A history in the making

Issue no. 8 of “AIS/Design. Storia e Ricerche” is devoted to the theme “The years they made contact: Graphic design, new technologies and new media”.
The issue aims to contribute to the historical study and understanding of a phenomenon – the advent of the digital – that has radically redefined the conceptual and operational scenario of contemporary design. Thirty years after the desktop publishing revolution, the journal explores the longest period of intersection, convergence and tension that was produced when graphic design “made contact” with electronic and digital technologies and media. Through the reconstruction and discussion of specific cases and experiences, the articles examine the impact of the various innovations that were introduced from the 1950s to the new millennium on the profession and on the very idea of graphic design.
As a whole, the research studies, essays and micro-histories featured in this issue on the one hand illuminate how the new tools and media challenged and transformed from within the production chain and the boundaries of graphic design, including the field of design education; on the other, they highlight the slow process of cultural assimilation and the resistance to a change that forced designers to deeply reconsider the technical nature of their practice.

Contributors to this issue: Letizia BolliniGiulia Ciliberto, Gillian Crampton Smith, Maddalena Dalla Mura, Simona De Iulio and Fabiola Leone, Liselotte Doeswijk and René Koenders, Andrea Facchetti, Michele Galluzzo, Robin Kinross, Chiara Mari, Isabella Patti, Luciano Perondi, Karin van der Heiden, Carlo Vinti.

Why it took so long: Developing the design mindset in the technology industries

In the 1970s and ’80s, computer interfaces seemed, even then, crude and unhelpful. “Design values” continued generally to be resisted by the technology industries long after becoming an accepted characteristic of other everyday artifacts. Only recently has the computing industry expressed enthusiasm for the design mindset. The present author, who experienced the transition from letterpress printing through offset litho and Letraset to interaction design, suggests eight reasons why it took so long and how differences in the cultures of design, education, engineering, and business all contributed to this.


In 2012 the US magazine Fast Company published an article, “Facebook Agrees: The Key to Its Future Success Is Design” (Boyd, 2012), describing the increase of Facebook’s design team from 20 people to 90 – 0.2% of a company of nearly 5,000 people! (Rao, 2013). In the same year, the magazine reported a venture capital fund that would only fund startups with at least one designer among its founders (Allen, 2012).

This was news indeed. In the 1970s and ’80s, ever more people had had to interact with computers. They did so through the computer’s interface, typically a sequence of information exchanges between user and machine manifest in a changing on-screen graphic. But the experience of this interaction, although a step up from interacting through a programming language or typing arbitrary commands, seemed, even then, crude, ungainly and unhelpful. Despite famous exceptions, notably Steve Jobs’ insistence that Apple hardware and screens look elegant, the computer industry generally resisted for decades what might be called “designerly values”: not only economy, simplicity, clarity but also aesthetic complexity, emotional resonance, cultural meaning; designing things that work well, but also work well for people. Or, as Vitruvius wrote, architects should give buildings firmitas, commoditas, venustas: they should be robust, appropriate for their function, and give delight.

This resistance is surprising, given that since the early twentieth century a powerful ethos of design has dominated in the education and professional practice of architects, for instance, and of graphic and product designers, and has long been the expected spirit of everyday products – buildings, vehicles, typography and so on. A part of this ethos derives from modernist-functionalist roots, such as the experiments of the Bauhaus, privileging logic, clarity and simplicity, and commitment to technological innovation. This approach seems particularly suited to designing the interaction between people and technological tools. As digital technology developed to encompass ever more of people’s everyday life, providing entertainment as well as information (environments as well as tools), however, simplicity and clarity were not enough: people appreciate satisfaction and delight as well as economy and efficiency.

However, it was not until a century after the birth of modern design culture and three decades after computing began to be ubiquitous, that in the early 2010s technology companies began to realise the importance of the emotional aspects of “design”. I myself lived through the transition from letterpress printing through offset litho and Letraset to interaction design, and experienced the chasm of understanding between the actors in the development of information technology –designers, educators, engineers, and business people. In this essay I suggest eight reasons why it took so long for an appreciation of the value of traditionally-trained designers to emerge.

1. Graphic designers were focused on print, consumed by the struggle to make computer technology achieve the quality they expected

Computer typesetting had been steadily developing in the 1970s and, although it had changed the work of the printer, it did not yet affect the work of graphic designers, who still had to:

– design the pages in pencil, mark up the text with fonts, sizes, weights
– send them to the typesetter and wait for the rough galleys
– check the galleys, have them corrected, and paste the text into place on paper grids with rubber cement or wax
– return the laid-out pages to the printer, who output the final high-quality text and pasted them in place on clean grids, photographed them, and made the plates for printing.

How primitive it sounds now! Because designers could not see the quality of the final product until it was printed, they had to work hard to imagine, drawing on their experience, what they wanted their design to look like in print and specify the font, spacing, grid, and layout that would produce the result they sought. They made sketches (“visuals”) of their designs, using pencil, ink, coloured pens or paper, which, according to the skill of the designer, gave a more or less accurate impression of the final artifact. But there was always a gap between the sketch and the final product. And they had to be right first time, because the cost of a change of mind – in money, time and reputation –was high. Rub-down lettering (Letraset) promised a more immediate impression of the final printed product but was fiendishly difficult – and slow – to apply evenly, and was only really feasible for headlines.

By the late 1970s it became possible for a computer typesetting machine to output a page as a whole, not just as a long column of text, eliminating the tedious job of pasting high-quality text in place in order to make the printing plates. But these computer-typesetting systems were large, complicated and very expensive.

Then, in 1984, Apple launched the Macintosh personal computer. Its black-on-white bitmapped screen meant that, instead of a single green-on-black mono-spaced font, it could show fonts of different sizes on screen, approximating how they would look printed (Wichary, 2005b). In the following year Apple launched the LaserWriter office printer, and Aldus the page-layout software PageMaker. The LaserWriter could be networked with up to 16 Macs, so even a small graphic design studio could have its own typesetting and proofing system and only needed a printing company for the final high-quality page output.

This radically changed the work balance between designer, typesetter and print works. Designers began not only to specify layout and fonts but also do their own typesetting and page-layout. It also changed the creative process: designers did not have to specify from their mind’s eye because it could be changed on the computer screen and tested on the office printer until it looked right. The process became more reactive, responding to what the computer showed, looking and choosing rather than proactively thinking and deciding.
Because quality was initially so difficult to obtain, graphic designers focused primarily on improving the typographic quality that could be achieved using this new technology. For many years they chafed under its initial limitations: tasks that seemed simple, like inserting a dropped capital or running type round an image, were torture. But once they started to feel in control of these new tools, and the quality improved, their struggle seemed finally over: they had tamed computers. Few were thinking about designing information that would in future be presented on screen, or how graphic design could improve the dismal quality of the software tools they were using.

2. Designing within the limitations of the screen seemed a pointless task

The graphic designer must do two things: first, understand the structure of the information or message to be communicated; second, design the form that will communicate the message most effectively and appropriately to its audience. Graphic designers were used to producing the most subtle of arrangements of composition on the page, delicate contrasts of tone and evenness of type, using these means to produce the right emotional tone – surprise or tranquility, seriousness or playfulness, for instance – and to lead the reader’s eye around the page, from the most to the least important information. But the first personal computers with visual displays in the late 1970s, such as the Apple II, Atari, and Commodore Pet, had cathode-ray displays, with 40 x 24 green characters on a black background. Few designers addressed the design of information on screen because the graphic variables were so pitifully few: position on screen, characters reversed or flashing, and, if you were lucky, capital or lowercase characters, all on a mono-spaced pixel grid. About as limited as a typewritten page which any competent secretary would design unaided. There seemed no point applying the skills of a graphic designer to screen design.

If typographic quality seemed unattainable, however, some people saw considerable scope for the visual structuring of information. One instance was AppleWorks (Apple II History, n.d.), an integrated combination of word processor, spreadsheet and database software for the Apple II. Despite its graphic inelegance, the logic and simplicity of its interface were exemplary, offering complete consistency of keyboard commands and feedback. You always knew where you were and what you were doing.

3. Computer companies focused on the problems of the technology not the people using it

We can think of the development of computer interfaces in several stages. The first stage required inputting a computer program to the computer’s memory to tell it what to do. Very early computers input the program using a bank of switches on the front of the computer, representing 0s and 1s. Later developments were different levels of programming “languages” which made this process less abstract and easier to read and understand. Though as early as 1954 IBM produced a cathode-ray display, the model 740, in the 1960s programs were still being input using punched cards or paper tape with coded holes and the results printed out on paper, often hours later – not exactly interactive. By the ’70s visual displays were more widespread and the programmer could type the program on a keyboard and immediately see the result on screen.

With the development of on-screen interfaces it became easier for non-programmers to use computers and to do things outside computing – writing text, say, playing a game, or making a 3D model of an object like a car. Here the interface was the means by which a person who had not written the program could understand what the computer could do and how to make it do it. In this stage the interface was still controlled through the alphanumeric keyboard. Using the first word processors on personal computers, for instance, one needed to type in a code to switch from typing mode to command mode, another code to make the type bold, another to switch it back to normal, and another to switch back into typing mode. It was a while until someone thought it might be a good idea to make the codes mnemonic: Command-B for bold, for instance.

As in the first stage of computing computer users were programmers, who knew how the program worked because they had written it, making things it easy to use was not a priority. This approach tended to persist even when non-programmers began to be the users. There was, however, a seminal exception: the Xerox Star office workstation. Begun in 1975 and based mainly in Xerox’s Palo Alto research centre (PARC), the Star project aimed to rethink the office for the digital age. Designed for office workers and executives, not programmers, it invented a completely new interaction paradigm: the direct manipulation on screen of graphic icons, in this case items familiar to office workers such as files and folders, which represented elements in the computer. One technology that made this possible was the bit-mapped screen: each pixel could be changed individually so icons could be drawn on screen and animated as they were moved with pointer and mouse. We now take for granted the WIMP interface (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer) but its invention was radical and remains fundamental.

The Star project assembled a large interdisciplinary team comprised of hard- and software engineers, who built the workstation and the underlying software, and, unusually, psychologists and designers, who worked on the graphical user interface (GUI). Before anything was built, many person-years of work went into its design: deciding the basic principles of how it should behave and how it should appear graphically so it could be easily understood, allowing people to focus on their work, not on how to use the system (Canfield Smith et al., 1982; DigiBarn Computer Museum, n.d.; Johnson et al., 1995).
The team struggled to explain the value of their work to the company, based a continent away to the east. The workstation was eventually launched in 1982 but Xerox, focused on competition in the copier market, where its patents had recently expired, did not capitalize on what the Star team had produced.

The Star workstation system was so expensive that only large companies could afford it. But in 1979 Steve Jobs visited PARC, saw the Star in action, and was immediately convinced that less specialised computer users, too, needed a graphical user interface and should not have to rely on typed commands and arbitrary codes. The principles of the Star GUI were immediately incorporated into the design of Apple’s Lisa, a personal computer for business eventually launched in January 1983 (Lineback, n.d.; Wichary, 2005a). Although the Lisa did not succeed commercially, it was a proof of concept: a GUI-based personal computer could be built. Jobs had meanwhile transferred his energies to the Macintosh, a much cheaper version of the Lisa. With its launch in 1984 we UK designers, for example, could buy a computer with a graphical user interface for £1,500 rather than £50,000.

In 1982 Byte magazine published a series of articles describing the Star’s development (Byte Magazine, 1982). For those few of us graphic designers already trying to bring design to software it was exciting to see how a black-on-white bitmapped screen could change the graphic potential of the design of interfaces, and the important role of graphic design in developing this entirely new way of operating computers.
The Star interface involved inventing a new way of representing the objects and actions of the computer, and communicating to its users how they could make it do what they wanted. It addressed traditional graphic design problems, such as legibility, structure, recognition and comprehensibility. But it also depended on a huge amount of new engineering – developing a new type of computer language, engineering the bitmapped display, new types of storage, programming applications for office work, and many more inventions – without which the interface would have been impossible. These new technologies made new kinds of design possible.

4. Technology use develops stage-by-stage

David Liddle led the Star design team and later founded Interval Research, a company focused on digital products for the consumer market. He identified three distinctive stages in the development of a new technology (Moggridge, 2007a). The first stage is that of the enthusiast, when “early adopters” are so thrilled about the technology itself, or what it can do for them, that they happily suffer all kinds of difficulty just to be able to use it. The second stage is that of the professional, when the technology has become more distributed among industries but remains a relatively rare skill. In this stage, difficulty of use may not be a disadvantage because the ability to overcome the difficulty is what the professional is selling. During this stage, too, employees must use a new technology, however user-unfriendly, because the decision to purchase it has typically been made by another department and on criteria other than ease or pleasure of use. Liddle’s third stage, finally, is that of the consumer, where people are not much interested in the technology; they just want it to do what it is meant to do with minimum fuss.

The 1960s and ’70s were the decades of the enthusiasts. Whether a huge, room-sized computer used by university researchers through the night in Cambridge, England, or the first home-brew computers assembled in Palo Alto, such systems were equally awkward to operate but offered results so excitingly unprecedented that this seemed irrelevant. The 1980s and early ’90s were the professional years: powerful workstations for typesetting, 3D architectural modeling, animation, industrial products, car design and so on. The late 1990s and the 2000s finally, saw the triumph of the consumer, epitomised by Microsoft’s slogan, “a computer on every desk and in every home”, and Apple’s “computer for the rest of us”.

