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William Drenttel

A Conversation with Daniel van der Velden of Metahaven

WD: The borders of design disciplines are themselves dissolving, and you have declared architecture more influential in your work than graphic design. Do you think there will be such a thing called “graphic design” in 20 years? Does that term deserve to go the way of “commercial art”? If so, what should replace it?

DvdV: “Design” will stay; I expect the rubric to absorb most of the smaller factions of design. The slow disappearance of the “graphic” prefix is now evident in places that emerge as new design economies and have not gone through the print stage first.

We have started work on a new publication. It will be about this Facebook State idea, and the way that social media are affecting political sovereignty and value, our lives being monetized into “reputation currency.” Do you have thoughts about the notion of “monetizing the social”?

WD: I’m fascinated by ratings and rankings. For decades here in America, the Nielsen ratings determined what we got to watch on television, and effectively how millions in advertising revenues were split among the media channels — “monetizing the media.” Network presidents fell on the swords of their ratings. But for viewers, this entire process was distant — explained in secret code and with an arcane vocabulary. But today rankings are in fact like monetary denominations. Lady Gaga beat Barack Obama to 10,000,000 Facebook friends yesterday. A visitor at Winterhouse showed me his 500 Tumblr friends today. Design Observer will reach 200,000 Twitter followers in the coming weeks. We are measuring our lives — and friendships — in a new currency of rankings and numbers. I think this is one very real aspect in which “monetizing the social” is moving across borders into the sphere of networks. (I can just see a new graphic currency built on this premise.) To turn the question back at you, are you seeing examples where such monetization is having a positive social impact? Or places where designers are at the center of such impact?

DvdV: What I respect about the work of Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur, is that he looks at the consistency between the 1960s’ hippie ideology, the 1980s’ free market ideology, and the 1990s technology ideology — merging in the participatory and anti-authoritarian ideology of social media. And I think he is right about that consistency. Looking at these skyrocketing numbers of friends and fans you just mentioned, it is hard not to imagine that this “boom” in social capital might be followed by some sort of meltdown. Not because we have a rational reason to expect that to happen, but because that is what generally happens after a bubble bursts. I agree that social media and social currency do have a real and at times positive impact on how people organize themselves and “get things done,” but I am arguing for a balanced view of social dynamics. People do more than cuddling and socializing.

You can see that the engineers and designers of the system want something simple that is for the good; there is no reason to doubt their sincerity, but social dynamics are not always centered around good news, and they are not always in themselves good and for the better. The UK government already has had to disable a participatory feature in their website that lets citizens propose state cutbacks. The things that popped up in this section were silly jokes, and blatant racism. Now there is something very insincere about switching that feature off, if you claim to be about how people are instead of how they ought to be. Silly jokes and racism are part of human nature and hiding that under the carpet will not make them go away.

Technically social media require an interface or platform, broadband internet and a device to get there. The only actors who can switch off whole parts of the internet are governments (or corporations, or hackers). The more authoritarian a state, the more effective a social media platform is in helping to counteract that government. A liberated Iran means the end of Twitter’s revolutionary potential in that country. The fact that everyone uses social media doesn’t make them better, but it makes them more influential. Actors also gain quantifiable influence. You mentioned your obsession with ranking, so I imagine you glancing at your social statistics a little like staring at an investment portfolio that rapidly increases in value. You close your laptop and you know you’re relatively well off. Andrew Keen is right in identifying the parallels between free market capitalism and social media, because they thrive on the same dynamic. Currently in our studio are a few F.A. Hayek books around, and one by Glenn Beck. This link to capitalism brings us further into the idea of social currency. There is a lot of experimentation with alternative currencies and some of that is really interesting too. We’re interested in radicalizing the scenarios — like, what if you acquire not financial debt through unpaid credit card bills but social debt through unreturned generosity? There have always been punishments for people who did not pay back their debts and there always have been people being banned or excluded from communities. This is a matter of law, and there is no law without jurisdiction. If we are really getting to operate more like tribes, as the author Seth Godin believes, then that jurisdiction may be tribal law. Alternative currencies potentially warrant a punitive “state within a state.”

Another issue, and this might take another conversation, is the relationship between branding, reputation and the law. Since branding is effectively reputation management, you can consider libel and defamation law part of the branding discourse. In a recent project for Bloomberg Businessweek, we’ve called it “Reputation Governance.” Their question to us was to do a speculative rebranding of AIG, the insurance company.

WD: On your website, you publish a 2007 report by the Council of Europe’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights on “secret detentions and illegal transfers of detainees involving Council of Europe member states.” Why?

DvdV: In Europe, the War on Terror was the ideal object of anti-Americanism. But European countries participated in it. In Uncorporate Identity, we’ve said a few things about the totally unremarkable passenger jets used to transport the detainees. We were interested in these planes for reasons of form, too — they were plain white, which we called “administrative stealth.” There was a “mean modernism” — “the compliance of the divine neutrality of the Swiss International Style with the practice of extrajudicial punishment.” Putting the link to that report on our site was a precursor to an attempt at engaging with the “aesthetics” of the War On Terror, knowing how thorny the subject is. Ironically, these white planes and the black metal logos mentioned earlier sit in the same category of “stealth.”

