What can review exhibitions and overviews such as The Exhibition of Croatian Design really tell us? What are they communicating with their clusters of various design works, sorted into particular categories, with lists of designers, collaborators and clients next to them, with their award ceremonies, ceremonial speeches and mandatory small talk during the openings? First of all, they communicate what designers themselves believe best represents their work, capabilities and talent. Secondly, they also communicate what the members of the selection committee, in their best judgement, view as objectively representing the highest quality. There is, however, one big issue with this: what designers believe to best represent them is not necessarily what we actually see implemented in the widest spectrum of our social, urban, media, cultural, commercial, public, private, everyday life environments. What the selectors or the jury see as the best does not and cannot reflect the true state of design in a broader context.
A designer who is usually recognised as good at what he or she does quite often exudes that glamorous aura of an inspired individual. However, good design oftentimes remains hidden behind the anonymous and the collective (in big agencies, for instance) or behind the omnipresent and almost undetectable, behind miniature, yet strategically important modifications and transformations of long-lasting brands, etc. One of the advantages of this sort of exhibition format for presenting design is that it provides a general idea about what is perceived as a good standard, an “example of good practice”, a benchmark of excellence. Since design has never been only “one thing” (and certainly it is not today), but rather many different things, it would be naive to talk about some universal standard. For all these reasons, there are too many things that remain invisible to us. There are also other examples that are not within our sight because they have not been implemented for various reasons, but they would deserve to serve as role models since the initiatives and ideas behind them are of great value. Even though they might not be given another chance, they could still find followers who would translate their basic values into something else.
“Let us visualize the exhibition as a map with many empty spaces, holes, indecipherable symbols, unmapped and unmarked zones, but still having a few orientation points that can be used to at least try to reconstruct that which is missing. In this text, these orientation points are works of design and the thing that is missing is the context”
Therefore, if The Exhibition of Croatian Design does not provide an objective overview of the state of the Croatian design over the past two years, what does it provide? Let us visualize a map with many empty spaces, holes, indecipherable symbols, unmapped and unmarked zones, but still having a few orientation points that can be used to at least try to reconstruct that which is missing. In this text, these orientation points are works of design and the thing that is missing is the context. In other words, whatever it is that design can tell us about itself can tell us something about ourselves as well. This is the intention of this text. Since I believe that anything else would be unfair, I am not going to name a single person or project here, but I suppose many will be able to recognize themselves.
In this book, the Visual Communications Design category opens with a considerable number of posters, whereas the number of their designers is much smaller. If we check the list of clients, we will immediately establish where there is still some place left for this traditional archetypal design medium. Theatre posters are by far the most numerous; five prominent theatres in Zagreb commissioned them from almost an equal number of designers and design studios. Some designers have been collaborating with them for many years and their designs have been subsequently documented in several Croatian Design Reviews as examples of high quality design. The posters are mainly based on very strong visuals, which – with the use of illustration, photo editing/collage techniques or digital manipulation of photographs, inventive art direction, pure photography in rare cases and exclusively typographic tools in the rarest cases – symbolically interpret what designers see as the theme, atmosphere or mental landscape of a particular theatre production. This category comprises the least experiments and mostly relies on good tradition as well as maintaining a more or less unambiguous continuity in the visual communication of a particular theatre’s repertoire, without falling into the trap of mannerism or repetition. The only exception to this is Croatia’s largest national theatre house. After its radical design makeover four years ago, over the past two years this theatre house commissioned posters from as many as three designers/design studios. The initial step was a true breakthrough, but the designers who came subsequently certainly did not leg behind, having developed a sequence of graphic identity transformations, which will be very interesting to observe in retrospect with the passage of time. These include intiating collaborations with contemporary Croatian photographers and playing with subtle differences in the typographic treatment, which suggest the character of a particular play; then a shift to portrait photography used to represent plays, and clear typographic solutions for other programmes; and finally collaging entirely surreal scenes introducing the audience to the designer’s own visual representation of the plot of the play.
“At a time when everything, including the work of graphic designers, is migrating more and more to the web, it is precisely here that the poster seems to be finding its place, a “new life” – as a digital image particularly attractive for distribution via social networks”
As far as the film posters shown in the exhibition are concerned, most of which were designed for Croatian films of course, the design field is narrowed down even further to a single design studio. However, this studio is well-aware of its limited manoeuvring space, never revealing a specific design style; the studio applies both illustration and staged photography with equal skill to portray what it sees as the main theme of a particular film. Almost all posters designed for exhibitions, festivals or multimedia events rely on typography as the main tool of expression. If a poster is dominated by typography, in 90 per cent of the cases you can be certain you are attending some contemporary, innovative, independent, multimedia or interdisciplinary event. At the same time, it is these posters that are most inclined to experimenting, finding unconventional solutions, playing with the medium of the poster, etc. What about non-standard formats? They are presented here as well. Visually attractive printing techniques used to confront or bypass financial limitations? Here they are. Posters doubling as booklets or brochures? Here you go. Posters serving for signage and pathfinding? Present. Posters that are not posters at all but rather a witty contextual intervention at poster sites? Of course. It is important to note that this very segment covers events that roughly fall under the category of the so-called independent culture and traditionally have to work with the smallest budgets. Younger generations of designers traditionally have a very strong inclination towards them; sometimes they are even their active protagonists. Also, it is apparent that certain designers, who have been exclusively tied to the vibrant independent scene until now, started transitioning into what for some of them were unconquerable bastions of institutional culture, and it seems they are doing very well, without having to sacrifice their creative integrity.
