Graphic Matters is the newly named graphic design biennial festival in Breda, previously called Graphic Design Festival Breda. Since 2008, the festival has celebrated graphic design as a subject and the power that it has to convey a message where each year a different topic is addressed to show how designers can shape and influence our perspective and view on topical and current issues that surround us – issues that are unavoidable.
Myself and my fellow British VBAT interns, Kim & John ventured down to Breda from Amsterdam on a tumultuous journey involving multiple trains, delays, cancellations and diversions (we left the VBAT office at 9.15AM and arrived at Breda station at 1:00PM) – but we eventually made it. It was something that I had been looking forward to for a while, even more so after the 3 of us went to a talk at the ADCN Club-house where the festival’s curator Dennis Elbers spoke about the festival’s ambitions and aims. John wrote about this. We got a preview of the festival’s exhibitions as well as an insight into the festival identity, designed by Trapped in Suburbia who were also talking at the ADCN that night.
In 2017 the festival’s core message was “Shut Up, Speak Up” and this message was prominent throughout the exhibitions we witnessed. Many of the exhibitions explored important and topical matters specifically involving people and politics be it through the notion of protest or the opposite: peace.
We tried to see as much as we could during our visit to the festival in the time that we had; I think we did really well to see so much in the few hours we were there and these are my highlights:
The first part of the exhibition we experienced was on our way to the design festival area and was unavoidable. More Hugs was a project by Hong Kong based graphic designer Ken Lo, founder and creative director of the design studio BLOW studio where he aims to spread positivity through playful and colourful illustrations of hugs. Illustrations of hugs between people, hugs between shapes, hugs between colours, hugs between buildings – basically hugs between everything. His flat icon-like style is distinctive and clearly recognisable as well as the fact he uses the same arms and hands for each illustration.
For the Graphic Matters festival he specifically designed a series of 40 flags which were hanging in Valkenberg Park in Breda, they didn’t necessarily have a link to the festival’s message, more just an excuse for the designer to play with some being funny, satirical and a few rude and provoking designs. All in all it’s a great project which seems to have no end, only the limit of Ken Lo’s imagination.
Clearer Words: Save Our Souls
This small installation was one of a 3 part series called ‘Clearer Words’ by the Geneva School of Art and Design (HEAD — Genève). This installation was one of the strongest and spoke the most to me. Upon walking up to it, it just seems like a pile of rubber rings and life-rings but through reading the messages written on of the rings you begin to understand the connotations of the two styles of rings; both are floatation devices, however, the rubber ring is used by tourists for to float around for pleasure and the life-ring is used by refugees to float around and survive.
‘Save Our Souls’ reflects on these two realities which exist side by side in the Mediterranean sea. The messages on the rings are pulled directly from international media headlines, concerned for the conditions in which refugees have to endure as just much as how tourists are treated ‘unfairly’, its fair to say that the refugee related headlines are much more powerful and poignant; relating to how many die whilst trying to escape their countries compared to tourists having to pay small fines etc.
It is a great example of the growing contrast and divide between the rich and the poor through such a simple floatation device as well as bringing attention and awareness to a still important topic despite it somewhat falling out of the news; the fact there are so many rings piled up in an almost nonchalant style shows the scale of this issue.
The Design of Dissent
Originally displayed in 2005 at The School of Visual Arts in New York, ‘The Design of Dissent’ is a comprehensive and retrospective yet topical study of graphic works which address social and political protest. The updated exhibition at Graphic Matters features some of the original 2005 exhibition content as well as newly acquired pieces which are important in today’s society and current affairs – newly created topical works and older works that are sadly still relevant. The issues addressed are human rights, feminism, gun control, politics, racism, war, the environment, corporate greed and other pressing matters.
1. to differ in sentiment or opinion, especially from the majority; to withhold assent; to disagree.
2. to disagree with the methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government; to take an opposing view.
1. the difference of sentiment or opinion.
2. the disagreement with the philosophy, methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government.
The exhibition was one of the main events of the festival with several recurring themes: Trump is of course one of the themes covered (Brexit is another) – its seemingly impossible to go anywhere these days without seeing some design that paints Trump in a negative way – his demeanour is a gift to graphic designers (albeit some iterations are better than others). On display are a number of ‘anti-Trump’ pin-badges by Sagmeister and Walsh, a project called ‘Pins Won’t Save the World”. The curator of the exhibition described the pin-badge as the modern day button–we wear these symbols as an act of (passive) protest, supporting causes and campaigns simply by purchasing them and proudly wearing them.