WD: Concerns about immigration and related controversies are paramount in your work. In the spirit of your poster about the mistreatment (and death) of immigrants in the Netherlands, do you have plans to address this issue head on, in a way that might produce direct results? Are you ever tempted to become more activist in general?

DvdV: Making that poster on the mistreatment of immigrants was activism for us; it was a commission, too. Did it produce “direct results”? I doubt it. Action and result are different things. Once people get organized politically, they will at some point be activists. That doesn’t mean they’ll want to establish a meaningful relationship with designers. We designed a large political poster for Euromayday 2008. The organization’s input consisted of their removing a slogan from it. In the end, the activist clients did not even pick up the posters from the printer. That should remind one that the only way not to forget about these posters is to pick them up yourself. You can only be your own activist.

WD: As you’ve noted, Metahaven’s partners are also educators. If you could design a general curriculum for graphic design undergraduates today, what courses would you require? Assuming the normal time constraints of a college education, what courses would you stop teaching? (Assume the one pair of shoes in, one pair out model.)

DvdV: In design school, it is not just about the curriculum but about the way you interact through it with others. People have different personalities, different ambitions and ultimately can do different things. In an undergraduate environment, you want to give students good basics — good education starts with the imaginative teaching of basic things. The following is completely speculative. Were I to redesign an undergraduate course, I would form three islands of basic practice that people could subscribe to, which would start to connect and link as the study progresses. Students cannot just leave the island they’re on and hop to another along the way. For them to change they have to expand their island and make it bigger, so they get nearer to or farther away from other islands. They have to stay faithful to their initial choice even if it was not the best choice. If they start out in “corporate identity” but find they really want to be in “social media,” they have to make their corporate identity be more like social media. At least in the Netherlands, some of the reforms of art schools have resulted in students hopping their way through the curriculum in a completely haphazard way without learning anything. What I argue for is the idea of staying faithful to an initial choice that teaches basics — then expanding as your interests develop. The curriculum could never pre-design the encounters. Students find out that what had seemed to be their choice for a single direction actually does not warrant their autonomy but brings them in contact with others who chose differently. I also don’t like design cliques. People who sit together and all agree that they’ve got it right (and consequently others got it wrong). You have to have difference, and sensitivity to difference as an idea, in order to make an exceptional school. But the same goes for having a studio.

Metahaven, spread from Uncorporate Identity, 2010

WD: A graphic design question. My partner Jessica Helfand has been recently named head of the design sub-committee of the U.S. Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee, a public commission of the U.S. Postal Service (and a mouthful, as can be expected from a government bureaucracy). Whatever one thinks of the design of U.S. stamps, it is still a holy grail for a designer, dating back to Bradbury Thompson, Howard Paine, and Andrew Wyeth. The history of design as a part of the Dutch PTT is even richer, with so many of your Dutch peers having contributed stamp designs.

It seems obvious that stamps would interest Metahaven given your interest in national identity. And you have designed stamps (and coins and flags) as part of many projects (Sealand, Myths, Future Echo, Blackmail). But to many, postage stamps also seem like an antiquated graphic form (and certainly a dying media form given the impact of networked communications). What is it about the tiny space of a postage stamp that is so compelling to a graphic designer?

DvdV: There is no big without small. Stamps are currency. And ironically that makes their particular designs irrelevant up to a point, but all the more revealing; it doesn’t matter whether a stamp has the face of Michael Moore or a bald eagle on it — if it was decided so, these will both have the same value. We are interested in stamps demarcating a jurisdiction rather than an identity. The stamp as an object may disappear, but other things will take its place. Funky bar codes for example. Or tags with faces on them that can increase your Facebook social capital if you photograph them using a camera that has face recognition switched on.

WD: I cannot image Metahaven without Google search — the ultimate reflection of a new standard in networked knowledge. Any last thoughts?

DvdV: Google search was the be-all and end-all of our first project, about Sealand. But I guess we have moved beyond that idea, so now you would think of tumblr, fffound or Wikimedia Commons. Work can exist in many places as long as it is out there and not just in your head. Google image search is one of the ways work can appear and disappear for viewers, but as we replace our Sealand-shaped 2005 web site in the near future with something new, that Google image search profile may change. Don’t count on it. The nice thing about making a book like Uncorporate Identity is that you have a place where the work sits together with other work and words, and you can look at it again, not glance at it on a screen (well, obviously, you couldn’t, but other people have told us they can). The “networked knowledge’ embodied in Google search is only as rich as the query. If you Google “Lady Gaga,” what you get is Lady Gaga unless you are more specific. We would like to be able to Google “mid-size images from blogs disagreeing with that The New York Times article about Lady Gaga, which maintain affiliations with the Tea Party.”

Are we demanding too much?
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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

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