessary to struggle against design in the form of design, echoing Rem Koolhaas’s statement about architecture, but also because partners are required with the same operational options. It is furthermore of public interest to acquaint a wider audience with forms of communication contributing to more independent and radical democratic shaping of opinion. 


Moving from a reproductive order to a commentating one, operative criticism can make use of a long reflexive practice. All cultures have communicative forms of fiction that refer to their own fictitiousness in resistance to the established symbolic order. “To this end,” Robert Stam writes, “they deploy myriad strategies—narrative discontinuities, authorial intrusions, essayistic digressions, stylistic virtuosities. They share a playful, parodic, and disruptive relation to established norms and conventions. They demystify fictions, and our naive faith in fictions, and make of this demystification a source for new fictions!” This behavior alone constitutes a continuous “ecological” process for qualitative survival in social and natural reality.

Essay from "Desperately Seeking Images"
A lot of design is about control, not about the spontaneity and pleasure of communication as a social and interpretive activity. That is an activity that refers to experiences and meanings outside the world of design. In this connection design should pay a good deal more attention to making as an act of liberation from the control of themes and norms that have become standard in mass culture – including those which have been introduced through disciplinary mediation.

I hope that I have made it clear that a renewed socio-political engagement of victual journalism is about an emancipatory mentality that fully realizes the democratic approach that strives for an interpretation of messages by viewers and readers, that abandons the circle of common-sense interpretation, untying the bonds of language and opening up new analytical, social and aesthetic practices.

As the history of design shows, it is possible to include a multitude of more or less radical interventions in the commission. But no matter how modest this may be under pressure of the commission situation, it must always be recognizable as a ‘narrative’ intervention by the mediator in the conventional order of representation. This means that the dominant interest of the client and disciplinary edifices in the message should be demonstrated in a wider context of cultural and symbolic indications, brought and kept together by what Felix Guitatari has called the mediator’s plane of consistency.

An agenda of this kind imposes a complementary structure on the work. This structure reveals the communicative process and contains inducements to unexpected interpretations and experiences. At the same time the assemblage of heterogeneous elements raises questions for the recipient about the institutional representations of reality and the limitations of the symbolic range of the media. An emancipatory program of visual mediation calls not only for a complementary structure of the message. It is above all a question of a semiotic break, as Regis Debray calls it, with far-reaching consequences for visual language .

It is no longer a question of stylistic demands or visual harmony with forms of representation as illusion of transparency, but of a critical - reconstruction of the classical visual tradition - one that, because of the need for a polemical character of the message, presents the image as image - as a construction that is simultaneously description and commentary, as an interplay between representation and presentation.

This calls not only for a language use made up of cultural material from all kinds of provenances, from high and low culture, stealing from commercial, cultural and all other worlds to make our own use of it. Even more important is that a dialogic design cannot get by without a multi-sensorial use of language. By that I mean a language use that is conceptual and empirical, conscious and intuitive at the same time. To start with, in the terms of Jean-Luc Godard, we should make a clear distinction between the visual and the image. The image is at the front of the confrontation between a variety of force fields. It is condemned to express its otherness vis-a-vis reality - there is always an absence, but there is also a hard core. The image is always both more and less than itself. While the visual is never more than an ecstatic verification of our organs.

The problem of design today is that it is more fascinated by the visual, as an icon or decoration, and not by the image as a subjective narrative and indexical medium. As a result of its internal dialogue, however, the image is more than a perception. It is a necessary construction on the brink of fiction, that plays with the dialectic of convention and invention. This in between staging of the image provides the opportunity for the social, ethical and aesthetic implications of the mediation, in combination with the commercial, techno-scientific and other aspects of the commission. The message thereby becomes legible as the outcome of an internal dynamic of integration and confrontation that generates meaning in the dialogue between work and spectator. In short, it is a form with an open structure that offers points of reference for interaction by the receiver, that is for the independent formation of opinion.