In their own little way, each pin either mocks Trump or supports a campaign and/or charity that he is against. They say themselves that “pins wont save the world” but that can’t stop people ‘wearing their hearts on their sleeves’ or their beliefs on their shirts.
Something else that stood out for me hugely were a few copies of the first The Black Panther Newspaper by Emory Douglas for the Black Panther Party in the USA in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. A massively important political party in terms of not just black rights but economical, social and political equality across all genders and colours.
The party was formed in the mid 1960’s and was heavily inspired by the world of Malcolm X also to protect people from police brutality. Despite being produced in the 1960’s, these newspaper covers and what they proclaim could have been written today (if media outlets were this bold), they directly echo what is going on in America today with Trump and police brutality and black rights, so much so that NFL players are directly referencing the Black Panther’s ‘black power salute’ (much like the iconic photograph of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games, despite Smith claiming it was a humans right protest not black rights).
The party was one of the first organizations in U.S. history to militantly struggle for ethnic minority and working class emancipation — a party whose agenda was the revolutionary establishment of real economic, social, and political equality across gender and colour lines.
The list of other designers, artists and activists featured in this exhibition was awe-inspiring with a magnitude of influential and important people and companies such as: Experimental Jetset, Ken Garland, Tibor Kalman, Patrick Thomas, Paula Scher, Sarah Boris, Milton Glaser, Guerrilla Girls, Barbara Kruger and many, many more – all beautifully displayed in an interesting exhibition layout.
Dreaming of Mass Behaviour
I had previously learnt about Studio Smack during Dutch Design Week in 2016 where their music video for the band De Staat’s song Witch Doctor was being shown. This was my first time seeing this video which had apparently gone viral at the time and raised the awareness and hype around Studio Smack; giving them international attention.
This exhibition, ‘Dreaming of Mass Behaviour’, showcased a number of their animations, videos and concepts, showing how they use images of popular culture in their own work. Be it for clients or on their own initiative. Of course their De Staat/Witch Doctor video was on show — playing very loudly in all of its visual and audio glory. But what had entranced me and the guys I was with the most was their video ‘Paradise’ which was their take on the famous 15th/16th century painting by Hieronymus Bosch, ‘The Garden Of Earthly Delights’. We sat and watched this seemingly endless looping video for about 10 minutes as it was so drawing and hypnotic. It is a visual explosion of animation and moving parts; your eyes dart across the screen to settle on something and you move from section to section realising this giant part moving and thinking how you missed that originally. There is so much going on its hard to follow it all, in their own words:
“We were chosen to go crazy on the middle panel. So we did…”
In another project they also explored the idea of how we are so bombarded by logos and brands in everything we do everyday; the only time we turn off from this is when we sleep – or is it? How might branded dreams look, Studio Smack asked and then visualised this through video of an easily recognisable brand. Based on recent developments in brain science and technology this might be possible in the near future.
‘Speak Up’ is the festival’s poster competition and exhibition of winning entries. The poster competition directly related to the festival’s theme of ‘Shut Up, Speak Up’ with the brief asking:
“Are you an activist warning us for the evil in this world?
Do you directly attack a company, party or person?
Are you a prankster opening eyes with visual jokes?
Do you create confusion with satire about current situations?
Or are you a good guy?
Do you stimulate the good in people from an ever-positive attitude?”
Over 2500 posters were submitted with just 60 being selected to be presented in an unconventional exhibition stand. Each poster covers a topic of speaking up for something – there are themes that re-occur such as American politics aka Donald Trump but there are also more light-hearted and positive posters which call for understanding, solidarity and celebration. Obviously these poster won’t change the world but they will encourage and inspire people to do something and take action.
My personal favourite however was the submission by the Amsterdam studio, Thonik, ‘spot real/fake news’. A solely typographic poster which encourages people to look past fake news and search for real news which is important today as a lot of what is published today is fake or alternative news, this form of journalism is seen especially across social media. Thonik’s poster is a nice way to show how to look beyond this through layers of typography. A juxtaposition of the words REAL and FAKE, this is a lot clearer and nicer in the digital version.