The consumer stage in computing brings many disruptive changes. Computers become everyday commodities, like washing machines, chosen and bought by their users. Software producers and products multiply, as do computing-based services. Most significantly, “good design”, defined as an integration of aesthetic attractiveness and ease of use, becomes treated less as a superficial option, more as a crucial instrument to sell computer products and services to this hugely wider market. Beyond price and function, good design gives producers a competitive edge. Designers are needed to make the technology understandable and desirable – which is not an engineering problem.

5. Examples of good interaction design were few

In computer technology’s consumer stage, computers moved from being tools to carry out work tasks to environments in which people also spent their leisure time. People began to expect from them the intellectual satisfaction and aesthetic appropriateness taken for granted in other aspects of daily life. As good examples slowly emerged, companies and their customers saw what the technology could achieve and what interfaces could be like.
As Donald Schön pointed out (Schön, 1983), design moves forward through exemplars. The more exemplars there are, the richer design culture becomes. In the early days of personal computing an industry was being founded from scratch. Emphasis was on engineering, making the technology work. There was little understanding of how graphic design could make human–computer interaction more efficient, and little bandwidth, in reality or metaphorically, for cultural issues or what was seen as the “soft”, human side: usability, satisfaction, delight. So with few exemplars of good interaction design the culture of good interaction design developed slowly. The mid-century world of industrial products, however, had seen shining examples of commitment to design. At IBM in the 1950s and ’60s, for example, its head of corporate design Eliot Noyes hired some of the most talented American graphic and industrial designers and architects. “In a sense, a corporation should be like a good painting”, he wrote, “everything visible should contribute to the correct total statement; nothing visible should detract. Thus, a company’s buildings, offices, graphic design and so forth should all contribute to a total statement about the significance and direction of the company” (IBM, 2001). Similarly in Europe, the Italian entrepreneur Adriano Olivetti, from the late 1940s until his untimely death in 1960, hired a wide range of progressive artists, designers and architects to work on all aspects of the company’s production.

But this passion for excellent graphic and industrial design was slow to be transferred to the design of computers. One task, however, the outer casing of computers, was clearly a task for designers. In 1979 the London industrial designer Bill Moggridge started work on the first portable clam-shell computer, the Grid Compass, launched in 1982 (Moggridge, 2007b). The industrial design team, Shelley Evenson and John Rheinfrank at Richardson Smith in Columbus, Ohio, also worked on projects, design languages and strategies for companies such as Xerox. And in 1984 the German designer Hartmut Esslinger developed the elegantly modernist “Snow White” appearance of the Apple IIc casing – a dramatic departure from the characteristic beige of the Apple II and much contemporary American office equipment (Caula, 2012).

Although most design attention focused on the outer appearance of hardware, as these examples show, a change was coming. Moggridge (2007b) later wrote that he was very pleased with the industrial design of the Compass, but when he saw the final product he realized that users would hardly look at his careful design of its exterior but instead spend hours in the virtual world of the interface on its screen. It was then he knew that his firm ID2 needed to get into what he and his colleague Bill Verplank later christened “interaction design”.

In 1982 the only notably good example of this was the Star interface. A year later, as previously mentioned, another convincing example was released, Apple’s Lisa interface. Its successor, for the Mac, however, had very different qualities. In Moggridge’s (2007c) encyclopaedic oral history of interaction design, Bill Atkinson, who designed the Lisa’s icons and worked on the Mac interface, recalls:

You need a way to show there is something in the trash. […] The very first version of the trashcan I wrote had little flies buzzing around it, but it got sanitized out. […] I think some of the work in designing the Lisa user interface was a little bit hampered by who we thought it was for; we thought we were building for an office worker, and we wanted to be cautious not to offend. When I was working on the Mac, we thought the person we were building it for was a fourteen-year-old boy, so that gave us more freedom to come more from the heart, and a little less from fear of offending. […] Those of us on the Macintosh team were really excited about what we were doing. The result was that people saw a Mac and fell in love with it. Only secondarily did they think, ‘How can I justify buying this thing?’ There was an emotional connection to the Mac that I think came from the heart and soul of the design team.

A year before the Mac’s launch the team had hired Susan Kare, who, she later said, fell into the job by happy accident (Layers Design Conference, 2015). With a background in art history and some experience with Letraset, she worked on the fonts, giving consistency to the graphic style of the interface. More importantly perhaps, she gave a distinctive expressivity to the icons, making them playful as well as efficient (Wichary, 2005b). All form, industrial as well as graphic, implicitly communicates an emotional tone, intentionally or not.

6. Design education for the new digital world was initially rare

A few interaction design programmes based on design principles, rather than on engineering or psychology, were begun in the 1970s. But the student numbers were small, and subsequent programmes emerged only slowly.
The first design-based programme was in 1975: the Visible Language Workshop (VLW) at MIT, led by Muriel Cooper, formerly art director at the MIT Press. In 1985 the VLW became part of MIT’s Media Lab. Cooper and her students developed new ways of presenting information on screen that were influential, particularly because of the VLW alumni who ultimately moved to Silicon Valley.

The Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU Tisch School of the Arts was founded in 1979 and directed from 1983 until her death in 2013 by Red Burns, a documentary filmmaker particularly interested in the social and community uses of film. ITP grew out of the informal programme at Tisch that she co-founded, the Alternate Media Center, where experiments in new technologies such as two-way cable TV and Teletext investigated how these might be used for services for seniors or developmentally disabled adults. ITP was broadly-focused, exploring how new technology might be exploited for practical and artistic ends.
A third programme was the one I started started in London in the early ’80s. Inspired by a bumper edition of U&lc (the type magazine of the foundry ITC) that surveyed all the ways computers were being used in typography and graphic design, I bought a computer in 1981 and programmed a desktop tool for page layout: back-of-envelope sketches linked to space calculations. Building this I became more interested in how basic graphic design knowledge and skill could make a program easier to use. So in 1982, at London’s Saint Martin’s School of Art (later merged with the Central School to become Central Saint Martins) I started a part-time post-graduate Diploma in Computers and Graphic Design. This aimed to teach practising designers about computation so that they would understand how software was built and, ideally, use their existing design expertise to suggest better tools for the future. A designer from Apple’s Multimedia Lab, Kristee Kreitman, happened to see a display of inkjet illustrations in the window of St Martin’s in Long Acre and went in to find out more. This triggered a long and fruitful collaboration between art and design schools in London and Silicon Valley.

In 1990 I moved to the Royal College of Art (RCA), the UK’s graduate school of art and design, where I was given responsibility for a small industrial design programme, Computer Related Design (CRD), whose students were starting to design computer interfaces. I developed this programme of teaching and research with the sponsorship of Interval Research Corporation and Apple. Because there were no interaction design jobs in England, almost all the early alumni started their careers in the USA, further strengthening London–Silicon Valley bonds.

Each of these programmes had a distinctive character shaped by the context and the background of the founders: broadcast media at ITP, graphic design at St Martin’s, information design and computer science at VLW, and graphic and industrial design at the RCA.

From the end of the 1980s, the most important supporter of design education in Silicon Valley was Joy Mountford, an English psychologist who had worked for Honeywell on aircraft cockpit design. Between 1986 and 1994 she directed Apple’s Human Interface Group (HIG), an interdisciplinary research team of around 30 engineers, designers, sound experts and psychologists, all working on interfaces for the future. To encourage universities to develop the interdisciplinary programmes which she thought vital to successful interface design, to provide a talent pool for her group, and to demonstrate to Apple what young people might come up with, she instituted the Apple University Competition. Each year she chose six universities from around the world with design programmes in some way related to interaction design, then set them a challenge.

The first challenge, in 1990, was to invent and design possible scalable interfaces for devices of different sizes (which did not yet exist). Apple gave each programme around $20,000 to buy equipment and paid for the most promising student team and their professor in each university to fly to California and spend three days at Apple, polishing their presentation and presenting to Apple people. They gained inspiration from the work they saw at Apple and from meeting students and professors from the other universities.
The grant helped these programmes gain credibility in their institutions. In some craft-based design schools, for instance, computing was seen as an anti-creative threat. Some teachers, however, hoped that exposing young creatives to computing could enrich the new technology, allowing it take its place with earlier technologies like print and construction to enhance everyday life and culture. Though the number of participants was small, the Apple competition began to assemble a network of like-thinking students and professors and seeded the idea that design values and practice had a role in creating digital artifacts.
By the end of the 1990s a few more design-based interaction design programmes had begun – in the USA, those at Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), and Carnegie Mellon. (Surprisingly, San Francisco’s California College of the Arts (CCA) only started a dedicated interaction design programme in 2010.) Continental Europe responded slightly more rapidly: programmes had begun in Malmö, Utrecht and several in Germany, including New Media Art and Design at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK).
A significant new USA-Europe connection arrived in Italy in 2000. Roberto Colaninno, CEO of Telecom Italia, had asked an engineer and senator, Franco Debenedetti, to develop a plan for an institute of higher education in Ivrea, Olivetti’s hometown near Turin. The first idea was to develop a business school focused on the new generation of telecommunication services that Telecom was starting to provide. However as there were already strong business schools in Italy, Debenedetti thought it more useful to develop something that didn’t already exist in Italy. In this he was encouraged by Barbara Ghella, who ran a Milan software company and had found it difficult to recruit designers. Mindful of the great Olivetti tradition of design, Debenedetti and Ghella went fact-finding to Palo Alto, which at the time was a strong centre of design for digital technology. They talked to Bill Verplank and to IDEO, a merger of Bill Moggridge’s ID2 with two other Silicon Valley product design studios. Following Moggridge’s suggestion that they should also talk to my RCA department in London, I eventually became the founding director of Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (IDII), a school and research institute which attracted students and faculty from around the world. Generously funded, IDII was able to host many international visitors and generated a wide range of projects, the most famous of which was undoubtedly Arduino, the low-cost microcontroller board which allows non-engineers to build computation-controlled physical devices, benefitting designers and makers worldwide. An equally important IDII product was a network of graduates able to marry technology and culture.

That said, the number of interaction design alumni remains severely inadequate. Beginning in 2013, IBM, to transform the role of design in the company, hired 750 formally-trained designers over three years, and in 2015 committed to double this number (Lohr, 2015). In 2016 the designer Bob Baxley (2016) took the US Bureau of Labor’s estimate of software engineers (developers and programmers) currently in the USA, assumed a ratio of one designer (“the bare minimum needed”) to every 10 engineers, and calculated that America needs 159,100 interaction designers – a professional population which the current graduation rate cannot possibly achieve. Worldwide, of course, the need is far greater.

7. Scientific and academic paradigms were too rigid

Interaction design as a discipline evolved partly from human–computer interaction (HCI), a field of study in which psychologists struggled to persuade computer engineers that basic ergonomic knowledge about user behaviour, honed in the design of World War II aircraft cockpits, could be useful in the design of computer systems.

That HCI remained dominated intellectually and professionally by the values and procedures of the “hard” sciences, is evident in the 1990 manifesto of Mitchell Kapor, designer of the Lotus 123 spreadsheet program (Kapor, 1991; Winograd, 1996, pp. 1-6). The following extract defends designers from the overbearance of engineers:

When you go to design a house you talk to an architect first, not an engineer. Why is this? Because the criteria for what makes a good building fall substantially outside the domain of what engineering deals with. […] Design disciplines are concerned with making artifacts for human use. Architects work in the medium of buildings, graphic designers work in paper and other print media, industrial designers on mass-produced manufactured goods, and software designers on software. The software designer should be the person with overall responsibility for the conception and realization of the program. […] One of the main reasons most computer software is so abysmal is that it’s not designed at all, but merely engineered. Another reason is that implementors often place more emphasis on a program’s internal construction than on its external design, despite the fact that as much as 75 percent of the code in a modern program deals with the interface to the user.

The need for Kapor’s manifesto became clear to me in 1990, when I attended HCI’s main conference (confusingly called CHI). Announcing that I taught at the Royal College of Art, I was often asked, “Why are you here?” Partly to answer this, over the next ten years students of my newly formed CRD programme made guerilla presentations of their projects at CHI, hunting down a projector and an empty room, and fly-posting the conference centre, to attract a curious and increasingly enthusiastic audience.

Our work did not sit easily with CHI’s engineering-dominated ethos nor fit the traditional mechanism of academic papers. We aimed instead to provoke, amuse, inspire – and demonstrate that there could be more to the design of computer artifacts than pure function. It was uphill work. But over the 1990s the twentieth-century design ethos pioneered at the Bauhaus seeped into Silicon Valley. RCA students took internships at Apple, the Apple/IBM startup Taligent, and IDEO. These collaborations brought understanding of the digital design world back to London, and a European design impetus to the Valley.

Other initiatives helped. In 1992, inspired by Kapor’s manifesto and supported by David Liddle, Terry Winograd, a Stanford professor of computer science, invited many different kinds of designers to a two-day workshop ”Bringing Design to Software” to describe how they understood and practised their professions (Winograd, 1996).

