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Creating Context for Contemporary Graphic Design

Mieke Gerritzen starts as Director of the Graphic Design Museum with plans on how to move with the times by creating bridges between what is hip and Holland's vibrant history of ground-breaking graphic design.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 08-01-2009

As Mieke Gerritzen starts in her role as Director of the Graphic Design Museum in Breda this week, she says her biggest challenge will be marrying the industry’s history with its future.

“Of course I have ideas,” Gerritzen says.  “But the museum already has a history, and a reputation so I have to work with that while pushing forward with what is happening now.”

But the now is not easy to capture.  Graphic design has a comparatively short history and some of its most important players have been Dutch.  “There are the Wim Crouwels and the Anton Beekes,” Gerritzen says, “and then this big gap between them and what is happening right now.”

Bridging that juncture so that graphic design’s development can be better traced and understood is what Gerritzen wants the museum's exhibitions – both physical and virtual – to better explore.

“There is not one fluent line running through the graphic design world,” Gerrtizen says.  “And I am going to try to create that.”

Which is no easy feat given the prodigious explosion of graphic design into so many disparate fields.  What started as an independent discipline, now works more as an intermediary between different disciplines.

“Graphic design touches everything from architecture to public space design,” Gerritzen says.  “It’s everything you see on a screen. It’s everything that connects us to technology. It’s visual communication. It’s print. It’s information design … even the vocabulary can get confusing.”

The cause of such confusion is technology, which makes the practice of design accessible to all.   Anyone can sign up for a YouTube or a Flickr account and start editing together their own stories and images.  “Obama’s team understood the power of this very well,” Gerritzen says.  “They put up a new YouTube clip every day, posted billboards on video games and it really did help him to win.”

But it’s not like Gerritzen can narrow down a contemporary definition and then feel satisfied. “No,” she says, “because it is just going to keep on changing with technology.”  Her first plan is to expand the museum’s website into a platform where film, music and animation can be updated daily.  “I think using that we can create a real community for people who are interested in graphic design."

Gerritzen joins the Graphic Design Museum after spending six years as head of the Sandberg Institute, the master course of the Rietveld Academy, and an independent career as a graphic designer.  In 2006 she made a film, Beautiful World, about image culture where text is both read and viewed for effect.  “It’s a typographical movie,” she explains.  “You can read the text or you can look at the text as an image.  It all goes very quickly so you can’t read or absorb it all, but in the end you do have some sort of understanding of what it all meant  - like how you might sense a feeling or an emotion.”

It’s a perspective that connects well to the mindset of the next generation of graphic designers.  “They aren’t even aware of the history of design or the importance of some of those really big names,” Gerrtizen says.  “They were raised on the Internet and have a totally different view of the media and about how to access and present information.”

For them the best Gerritzen can do is stay abreast, present the changes, and help to explain the movements in terms of a broader narrative.  “I don’t see this as providing definitions or boundaries,” she says, “but about providing some of the values that help to create context.”

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