Winter 2007

Post-literate rhetoric

NeoGeo: A New Edge to Abstraction

Edited by Robert Klanten, Sven Ehmann,
Birgo Meyer
Die Gestalten Verlag, £27.99

The German design-studio-cum-publisher Die Gestalten Verlag has created a niche for itself by catering for audiences with a voracious appetite for graphic imagery and visual sensation. Its books are unencumbered by commentary and exposition. You don’t go to them for forensic analysis or critical perspicacity, and complaining about the absence of comment in their books is like complaining about a bald man’s failure to carry a comb. No comb required.

In a strongly argued essay on the DGV phenomenon entitled ‘Design Out of Bounds?’ (reproduced in Looking Closer: 5), Dan Nadel suggested that DGV books canonise the ephemeral, rather than considering ‘what excellent design is really capable of: elegant, functional, and at times beautiful and surprising communication’. Robert Klanten, DGV’s editor-in-chief, told Nadel he saw ‘no need for commenting in the traditional 1980s pre-digital way. I try to let the designers explain themselves in their language and not in the teacher’s voice.’ In other words, this is visual culture in the post-literate age; and if you need it explained, it’s probably not for you the first place.

There’s another more interesting question that hangs over DGV books: are they spotting design trends or are they making them? There’s a temptation to see DGV as a sort of black-polo-necked style lab manufacturing ready-made fads that sweep through the world of design and fashion, thus reinforcing its status as graphic design’s premier cool hunter. It was certainly the first publisher to spot the arrival of the new digital decorativeness with Romantik (2003); while it did not invent the trend for cartouches and flourishes that has infested visual communication in recent years, it certainly contributed to its promulgation.

Is then the work catalogued in NeoGeo a discernable new graphic movement, or a DGV-manufactured style fad? Geometric-based design is not new. Designers have resorted to the adjustable set-square to create angular, isometric design since the rise of Constructivism. But you can bet that ad agencies are busy photocopying pages out of this book already, and in a year’s time the ‘NeoGeo look’ will be colonising billboards, bus shelters and press ads.

None of which stops the work in NeoGeo from looking terrific: it’s mostly sharp, invigorating and immensely enjoyable. Traditionalists will bemoan its lack of ‘ideas’ and its unabashed retina appeal, but if this sort of visual rhetoric populated our urban landscapes, rather than the dull advertising-driven slush we have to contend with, the world would be a better place.

Would NeoGeo be improved by commentary? It’s doubtful that the notion of a new ‘school’ of geometric design would stand up to much scrutiny, which may explain why DGV doesn’t bother with essays and analysis. But what’s so bad about a strand of visual culture free from textual rationalisation? Graphic designers bang on about design as visual language, so why not let the work ‘speak for itself’? Not every graphic gesture has to have a meaning beyond its inherent ability to delight the eye.

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