Also in 1992, Microsoft’s co-founder Paul Allen, with Liddle, established Interval Research Corporation in Palo Alto to develop technologies and companies to bring digital technology to the consumer market. Interval’s sponsorship of the CRD Research Studio came from Liddle’s conviction that design was important for developing consumer products, and Interval’s need to access design insight and expertise. Interval people spent time in London, and the CRD group – including Durell Bishop, Anthony Dunne, William Gaver, and Fiona Raby – spent time at Interval, where some were later employed.

8. City and Valley had different values

Perhaps the most fundamental reason why it took so long was a cultural gap. Few of us participants understood the big differences between what might be called “artist-designers” and “engineer-designers”, and perhaps between Silicon Valley, emerging before our eyes from orange orchards and wilderness, and European culture, shaped by its ancient metropolises.
What struck me most strongly, arriving for my first residence at Apple in the early 1990s, was the Valley’s energy and optimism, the belief that so much waited to be invented and engineered, and that a couple of clever guys like Hewlett and Packard or Jobs and Wozniak could start something in their garage and make it big.

In this world engineering was king: a culture of precision, measurement and certainty. My impression was that design was generally seen as troublingly subjective and unmeasurable, providing merely a pretty exterior to what had real value, the engineered artifact. It was regarded as at best optional, at worst somewhat deceitful – a cosmetic.

At their extremes, the mindsets and methods characteristic of design and engineering are very different. Engineers use reason and logic; designers, craft and tacit knowledge, a process they cannot easily explain. Engineers converge towards a solution; designers maddeningly diverge as long as possible to generate many potential solutions. Engineers privilege the analytic; designers the synthetic. Engineers focus on the functional aspects of the artifact; designers balance its function with its role in culture and society. Engineers focus on what can be built; designers on what would be also useful, usable and satisfying.

One barometer of changing attitudes to design is the evolving viewpoint of the influential series of books by Donald Norman, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego. His first book about interface design, The psychology of everyday things (1988), described how many things in our world are poorly designed, and how difficult it is to see how to use them: doors you don’t know whether to pull or push, hotel showers which scald you because you can’t figure them out, cookers that don’t make clear which knob controls which burner. Norman’s conclusion in this book was that designers are just incompetent.

In the early 1990s he became vice-president of Apple Research Labs, concentrating on improving Apple’s interface design. Working with Joy Mountford’s team of designers, he saw designers in action and began to appreciate the difficulty of reaching good solutions to what were often very complex problems. Norman’s book Emotional Design (2004) therefore offers a more rounded and sympathetic critique of design: that design concerns not only the resolution of practical requirements of manufacture and use but also the emotional effect of any design solution or another – something which cannot be engineered with certainty. Emotional Design describes, in a way perhaps more convincing to the engineering mindset, the cognitive science that lies behind emotional response.
Designers educated in an older, more metropolitan tradition, were used to clients who understood design’s value and did not expect the process to be fully explicable or defined by rules. They were not prepared for a world that not only did not understand their values and strategies did but thought them irrelevant, arty and rather flaky. It was not until Apple became for a while the most valuable company in the world, selling products considerably more expensive than their competitors, and economic research showed that stocks of companies with a strong commitment to design performed better, and had weathered the 2008 crash robustly (Design Council, 2013; Rae, 2013), did technology companies start to think that to maintain a competitive edge the design mindset might be indispensable.

9. Looking forward

I consider 1981, when I bought my first computer and started to program a page-layout tool, the start of my transition from graphic designer to interaction designer. More than ten years later, in 1993 at the ICOGRADA conference in Glasgow, I gave a talk entitled “Humanising Technology: Not much progress so far” (Crampton Smith, 1994) which described many of the bad interaction designs in common use. They were bad because of elementary gaffes of graphic communication design.

In the two decades since then, the design of interaction with digital systems has come a long way. We do not so often encounter really terrible interactions with digital devices and systems. However, the digital world has much changed: whereas in the 1980s and ’90s the issue was to make computer tools useful and a pleasure to use, today we are designing the virtual environments in which people hang out together, carry on business, buy things, petition politicians. This is a very different design space. Maybe we can get by in a world where our tools are not very satisfying to use, but to spend our lives in badly designed virtual environments is a real impoverishment. Where is the grace, complexity, wit, surprise, we enjoy in other parts of our everyday culture – buildings, posters, books, consumer products, clothes, advertisements? I finished the talk by saying:

Designers can’t sit on the sidelines. They need to become involved in the design of interactive products – information and entertainment systems, electronic products, responsive environments. Our world is being transformed by these technologies and designers need to be there, making things beautiful as well as practical, expressive as well as functional. Whether we like it or not, culture in the next century will be conditioned by electronics and telecommunications. Artists and designers need to be players, not spectators.

The digital world provides robustness – most digital products today work well enough. It is beginning to provide products that fit what people need or want to do. But, with a few wonderful exceptions, it still does not offer much delight. More than ever artists and designers need to be players.


References

Allen, Enrique. (November 2012). Silicon Valley’s new secret weapon: Designers who found startups. In Fast Company. Retrieved from http://www.fastcodesign.com/1665795/silicon-valleys-new-secret-weapon-designers-who-found-startups.

Apple II History (n.d.). Retrieved from http://apple2history.org/history/ah19/.

Baxley, Bob. (2016). The best job in the world. Retrieved from http://conferences.oreilly.com/design/ux-interaction-iot-us/public/schedule/proceedings.

Boyd, E. B. (April 2012). Facebook agrees: The key to its future success is design. In Fast Company. Retrieved from http://www.fastcodesign.com/1669366/facebook-agrees-the-secret-to-its-future-success-is-design.

Byte Magazine. (1982). Issue 4/1982, 242. Retrieved from
https://archive.org/details/BYTE_Vol_07-04_1982-04_Human_Factors_Engineering.

Canfield Smith, David, Harslem, Eric, Irby, Charles, Kimball, Ralph, & Verplank, Bill. (1982). Designing the Star Interface. In Byte, issue 4/1982, 242-282. Retrieved from http://www.guidebookgallery.org/articles/designingthestaruserinterface.

Crampton Smith, Gillian. (1994). Humanising technology: Not much progress so far. Design Renaissance, ICOGRADA/ICSID international conference proceedings. Brighton: Open Eye Press.

Caula, Rodrigo. (2012). Hartmut Esslinger’s early Apple computer and tablet designs. Retrieved from http://www.designboom.com/technology/hartmut-esslingers-early-apple-computer-and-tablet-designs/.

Design Council. (2013). Design delivers for business. Retrieved from
http://www.designcouncil.org.uk/resources/report/design-delivers-business.

DigiBarn Computer Museum. (n.d.). Xerox Star 8010 screenshots. Retrieved from http://www.digibarn.com/collections/screenshots/xerox-star-8010/index.html.

IBM. (2001). Good design is good business. Retrieved from http://www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/ibm100/us/en/icons/gooddesign/transform/.

Johnson, Jeff, et al. (1995). The Xerox Star: A retrospective. In Readings in human-computer interaction: Toward the year 2000. San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann. Retrieved from http://www.digibarn.com/friends/curbow/star/retrospect/.

Kapor, Mitchell. (1991). A Software Design Manifesto. In Dr Dobb’s Journal, 16/1, 62-67.

Layers Design Conference. (2015). John Gruber’s interview of Susan Kare. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/151277875.

Lineback, Nathan. (n.d.). Apple Lisa screenshots. Retrieved from http://toastytech.com/guis/lisaos1LisaTour.html.

Lohr, Steve. (2015, November 14). IBM’s design-centered strategy to set free the squares. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/business/ibms-design-centered-strategy-to-set-free-the-squares.html?_r=1.

Moggridge, Bill. (2007a). Interview with David Liddle. Designing interactions (pp. 239-251). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Moggridge, Bill. (2007b). Introduction. Designing interactions (pp. 9-14). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Moggridge, Bill. (2007c). Interview with Bill Atkinson. Designing interactions (p. 101). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Norman, Donald A. (1988). The psychology of everyday things. New York: Basic Books. Reissued (2002) as The design of everyday things.

Norman, Donald A. (2004). Emotional design. New York: Basic Books.

Rae, Jeneanne. (2013). What is the real value of design?. DMI Review, Winter. Retrieved from https://dmi.site-ym.com/store/ViewProduct.aspx?id=2481768.

Rao, Leena. (January 2013). Facebook will grow headcount quickly in 2013. Retrieved from http://techcrunch.com/2013/01/30/zuck-facebook-will-grow-headcount-quickly-in-2013-to-develop-future-money-making-products.

Schön, Donald. (1983) The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.

Wichary, Marcin. (2005a). GUIdebook Gallery: Apple Lisa. Retrieved from http://www.guidebookgallery.org/articles/inventingthelisauserinterface.

Wichary, Marcin. (2005b). GUIdebook Gallery: Apple Mac System 1.1 screenshots. Retrieved from http://www.guidebookgallery.org/screenshots/macos11.

Winograd, Terry. (1996). Bringing design to software. New York, NY: ACM Press and Addison-Wesley. Retrieved from http://hci.stanford.edu/publications/bds/.

The Pleiades: An historical perspective on woman in tech revolution and digital media design

The introduction of digital technologies in the field of graphic design in the 1980s gave rise to a system of skills, methods and professions that can be labelled with the words digital design. In this context, many women have played significant and strategic roles, contributing to the field with new theoretical and conceptual insights, multidisciplinary approaches and original design work. This paper presents an alternative historical account of the development of digital design, focusing on the work and figures of women – seven, like the stars in the Pleiades constellation – which each in their own way represent an archetype of the meeting between design culture and the digital world: Brenda Laurel, Laurie Anderson, Susan Kare, Amy Franceschini, Lynda Weinman, Molly E. Holzschlag and Sherry Turkle. The aim is both to trace a history of design from the perspective of the contribution that women have made, and to map and illuminate a number of stories and issues relevant to understanding the relationship of graphic design with digital technologies, that risk remaining in the shadows, as women so often have.


This article is only available in Italian.

Le Pleiadi: una prospettiva storica sulla costellazione delle protagoniste della rivoluzione tecnologica e del design digitale

 

Digital game boards and video-ludic processes

In this essay I intend to analyse some of the elements that have characterized the transition of board game design to the Digital Era, a transition that began rather suddenly at the end of the sixties and that in little over fifty years, has revolutionized most of the traditional, centuries-old, world of games. My considerations revolve around the general theory that digital culture has strengthened some of the typical capabilities of board games, especially those regarding the involvement and the ludic experience through simulation. I therefore intend to examine recent theories of game design to identify those that can reinforce these capacities and to highlight their methods.


This article is only available in Italian.

Tavolieri digitali e percorsi videoludici

The origins of “technological visuals”: Courses of research on the design of opening credits in the first decade of Rai TV broadcasts

Since the earliest days of Italian public television, opening titles have been a fertile ground for experimentation with images in motion, a place where design ideas and technology found a special meeting ground. Based on research in the archives of Rai public television and an analysis of a representative selection of opening credits from the first ten years of broadcasts, this article offers elements for a reconstruction of the early history of motion graphics in Italy. Articles published in the house organ of Rai television and in specialized magazines, as well as observations by designers, enable us to contextualize this early work within a wider critical debate. Several points of contact can thus be established between different strands of experimental research which, drawing upon the new world of images opened up by electronics, explored the possibilities of “programming” images in motion.


This article is only available in Italian.

Alle origini di una “visualità tecnologica”: percorsi di ricerca sulla grafica delle sigle televisive nel primo decennio di trasmissioni Rai

Pixels and PAL: Computer design for Dutch broadcast television in the early 1980s

This research study reconstructs several design and production stories from Dutch television in which pixels and PAL first made contact in the early 1980s, in the context of a broadcasting system in transition. The paper is based on the analysis of station calls and title sequences that are preserved in audiovisual archives and by private collectors, on interviews with key figures and on the examination of articles featured in specialised magazines of that time. These design stories illustrate the different approaches of designers and broadcasting organisations to the computer and the role of the computer in audiovisual design. Early adopter Veronica chose to simply copy American examples. Designers like Willem van den Berg and Carlo Delbosq tried to find more meaningful uses and navigated between high-tech and low-tech, large and smaller budgets, explicit and subtle visual references to the computer. The peculiarities of the Dutch media landscape and the changes this landscape underwent strongly informed the various approaches to computer-aided design.


The early 1980s saw a rapid succession of new digital hard- and software for the design and production of motion graphics. This technological development coincided with two transitions in Dutch media history. First, the public broadcasting system opened up to new broadcasters and this resulted in increased competition for audiences. Second, the state monopoly on television production facilities developed into a free market. How were new technologies used within this context? And what kind of designs emerged?

This research study analyses the design and production story of four cases of motion graphic design – one station call and three title sequences – made for four different public broadcasters. These stories illustrate the diverse approaches and attitudes of designers and broadcasting organisations towards the new technologies that were then available. Some embraced the computer as both a design tool and a stylistic inspiration, others were instead skeptical. Would the computer replace the designer? And were the results of computer-aided design worth the substantial investments?