Despite the fact that the poster as a medium is usually associated with public urban spaces, its current status is somewhat more complex. At a time when everything, including the work of graphic designers, is migrating more and more to the web, it is precisely here that the poster seems to be finding its place, a “new life” – as a digital image particularly attractive for distribution via social networks. Designers are well-aware of that, and certain design decisions are made with the very fact in mind that the poster should function equally well (or even better) on the screen, especially on smartphones, which are very convenient for vertical formats.
“There are only two works that could be categorised as fiction among all the selected books. In both cases, these are poetry books that have traditionally, at least in Croatia, remained on the very margins of the publishing business”
Book and magazine design represents an important part of the Visual Communications Design category. At first glance it is clear, probably more so than in other categories, that the designers’ intention was to impress: with interesting bookbinding techniques, playing with the book’s anatomy and its conventions, the selection of the paper and materials, a formal interpretation of the content and its structure, and in one exceptional case, even the invention of an entirely new way to “make” books, going above and beyond the role of the designer and combining it with the role of the editor and author in a number of unexpected and technologically, at least until recently, unthinkable ways. Designers chose to approach the book as a form with a sense of invention, a lot of imagination and intelligence, in well-educated and well-informed ways. Many books have a “fetish” quality about them, but even when it appears for a moment that designers have exaggerated in something, it seems that there is a reasonable, not necessarily immediately obvious, but ultimately recognizable reason behind every decision.
At this point, we need to look into the context. There are only two works that could be categorised as fiction among all the selected books. In both cases, these are poetry books that have traditionally, at least in Croatia, remained on the very margins of the publishing business. There are no comprehensive translations of foreign editions (although there are books that Croatian designers designed for foreign publishers). If we are to imagine the about fifty (there is probably even more if we count the publications that are part of larger integral projects) books, magazines and other publications showcased at this exhibition as a kind of imaginary book shop, it would be a rather specialized one. It would be unlike any other place where an average Croat buys his or her books. After seeing last year’s Zgraf exhibition, one French design expert said that she was thrilled with everything she had seen, but asked informally how come that all the books she saw at the exhibition were published in only 300 copies and whether that was some kind of local code. No, that is our reality.
“In a few very rare examples, we find designs that capture our attention only upon closer observation, not owing to some idea that would make them stand out but because of deep and well-practised attention invested in designing every single aspect of the book, from the treatment of photo materials and texts to their interplay”
Various annual reports, documents of philanthropic activities organised by large corporations or book-bound monuments to very big investments traditionally look the way they do because their function is, to a large extent, symbolic. Their purpose is not to be read but rather to be observed or found on websites and social networks. Artists’ books and designers’ books and similar editions of the kind in which designers can, independently or in collaboration with artists, give form to something that itself holds the status of “artwork” appear as they appear because they are what they are, artists’ books or designers’ books. This selection also comprises many exhibition catalogues or supplementary publications for contemporary art projects and a number of photography books. In some cases, there is an intention to give artistic content as much space as possible – it is used as the basic visual material whenever that is possible and almost without any other interventions. In other cases, the editions are conventional or their graphic design and the application of typography amplify the content; in other words, they initiate an aesthetic and stylistic dialogue with the artistic languages of those whose work the book addresses. There is also a number of magazines that are mainly interesting because of their editorial concepts and the fact they are focused either on a specific local community or some relevant topic on the margins of mainstream publishing, or both. In a few very rare examples, we find designs that capture our attention only upon closer observation, not owing to some idea that would make them stand out but because of deep and well-practised attention invested in designing every single aspect of the book, from the treatment of photo materials and texts to their interplay.
When it comes to visual identities, their various applications, branding, promotional materials, etc, having in mind that these are integral and systemic solutions, it is hard to single out certain characteristic approaches, but it is possible to look at the contours of what they are designed for. The scope of the design works represented at this exhibition indicates that cultural institutions (galleries, museums, theatres) commission most of the projects, followed by craft breweries, fast-food restaurants, bars and elite restaurants, film festivals, electronic music festivals, tourist accommodation facilities, local markets, several important memorial and architectural investments of local or national relevance, doggy daycare centers, etc. Identities designed for festivals and similar events are, of course, the most fluid. Apparently, they often (although not always) change entirely every year so that the logo, which oftentimes plays only a marginal role, remains the only fixed point of their identity. A rigid systematic approach is very often found in designs for companies and institutions (with some interesting exceptions), while new small brands across the market mostly use some form of narration.
