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William Drenttel

A Conversation with Daniel van der Velden of Metahaven

WD: Alice Rawsthorn recently caused a firestorm with a New York Times article that praised Metahaven’s work as “a quest for meaning in a Dystopian Era” while trashing the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum’s 2010 Triennial as “earnest. …too dry, too cautious, too back-to school.” I assume you saw the Triennial exhibition when you were in New York doing events around your new book.

What are your reactions to this show and what is says or doesn’t say about contemporary design? If you could have included one project from anywhere in the world that was not in the show, what would it be and why?

DvdV: I don't agree with your assessment of Alice Rawsthorn's review of our book Uncorporate Identity, and of that Cooper-Hewitt show. It seems highly exaggerated to call the review a “trashing.” What Alice Rawsthorn did was compare both projects — the show and our book — on the premise that they started from similar concerns yet answered them very differently. I don’t feel comfortable talking about the show on the terms you are suggesting, primarily because I haven’t seen it, although photographs of it looked very good, as did the list of participants. But mostly because to me it seems legitimate to give very different answers to concerns that in one way or the other inform all of us. Is it not a good thing that a global economic crisis inspires the Cooper-Hewitt and Metahaven to give very different answers to the questions that arise from it? I am absolutely for pluralism in that respect. I find the idea that “praising” one thing means “trashing” the other quite depressing. And again, I don’t think it is true in this case.

WD: I think you’re being humble, or maybe politely politic. Obviously, Ms. Rawsthorn wrote her review from the standpoint of comparing approaches — that was already a “pluralistic” premise. What was so surprising was that she invoked a small design studio in Amsterdam in introducing a critique of the National Design Museum and its important biennial exhibition. So maybe “trashed” is overly charged, but here in New York, well, people were surprised by the comparison, and by the degree and tone of the critique: “lacked … chutzpah,” “trounced intellectually by MoMA,” “too dry, too cautious, too back-to-school.”

Without having seen the show, is there anything you wish to add about the comparison between Metahaven and the Cooper-Hewitt? Minimally you should be proud that your work is framing a discussion across an ocean — a real border in your vocabulary. Isn’t there something very much of an “uncorporate identity” theme in the comparison?

DvdV: What you are asking of me is to review a review — one that juxtaposed our work to an exhibition I haven’t seen. It is true that we are a small studio and that Amsterdam is a much smaller city than New York. But New York has many tiny studios of two, three, four people. The fact that something is small, or comes from a small place, is indie, or underground, in my view does not inherently invalidate its comparison to something bigger and more recognized. Apparently the competition as you frame it is not just between New York and Amsterdam, but also within New York — exemplified by the comparison between MoMA and Cooper-Hewitt. Besides that, how many shows does the National Design Museum run every year? And the Cooper-Hewitt show also got its proper review in The New York Times later on.

WD: Uncorporate Identity wasn’t entirely spared in Alice Rawsthorn’s Triennial review. She wrote that it “wallows in … complexities.” For me, Uncorporate Identity seems unnecessarily dense, at times almost inpenetrable. I’m not talking about its theroetical language (“a concatenation of voids and other polemical shapes,” to quote an early sentence in the book). The book includes so much raw documentation that I have trouble finding projects or clear exposition of intent and learning — even regarding subjects that deeply interest me. I assume on some level you want the work to speak for itself, but in the world of your design research, why this piling on of documentation? In other disciplines, especially science, research is published with an abstract, conclusions and findings, methods and results, and finally discussion of issues, notes and references. Why place so little emphasis on conclusions and findings, much less on clear abstracts. In other words, why not publish research that is more like research?

DvdV: I disagree with your idea that Uncorporate Identity presents a “piling”of raw material and documentation but I do agree that the book is a dense reading experience and that raw material is part of it. Uncorporate Identity is not a textbook. Neither is it a self-help guide. The book crosses a wide range of topics all concerned with the construction of identity, and these do not end at a single conclusion, but rather point to a similar direction. Design deeply adheres to the certainties of form and corporate structure, but these certainties have been hollowed out and we need to go beyond them.

Presenting documentation and projects is part of what the book does, of course. Four years of research and making went into it. Incorporating this work straightforwardly is part of letting the book be the book and not trying to suggest a greater narrative than there actually is, other than by links that readers can find through some of the words, and by visual devices the book frequently uses — terms like “brand,” “network” and “management.” There are essays with the titles “Brand States,” “Europe Sans,” and “Symbol Squatting” that do draw conclusions, as does an interview with the former Sealand cypherpunk/hacktivist Sean Hastings, who advocates the necessity of bearing arms in his radically libertarian-authoritarian model of anti-statehood. There is also plenty of material about graphic design and identity, like the essay on black metal music and its logos. Have you considered that black metal music was played to prisoners in Guantánamo Bay as a form of physical torture?

To my knowledge, there is no other design book, except for Wally Olins’s writings on public diplomacy, that has taken serious issue with the branding-related concept and practice of “soft power” (a term coined by Joseph Nye). Other ideas Uncorporate Identity brings to the fore that have not normally been raised in the graphic design debate include David Singh Grewal’s contributions on “network power.” The premise of our book, and of the concept of “network power,” is that globalization isn’t the global distribution of political consent, but the global adoption of standards that eventually leave values and ideologies up for grabs. We think these ideas are relevant, even though the presentation is admittedly dense and people have to do some work to access them. The attempt should be made especially if we want designers to become more adept partners at talking to business and science, and if we hope that design is going to be asking the right questions in order to give better answers.