1. Turbulent times

When the computer made its appearance in the intricate Dutch broadcasting system the latter was experiencing turbulent times. The Dutch public broadcasting system was conceived in the 1920s, a time when Dutch society was characterised by so-called pillarisation, i.e. a segregation of society where each “pillar” has its own institutions, ranging from political parties to sports clubs. Pillarisation shaped the unique Dutch public broadcasting system (Van Vree, 1994, pp. 23-24). Broadcasting time on radio and, from 1951 onward, on television was assigned by the Dutch government to five broadcasting organisations: KRO for catholics, NCRV for protestants, VARA for socialists and AVRO and VPRO for the remaining neutral or liberal groups.[1] The organisations had paying members from the corresponding pillars. AVRO, KRO, NCRV and VARA each had equal shares of broadcasting time, but VPRO, having substantially fewer members, was allocated a smaller portion. The production facilities for radio and television were provided by a state-owned and publicly funded foundation called NOS (which, as we will see in paragraph 4, also had an obligation to broadcast news and major sporting events).[2] Each broadcaster was allocated a part of the available budgets, studio time, manpower, and so on. Similar to the way the broadcasting time was divided, the four major broadcasters were allocated a larger share than the smaller VPRO (Bank, 1994, p. 84).

In the mid-1960s pillarisation began to disintegrate due to secularisation, economic prosperity and the emergence of youth culture (Van Vree, 1994, pp. 36-37). One of the consequences was that the the public broadcasting system opened up to new organisations in 1965. Any organisation that reached a certain threshold of paying members, and thus proved to represent a distinctive group in society, could get broadcasting time on the public channels and a share of the public production facilities. While the original five organizations were losing members because of depillarisation, TROS,[3] the first new broadcasting organisation to enter the system in 1966, successfully adopted a commercial approach, quickly attracting new members. This led to a period of competition[4] between public broadcasters for members (Manschot, 1994, p. 189).

In turn, this competition affected the television production sector. The public broadcasting organisations felt that they could compete better if they were free to choose their production facilities in a free market. In the early 1980s the monopoly of the state-owned television production company NOS was broken up and the production industry gradually transformed into a free market. Many new companies emerged just as the computer and other digital developments were introduced in the broadcasting industry. Therefore, it is safe to say that the computer entered the Dutch broadcasting system in turbulent times.

2. Veronica and scanimation

Veronica was one of the new organisations that were admitted into the public broadcasting system.[5] Originally an illegal radio broadcaster (since 1959) with a commercial attitude – for instance, they were the first Dutch radio broadcaster to use jingles – Veronica was popular among the youthful demographic and in 1975 it had gathered enough members to warrant television (and legal radio) broadcasting time and services from NOS. When Veronica ventured into television, they introduced a new logo: the name of the broadcaster is composed of blue letters drawn as thick three-dimensional objects. The letters are set in a classic Roman type with curly ornaments that resemble musical notation (clefs, flags and rests) – a reference to Veronica’s origins as a radio station. (Despite our efforts, we could not identify the logo’s designer.) Veronica filled its broadcasting hours on the public channels with inexpensive productions, like infotainment, talk shows as well as imported American series such as Dynasty, Miami Vice and Starsky & Hutch (Manschot, 1994, p. 189).

Just as for their programming strategy, Veronica also looked to the United States when it came to designing their station calls, programme announcements, title sequences and other visual identity elements. As early as the 1960s the American film industry had demonstrated the amazing possibilities of computer-aided motion design and animation. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) had an incredible impact when it came to thinking about the computer’s role in science and design. In the following years, films like Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982) as well as arcade games further popularised a new digital aesthetic and related visual tropes. Veronica was the first Dutch broadcasting organisation to key into this style.

Fig. 1 - Unknown designer/editor, Veronica station identity 1981-1982. Four stills from four station calls. Produced at Image West, USA / © SBS Broadcasting, courtesy of Michel van Dijk/Omroepers.nl

Fig. 1 – Unknown designer/editor, Veronica station identity 1981-1982. Four stills from four station calls. Produced at Image West, USA / © SBS Broadcasting, courtesy of Michel van Dijk/Omroepers.nl

Fig. 2 - Unknown designer/editor, Veronica station identity, 1982-1983. Three stills from a closing call. Produced at Image West, USA / © SBS Broadcasting, courtesy of Michel van Dijk/Omroepers.nl

Fig. 2 – Unknown designer/editor, Veronica station identity, 1982-1983. Three stills from a closing call. Produced at Image West, USA / © SBS Broadcasting, courtesy of Michel van Dijk/Omroepers.nl

Figure 1 and 2 show stills from the station identity packages that were used in television season 1981-1982 and season 1982-1984 respectively.[6] Because not all of the elements of these Veronica identity packages are available,[7] we concentrate on a closing call from 1982-1983 as seen in figure 2.[8] In this station call Veronica’s logo is presented as a spaceship that travels over a digital planet. The shimmering blue logo enters the screen from the top and then hovers above a dark floor with yellow lines. The grid over which the logo flies is a visual trope for the computer’s interior that is often found in popular science-fiction films and series of the period – such as the aforementioned Tron. In a more literal sense, the grid pattern recalls the wireframe modelling typical of 3D computer graphics – i.e. the representation of an object that shows the underlying structure of an object.

The role of computers in space explorations and the role of computers in creating special effects for science-fiction films in the previous two decades, intertwined space and digital space. In the early 1980s the workspace of digital design and animation was not envisioned as a white sheet of paper, but rather as a dark screen that could extend endlessly in any direction – just as space. It’s not surprising, therefore, that early computer animations feature a lot of stars, planets and shiny objects flying through dark surroundings. As to Veronica’s station calls, we could say that the references to the grid and to space did not serve to associate the broadcaster with space exploration, but with computer technology and it’s associations with progress, youth and speed.

However, at that time computer animation was not yet available for a small broadcaster from the Netherlands. Therefore, Veronica chose the next best thing. This closing call and the other elements of the station identity were created at Image West in Hollywood, United States, using a system called the Scanimate. The Scanimate was not a digital machine, but rather a room full of analogue video equipment. It could capture (scan) original artwork – like an airbrushed Veronica logo or a grid pattern – on video and manipulate these images by turning and twisting a large variety of knobs and sliders. This machine was conceived by Lee Harrison III[9] and about eight of them were in operation at different companies around the world. A few of the special effects in the first Star Wars film in 1977 were created with a Scanimate, but most clients came from the television industry (Sieg, 1998).

David Sieg, who worked as a Scanimate operator and now runs the Scanimate museum and website, explains the production process at Image West: “Clients could bring in a logo, have it animated, interact with the animator programming the Scanimate, get exactly what they wanted, and walk out a few hours later with a finished product ready for air” (Sieg, 1998). Scanimate showreels reveal, though, that not all output was original: they include several other logos hovering over the exact same grid and starry horizon that was used for the Veronica station calls.[10] Colombian television station RTI, for instance, used station calls with this background from 1979 until 1990.[11]  In this light, it might sound surprising that Veronica is said[12] to have spent fl.175.000 (that would be the equivalent of €150.000 today) on this package (Dekker, 1982, p. 19). That was a lot of money to spend on an off-the-shelf station identity.

The Veronica station calls were actively disliked in the broadcast design community. Willem van den Berg, a motion graphic designer who worked for VPRO[13] at the time, voiced his dislike to a reporter from a specialised magazine addressing film and television professionals: “What Veronica makes is derogatory; they are still in the radio era, as long as it is loud, as long as it is thumping. I can see many horrific spots that must have required a lot of energy to make, but where function and form are completely unconnected” (Dekker, 1982, 19). Van den Berg also mentioned the price issue to the reporter and was quick to point out that those means did not justify the end.

As a tax payer Van den Berg had every right to scrutinise the expenses of a public broadcaster. As a designer he had even more reasons for disliking what Veronica was doing. That Veronica favoured working with modern technology over working with a designer evoked visions of a future where designers would be replaced by computers. Van den Berg’s main objection, however, seemed to be the lack of quality and content. While a pioneering multimedia artist like Ron Hays[14] used the Scanimate to produce interesting experimental music films, the bulk of the scanimation work – as the operators themselves acknowledged – was poor quality. Dave Holman, who worked as a Scanimate operator in the 1970-80s, recalls for instance that “ninety percent of it was crud flying logos, sleazoid auto dealers’ ideas of showing their superiority over other sleazoid auto dealers, and suchlike” (Holman, n.d., n.p.)  It is quite clear that Van den Berg considered the Veronica station calls to be part of that ninety percent. However to fully understand his judgement of Veronica’s flying logo one must look into his background and his work at VPRO.

3. Willem van den Berg, VPRO and Antics Studio

At the time when Van den Berg[15] criticised Veronica’s flying logo, he was the in-house designer at VPRO, the smallest organisation in the previously pillarised Dutch broadcasting system. They had never objected to this position, but in the early 1980s their small size meant that their position and significance within the broadcasting system was at risk. In the 1950s they were the smallest in a group of only five, but by 1980 three new broadcasting organisations had entered the system and kept growing in terms of members. Consequently, broadcasting hours were spread ever thinner and  membership thresholds were raised.[16] VPRO felt the need to reaffirm their position within the system. Unlike most other broadcasters however, VPRO decided against using light genres and entertainment to lure viewers i.e. potential members (Manschot, 1994, p. 189). Instead, they kept their focus on highbrow genres and topics, like avant-garde art, science and documentary film. In the late 1960s VPRO had been at the forefront of progressive youth culture and now in the early eighties they decided to aim at a new generation of youngsters, the same demographic that Veronica was courting.

VPRO and Veronica were both fascinated by American popular culture, but they expressed this fascination differently. VPRO always approached American culture from a certain perspective. Whereas Veronica simply screened a popular American science-fiction film, VPRO would create a thematic evening about the history of the genre. Whereas Veronica aired popular American soaps, VPRO’s documentary film makers travelled to the United States to critically examine typical American phenomena (Hogenkamp, 2015, p. 29). In regard to youth culture Veronica’s music programmes featured mainstream pop and disco, whereas VPRO’s were focussed on avant-garde and underground subcultures like punk and new wave.

This is where young punk and art student Willem van den Berg comes into view, as he narrated to us. In the late 1970s Van den Berg and a group of young people in Rotterdam made a programme called Neon which aired on the local television network. Video did for them what the Xerox machine had done for punk (maga)zines: it democratised access to media production. Unlike celluloid film and professional video formats, consumer video equipment was easy to operate, easy to manipulate and affordable. In 1979 VPRO bought and broadcast videozine Neon. Van den Berg was asked to create advertisements that ran right after Neon, inviting viewers to become VPRO members. Shortly after that, around 1980, he was asked to become the new in-house designer at VPRO.

Fig. 3 - Willem van den Berg, VPRO signals, 1981. Four stills from four VPRO signals or announcements. Produced by Willem van den Berg/VPRO / © VPRO, Courtesy of Willem van den Berg

Fig. 3 – Willem van den Berg, VPRO signals, 1981. Four stills from four VPRO signals or announcements. Produced by Willem van den Berg/VPRO / © VPRO, Courtesy of Willem van den Berg

At first Van den Berg worked with the existing logo designed by his predecessor Jaap Drupsteen in 1971. There was an interesting similarity between the logos of Veronica and VPRO, in the way they embraced ornaments and broke away from the “good” but often judged as dull modern design styles of the 1950s and 1960s. Drupsteen had meant the overdone, exaggerated swooshes of his VPRO logo as a tongue-in-cheek reference to American popular design: he used it to illustrate VPRO’s ironic, self-conscious attitude (Ruarus, 1985, p. 12). Van den Berg continued this attitude by presenting Drupsteen’s logo alternatively in typical mundane Dutch (e.g. on a suburban house) and iconic American (e.g. Statue of Liberty) surroundings (figure 3) – a sneer at VPRO’s (and the Netherlands’) position in the world. However, Van den Berg’s punk aesthetic, his preference for rawness, sharp lines and angles didn’t work well with Drupsteen’s rather plump and friendly logo. In 1982 Van den Berg was asked to design a new logo that was sharp as a knife.

After that, as the material from Van den Berg’s personal archive reveals, VPRO’s broadcast design became much more punk. Van den Berg’s work was typically set against dark backgrounds, with bright colours, combined with sharp shapes and references to punk and American culture such as barbed wire, broken television screens, smoke and fire, stars and stripes and sometimes even actual punks. The way he produced VPRO’s television identity could also be described as typically punk. He worked from his own garage, using photographs, slide projectors, tinted filters, a 16mm film projector, cardboard, structured glass and a variety of household materials such as curtain rails, an ice cream maker and syrup to create projections which he then filmed from a projection screen. In the beginning, van den Berg’s decision to avoid the professional NOS facilities might have stemmed from a deliberate anti-establishment attitude, however, as he himself recalled the main motivation was practical: this low-tech, DIY production method allowed him to custom-make new station calls, programme announcements and advertisements for every weekly VPRO broadcast evening for a very modest budget.

This custom made broadcast design was unique on Dutch television.[17] All other public broadcasters had an opening call and a closing call and had their programmes introduced by an attractive female announcer, who quite literally acted as the “face of the organisation”. VPRO however, deemed the announcers outdated and 1969 their announcer was banned from the screen. From then on, only her (or his) voice was heard (Koenders et al. 2011, p. 10). Van den Berg’s predecessor Drupsteen had started making a variety of different motion graphic sequences with his VPRO logo that ran inbetween VPRO’s programes. VPRO could choose whichever of those “signals” best suited the theme or programmes of each VPRO weekly broadcast. Van den Berg took this approach one step further and custom made new broadcasting design every week.

