Contemporary Dutch graphic design: an insider/outsider’;s view

Essays by Peter Biľak
2 083 words11 min read

It is too simple to suggest that Dutch graphic designers have an easy working life. The ‘official anarchy1 ’ of the design scene is often romanticised, but like anywhere else, the country has its share of mediocre designers and conservative clients. One still has to fight for a good idea.

However, the position of a graphic designer in the Netherlands remains very different from other countries, even neighbouring ones such as Germany or Belgium. It is impossible not to notice the impact of graphic design in everyday life. Take a traditionally conservative client such as the national bank: instead of the portraits of national heroes or symbols of power common to almost all other countries’ banknotes, the Dutch ones feature a bird, a sunflower and a lighthouse. Even more remarkable is the fact that these motifs were proposed by the designer himself. The reason why the Dutch currency is so out-of-step with other countries is, of course, due to the attitude adopted by the commissioner – De Nederlandsche Bank. Although the series of banknotes dated 1977 has since been partially replaced, the position of the designer has remained privileged. The new series employs wholly abstract images2. In their book Graphic design and Idealism, Leonie ten Duis and Annelies Haase describe the designer’s position: ‘With the idea that client and designer had separate responsibilities, the Bank never felt the need to take over the job of the designer or issue an aesthetic veto. Dutch money was the result both of the designer’s extensive autonomy and of the Bank’s flexible attitude as the client.’3

More than any other form of art, graphic design directly reflects the prevailing historical, economic, political and social contexts. Its apparent significance or relevance is therefore altered (lost, improved or damaged) by a change of context. Graphic design does not exist in a vacuum. Its position depends on the system of relationships between the commissioner, public and designer. The exhibition in the RAS gallery presents work which was created in a different country under its own specific conditions. In order to understand graphic design stripped of its original environment, further clarification is necessary.

Dutch graphic design is affected by a number of factors – the relatively small scale of the country, its long arts tradition, and prosperous economy – which have resulted in a uniquely creative atmosphere. In particular, the government’s generous cultural funding system is often purported to be the main reason for the ‘advanced’ nature of Dutch graphic design – the constant flow of money facilitating unconventional approaches. This central financial support is deeply rooted in the country’s history: artists have enjoyed a relatively high social status since the Golden Age of the Dutch monarchy.

The old benefactors have been replaced by the government’s own commissioning strategies. Some larger companies have ‘aesthetic consultants’ responsible for selecting suitable designers for specific projects. The Dutch Royal Telecom (KPN), for example, runs an Art and Design department in charge of commissioning designers, and has long been one of the most respected graphic design clients in the world. The Dutch government itself is also a prime commissioning body. Each ministry strives for its own, unique form of visual expression much envied by designers from abroad for their courageous, risk-taking approach towards their visual output. Such progressive attitudes are not new. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, company directors and their consultants were busy supporting culture, which included promoting design and its impact on society. These efforts were often idealistic, a natural reaction of a small country surrounded by English, French and German speaking neighbours. Designers were asked to collaborate in creating a ‘contemporary look of companies’. In a relatively short time, the design profession managed to secured its ground, upon which the succeeding generations could build. The tradition of intelligent design policies are apparent in both the public and private sectors.


The existence of young, small studios in The Netherlands is made possible though financial grants from various cultural funds. The BKVB (The Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture), for example, subsidised more than 5000 artists and designers in recent years, enabling them to concentrate on developing their work, to keep afloat in day-to-day practice or finance their personal projects. Such support offers newly-starting designers an opportunity to establish themselves without major financial difficulties. Although most of the stipends come directly from the central Ministry of Culture, the funding institutions make their selections independently, employing juries of experts. Many designers in the RAS exhibition benefited directly from this process.

All this is possible because of the history of country’s welfare. Built primarily on centuries of naval trade, the Netherlands’ prosperous economy created a healthy business environment and unique position for design: there appears to be enough work for everyone, and the scene does not seem overly competitive, at least by international standards.

Finally, the Netherlands’ long arts tradition has created superior conditions for its artists and designers, with a clear lineage through generations and styles. To take a random example from the people present in the RAS show: designers from Pingpong were students of Mevis & Van Deursen, who both spent their internships with Gert Dumbar, one of whose teachers was Dutch design godfather Piet Zwart. Such connections are very common. Outsiders are often surprised how closely the scene is interlinked. Because of the country’s small scale, Dutch graphic design is a hermetic world. To continue the story: all the members of Pingpong also used to work at Studio Dumbar; Linda van Deursen studied at the Rietveld Academy where she now teaches along with Experimental Jetset and DEPT, all of whom studied under her. Jop van Bennekom, who also teaches there, was a student of Armand Mevis at the Jan van Eyck Akademie.

The designer of those original Dutch banknotes, Ootje Oxenaar, was also once the director of the ‘Aesthetic Design Department’ of the PTT. He recalls his years as the head of the Design department as being ‘in the business not of making profits but of spiritual well-being’. This idealistic remark is now somewhat outdated, as the PTT and KPN are both privatised, and very much market- and expansion-driven. The KPN now responds to market mechanisms as much as any other multinational corporation, yet maintains its art and design department to ensure certain standards.