“If we take a look at the Packaging category in general, with the exception of packaging for music records and some other things, the key words that significantly define visual communication are: ecological and natural production, natural and cultural heritage and an homage to local and family traditions”
If we take a look at the Packaging category (the two categories tend to overlap in several points), we come to a joyful conclusion that over the past two years, the designers’ imagination accommodates a very abundant animal world. Illustrations show fish, parrots, bulls, puppies, snakes, various kinds of cats, equine animals and poultry, cephalopods, rabbits, blue sharks and other real or fantastic animals. In most cases, they are commissioned by small and medium-sized winemakers, olive oil producers, craft breweries, big and small music labels, pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, companies producing or commissioning traditional delicacies and gastronomic souvenirs. It should be noted that among all these products, for the most part “refined quality” specialty products, there is also one food product that is a convenience consumer good in the real sense of the word – flour.
The range is albeit really wide and so is the spectrum of differences in style. It is very hard to generalize but judging by the selected designs of alcoholic drinks and olive oil packagings, typographic or extremely minimalist solutions are more frequent while the impact of illustrations and maximalist approach signals either an attempt to be different from other competitors or to find the way to a younger target group. Certain designs show praiseworthy attempts to hide a broader story behind what seems to be minimalism in order to attract the consumer’s attention. In general, with the exception of packaging for music records and some other things, the key words that significantly define visual communication are: ecological and natural production, natural and cultural heritage and an homage to local and family traditions.
This text mentions typography many times, and for a good reason – over the past decade high quality type design and use of typography is on a remarkable rise owing to quality education in the field in several design schools in Croatia. The introduction of a separate category dedicated to typography has been suggested several times for the same reason. However, in the field of typeface design we still witness almost absolute domination of only a few most prominent designers who collaborate with each other and do not have any real competition in what they do.
“Until some 15 years ago, it was very attractive to have computers in exhibition spaces so that the visitors can click on something and observe what happens but let’s be realistic: just as no one really uses phone booths anymore, it is not realistic to expect of people, whose entire lives are in their smartphones, to understand, let alone to perform this archaic choreography”
In this edition of the Croatian Design Review, the Digital Media Design/ Interactions Design category is rather slim with respect to the number of projects, and hardly exceeds two figures. When it comes to the presence of any form of interaction (since the catalogue also comprises two promotional videos and opening credits for a TV show), this number goes down to a one-digit figure. It is hard to make any conclusions about the state of digital media design and interactions design in Croatia from this selection objectively although it is meticulous in terms of the aesthetic attractiveness and technical design in all cases. Even the contexts behind it are respectable: the national broadcasting service, an esteemed higher education institution, an exhibition blockbuster, two large manufacturer brands, an international digital foundry, a new and attractive museum, a national theatre and a county.
There can be several possible reasons for such a limited response: the fact that designing web sites, applications and interactive interfaces often make part of much larger projects presented in several other categories at this exhibition, the fact that developers are not necessarily designers and do not see themselves as a part of the scene or maybe the most important reason, the fact that the exhibition format is probably the worst way of showcasing most of the works in this field. Until some 15 years ago, it was very attractive to have computers in exhibition spaces so that the visitors can click on something and observe what happens but let’s be realistic: just as no one really uses phone booths anymore, it is not realistic to expect of people, whose entire lives are in their smartphones, to understand, let alone to perform this archaic choreography.
Product design is the category that has maintained a similar level of vitality and structure of relations it had over the past seven or eight years. It is still finding stable support in domestic and regional furniture production, comprising only a few serious manufacturers whose range of products manages to grow, implying a more intense collaboration with designers. This exhibition marks a few successful examples of collaboration with foreign manufacturers, which have not taken place frequently over the past years, apart from those with neighbouring countries. Self-initiated projects or small design brands still seem to hold a counter-balance but this segment of production (usually in furniture design and light design), despite a continuous visibility in the public, appears to be stagnating in reality. Designers are more reluctant to take on an adventure of this kind. The process from the initial design to entering the market is long and painstaking. It is very difficult to find financial means and it seems that the opportunities presented through crowdfunding platforms are not really a viable option for everyone since they require continuous efforts on many sides and not everyone is prepared for that. Regardless of the fact that working conditions have considerably improved in comparison to the situation we had only a decade ago, to be a product designer today primarily implies courage, persistence and endurance. Several designs in this category are a result of bigger or smaller investments made by local communities or big companies and it is interesting to note that two products in this category were developed by design students under mentorships in the framework of an experimental educational project organised by regional design organisations and manufacturing companies.