The weekly need for new motion graphics meant that Van den Berg was always on the lookout for new inspiration. The VPRO television CEO shared and stimulated his curiosity and experiments in audiovisual design. The advertisements that Van den Berg had made and that ran after Neon were a success, VPRO managed to gain 70.000 new members in 1980. Because of this success he was afforded a larger budget allowing him to use more advanced machines at NOS or elsewhere. Van den Berg was eager to learn more about the possibilities of video editing and special effects on professional equipment and applied them wherever he could (Dekker, 1982, p. 19). In 1983, when Antics Studio introduced itself as the first digital animation studio in the Netherlands, Van den Berg was amongst the very first clients.

Antics Studio Amsterdam was set up by Erick Racké and named after animation software Antics. Jules Hartogs,[18] who was involved with Antic Studio Amsterdam right from the start and was responsible for music, sound and post-production, narrated the origins of Antics Studio to us. Racké worked as a director for television commercials when he learned about the British Alan Kitching who had programmed software for computer animation. In the 1960s graphic designer Kitching had become interested in animation after assisting Trevor Bond in creating some of his famous title sequences for James Bond films. By the early 1970s Kitching started to research the possibilities of using the computer for animation. Shortly thereafter he was invited to join a British scientific computer laboratory and there he programmed the first versions of animation software which he named Antics. With the support of the Swedish Film Institute and a Japanese computer manufacturer Kitching was able to develop Antics software into a finished product in 1982 and after that several Antics studios sprung up. Antics Studio Amsterdam was the first of those on the European mainland (Antics Workshop, n.d., n.p.).

The revolutionary feature of Antics was that it was created by an animator for animators. Kitching had created software that was so easy to operate that all animators, even those who had no computer experience whatsoever, could use it. Even still, he realised that technophobia was a potential barrier. On the first and only Antics Studio Amsterdam showreel from 1985 the ease and simplicity of operating Antics is illustrated and explained. The voice-over asks: “Is talent even required with this system?” Kitching responds: “This is something you have to do yourself. Absolutively [sic] no way a machine can do it for you. And no machine can make up for a lack of creative skills”.[19] Reaffirming that animators e.g. designers need not worry about their jobs.

The requirements for the computer processor and storage system that were needed to run Antics software were substantial. Hartogs states that it took Racké approximately two years to find, finance and build the hardware environment. But even the best available machines had their limits. The resulting animation had to be rendered frame by frame and this took approximately thirty minutes before it could be recorded manually on magnetic tape. Antics software was fast and easy to operate, but the actual video output was only about two frames per hour. Even with the studio running day and night, the output was limited to just a few seconds of animation a day. Nevertheless, Hartogs remembers that Racké had high hopes for Antics and he employed several young designer who could operate the Antics system. He rented an office building in Amsterdam, which was close to the mediahub of Hilversum and potential clients from advertisement, industry and science. When Antics Studio became operational around 1984 everybody in the broadcasting industry lined up to see what Antics could do and Racké envisioned a bright future.[20]

Fig. 4 - Willem van den Berg, VPRO broadcast design, 1984. Four stills from a station call [retouched by the article’s authors]. Produced at VPRO and Antics Studio / © VPRO, courtesy of Willem van den Berg

Fig. 4 – Willem van den Berg, VPRO broadcast design, 1984. Four stills from a station call [retouched by the article’s authors]. Produced at VPRO and Antics Studio / © VPRO, courtesy of Willem van den Berg

Van den Berg went to Antics Studio Amsterdam to create a VPRO station call that was broadcast around 1984[21] – stills from that animation can be seen in figure 4.[22] The VPRO logo designed by Van den Berg consisted of plain geometric elements – straight lines and circles only. He now made the most of this characteristic by cleverly assembling and disassembling the logo from a disorderly pile of scratched lines with a combination of pre-programmed Antics effects. When the logo appears, the name of the channel, Nederland 1 (public channel number 1), is written on the screen via a blinking cursor in a square, computer-like font. With Antics Van den Berg only had to design a handful of frames and the software and computer did the inbetweening; it calculated and designed the frames needed to get from one image to the next.

The scratchings are in line with the sharp and somewhat angry imagery of the punk subculture and the sharpness expressed in the VPRO logo, but there’s something childish about this station call too. The bright colours may suggest that the scratchings are made not by an angry punk, but by a child. The digital tune emphasises an association with (computer) games: the ascending digital melody sounds like the kind of tune that could be heard when one reached a new level in a computer or arcade game or won something at the fun fair. The tune builds up to the visual climax where the VPRO logo becomes recognisable, suggesting that the VPRO is the reward or next level. As mentioned above, irony was a strong element of VPRO’s identity, and this station call can be regarded as a kind of self-parody, an over-the-top representation of the broadcaster as a young and modern organisation.

The similarities and differences between VPRO and Veronica explain why Van den Berg was so appalled by Veronica’s station calls. Veronica was simply copying American popular styles while VPRO always chose a historical, critical or ironic distance. Van den Berg tried to adopt a similar approach in his broadcast design for VPRO. However, his aversion of the Veronica station calls did not inhibit him from experimenting with new technologies and computer-aided design. In fact, Van den Berg became an expert in this field. He gradually lost interest in working for VPRO because there were so many other clients that demanded his services. With his independent position and his accumulated skills in video and computer techniques Van den Berg became a key figure in the history of Dutch motion graphic design.

4. NOS Graphic Design, Carlo Delbosq and International Soccer

As mentioned in the introduction, Dutch broadcasting organisations were obliged to use the facilities rigged for them by the state-funded production company NOS. The production process was highly regulated. A programme maker employed by one of the broadcasting organisations would submit a programme idea at NOS and was then supposed to make obligatory visits to NOS’s departments, of which the department of Graphic Design (NOS GD from now on) was one. This department designed and produced opening titles, credits and any other graphic design, animation or illustration that was requested by the programme maker.

The manager of NOS GD would match the programme makers with one of the approximately 25 designers at his department. Programme makers could request a designer based on previous collaborations or specific skills, like illustration or calligraphy. Sometimes a designer who had made an impact with a certain programme or style was in high demand. Professional skills or stylistic choices were occasionally overruled by preferences that had to do with the personal and ideological background of the designers and their clients. For instance, a programme maker from the catholic broadcaster KRO might prefer to work with a catholic designer. Vice versa, a designer with strong socialistic or atheistic ideals might not enjoy illustrating stories from the Bible. The manager of NOS GD had the difficult task of weighing all these preferences and considerations, and keeping everybody satisfied.[23]

In the end, however, NOS was obliged to deliver and designers of NOS GD could not refuse assignments. Broadcasters on the other hand were able to avoid working with NOS GD, as the Veronica and VPRO cases illustrated. In some instances NOS GD – and NOS by extension – objected strongly to this and threatened to withhold all other NOS production facilities.[24] VPRO and Veronica were condoned for opposing reasons as Willem Hillenius,[25] chef of NOS GD from 1980  till 1984 explained to us. NOS designers admired VPRO’s avant-garde audiovisual design, so although they might have actually been eager to work for VPRO, the in-house design construction that VPRO had set up in the early seventies was tolerated (Doeswijk, 2006, p. 32; Van Vilsteren & Doeswijk, 2011, p. 237). There was no such admiration for Veronica however. Many designers disliked working for the new public broadcasters, whom they considered lowbrow and commercial. Veronica’s dodging of NOS GD was considered a lucky break.

In the early 1980s this designer-client relationship was about to change as the monopoly position of NOS was called into question. Increasing competition between public broadcasting organisations for members was stretching the budgets of old and new broadcasters to their limits. The stakes were raised in terms of production value and more often broadcasters sought other – non-NOS – production facilities and financed these investments with their own revenues (Dekker, 1981, pp. 4-5).

The NOS facilities were equipped with state of the art technology and a well-trained staff. Nevertheless, it was a state-owned organisation and programme makers had to contend with bureaucratic paperwork, a nine-to-five mentality amongst crew and limited flexibility when it came to last minute alterations. Broadcasting organisations experienced a much more flexible attitude from commercial production companies and argued that in a free market they would get more production value for their money. These concerns were discussed in parliament in 1981 and a decision was made in 1983. NOS was to be split up into private, commercial companies in 1988. Leading up to that the obligation of the public broadcasters to use NOS services and facilities was slowly cut back (Dekker, 1981, pp. 4-5; Ministerie van WVC, 1983).

This decision affected NOS GD as well. Did the department stand a chance to exist as an autonomous design firm in a free market? There were many challenges that NOS GD manager Willem Hillenius faced. If his department was to become a commercial design firm, it could not afford to neglect possible clients like Veronica. In fact, Veronica had grown so rapidly, that other broadcasters started to copy not only their programming, but also their broadcast design. Everybody wanted their logos to shine and shimmer and float though space. But could Hillenius persuade the NOS designers to get off their high horses and cater to the needs of Veronica and the like?

Most of the designers at NOS GD had been hired around 1965, when television in the Netherlands was expanding rapidly. These designers were all educated in the modernistic design tradition, they had worked in the public sector and were now suddenly confronted with broadcasting organisations with whom they had absolutely no affinity. In 1965 the designers were all in their early twenties and eager to experiment, but now they were getting on in age and had settled comfortably as civil servants with contracts for life. Moreover, the skills that were needed in the 1960s, most notably hand lettering and illustration, were over-represented in the department but rarely asked for in the early 1980s. Hillenius could not fire designers, but he also could not hire new ones because of the budget cuts at NOS that came with the prospect of privatization. His solution was to actively scout for interns at art academies and hire the most promising students afterwards on freelance contracts. Hillenius assumed that young designers would be more likely to embrace new technology and furthermore, that they would have less objections to working for broadcasters such as Veronica.

Carlo Delbosq was one of the first of those interns.[26] He told us that he started at NOS GD in 1981 and became a regular freelancer after his graduation shortly thereafter. Delbosq was interested in video and digital effects, he was eager to try new techniques. In 1984 he was asked to design a programme intro and promo for the broadcasts of the European Soccer Championship (Europese Kampioenschappen or EK in Duthc) taking place in the summer. The Netherlands didn’t qualify that year, but soccer was popular enough to spend a modest budget on a promo and opening animation. The matches were broadcast by NOS: besides providing the production facilities for broadcasting organisation, the state-owned foundation was also tasked with providing national programmes such as the daily news and major sporting events. NOS had no members, thus was not rivalling the other broadcasters and was not too concerned with visualising their own identity. The NOS sports division, broadcasting under the title Studio Sport, and Delbosq had no limitations or requests in terms of corporate identity.

In 1983 Commodore had just released International Soccer, a videogame which in the early 1980s became immensely popular and which Delbosq himself enjoyed playing on his Commodore 64 – one of the best and most affordable home computers at the time. This computer game inspired him to create his first computer-aided broadcast design.

Fig. 5 - Carlo Delbosq/NOS Department of Graphic Design, Programme design for Studio Sport EK (NOS), June 1984. Six stills from the opening animation. Produced at NOS / © NOS, courtesy of YouTube user maurice2468

Fig. 5 – Carlo Delbosq/NOS Department of Graphic Design, Programme design for Studio Sport EK (NOS), June 1984. Six stills from the opening animation. Produced at NOS / © NOS, courtesy of YouTube user maurice2468

Delbosq explained to us how he made this title sequence. Together with a video editor at NOS, Delbosq was able to transfer the International Soccer game play from the Commodore 64 onto the professional standard video format. This puzzled some of his colleagues who had tried and failed to do this. As it turned out, some versions of the Commodore 64 were equipped with a PAL video output channel and some versions were not, but this feature was rather obscure. Luckily Delbosq had unknowingly bought the right version. Subsequently, Delbosq and the video editor manipulated live-action footage of cheering crowds to make it look grainy and brighter so these segments would correspond better with the images from the computer game. Delbosq designed the pixellated titles on a Quantel Paintbox.[27] The editing was done with wipes from top to bottom and from left to right and these wipes resembled the way the screen loaded in International Soccer. Figure 5 shows several stills from the resulting NOS Studio Sport title sequence for the European Soccer Competition 1984 (in the sequence shortened to EK84).[28] Keeping in mind that this was a seasonal programme intro and not a station call, Delbosq managed to create a modern, light-hearted sequence that struck a familiar chord with an audience of soccer enthusiasts and gamers alike. And he did so relatively cheap and fast.

5. Mid Lotto Live: Lights, computer, action!

Just a few months later in 1984, Delbosq’s next design project involving computer animation was much more ambitious. Allegedly this was the first 3D computer animation made for Dutch television. The client was VARA,[29] originally the broadcaster of the socialist pillar. In the early 1980s it was an organisation in financial disarray, plagued by internal feuds and losing members rapidly (Wijfjes, 2009, p. 410). Veronica and other broadcasters, with their emphasis on entertainment, had snatched away many VARA members. VARA was in the process of reinventing its identity. Should it stick to its original aim of “educating the masses” or should it follow Veronica’s lead and “entertain the masses”?

In the competition for members that had been spurred by opening up the public broadcasting system, lotto shows were the trump cards (Manschot, 1994, p. 192). Since the broadcasters (except VPRO and some of the smaller new broadcasters like Veronica) were allocated the same quota of  production services and facilities at NOS it was difficult to outshine eachother. Additional production costs had to be financed by the broadcasting organisation themselves, as sponsoring was not allowed by Dutch media-law. Collaboration with charities, however, was allowed. In the Netherlands the national lotteries are charities, and as far a charities go, they made considerable revenue. Almost all broadcasting organisations sought a collaboration with a lottery, the additional budget the lottos provided was spend on extravagant sets, international artists and big prices for contestants. Thus the public broadcasters got caught up in a rat race of lotto shows.

