Summer 2000

Why bother? Ask the Dutch

When issues of quality, responsibility and professionalism are debated, the emerging graphic design organisations of Ireland should look to the example of the Dutch BNO

The work of graphic designers can seem omnipresent. Yet this ubiquity does little to encourage dialogue and discussion about the shortcomings, merits and social functions of graphic design, because we entrust a variety of professional organisations with the job of looking after our interests. Have these bodies let us down – or merely failed to keep up?

Ireland has a healthy, if relatively immature, graphic design community that is tentatively emerging from the spectre of the advertising industry. Three organisations, IDI (Institute of Designers in Ireland), ICAD (Institute of Creative Advertising and Design) and GBDA (Graphic Design Business Association) vie for the attention of existing and emerging designers. Surprisingly, for such a small design community (an estimated 3700 people are employed in design consultancy positions), Ireland has more organisations purporting to represent the interests of graphic designers than France, the Netherlands and Italy.

With a buoyant economy, the future of Irish design looks remarkably bright, with both public and private sectors beginning to see the worth of good design. Emerging designers are receiving recognition and commissions while working outside the realm of the three main organisations.

Yet many such practitioners are faced with a series of dilemmas when thinking about joining one of these bodies. High fees for membership, award entries, ceremonies and seminars can be prohibitive. As small businesses or enterprising individuals, many designers lack the resources to affiliate themselves with a professional body.

The location and frequency of the events organised by such bodies appeal more to members based in the big cities, which can result in an organisation largely made up of established agencies from the principal business centres. An attitude of exclusivity – of ‘establishment cliques’ – can permeate the graphic design profession, leaving it in a state of aggrandisement: dubious awards, lack of criteria for assessment, selective interest in education and debauched evenings masquerading as lectures. ‘Why bother?’ ask many serious designers.

One can assume that the worth of most design awards – all those medals, bells, bongs and pencils – is only to further increase one’s standing within an existing clique. They have little or no impact on how designers are received by industry, because (like us), industry has no formal or objective means for assessing graphic design.

To resolve these issues, David Heathcote (Agenda, Eye no. 34 vol. 9) put forward the view that industry bodies should merge and present a single, professional representative body, similar to those of architects and solicitors.

Encouragingly, there are moves in this direction to improve the state of design in Ireland. Enterprise Ireland, the Irish trade board, has published an exhaustive sectoral study (Opportunities in Design, Strategies for Growth in the Irish Design Sector), and in response to the findings of the report, the main design bodies and the RIAI (Royal institute of the Architects of Ireland) established a Design Coalition to address shortcomings in the Irish design industry. Continued co-operation between Coalition members may determine whether the Irish design sector is to benefit from representation by a single unified voice.

[In the UK, Design Unity, an initiative between a number of design organisations including the Design Council, DBA (Design Business Association) and D&AD (Design & Art Direction) – may one day lead to a similar approach.]

Common ground
However a good model for unification already exists – not far from the British Isles – in the Netherlands. In its current form, the BNO (Beroepsorganisatie Nederlandse Ontwerpers) is the representative body of nearly 2300 designers and 180 agencies involved in graphic design, industrial design, three-dimensional design and illustration. Along with the Netherlands Design Institute, a ‘think and do tank’ to foster change and innovation in design, the Dutch have found common ground for the promotion and maintenance of professional standards.

As recently as 1995, the BNO represented only the interests of Dutch graphic designers. But as designers within various disciplines found themselves to be collaborating with increasing frequency – both in professional practice and education – the borders between these disciplines became harder to define. It was felt that collaboration had many advantages, including a better interdisciplinary exchange of knowledge and information. A well organised, multi-disciplinary design organisation could represent designers in dialogue with government, the educational system and the business world, and the increase in size and scale would mean an improvement in the information supplied to clients and in the service provided to members.

In early 1996, the BNO amalgamated with KIO (Association of Dutch Industrial Designers) and KIO-Branche (Association of Dutch Industrial Design Agencies). NIC (the Dutch Society of Illustrators) joined the BNO in 1998. Now, through continuous contact with related organisations, educational institutions, government departments and clients, the BNO represents the social, economic and cultural interests of its members at many different levels.

Potential clients are assured of the highest professional ethics from its members. In turn, the bno ‘educates’ clients, helping them to make the best use of its members through organised symposia and the brochure Ter introduktie. There is also an established policy of enabling internships for undergraduates. The BNO’s classification of practices by sector (finance, government, publishing, cultural, exhibitions, etc.) is very useful for prospective clients who are faced with the prospect of trawling through thousands of names.

So will the risk-averse bodies in Ireland perhaps learn from the Dutch example? Might they sacrifice their identities for our greater mutual benefit? This hope dissipated as I read through the quarterly design supplement to a national Sunday paper (Sunday Business Post). ‘Design: the D-word that gives your business the edge,’ read the cover. I turned the pages to read the opinions of the incumbent president of ICAD and representatives from the design unit of Enterprise Ireland: ‘Consumers are more design-conscious than before, so businesses have to be aware … It’s about being funnier, slicker and more international.’ Jargon, marketing strategies and the economic benefits of design and brand – but not a single mention of creativity. Finally, I came to the proposed name of the possible design coalition: ‘Business Design Ireland‘!

I despair – these organisations have little idea of how best to represent our industry. The success of the bno shows that creativity is fundamental to the establishment and development of a design body, and only through embracing creative work, creative strategies and creative leadership can a new professionalism emerge.

David Smith, designer, Dublin

First published in Eye no. 36 vol. 9 2000

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.