The RAS exhibition of young Dutch graphic designers lists an impressive array of already-established designers, though it is difficult to identify any commonalities across the generation. These designers share little other than an assertive attitude. Whilst another godfather, Wim Crouwel, fought for the idea of neutral information transfer, the new generation demands that their work be anything but neutral; it consists rather of contemporary expression and personal messages. Of course, the Internet offers limitless space for self-expression, and Dutch designers are zealously embracing it. There has never been a smaller gap between ‘new’ and ‘old’ media. The current generation realises that there are no fundamental differences; each medium requires specific solutions, but the laws of communication remain the same.


The position of the graphic designer is constantly changing. What was once described as a problem-solving industrial art no longer considers itself merely subservient. We are currently witnessing the designer’s urge to establish his or her own voice, which includes the creation of autonomous (non-commissioned) work. It is not unusual for designers to be involved in specifying the exact nature of vague assignments, or creating and editing content, so the difference between the self-initiated and ‘real’ commissioned projects becomes increasingly blurred.

‘Low culture’ (music, television, computing, advertising, and the Internet) is more influential than previous generations’ theoretical preoccupations. The designers here have been (and are being) brought up in a media-saturated information society. This is the first generation growing up considering such conditions ‘normal’; not being shocked by constant technological changes, but accepting them as inevitable. Instead of petty complaints about the perpetual (re)definition of hypermedia, the Internet, the ‘computer as medium or a tool’ debate, etc., they use all available techniques to their advantage. This generation is fluent in expression, using the computer as both tool and medium.

The overload of visual messages from all directions is making the public aware that all communication is manipulated. Designers now work in a situation where everything is questioned and nothing taken for granted. There is also a sense of nostalgia for a world defined by common values; what used to be simply polarised is now open for interpretation. In this context it is impossible to introduce a generic style (such as the ‘international style’ that originated in 1950s Switzerland). New forms are short-lived, with immediate counter-forms resulting from a constant search for the new. Robin Kinross viewed this trend with skepticism: ‘Despite its air of freedom, such an approach has deep limitations. Not only it is reactive (against what has gone before) rather than constructive (attending to the needs of its time), but it also reproduces the rejections already worked through by avant-garde of Dada and early typography. Forms that once carried a charge of social criticism become domesticated in the comfortable circumstances of western design culture.’4 The contemporary design scene is characterised by polyphonic voices, diverse styles and methods with apparently contradictory aims and audiences. In the words of the Dutch expat designer Max Kisman, the style of Dutch design ‘is the style of styles. There is pluriformity which is unique to Holland.’

Although contemporary Dutch design is impossible to label stylistically as a whole, one contemporary trend is the tendency against overdesigning. It is an obvious reaction to the visual gimmickry and slickness which was so highly valued in recent decades. Simplicity is appreciated again, as well as ordinary or obvious solutions in which the designer’s hand is practically invisible. This approach embodies a paradox: work radiates the appearance that it is not made by a professional, whilst actually being made by an expert. As such, ‘undesign’ is itself a design strategy. Designers combine conventions with unconventional approaches. To adopt art terminology such work might also be described as postmodern or ironic; combining the incompatible, referring to conventions and cliches, and staying free of doctrines.

Another prominent feature is self-referentialism or work made to appeal primarily to design colleagues or design competitions rather than responding to actual questions. Felix Janssens and Mark Schalken were frustrated by the current conditions so much that they issued their own Manifesto of the Sober Thinking Society : They present their aversion to formal voluptuousness, far from the substance of design: ‘Perhaps graphic design is doing so well in the Netherlands because not a great deal of thinking is put into it. What is the sense of this ever expanding stream of images. What is behind this ever renewing language of forms? Knowledge strangles, Dutch designers design, leaving other things out. Being illiterate, if anything else, you can always become a designer. The sunny image we get from graphic design is merely a facade. Considering the real developments, graphic design is not doing well at all. Changes are required.’5

So: Solid traditions and respect for graphic design; open, progressive education, funding to begin a practice, and a broad range of clients with subsidised projects. Ignore the first paragraph; the easy life is not such an oversimplification. Having studied, lived and worked in the Netherlands for the past few years, they are reasons why I work here too.

1 Term borrowed from Max Bruinsma’s article Official Anarchy, published in The Low Countries, Arts and society in Flanders and The Netherlands, A Yearbook, 1997 - 1998
2 The series of banknotes designed by Ootje Oxenaar between 1977 - 1985, has slowly been replaced by a new edition designed by Jaap Drupsteen, soon to be replaced by Euros.
3 The World must Change, Graphic design and Idealism, Leonie ten Duis, Annelies Haase, p.180.
4 Robin Kinross, Modern Typography 1992, pp. 139-140
5 Felix Janssens, Mark Schalken, the sense of design, manifesto of the Sober Thinking Society, 1993