The Daily Heller: More to Design Than Meets the Eye

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Graphic Matters (formerly known as Graphic Design Festival Breda) is a biannual festival about present developments in (typo)graphic visual culture. The festival largely takes place in the public space of Breda, the Netherlands. Surprising graphic interventions create awareness about the audience’s personal relation to visual culture. Recently I wrote about GM’s connection to COVID-19 graphics.

Exhibitions, lectures and workshops offer insight in current developments to a professional graphic design audience. In a surprising though perceptible manner, the festival enables talented international designers to connect graphic design, technological developments, social context and the individual perspective. Here, founder and curator Dennis Elbers tells us more about the event.

Photo by Edwin Wiekens—Graphic Matters festival 2019. Talking Matters.

Photo by Edwin Wiekens

Photo by Edwin Wiekens

When and why did you launch Graphic Matters?In 2008 the Graphic Design Museum opened in Breda. The world’s first (and at that time, only) museum dedicated to graphic design. It would show only the tip of the iceberg, in white rooms without context, for people that are already interested and paid for a ticket. As a young curator working on multidisciplinary exhibitions, I gained much interest in the power of graphic design. Together with some friends I initiated Graphic Design Festival Breda, a biannual festival that would complement the museum by showing emerging designers, in the public space, for everyone and for free.

After years of experimenting and discovering our true mission, we changed the name to Graphic Matters in 2017. We felt this resonated better with our objective to make people aware of the impact of graphic design. Now we’ve organized seven editions, worked with many designers from all over the world, inspired thousands of young people and outlived the museum. It was forced to merge with the local historical museum. Since then the collection has been stored.

People are always asking me whether or not graphic design has a sociopolitical role to play. What do you say?If one transfers information by design there must be an objective behind the message. This is usually formulated by the commissioner and thus has a sociopolitical message that can be articulated by the designer’s choices. We’re not interested in commercially commissioned work. We mainly present designers’ self-initiated projects that respond to current issues. By doing so we explore how sociopolitical developments shape the practice of designers.

How has Graphic Matters changed the awareness and attitudes of designers in the Netherlands and elsewhere?By showing these personal projects we aim to inspire young designers to start their own. By providing a platform we stimulate the collaborating designers to reach a next level in their project. In this way a personal project can shape the core of their practice, allowing them to become experts in a self-defined area. Over the years we co-produced many projects that (looking back) in one way or another were milestones for the designers involved.

What are the projects that have the most resonance for you and the community?Over the years we produced projects with all kinds of impact. One of our first projects involved a poster by Dutch design collective 75B, depicting a right-wing politician as if he was part of an H&M campaign. Only one poster was displayed and caused a huge stir—audience being confused, H&M lawyers threatening to sue us and national media writing about it. More recently we commissioned two young local designers to illustrate a manual on reading data viz in their distinctive style. The illustrations were presented as huge outdoor billboards. These got featured on an influential blog, resulting (the next day) in new international clients for RobenRobin. In the last weeks we flooded our city with COVID-19–inspired posters. Using humor and strong visuals, these posters stressed important messages in a way that to some people resonated better than government instructions. Nurses came to our office to get the posters and hung them all over hospitals and nursery homes.

How has Graphic Matters changed, if at all, since the pandemic started?Since we don’t have our own space we’ve learned to be flexible and can act fast according to current issues. So by doing what we do best, we were able to collaborate with the Stay Sane, Stay Safe project and bring the work of many international designers closer to an audience. The media attention created led to many new opportunities, and more important, [the posters generated] warm responses from [those] who they were made for.

What do you think the future will bring for design and designers?I hope designers and audience become more critical about the imagery that is published in public spaces and digital platforms. We notice the next generation communicates mainly via images, without being critical … causing fake news and misunderstandings to flourish. With our projects we try to make them aware and better equipped. Hopefully this will lead to a more critical view on visual communication in general. Not only about the message, but also when, where and for whom it is displayed. At the same time we try to stimulate an authentic approach to design and encourage designers to keep away more from template culture.