The two show with the biggest budget, and consequently the most viewers (i.e. potential new members) at the time were from KRO[30] and VARA. KRO’s 1-2-3 show relied very much on extravagant set design. Each episode came from a completely new and very costly studio set. For instance, for one episode KRO built an Amsterdam scene with a bridge, several houses and a frozen canal on which could be skated in the studio. VARA’s lotto show was called Sterrenshow. Its unique selling point was that it was broadcast live from an immense circus tent – the largest in Europe. It was rigged with expensive electronic novelties such as motion controlled lighting and a video wall. Every week the tent was set up somewhere else in the Netherlands, which was no easy feat in extraordinarily cold winters. Because Sterrenshow was so difficult to produce, the show could not run for an entire season. VARA decided to fill the gap in their programming schedule with another lotto show called Mid Lotto Live. The look and feel of this show had to be sufficiently different from both VARA’s own Sterrenshow and competitor KRO’s 1-2-3-show.

To that end, VARA chose new media technology as leading concept for Mid Lotto Live. Jan Willem Doorenbos[31] was asked to coordinate these new media technologies. Doorenbos told us that he had written about new technology as a journalist and had just started working as a television producer, when VARA approached him for Mid Lotto Live.  He had already decided on some new media elements when he made his obligatory visits to the NOS departments for set design and graphic design.

Fig. 6 - Rinus Spoor/VARA, Television show Mid Lotto Live (VARA), October 25 1984. Three stills from the show, showing stage, presenter, props and public. Produced at NOS / © VARA, courtesy of Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision

Fig. 6 – Rinus Spoor/VARA, Television show Mid Lotto Live (VARA), October 25 1984. Three stills from the show, showing stage, presenter, props and public. Produced at NOS / © VARA, courtesy of Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision

Doorenbos wanted the set for Mid Lotto Live, as can be seen in figure 6,[32] to feature a giant video wall on which the games were played. The scores were kept and displayed via a computer and the show’s host had a robot assistant. To balance out the high-tech elements, the show host’s second assistant was a dog and the set designer placed a large classical statue in the modern, minimalistic set of palisades, video wall and perspex.

Because of the new media technology concept, Doorenbos wanted the title sequence to be made with the most advanced computer animation software available. He had interviewed astronomer Seth Shostak not long before and knew about his work in 3D computer animation. Shostak at that time, worked at the University of Groningen, in the north-east of the Netherlands and he had produced several short educational films and animations explaining astronomical phenomena. While working on a film about the expansion of the universe, he could not figure out how to do it with conventional animation techniques. This inspired him to try and use the computer at the university that he used to interpret radio-telescopic data. Shostak and his colleague Bart Wevers wrote the software for this themselves. Like public television, the university was also facing cutbacks which inspired Shostak and Wevers to seek commercial exploitation of their computers and software. They named their company DIGIMA (Van der Plas, 1986, pp. 16-17).

DIGIMA had hardly any overhead costs as the computer and offices were already paid for by the university and students helped out as operators. Because the software was written by Shostak and Wevers themselves, it could be customised to a great extent. However, Groningen was far away from television producers and other media-oriented clients. Also, DIGIMA had no facilities for video recording and editing (instead they recorded from the screen on 16mm celluloid). Moreover, the machines were only available at night, because during the day they were used by the university (Van der Plas, 1986, p. 17). Despite these disadvantages, Doorenbos was determined to work with DIGIMA which he considered the best 3D computer design facility in the Netherlands.

At his visit to NOS GD Doorenbos was introduced to Delbosq who was an obvious choice for this project. Delbosq came up with the idea of placing the show host inside a lotto carousel with lotto balls flying all around him. He went to Groningen and collaborated with Shostak and other operators at DIGIMA on creating a 3D animation of lotto balls. Doorenbos recalls: “At some point in the very long process, I found the operators and the designer deadlocked. Delbosq wanted the lotto balls to move randomly through space, like they would in a lotto carousel. But the computer didn’t understand random. There was a considerable barrier in communication” (Van Vilsteren & Doeswijk, 2011, p. 123). Animator Tony Kluck, who often freelanced on animation jobs for NOS GD, had to come and help out in storyboarding the exact movement paths of the lotto balls so that the operators knew what input to give their software. After the 3D computer animation was complete, it had to be combined with live action footage of the show host and the logos of VARA and the show. This was done at Antics Studio Amsterdam. The whole production process was long and exhausting, both Doorenbos and Delbosq recall, everything was trial and error and had to be improvised on the spot.

Fig. 7 - Carlo Delbosq/NOS Department of Graphic Design, Programme design for Mid Lotto Live (VARA), 1984. Nine stills from the opening animation. Produced by Jan Willem Doorenbos/The Frame and NOS / © Copyright VARA, courtesy of Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision

Fig. 7 – Carlo Delbosq/NOS Department of Graphic Design, Programme design for Mid Lotto Live (VARA), 1984. Nine stills from the opening animation. Produced by Jan Willem Doorenbos/The Frame and NOS / © Copyright VARA, courtesy of Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision

Figure 7 gives an impression of the resulting title sequence for Mid Lotto Live.[33] The sequence starts with the VARA logo (designed by Frans Lasès of NOS GD in 1983) on a black background. This flat image is suddenly made 3D as the point of view changes and we are in a dark space with a horizon that is sometimes far, sometimes near, straight or tilted and where red, yellow, blue and grey balls move seemingly at random. These scenes are cut with show host Johnny Kraaykamp who stands in front of the light grey horizon and tries to avoid being hit by balls. The print on his sweater reads: Ball sports club member. The sequence ends when two of the grey balls find their spot among the letters that spell the title of the show. When they do, the image is 2D again.

In light of the difficulties in the production process it is surprising to note that the title sequence in fact does not look all that high-tech. In fact, if Tony Kluck had animated the lotto balls the old fashioned way he could have created a similar result. Similarly, the operators/designers at Antics Studio Amsterdam were capable of creating 2D animation that looked convincingly like 3D animation and at Antics Studio this would have likely been a smooth production process since, unlike DIGIMA, they were set up as a commercial audiovisual facility and employed operators with a design education. But working with the latest digital media technology had been the goal from the outset and creating 3D animation was such a milestone in itself, that Doorenbos and Delbosq felt that all efforts were justified.

As mentioned above, VARA was undecided when it came to adapting to the changes in the media landscape. In broadcasting shows like Sterrenshow and Mid Lotto Live they followed Veronica’s lead, a decision that many at VARA disagreed with. The designers at NOS GD were also discontented with this direction and knew about the internal struggles at the organisation. When Frans Lasès, one of the designers at NOS GD, was asked to design a new VARA logo in 1983, he was wary. He remembers thinking to himself: “I won’t do it. I’m not entering that hornet’s nest… I knew what was going on, they wanted to go in the Veronica direction, socialism be damned. They were selling their soul”.[34] His new design for the VARA logo and accompanying house-style (as seen top left in figure 7) went in the opposite direction. Lasès used the red exclamation mark to remind VARA of their activist socialist past, and the flat, graphic black and white style as a reaction to the trend of shiny, 3D flying logos. So, in terms of their focus on lotto shows and entertainment VARA seemed to followed Veronica, but their house-style did the opposite.

The Mid Lotto Live title sequence is a reflection of this split. On the one hand, the sequence is a high-tech 3D computer design ‒ highlighted by the transitions from 2D to 3D and vice versa at the start and end of the sequence ‒ a feature that was chosen deliberately to attract attention to the show in the competitive broadcasting system. On the other hand, it also sticks to the sober nature of the house-style as designed by Frans Lasès, mentioned in the previous paragraph. Except for the dark horizon, there are no science-fiction or space references, only primary colours and the lotto balls have a matte surface instead of the shiny glow of the typical 3D flying logos. It seems as though Delbosq eliminated any elements that would seem like VARA was jumping on Veronica’s band-wagon. The sequence had to appeal to both the audiences seeking entertainment, but similarity not repel more “serious” audiences either. The title sequence for Mid Lotto Live is a balancing act that represents the predicament VARA was in.

5. Beyond flying logos

Pioneering digital animation and graphic design studios such as Antics Studio and DIGIMA profited from the declining monopoly of NOS over the television production market and the willingness of broadcasting organisations to invest in computer-aided design as a means to distinguish themselves in a highly competitive public broadcasting system. But their head start was also a handicap. Antics Studio had trouble making enough return on investments. DIGIMA was really more of a side-project for Shostak and Wevers and was never really commercially profitable. The opening of the television production market had spurred many new computer production facilities that were offering very competitive prices for broadcasting organisations. Some of these new companies offered only a few very specific digital effects, others could provide a complete package; from design to finished title sequence or station call. On top of that, new computers and software packages were being introduced and updated almost on a monthly basis. These new Amigas, Macintoshes, Quantels and Cubicomps and their graphic software delivered excellent results, were less expensive and easier to operate compared to the soft- and hardware at Antics Studio and DIGIMA. After only two years of operation Antics Studio Amsterdam was declared bankrupt in 1986. DIGIMA gradually evolved into an educational institute for computer animation in the late 1980s (Visser, 1988).

By the end of the decade, the competition in the production market and the competition amongst broadcasters was given a new impulse when the first commercial station, RTL 4,[35] started broadcasting for Dutch audiences. Shortly after its start in 1989, RTL – a company officially based in Luxembourg to circumvent the Dutch media laws – managed to pocket half of the television audience. The competing public organisations now shared a common enemy with a recognisable face. RTL 4 presented itself on-screen using flying, shimmering golden 3D letters, much in the style of Veronica’s scanimate station calls of the early 1980s.[36] Interestingly enough, it was Willem van den Berg who was responsible for the RTL4 station identity.[37] Meanwhile, Carlo Delbosq continued trying to apply the latest 3D computer techniques in a sophisticated ways for broadcasters like KRO and NOS. He integrated flying logos in well thought-out design concepts and tried to minimise their lowbrow associations, for instance, by adding a classical orchestrated score and combining 3D computer graphics with live action footage.[38] However, RTL 4’s heavy use of flying logos stigmatised the 3D style. By the mid 1990s public broadcasting organisations all desired graphic styles, natural references and life action footage for their station calls and title sequences. Even Veronica stopped using their 3D logo in 1994. The flying logo became a rarity on the public channels.

6. Conclusion

In this research study we examined several examples of station calls and title animations made with the help of a computer or made to look like they had been made on a computer. The conditions in which they were created differed: some designers experienced great creative freedom, others had to walk a tightrope between opposing forces, one example did not even involve a designer to begin with. Sometimes the production process was long and tiresome, in other cases it lasted only a few hours. In some cases budgets were modest, in others less so. But there are similarities too.

In the early 1980s Veronica, VPRO, NOS and VARA all wanted their audiences to know that they were using computers for their station calls or title sequences. Each broadcaster had its own motives for wanting to associate itself with new technology. Veronica, VPRO and NOS tried to appeal to young audiences by referencing visual tropes from science fiction and video games. VARA aimed to reach a milestone by claiming the first 3D animation on Dutch television. They all desired the associations, like the future, youth and speed, that the computer represented. Likewise, designers each had their own practical and aesthetic agenda when it came to using this new technology and dealing with its limitations.

As the machines used for animation, editing and graphic design became more advanced by the mid 1980s, the computer became the means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Styles that were associated with the early 1980s were dismissed and the 3D flying logo became exemplary “bad” design: design that was created by computers rather than designers. To be fair, not all of the designs discussed in this research study are to be remembered as examples of “good” design: some lack connection in form and function, others do not stand the test of time (and, for example, we can see their technical imperfections).

Still the stories behind their making – set in a period of transformation – show how any design project is influenced by the financial, political and technological context in which it is developed. Transitional periods such as the early 1980s in the Netherlands offer good examples in this respect. In fact, the Dutch situation is an exceptionally fruitful context to examine developments in design. In the Dutch broadcasting system, with all its different broadcasting organisations, a large amount and wide variety of identities need to be visualised. New technologies and trends are therefore rapidly tested, implemented and discarded.

This research study has shown only a few examples, but there are many more fascinating design stories from this and other periods in Dutch television history that are worth further exploration. For example, VARA’s history is full of struggles around design that illustrate the incongruity between democratic organisations and expectations regarding house-style. Also, much is still unknown about the earliest years of motion graphic design for television.

Alas, historic research into audiovisual design is difficult, primarily because of the many issues concerning the preservation of audiovisual media. Audiovisual collections contain little to no elements of the audiovisual identity of broadcasters from the 1950s to 1980s, making it hard to find out what their logos and station calls looked like, how they evolved over time and what techniques were used to create motion. Even if a station call is salvaged from a consumer videotape it’s difficult to find out when and how often the call was used and how it corresponded to other continuity elements or title sequences for programmes. Furthermore, there is little remaining documentation. After NOS GD became a private design firm in 1988, it slowly spiralled out of existence. Many designers took the offer of early retirement, others like Carlo Delbosq founded their own companies. The slimmed-down firm was sold and moved several times, and the company archive didn’t survive. Fortunately, we have been able to interview designers, design managers and other key figures, and we thank them sincerely for the willingness to share their experiences. Their stories are a crucial source for further explorations into the history of broadcast design.