“Team work, as well as an interactive dialogue and a readiness to embrace the experience of colleagues from other disciplines in particular create new values and very often assist designers in finding new vantage points they were unaware of. This logically translates into their practice in other fields of design activities”
If large investments are to be found anywhere here, they are always present in the projects covered by the Spatial and Graphic Interventions and Systems category. Brand new corporation headquarters, residential blocks, large and medium-sized tourist facilities, an entire airport, a city aquarium, local historical architectural heritage sites, sports and IT camps – all these projects required high quality signage systems, spatial graphics, pictograms, comprehensive interior design projects, or any combination of these. We are talking about some of the most complex and most prestigious design tasks with a very high level of responsibility and a need for close creative collaboration with other professionals, i.e. architects.
Although there are design studios and designers specializing in this field, it is really interesting to follow how these designers – who have been working in a completely different field until recently, for example in culture – have developed their approach to finding solutions for such tasks. Team work, as well as an interactive dialogue and a readiness to embrace the experience of colleagues from other disciplines in particular create new values and very often assist designers in finding new vantage points they were unaware of. This logically translates into their practice in other fields of design activities. Since this kind of collaborative practice has been well established over the past decade, even in the framework of interventions that usually presuppose rigid hierarchy systems and dogmas, there is enough space for taking risks and using intuition and innovative approaches. There are also several remarkable exhibition designs made mainly by experienced designers with a solid background and enough confidence and integrity to work with curators on an equal footing. Who are the clients in these cases? One big corporation and mostly public museums. Smaller galleries and projects of this kind rarely stand a chance because oftentimes they lack funds to employ designers and if they do employ one, they do not have the budget that would provide the designer with an opportunity to create something that might compete with the museum exhibition machinery. Nevertheless, one such display and a number of smaller urban interventions have been carried out, probably because designers managed them.
This year, all the works showcased in the framework of the Fashion/Clothing Design category are self-initiated projects, or products of small fashion design brands. They are not particularly unique in what they have to say, but it seems that they have a lot to say about everything – the hypocrisy of the fashion industry, the networked society, obscure subcultures, fluctuating identities, freedom, mass consumption, among other things. This intellectual dimension of fashion has been even more explicit in the student category. They are also characterized by an inclination towards experimenting with materials and techniques, but there are some very interesting concepts for recycling and recombining, this time not only of materials but of entire fashion styles, languages and codes. There is a visible absence of anything that would at least resemble “common” fashion design, ready-to-wear clothing, functional uniforms or work clothes.
“None of the design solutions can be understood or evaluated without observing it as an integral part of the whole to which it belongs”
Although it does gather a series of extraordinary works, it seems that the category Integrated Project/Product, introduced two years ago, has created more misunderstandings than sensible order. When it was introduced, it was intended to highlight projects characterized by some form of an interdisciplinary approach or those that combine multiple design aspects in several different fields, which all together make up a single and integrated unit. However, practice showed that either this category does not make any sense at all or that it makes much more sense than most of the other categories. It is difficult to say which is true.
A well designed product, no matter the category, should ideally imply that equal attention was given to both the design of the product and its visual identity, the packaging, the extension of its presence on the internet, the conceptual, technological or social innovation it introduces and so on. All these projects, as well as their individual segments, which are integral to them as a whole, could easily compete with anything else presented in other categories, such as visual communications design, product design, concept design, spatial intervention design, and digital media design. In some cases the projects that currently fall under these other categories could easily be put under this one since they involve similar kinds of collaboration and synergy that this very category implies. Namely, none of the design solutions can be understood or evaluated without observing it as an integral part of the whole to which it belongs.
A very similar problem, and in many case the same content, can to a certain extent be found in the last category, Concept, Initiative, Critical Design. An important difference here is that since the very beginning this category (it used to be called Concept), within its mostly clear limits, was actually used to open up a space for certain new and different phenomena, or for something that is hard to categorize unequivocally. It was worth opening up this space because we would otherwise miss some very interesting work, unrealized concepts and so-called “personal” design projects, which are still out there and which still bear a necessary air of self-reflexion, critical thinking and humour. This allows us, for example, to realize that designers also write books, that they, in addition to designing exhibitions, also curate them, infusing another profession with something different, fresh and new; that they design systems that might contribute to society becoming better and more just, or that they imagine how existing systems might look in a better future. This is something that could be recognized as what we now call “speculative design practice”, which is becoming more and more relevant, even in Croatia (for the time being, in the framework of high education in design), as an important and hot topic. The speculative design discourse is gaining steam and losing the naivety that it might have had in the beginning. It is an important topic and will hopefully remain so. Because, what else is ahead of us and what else do we have but the future?