That said, the book never actually promises the reader anything like a scientific, or popular science research method, with abstracts and conclusions. On the contrary, the editorial strategy of a “concept album” is announced on the back cover.

Now that Uncorporate Identity is finished, we would like it to exist in the world. A few hundred are going to have an interesting new wrapper — look out for these. People will either love it or hate it. I think it would be best instead to go where our common interests meet.      

WD: Well, our common interests are great or we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I remember seeing a marvelous presentation you gave in Brno and thinking, “Finally a design practice that is engaging politics, bringing discussions of graphic design into the terrain of mutating and emerging national and global identities.” Uncorporate Identity is complex and challenging, as it should be. The issues in the book are complex and challenging too. So this discussion is hardly about whether I like the book or not. But maybe it can be explained further, or maybe just discussed in a way that opens its complexity up to new readers.

A common interest, I suspect, is how we move the graphic design debate into these realms of politics and networks, and what the implications are for how we talk about such work. As you note, “People have to do some work to access [our ideas].” In our own practice, I am continually challenged by just how ill-prepared I am as a graphic designer to do substantive work in education and healthcare, much less in any zone touching hard science. Would you say a bit about how science plays a role in your work, and how you think it will create new challenges for your practice in the next decade?

DvdV: From that afternoon in Brno I remember your own presentation, along with Jonathan Barnbrook’s and Linda van Deursen’s. After my presentation you immediately advised me to show less work — I think, an early warning of our differences: your preference for clarity and simplicity, and mine for avalanche, at the time maybe even much more so than now. Your talk showed how you have always been compelled to do design yet are driven and inspired by non-design topics that ranged from poetry to politics. I feel related to that idea and familiar with its problems. I’d say, however, that is what design is essentially about. Design is about the world, other people, other things, via you the designer, the gatekeeper. You are the filter. In my view, one of the most intriguing books you designed is the National Security Strategy of the United States, created after September 11. This was a book you sent to me straight after we had first met in Brno. I think of it as a document with historical value.

WD: When I published the National Security Strategy of the United States in 2002, it was the act of a frustrated citizen who had the tools of graphic design and publishing in his hands. The New York Times had only published excerpts of this new U.S. policy, but it was immediately clear that this document, freely available on the White House website, foretold the future — America would engage in a war on terrorism on its own terms, without regard to international law or the Geneva Conventions. (The torture at Abu Ghraib was clearly foreshadowed here.) To publish it only 48 hours after the new policy was released (of course, after fixing a few typos in the original document) was the real accomplishment: making it a book moved it beyond recent news into another, more permanent zone. Ironically, it is the least interesting design we have ever created, but perhaps the most influential book we have ever published — it sold 20,000 copies the next year, all through private distribution. Looking back, I believe this was the first time I used my role as a graphic designer and publisher to further purely personal political goals, and with no client agenda or backing. This was not design research or a designer-as-author endeavor — this was simply an act of political outrage. The design was in the act, not the execution. I’d like to believe that publishing this blight on American values had an impact, but it was solid journalism (by writers such as Mark Danner, to name just one) that would ultimately tell the real story of this misguided U.S. policy.

DvdV: One obvious question in response would be how and if that political outrage for you needed to have a visual component. A designer is essentially a double agent. The core of design work has a Machiavellian, diplomatic quality that becomes stronger the more relevant it is. At the same time, we have principles, values, and even dogmas we won’t bargain with.

About science, if we want to look at that, we need to resolve some of the misconceptions about the scientific character of the humanities. In my view the scientific method consists of you trying to prove your own hypothesis wrong. We are, unfortunately, not even close to a scientific model for design or design research. But we can use the social sciences as an influence and source of information for some of the issues we want to tackle with design.

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Comments (3)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Design as personal expression. I smell a Rick Valicenti Redux - perhaps with a little more social consciousness.

I am glad designers (or should I say artists) can still talk clients into anything!
12.29.10 at 08:35

Speculative Design or Improvisation?
Metahaven’s irreverence is their ability to improvise as they use design as an instrument to imagine. Their speculative process is to inquire, research and to anticipate new ideas. Here is Daniel van der Velden in 2005 at the Walker Art Center with Maureen Mooren. Thank you.
Carl W. Smith
12.30.10 at 07:43

Thank you William and Daniel!

Swiss (and anyone else, really), I'm curious:

Where do you draw the line between personal ideology and professional practice? Do you actively pursue work? If so, what values guide that pursuit? Do you allow the work to come to you? If so, do you accept all of it? If not, what criteria are considered in choosing what to accept and what to decline?

Genuinely would like to know.

Thanks again for this interview.
Zak Jensen
01.25.11 at 03:48

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A slideshow of images from the book Uncorporate Identity, and other projects by Metahaven.
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William Drenttel is a designer and publisher, and editorial director of Design Observer. He is a partner at Winterhouse, a design consultancy focused on social change, online media and educational institutions, and a senior faculty fellow at the Yale School of Management.
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BOOKS BY William Drenttel

Looking Closer 5
Allworth Press, 2006

Looking Closer 4
Allworth Press, 2002

Looking Closer 2
Allworth Press, 1997

Looking Closer 1
Allworth Press, 1994

More books by contributors >>