References

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Bank, J. (1994). Televisie verenigt en verdeelt Nederland. In H. Wijfjes  (Ed), Omroep in Nederland (pp. 76-102). Zwolle: Waanders.

Dekker, P. (1981, March). Artikel 25 en de status van het facilitair bedrijf.  Film en Televisie Maker, 205, 4-5.

Dekker, P. (1982, June). De VPRO-leaders van Willem van den Berg.  Film en Televisie Maker, 219, 18-19.

Doeswijk, L. (2006). De vorm van de VPRO: televisievormgeving en omroepidentiteit. [Doctorate thesis. Universiteit van Amsterdam, supervisors prof. dr. Erik Laeven & prof. dr. Esther Cleven.] Retrieved from http://www.vormvanvermaak.nl/vorm-van-de-vpro/  (last accessed September 15, 2016)

Haks, F., & Stolk, S. (1979). De VARA haan. 2 jaar vormgeving en presentatie van Swip Stolk + Rene Coelho m.m.v. Wim Giesbers producties. Exhibition catalogue. Groningen: Groninger Museum.

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Van der Plas, W. (1986, September). G.S. Shostak van Digima. Computeranimatie in het noorden. Film en Televisie Maker, 264, 14-19.

Van Vilsteren, R., & Doeswijk, L. (2011). Vorm van vermaak. 60 jaar televisievormgeving in Nederland. Amsterdam: L.J. Veen.

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Note    (↵ returns to text)

  1. These five broadcasters were and are still mostly known by their acronyms. Full names for the broadcasters are provided in the footnotes.
  2. NOS is an acronym for Nederlandse Omroep Stichting (Netherlands Broadcast Foundation). It originated from the NTS, Nederlandse Televisie Stichting (Netherlands Television Foundation) founded in 1951. In 1969 NTS and NRU, Nederlandse Radio Unie (Netherlands Radio Union) merged and became NOS.
  3. TROS is an acronym for Televisie Radio Omroep Stichting (Television Radio Broadcasting Foundation).
  4. Prior to TROS there had been little to no competition between public broadcasters. For example: catholics were simply expected to turn off their radio/television set when KRO’s broadcast ended. Most broadcasters, except AVRO who opposed pillarisation of the broadcasting system, weren’t interested in converting people from other pillars. See Manschot, 1994 and Van Vree, 1994 for more information.
  5. The official name of this broadcasting organisation is VOO, Veronica Omroep Organisatie (Veronica Broadcast Organisation). However it is mostly known as Veronica. In 1995 VOO became a commercial channel and officially changed its name from VOO to Veronica.
  6. The stills in figures 1 and 2 were slightly retouched, in order to delete the non-original watermarks and time codes.
  7. The package probably contained several other variations, bumpers, special announcements and a message in case of interference. Unfortunately, these are hard to find. Up until 1987 the Dutch audiovisual archive (Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision and its predecessors) only collected individual programmes. Segments between programmes, containing for instance advertisements, announcements and station calls were only videotaped accidentally and seldom mentioned in catalogue descriptions (Van der Windt, 2012, n.p.). Fortunately, there are private collectors who salvage videotapes and upload station calls to YouTube.
  8. A closing call is a station call that marks the end of broadcast. Veronica TV – Marijke Benkhard + Eindleader (1981), uploaded to YouTube by Omroepersnl on September 5, 2012. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/-D61320MDjM (last accessed August 2016).
  9. Lee Harrison III (1929-1998) was an inventor and pioneer in analogue electronic animation in the United States. In 1972 he received an Emmy Award for his technical achievements.
  10. We refer to the Image West Demo Reel 1981 as retrieved from https://youtu.be/ispW6-7b2sA, uploaded to YouTube by VintageCG on March 22, 2010. The segment that starts at 4’23” is almost identical to the Veronica station calls. Likewise, Image West Scanimate Demo 15b, retrieved from https://youtu.be/wTO3CKM2Yy0, uploaded to YouTube by Dave Sieg on December 11, 2008, contains another similar example at 3’44”.
  11. The opening and closing call for RTI can be seen in this video: ID. RTI COLOMBIA 1979-1990, retrieved from https://youtu.be/onO_xrhMQuo, uploaded to YouTube by WILLIAMSOTO72 on November 19, 2008.
  12. Willem van den Berg mentions this amount to Dekker, but it is unclear whether Dekker checked this with Veronica. Also it’s unclear if this amount included tunes, music copyrights and such.
  13. VPRO was originally an acronym for Vrijzinnig Protestantse Radio Omroep (Liberal Protestant Radio Broadcaster). It was mostly known by this acronym, and in 1969 V.P.R.O. officially changed its name to VPRO.
  14. Ron Hays (1945-1991) was an American multi-media designer and artist who worked with video, light, computers and digital equipment to create music visualisations. One of the works Hays created with scanimation was the 45 minute music video called Music-image: Odyssey in 1979. He also created digital special effects for films and television.
  15. The information on Van den Berg’s work at VPRO is based on personal conversations between Liselotte Doeswijk and Willem van den Berg, April 12, 2005; February 22, 2006; and July 24, 2006. Parts of these conversations have been previously published in Doeswijk (2006, pp. 52-77).
  16. The number of paying members of a broadcasting organisation is connected to the division of broadcasting time on the public channels and the division of NOS services and facilities. With circa 100.000 members VPRO had always been a C-status broadcaster, meaning that they were allocated less broadcasting hours and a smaller potion of the NOS facilities, compared the other four original organisations that all had 400.000 or more members and were thus A-status broadcasters. In 1981 the thresholds were raised. VPRO decided to aim for the B-status. Before 1980 that would mean that they needed at least 250.000 members, after 1981 VPRO needed 300.000 members to receive the B-status.
  17. And possibly unique in the world.
  18. The information on how Antics Studio Amsterdam was conceived is based on a personal conversation of Liselotte Doeswijk with former Antics Studio employee Jules Hartogs, March 6, 2014.
  19. A digitalized copy of the Antics Studio Amsterdam showreel was retrieved from the personal archive of former Antics Studio employee Jules Hartogs.
  20. The information about the set up and output of Antics Studio Amsterdam is based on personal conversations of Liselotte Doeswijk with former Antics Studio employee Jules Hartogs, dd March 6, 2014 and former intern/employee Robin Noorda, December 5, 2010. A full description and photo’s of the studio set up can be seen here: http://www.vormvanvermaak.nl/antics-studio/.
  21. The exact dates of broadcast design for VPRO are not always known. The two VPRO station calls mentioned in this paragraph have been saved on a videotape compilation of VPRO station calls by Willem van den Berg and somehow found their way to the collection of NIBG (DocId 89338). Van den Berg estimates that these station calls were made and broadcast around 1984.
  22. In figure 4 we have made some changes to these video stills: we adjusted the stills to the proper 4:3 television ratio and we edited out the time code.
  23. The information on the workings of NOS GD is based on a personal conversation of Liselotte Doeswijk with Willem Hillenius, November 4, 2010.
  24. A notable example is the VARA house-style by Swip Stolk in 1979. This case is described extensively in Haks & Stolk (1979).
  25. The information on the workings of NOS GD is based on a personal conversation of Liselotte Doeswijk with Willem Hillenius, November 4, 2010.
  26. The information on Carlo Delbosq and the production of the Studio Sport title animation in this paragraph is based on a personal conversation of Liselotte Doeswijk with Carlo Delbosq, December 22, 2011.
  27. Around 1982 NOS GD acquired a Quantel Paintbox. This computer workstation was used to design and capture still graphics on video.
  28. The stills in figure 5 are taken from a digitized video tape, uploaded to YouTube by maurice2468 on November 20, 2009, retrieved from https://youtu.be/JkB-ChygVxg. The aspect ratio was altered by the authors.
  29. VARA was originally the acronym for Vereniging Arbeiders Radio Amateurs (Association of Workers Radio Amateurs). It was mostly known by this acronym. In 1957 VARA changed their name to Omroepvereniging VARA (Broadcasting organisation VARA), commonly shortened to VARA.
  30. KRO is an acronym for Katholieke Radio Omroep (Catholic Radio Broadcaster). It was mostly known by this acronym.
  31. The information on the production of the Mid Lotto Live show in this paragraph and following paragraphs comes from personal conversations and e-mail correspondence of Liselotte Doeswijk with Jan Willem Doorenbos on November 19, 2009; and January 11 and 12, 2011 and on conversations and correspondence of Liselotte Doeswijk with Carlo Delbosq on September 9, 2010; December 22, 2010; and March 21, 2012.
  32. The stills are taken from the first episode of Mid Lotto Live, dd October 25, 1984. This episode comes from the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (DocId 84259). The authors have had to adjust the aspect ratio of the screenshots to their original 4:3 ratio.
  33. The stills are taken from the programme introduction of first episode of Mid Lotto Live, October 25, 1984. This episode comes from the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (DocId 84259). The authors have had to adjust the aspect ratio of the screenshots to their original 4:3 ratio.
  34. Personal conversation of Liselotte Doeswijk with Frans Lasès, August 24, 2010.
  35. RTL stands for Radio Télévision Luxembourg. From 1989 till 1990 it presented itself on-screen as RTL-Véronique (Veronica was one of the stakeholders in the company till 1990). From 1990 onwards RTL-Véronique changed its name to RTL 4. It chose 4 as channel number, to suggest that viewers programme it right after the three public channels. For sake of brevity, we refer to RTL-Véronique and RTL 4 as RTL 4.
  36. But made with radically different soft- and hardware.
  37. Van den Berg didn’t design the RTL 4 logo.
  38. We are referring here to Delbosq’s title sequence for NOS Journaal (NOS News) (https://youtu.be/huCCsuAPAgg) from 1989 and the stationcall(s) for KRO from that same year (https://youtu.be/TCPXGOTHWEc).

Total Design and the case of the Aesthedes computer: changing the tools of Dutch graphic design in the 1980s

Graphic design history often reports the introduction of the Apple Macintosh predominantly as a sudden occurrence that inevitably led to a new design attitude and aesthetics. What if, instead, we consider that event not so much as the beginning of a revolution but, instead, as one stage in a longer process of transition towards computer-aided design? Focusing on the Netherlands, this paper articulates that designers were already influenced by computer technology in previous decades and that the attitude towards this new tool developed over time, as shown by a comparison of the work of such designers as Wim Crouwel – who was inspired by the new digital technology and designs  – with that of Ootje Oxenaar, Peter Struycken and Jurriaan Schrofer, who experimented with the computer as an automated production aid. The main focus of the paper is however on the story of the Aesthedes computer – a remarkable design computer put into operation shortly before the launch of the user-friendly Apple Macintosh – and of its adoption at the Total Design agency in the early 1980s. The brief existence of the Aesthedes helps to illuminate different stages of graphic designers’ conception of and approach to the computer: from a quintessentially modern phenomenon and source of inspiration and, later, an industrial tool to automate traditional design work, to the medium that allows designers to express their ideas.


It is usually reported that the arrival of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 brought about a fundamental change in the field of graphic design: in a short period of time the computer became an indispensable part of the design practice and was incorporated in the creative design process, as well as in the production process,[1] while the screen and computation progressively revealed to be more than just a tool, a “liberating medium of a new graphic sensibility” (Poynor, 2003, p. 95). Even before the advent of the Macintosh, however, the computer entered the minds, the practice and the offices of designers – receiving both enthusiasm and resistance. Computerized or digital design has in fact a longer and richer history, which deserves to be investigated if we want to gain a more accurate understanding of designers’ attitudes towards and relationship with technology, of how these evolved and eventually transformed the practice.[2]

The concept of “designing with the computer” has been approached in various ways prior to the launch of the first desktop computer and the question arises as to which point the computer really becomes part of the design process and in what way this came about. This article deals with a piece of this history from the Netherlands: it tells the story of the Aesthedes graphics computer – developed by the Dutch company Claessens Product Consultants – and of its adoption by the graphic design office Total Design in the early 1980s. Set against the backdrop of the engagement of several Dutch graphic designers with the computer between the 1970s and 1980s – designers like Wim Crouwel, Ootje Oxenaar, Peter Struycken and Jurriaan Schrofer, who shared an interest in the new technology but showed different attitudes towards it – and discussed in relation to the later advent of the easy-to-use desktop computer from the Silicon Valley, this story helps to shed a light on the evolution of graphic designers’ approach to and conception of the computer: from a quintessentially modern phenomenon and source of inspiration and, later, an industrial tool to automate traditional design work, to as the medium that allows designers to express their ideas.

1. A modern phenomenon

In the 1960s and 1970s computers were still large pieces of equipment operated by specially trained people: not available to the general public, they were mainly used by large industries and universities.[3] The printing and the telecommunication industries were among the first sectors where mainframes made their way and where designers could meet with the computer. At the time, therefore, the computer could not only be an inspiration for designers but become an actual production tool, challenging their conception and methods.

In Dutch literature on design history a few examples[4] are mentioned of graphic designers who – prior to the launch of the Apple Macintosh – involved the computer in the design process. These were all designers who, thanks to their reputation and position, could build their own opportunity to explore the new technology and experiment with it. All of them shared the idea that the computer reflected the coming of a new era – the shift from the industrial age to the information age – and it should be considered as a modern phenomenon.

