Cumulative design concepts


‘Form follows function’ – that mantra of modernist design is often misunderstood, or interpreted too strictly. Functional design is not necessarily simple and spartan. There are many messages that are better communicated by means of a complex, even multi-layered form than through a reductive scheme. There exist historical alibis for this, too. Although much proto-functionalist work did indeed pioneer the formal ascetism with which we have come to associate modernism, there are other instances (such as many Russian constuctivist works, or certain Dutch and Central-European examples of ‘typo-photo’) in which artist-designers used rather complex, colourful or layered imagery to convey a message in a powerful way.

Communication design stops working when it fails to attract the attention of passers-by and readers. In other words, it is not functional when it is not interesting.
One way of making design interesting is to find elements in the message that prompt visual solutions which go beyond packaging the contents. A specific way of doing this is found in the design of printed (cultural) programmes – brochures and posters for exhibitions, performances, lectures. Theatres, galleries and colleges all organise series of events that are different yet somehow related: such a programme is a collection of stuff done by several people which, as a whole, can be read as a manifestation of one view – from a committee’s somewhat hazy idea of what could be interesting to the compelling vision of a single curator or director. The ways to suggest such a ‘unity in diversity’ in a design for print range from the banal to the imaginative. A shared grid, colour scheme and/or typeface may seem to do the job adequately, but is ultimately bland; a developing series of illustrations or photos may provide a more interesting visual chain.
A very powerful graphic technique that takes advantage of the sequential nature of cultural programmes, creating a form that is both intriguing and living, is what I call ‘cumulative design’. It takes advantage of several properties of that particular kind of job: the fact that it is a repetitive thing, that the events often take place in the same space and/or under the same curatorial umbrella, and the constraints of limited budgets.

Around 1980, the young Rotterdam collective Hard Werken (Working Hard) did the designs for an experimental dance company called Dansproduktie. Feuilleton was a series of three shows by choregraphers Pauline Daniels and Beppie Blankert with musician Harry de Wit in which each subsequent episode elaborated on the previous one. Hard Werken member Gerard Hadders designed a sequence of posters that did exactly the same, by using one poster as a background for the next. This also gave him the opportunity to correct, in number 3, a spelling error in one of the dancers’ names.
Thoughout the 1980s and 1990s another well-known Dutch design firm, Studio Dumbar in The Hague, sponsored a tiny local theatre called Zeebelt by designing their monthly posters, which doubled as folded calendars. An ingenious system was devised which enabled the studio to make a colourful poster each month, while providing the many budding designers and interns at the studio with a somewhat codified playing ground. At the beginning of each season, photographer Lex van Pieterson, a long-time artistic partner of Gert Dumbar, created an intriguing staged still-life of which a year’s supply of copies was printed in full-colour offset. Each month, one of the designers was invited to add a layer to the photograph by superimposing that month’s programme onto it, printed in one colour silkscreen. This resulted in sequences of highly different interpretations of the same basic material. One of the strategies used was to blank out most of the picture, thus highlighting a part that wouldn’t normally get much attention; or adding suggestive shapes that altered the character and the meaning of the image.

In the Zeebelt series, a monochromatic image was superimposed on the same picture every time: one on one. Recently, several designers have explored the more complex strategy of the Feuilleton posters, adding a layer of colour with each new manifestation in a true accumulation of information. The process is facilitated by today’s page layout programs, which use layers for separating various stages or sections of the design, allowing the designer to turn them on and off at will.
Slovak designer Peter Biľak, who lives and works in the Netherlands, designed the 2005–2006 invitations for Hedah, a gallery run by artists in the southern city of Maastricht. Biľak used a black and white photograph of the space; every month he added the names and dates of each new exhibition, as if hand-written with a coloured felt-tipped pen. Gradually the density of the invitations increased, ending (in July 2006) in what Biľak called ‘unpredictable chaos’. He added: ‘The inspiration behind the design comes from the physical aspect of the gallery: after each exhibition, traces of the show remain for other artists to interact, which causes a kind of cumulative effect. The invitation cards mimic the physical space of the gallery, and gradually add to the space of the card, keeping all the previous information about the past exhibitions. Although this is a very low-budget project, the result is 12-PMS colour print, showing all the exhibitions.’ (e-mail to the author)
‘PMS’ refers, of course, to the Pantone matching system of spot colours. With the standardisation of high-speed full-colour printing, the use of spot colours, once a craftsy low-budget solution, has turned into a rather elitist and often costly option. Accumulating one colour at a time has become a way of staying within budget while using both the unique, un-CMYKable warmth and intensity of true colours and the unforeseeable combinations in which their superposition may result.

Posters for Offenbach
Klaus Hesse of Erkrath, Germany, has made made use of this system on more than one occasion. In his work he combines impeccable technical mastery with a literary and theoretical sensibility which is characteristic of the best of today’s graphic design in Germany. (Hesse is also an ardent football fan who, together with his younger colleague Fons Hickmann, generated a lot of media attention for graphic design by launching a passionate action against the recent World Cup logo, which they labelled as ‘silly’, and inviting a team of peers to propose altenatives.)
Hesse is a professor at the Offenbach Hochschule für Gestaltung; his studio produces many of the posters for the events organised at this art and design college. In 2001–2002, the Berlin video artist Rotraut Pape curated a series of lectures and performances on ‘Media archeology’. One of the project’s underlying themes was the loss of data stored by means of obsolete media; Hesse’s poster concept was a clever translation of this aspect of media theory and history. The sequence of posters illustrated the detoriation and dissipation of information, as the announcements were gradually covered and made invisible, overwritten as they were by new information.
The following academic year the Offenbach Hochschule invited Japanese media professor Masaki Fujihata as a guest teacher. A student project he directed on the Global Positioning System (GPS) opened a series of four presentations for which Hesse designed another cumulative poster series. The first three posters each had ‘failing image’ icons as used by today’s computers (a small disk with an x in it) as if the failing information was still loading; every time a new announcement was added, the preceding one was covered by a semi-transparent off-black rectangle. By the time the fourth edition was posted, casual passers-by could only guess at what they’d missed.
Hesse’s most impressive exploration of cumulative design is the poster sequence for Lost Gender, a series of lectures and events that took place at the Offenbach college during the academic year 2005–2006 as part of its state-subsidised Gender Projects. Curator Rotraut Pape invited a number of artists who have explored, in multiple media, the possibilities of a world in which the coventions of gender would be newly defined. Hesse used the simple metaphor of flowers to hint at the theme’s complexity and ambigiuty. Starting with a simple, five-leafed flower on a sandy background (a hue of the flower’s orange), the series’ expressive power grew with each layer of colour. The seductiveness of layered shapes and colours was nicely balanced by the matter-of-factness of the x-es used each time to cross out the names of the preceding artist.
The sequential accumulation of information and form can easily turn into a gimmick, and it probably will; I’ve already seen the technique turn up in recent student projects. However, in projects like Biľak’s and Hesse’s, it is an effective way of merging technique, form and content in order to make the viewer aware of the passing of time and of the continuity of cultural utterances – challenging the viewer to actively peel off the layers and discover what’s new and what was new not so long ago, and share in the suspense of things to come.

Studio Dumbar, posters-listings for the Zeebelt theatre program, 1989 season. The same photo was used each month, overprinted differently.

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Cumulative poster sequence for Lost Gender, a series of events at the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) in Offenbach. Klaus Hesse, 2005–2006

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Cumulative poster-invitation series advertising the program of Hedah gallery, city of Maastricht. Peter Biľak, 2005–2006