Design as infrastructure not superstructure, the permanence of design and internationality of Dutch design: some of the observations of Slovenian graphic designer Ranko Novak who recently visited The Netherlands as part of Premsela’s International Visitors’ Programme.
Slovenian graphic designer Ranko Novak recently visited The Netherlands as part of Premsela’s International Visitors’ Programme. Novak teaches at the University of Ljubljana’s Academy of Fine Arts and Design, co-founded Studio Znak, one of the first design agencies in former Yugoslavia and also founded the Ljubljana Art Directors Club.
His Dutch tour included visits to design institutions and studios such as Rietveld Academy, Werkplaats Typografie, St Joost Academy, Typotheque (Peter Bilak), Niessen & de Vries as well as the Graphic Design Festival Breda. We spoke to him about his impressions of Dutch design and what’s happening – or not happening - in Slovenian design.
What were some of your first impressions of design in The Netherlands?
Here, design is not superstructure but infrastructure. From train tickets to the airport information system. It’s not like culture which is upon things but something found on a normal level like electricity. Which means design is not only for the art books, design is for everything. It’s a basic thing and that’s why work from the Netherlands in the field of visual communications and graphic design is very important. That was the idea why I wanted to see Dutch design face-to-face.
I’m impressed by the general high level, the permanency of design. I cynically say it’s easy to invent the train but if all the trains in the world can travel by the minute that’s the achievement. If I make a good corporate identity, if this corporate identity functions for 25 years with no mistake, that’s the thing! That’s the Netherlands. It works permanently.
Is it your first time in The Netherlands?
It’s the second time. The last time was around 35 years ago! It was the Icograda congress in Amsterdam, I was a delegate of ex-Yugoslavia. I recognise the centre of Amsterdam but nothing else.
And some of your impressions of visiting the studios and academies?
I was talking with students from St Joost Academy and the Rietveld Academy, and I asked them, “Do you have prospectives as a designer? Will you get a job, will you be needed?” And they said yes, of course, there is no problem to work a designer here. Which is the opposite in my country because design is considered as something as a culture, where we are the artists. They think, ‘we are paying money for them (graphic designers) but we don’t know what they do.’ Which is of course very bad for culture and even worse for the design. They don’t understand if you want to have good communications in the way of newspapers or promotion of the government, you need design. For example it still happens that someone from the government hires an architect or a painter to make an image for them. They don’t know about design as a field. Even now. As I always say: we do have a school for designers but we don’t have a school for clients.
Is there not a good appreciation of culture in Slovenia?
Slovenia: it’s sad to say but I have to say it. When we’ve been a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, all the best things were in Vienna because it was the centre of the empire. When we were under Italian rule, all the best things went to Venice.
What are some of Slovenia's strengths then?
We have to sell our position in Europe. We are on a crossroads. We’re in between the Romanic influence from Italy and the Slavic influence from Eastern Europe, we are under the influence of German culture who wants to come to the sea. We’re something like a central station: everyone has to come to central to change ways. Funny that you can’t explain this to the big shot guys at the top.
Somebody is very clever up there (in The Netherlands) to understand that you can sell design. We’re still selling…cheese. What are we selling? Are we selling our independence from 1991? I don’t know what. We are two million people. Small countries – there are a lot like us – they think it’s enough to be for yourself which is wrong. In the end, the Netherlands is twice as big as Slovenia with eight times the population. The Dutch were colonists, always looking outside. They think broader than only being in The Netherlands: they’re not selling clogs!
What did you think of Dutch education system?
People told me that these academies I visited are not part of the universities which is wrong. We do have this in Slovenia at the university where I’m teaching. You do have the papers to show you’re a university-educated person. We’re not talking about quality here. Status yes. One minus is that being in the pack, they ask rules of you and put you into shelves.
On the other hand, talking to Karel Martens, he said that’s fine because each grid or fence restricts creativity and inventiveness, so he’s quite satisfied with this position of the organisation he’s running. It’s always the person who makes it, not the educational unit.
What will you take back with you to Slovenia?
Almost 1000EUR worth of books for my library at the faculty!
I meant perhaps a particular method you observed in Dutch design that you would consider employing in your own work or teaching or a cultural quality of Dutch people.
Not so much a method but my impression is that we have to ask ourselves what Dutch design is. I’ve been told that 80% of students at the Rietveld Academy are foreigners. Two of the teachers yesterday: one was Czech and the other Swiss. If we can say what a Dutch design is: the Dutch are so open that everyone making a design here is making Dutch design which is very important. Otherwise it will become something like a cliché. It can’t be a cliché. Internationality is Dutch design. Everyone is from somewhere else. Everyone is making Dutch design and that’s the best proof that these designs will survive.
Why do you think so many foreign designers come to The Netherlands?
Good design. Opportunities. They see there will be no oppression, no fencing of their ideas, everyone is open to hear thinking of different types.
It’s not like this in Slovenia?
Have you been there?
Have you been to Austria?
Well it’s like that. Well Vienna is different.
Is it so conservative?
All of Central Europe is very conservative. We’re a small country, hostile in a way of thinking that everyone is against us. That’s the problem. We are two million. I have problems asking people to come to Slovenia to give lectures because you have to teach in the Slovenian language. A visiting professor giving two guest lectures is fine but something for a semester is not possible. I should like to have international people visiting so students have opportunity to hear other worlds.
I want to go back to what you said in the beginning about design being everywhere. Someone once commented to me that everything was over-designed in The Netherlands. There was too much design. What do you think?
Then let them come to my country where there's too little design.
Do you have any design criticisms on what you’ve seen so far on your visit?
No, no, no. Well maybe the toilet in the middle of my hotel room (at the Lloyd Hotel)…
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