In the light of the economic and cultural relations of power in the world, it is not realistic, I think, to hope for direct participation in the mass media by those who have no voice. That accounts for the incredible importance that operational critique should attach to an emancipatory view of its role as a contribution to the democratization of the mass media as a social space. The meaning of our work is in cultural signification. Therefore we should not reduce our socio-cultural engagement to the scope of the aesthetic, but work on a fundamental solidarity with various audiences. In doing so we end up settling for less than the total transformation of life itself, but we can also discover enhanced value in actual accomplishments rather than lament the failure of unrealistic expectations, says Victor Margolin on the work of El Lissitzky, Hie Hander Rodchenko and Moholy-Nagy in his epilogue to The Struggle for Utopia. I can subscribe to this, but on the condition that designers make the existing silence between utopian dream and reality, between progressive critical thought and action, socially productive again.

Rosette Pattern
If you've ever looked very closely at something printed on an commercial offset press, you may have noticed that the images and colors you see on paper are not what they seem. The reds are not really reds, and the blues not blues. Instead they are combinations of dots that, when seen adjacent to one another in tight groupings, give the appearance of solid colors and images. This process is known as halftoning, and it is an essential technique for all modern printing.

To create this illusion of continuous tones, two or more halftone grids of different color are overlapped in varying amounts of “coverage” to produce a wide array of apparent hues. This process has been used to produce color print jobs since the 1800's, but there is a downside: overlapping grids in this manner can create an unattractive artifact known as a Moiré Pattern. This effect is worse when halftone grids are aligned or slightly rotated, or out of register.

To counteract this effect, printers rotate their halftone grids at least 30° in relation to one another to minimize the distracting effects of the Moiré, and this can result in a somewhat more pleasant artifact known as a Rosette. A Rosette pattern can be observed when viewing a printed piece with a loupe or magnifying glass, and from a certain perspective almost resembles a multicolored bouquet of roses. There are two common types of Rosette Patterns: Dot-Centered & Clear-Centered.

As the name implies, the “Dot-Centered” Rosette can be identified by the “dot” visible in the middle of the “rose” pattern. This type of Rosette tends to show a less visible pattern at the cost of a slight loss in Gamut and shadow detail. It is also more susceptible to color shifts due to misregistration. This pattern is typically used for lower quality jobs (100 lpi and lower).

The other kind is the “Open-Centered” Rosette, which is created by shifting one of the process colors one half row of dots from the other colors. Although this Rosette results in a slightly more visible pattern, it tends to preserve shadow detail and resist color shifting. This pattern is better suited for higher quality jobs (150 lpi and higher).

Floribunda (Latin for "many-flowering") is a modern group of garden roses that was developed by crossing hybrid teas with polyantha roses, the latter being derived from crosses between Rosa chinensis and Rosa multiflora (sometimes called R. polyantha). The idea was to create roses that bloomed with the polyantha profusion, but with hybrid tea floral beauty and colour range.

The first polyantha/hybrid tea cross, 'Rødhætte' ('Red Riding Hood'), was introduced by the Danish breeder Dines Poulsen in 1907. It possessed characteristics of both its parent classes, and was initially called a Hybrid Polyantha or Poulsen rose. Poulsen continued this line of work in subsequent years, introducing several Hybrid Polyanthas such as 'Else Poulsen' in 1924. Other breeders also began introducing similar varieties, and in 1930 the name "floribunda" was coined by Dr. J.N. Nicolas, a rose hybridizer for Jackson & Perkins in the US. This term has been used since then to describe cultivars which in their ancestry have crosses between hybrid teas and polyanthus.

Burst of Joy
With parentage that includes both Love & Peace and Ketchup & Mustard, how can this rose bring anything but a Burst of Joy? Vivid blooms are bright orange with a yellow reverse - an eye-popping combination that is sure to knock you over. Quite long-lasting, both in a vase and on the bush, the waves of blooms are sure to bring joy wherever they are. Rounded plants are filled with glossy green leaves that exhibit good disease resistance.