An ingeniously titled and imaginative project ‘Corporate Warfare’ by German agency Foreal is a comment on the power that today's huge corporate brands, that we as consumers idolise, have. Using imagery of missiles, bombs and rockets but branded with corresponding corporate logos, identities and colours–nothing expresses the power and impact that these brands have as much as an explosive bomb. The Google example to me is the most provoking. In an age where these brands have so much knowledge of us, what we do, where we shop, what we buy, what we look like; its all online and accessible via Google, it is the gateway to infinite amounts of information.
I’m no expert in bombs but as far as I’m aware there is nothing more powerful and massively devastating as a nuclear bomb – so to brand this as a ‘Google atomic bomb’ is very apt. This series of images could also be seen a as a comment on modern warfare where countries don’t engage in ground combat so much but rather through trade, brand and other logistical restrictions.
What was also good about this exhibition was how they were displayed – on traditional billboard advertising hoardings partly for their size and maximum visual impact but also perhaps a reflection on the project itself. These billboards are used by big commercial brands to promote and sell their products which the project is directly related to–the issue it is addressing. It’s also funny seeing these billboards scattered around a piece of grass surrounded by trees, they’re like anti-adverts as there is absolutely minimal footfall here, they almost seem lost – in a good way.
Flags of Peace
Flags of Peace is an ongoing project and initiative by the Dutch experience design agency, Trapped in Suburbia. With this project they aim to explore what defines peace and whether a peace flag can achieve anything as over history there have been numerous attempts to create a definitive ‘flag of peace’ with no solid outcome. Sure there are symbols and icons of peace, for instance, the CND symbol, doves, the olive branch and V-sign hand gestures although no sanctimonious ‘Flag of Peace’. In today’s society the idea of peace is important.
There is so much hate in the world at the moment be it through religion, race, politics and more; people are being killed, wars are raging and we could be on the brink of a nuclear war between USA and North Korea. Sure, in the grand scheme of things a few flags aren’t going to save us or prevent anything but any initiative that promotes the idea of peace is good in my eyes.
To address this, Trapped in Suburbia have invited/are still inviting designers from countries across the world to submit their interpretation of a ‘flag of peace’. Submissions are from young and old, new and established designers with a broad range of diverse interpretations; themes still exist though – blue and white appear on multiple flags as well as circles. Some are more expressive and fanciful with intricate detail and some are minimal and type-based. Each is unique and is a nice visual representation of the countries style.
The flags which I found the most beautiful were, one from the Netherlands designed by Wim Crouwel, a classically modernist example by a classically modernist designer:
“White as a symbol of peace brought me to a white planet in the universe. This seems to me the most obvious starting point for a flag that everyone can accept.”
The Italian entry by Studio FM Milano is also somewhat modernist and minimal but with a great design rational:
“The white flag is worldwide recognized as a surrender statement. It’s used to stop a conflict and it’s the beginning of a new trust between two opposite sides. Red is the colour that we all have in common with each other. It’s the colour of our blood. With this as a starting point, we designed a white flag over a red background, to signify trust in everyone.”
And also the highly detailed typographic and impressive Peruvian entry by Jonathan Castro:
“My flag attempts to reflect on the complexity of our times. How important it is to change the notion of peace in this wild era. Peace should not be just a soft, ideal cliché but a resisting, persisting attitude. Peace as strong and tough as metal, as resistant as the heaviest material on earth, something unbreakable and timeless.”
The flags are an impressive collection of designs and it’s certainly great to see them all in rows in situ, flapping about in the wind in all their flag glory. It was also one of a few more positive exhibitions of the festival as it’s not a direct protest against something, however… There would be no need for a ‘flag of peace’ if there was harmony across the world – so perhaps this is a positive result from a negative issue.
In response to this project I created my own idea of how a flag of peace may look. The various colours reference different nations and cultures which through circles they bond together and interconnect, gelling and blending together.
Overall the festival was a nice day out, we got to experience something different in a new city; the work on show was impressive but at times it did feel overly negative with all the protest themed work. Perhaps it is the world that we live in now, where designers have to respond to all the negativity that exists – but at least someone is saying something and it shows the strength of graphic design to be able spread a message.