One of the first examples of graphic design inspired by computer technology is Wim Crouwel’s New Alphabet (figure 1). Crouwel started working on this typeface in 1966 after having seen how poorly a new digital typesetting machine, the Digiset by German manufacturer Hell, handled traditional letters. He took on the challenge of designing a typeface that would better suit the requirements of contemporary technological possibilities, and particularly to that of the cathode-ray tube technology used in the photo-typesetting process. Letters needed simplifying in order to remain dimensionally stable. In order to achieve this, Crouwel constructed a system of horizontal and vertical lines in a grid.[5]

Fig. 1 - Wim Crouwel, Kwadraatblad New Alphabet. Steendrukkerij De Jong en Co. 1967 / © Wim Crouwel, Amsterdam

Fig. 1 – Wim Crouwel, Kwadraatblad New Alphabet. Steendrukkerij De Jong en Co. 1967 / © Wim Crouwel, Amsterdam.

Crouwel was well informed on the latest technological developments via one of his clients, IBM. He was captivated by technology and recalls how he “devoured information” about electronical lay-out machines from the USA. Along this path in his early years at Total Design he began experimenting with test set-ups to project layouts on a screen he had heard about. His idea – as he reported in a conversation[6] – was “to project a grid using one projector and to project pictures on top of it using a second projector, and then to photograph the image” with the aim of simplifying the layout process.

Other designers in the Netherlands who had the opportunity to deal with computers in the 1970s and early 1980s were those involved in the design of postage stamps. Robert Deodaat Emile (Ootje) Oxenaar was one of them. In 1970 he designed a set of five summer stamps (figure 2), commissioned by the PTT (Dutch Postal Service),[7] the state-owned company for Dutch post and telecommunications,[8] which were greeted at the time as the first-ever digitally designed postage stamp.[9] This view of the event was actually based on a misunderstanding as Oxenaar admitted later (Middendorp, 2002, p. 120). The design was in fact made by hand; execution only was carried out with an electronic drawing machine, the Coragraaf DC, which was then in use at the Technical University of Eindhoven. Together with computer scientists from this institution Oxenaar experimented with the use of a computer-driven drawing arm for the reproduction of the complexe line drawings in the composition. This kind of design made of complex geometric patterns could only be reproduced by a programmed drawing device.[10]

Even though the potential offered by automation was apparent, not all designers were ready to depart from hand work. A fellow designer of Oxenaar, Jurriaan Schrofer, who also used complex patterns and structures in some of his designs,[11] was given the opportunity to experiment with the Coragraaf at the Joh. Enschedé printing house (Huygen, 2013) which also possessed a Coragraaf machine. This printing house specialised in printing stamps, banknotes and other security documents. The drawing machine enabled Schrofer to find a technological solution for the intricate letter figures (figure 3) he designed for the Rijkspostspaarbank (the Dutch post office savings bank) in 1970.[12] However, while he recognised the possibilities of the computer, he eventually preferred to continue drawing his complex patterns and structures by hand (Huygen 2013, p. 353).
As for Oxenaar, he also proved to be an advocate of computer technology when he – then as head of the department of Aesthetic Design for the PTT – favored the design that Peter Struycken[13] submitted, in competition with other designers, for the the new stamp of Queen Beatrix. To produce this design, Struycken worked closely together with the department of pattern recognition at the Technical University of Delft to adapt a specialized computer programme for the translation of the Queen’s portrait to the smallest possible amount of grid points.[14] Even though the board of the PTT and Queen Beatrix herself preferred other designs, Oxenaar succeeded in persuading them to elect Struycken’s stamp which, according to him, was “modern” and should be regarded a proper “symbol of its time”.

Fig. 2 - R.D.E. Oxenaar, design summer stamp, 1970 / Courtesy Museum voor Communicatie, Den Haag

Fig. 2 – R.D.E. Oxenaar, design summer stamp, 1970 / Courtesy Museum voor Communicatie, Den Haag.

Fig. 3 - Jurriaan Schrofer, annual report 1969, Rijkspostspaarbank 1970 / Courtesy Wim Crouwel Institute, Amsterdam

Fig. 3 – Jurriaan Schrofer, annual report 1969, Rijkspostspaarbank 1970 / Courtesy Wim Crouwel Institute, Amsterdam.

These examples from the 1970s and early 1980s tell how during this early period a number of practicing designers were already fascinated with technological innovation and regarded the computer as a quintessentially modern phenomenon. Wim Crouwel, who still describes himself as a techno-freak, was inspired to create a new visual language by his encounter with technical devices and his expectations of the digital possibilities that came with them. The New Alphabet, however, was still the result of a traditional handwork. In the case of Oxenaar, Struycken and Schrofer the computer devices were not only inspiring phenomena but also useful tools in the execution of complex tasks. The implementation they made of the use of the computer technology, though, was often limited to the occasional project[15] and encouraged by their commissioner. In none of these cases did the designer involved either have access to, or the possibility of, creating an original design on a computer.[16] Although used in an experimental way, the computer functioned as an aid to facilitate the automation and reproduction of complex visual concepts that were created by hand.

2. Aesthedes at Total Design: Automating the labour-intensive tradition

The availability of automated workstations for professional use during the late 1970s marked a shift in the approach to the use of the computer. While the individual fascination for technology remained a driving force for designers in their motivation to investigate the possibilities of computers, the prospect of automation of the labour-intensive parts of the design process came to be seen as basically an economically driven necessity. At the time, designers’ work included spending precious time elaborating on one or more versions of their own design concepts. The whole process, from conception to presentation, including variations, could take anything from days to weeks. Automation could therefore mean the saving of costly man-hours. To large design agencies it would mean even more, as they usually had in-house art departments where art-workers worked out the ideas developed by the design teams.

One such agency was Total Design (TD from here on), that soon after its founding in 1963 had established a strong position as one of the leading design agencies with their businesslike approach and rational, modernist, design philosophy. This hegemony, however, placed TD in a vulnerable position: by the mid 1970s a new generation of designers considered the agency as a representative of the establishment, of a “cold and emotionless design” and made it a subject of ridicule.[17] In addition Wim Crouwel, one of the agency’s founders left in 1980 to become lecturer at the Technical University of Delft and could no longer function as the charismatic spearhead the agency could rely on.[18] One which the agency particularly needed at that time, when, in the wake of the economic downturn due to the oil crisis,[19] it was no longer getting big house-style commissions, was caught up in internal wrangling and was apparently not succeeding in improving internal management despite various reorganization schemes (Bakker, 2011, pp. 279-282).

It was in this period of upheaval that graphic designer Jelle van der Toorn Vrijthoff (born 1946) was asked to join the management board of Total Design with the challenging task of rescuing the agency from the brink of disaster and propelling it into a new era. His approach was to bridge the gap between what were then two divergent worlds: designing and automation. In the eyes of Van der Toorn Vrijthoff the graphic design process is not different from that of industrial design and architecture. What they have in common is working in stages, whereby the lion’s share of creativity happens in the initial stage. As the stages progress, the creative work gives way to pragmatism and execution of the task at hand. Much of the work in this last stage, is suitable for automation.

2.1. Economical efficiency

Van der Toorn Vrijthoff was chosen because of his rational and businesslike approach as well as his experience with automation.[20] He had acquired this during the period he spent in London – after having graduated from the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague – to attend a graduate course in graphic design and visual communication at the Royal Academy of Art in London. Before he returned to the Netherlands in 1973 he completed a course of computer-aided design programming at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London and worked as a science research fellow at the Experimental Cartography Unit. Although he already had a strong interest in technology, it was during his time at the Cartography Unit, where use of digital technology was advanced, that he developed his ideas on the automation of text lay-out.

A few years after his return to The Hague, in 1976, he had the opportunity to put his ideas on automation into practice when he was asked to head the design department at Sdu (Staatsdrukkerij en -Uitgeverij) the Dutch Government Printing and Publishing House.[21] Traditionally the design department of the Sdu functioned instrumentally to the printing and publishing units and in particular the print unit had already made progress in automation. The first challenge for Van der Toorn Vrijthoff was precisely to make two seemingly divergent worlds meet: those of printers and designers. Although Sdu employed highly competent staff, the mindset of the more practically minded printers was worlds apart from the mindset of the artistic designers. As head of the design department with knowledge of computerization, Van der Toorn Vrijthoff was able to communicate with the two, until then, incompatible worlds at Sdu and his first priority was to harmonize the different disciplines. Director Hein van Haaren, whose job it was to modernize Sdu, backed him all the way and in a short period of time they turned the department into an independent design agency with the entire public sector as potential clients (Heijningen, 1988). At Sdu, aided by an experienced group of programmers, Van der Toorn Vrijthoff could continue the research he had begun in London into automation of layout work. Van der Toorn Vrijthoff worked with Sdu for six years when in 1982 he took on the challenge to direct Total Design into the world of computerized design.

2.2. Aesthetics, design and the computer

My experience at Sdu came in very handy. I started with the secretarial department and replaced all the old typewriters with word processors. Furthermore, we swiftly started investigating the possibility of applying typesetting and cartographic systems that were already available in the design process.[22]

At the end of 1982, while at TD, busy researching the available technology, Van der Toorn Vrijthoff received a phone call from Dominique Claessens. The director of Claessens Product Consultants approached various designers and agencies to ask if they were interested in a system for computer-driven design. He wanted to collaborate with designers to further develop his prototype of a computer-aided design system, but was consistently rejected. The offer came at the right time and under the right conditions for Van der Toorn Vrijthoff. They quickly agreed that Total Design could have the use of an Aesthedes design computer on condition that the designers shared their experience with the developers. Claessens and his men could use the feedback to improve the Aesthedes and should Total Design decide to purchase the computer system, the design agency would get a good discount on the sales price.

Fig. 4 - Aesthedes computer, picture from a sales brochure, 1980s / Personal collection of the author

Fig. 4 – Aesthedes computer, picture from a sales brochure, 1980s / Personal collection of the author.

The name “Aesthedes” is a combination of the words “aesthetic” and “design”. This CAD system was specially designed to computerize time-consuming and manual technical drawing aspects of the design process. The case of the Aesthedes describes a remarkable episode in the digitalization of the design work.

As he recounted in a booklet published many years later, to mark the winning of the “Gravisie Award 1984” (Claessens, 1986), Claessens had realized as early as the mid-1970s that the computer could fulfil an important need: to produce a variety of different concept designs at great speed. Throughout the 1970s the staff at Claessens Product Consultants had looked at the range of machines and technology available at the time and concluded that none of them met requirements or fulfilled current wishes of the designers. Their research did, however, result in an unequivocal understanding of requirements: the quality of the system had to be on a par with that of designs created by hand. The system had to be user friendly for designers and it had to be geared to the pre-press activities of the printers.
At the start of the 1980s the company began developing its own design computer – which “even the biggest computer manufacturer could be proud of”, according to an enthusiastic Dominique Claessens (Kreyfelt, 1985). The project was driven by the understanding that designers were not inclined towards programming and should not be burdened with the necessity of learning programming codes – after all, that would inhibit intuition and stand in the way of the creative process. So one main aim was to make the computer user friendly for designers, therefore operating the device was simplified by displaying visually recognizable function keys on the operating panel, such as a drawing surface, a paintbrush, a ruler, an eraser, a glue pot and suchlike. There were three colour screens above the control panel (figure 4) the left-hand screen showed a close-up, the middle screen showed the entire picture and the right-hand screen showed the layer that was being worked on at that particular moment. Output can be sent to a plotter (drawing or cutting), a printer, a camera recorder and similar peripherals. The Aesthedes had a very powerful working memory for a computer in those days, with 1,9 Mbyte RAM and 2,4 Mbyte Graphic Memory and could process imagery with a higher resolution than what was visible on screen and in greater detail than a printing press was capable of producing. But the most important quality was that it could take a single concept and develop several variations with great ease. It could therefore automate an important part of the most labour-intensive aspect of the design process.

Claessens immediately saw the potential of introducing the Aesthedes to a wider audience and, as mentioned above, he began contacting various agencies so they could jointly explore technological possibilities. The overriding response was extreme caution and pessimism, and the majority expressed concern that computerization would impede creativity (Claessens, 1986 p.12) or even that the job of the designer would become obsolete because of computers. Jelle van der Toorn Vrijthoff and TD thought otherwise and came on board.

2.3. Aesthedes at Total Design

In the course of a year a couple of designers from TD moved from time to time to Claessens’ offices in Hilversum to experiment with the Aesthedes whilst being observed and questioned about the use of the machine. Finally, at the end of 1983, the first Aesthedes computer was installed at the Total Design offices in Amsterdam where in the meantime Van der Toorn Vrijthoff had prepared the design agency for its arrival. The Aesthedes initially arrived with specialized operators, but it was anticipated that staff at TD would learn through use to operate the device themselves in the near future.[23]

Although some designers were less enthusiastic and had reservations about using the computer, the new technology launched the agency into a new era in one swoop. This did not come without a price: despite getting a discount for helping with development the agency paid an exorbitant sum: 300,000 Dutch guilders for just one computer (this equals approximately 250,000 euros today).[24] By comparison, the most expensive device the average design agency would have had around that time would have been a vertical camera set-up costing about 20,000 Dutch guilders (approx. 17,000 euros today). The fact that a single computer cost as much as a Maserati was a good reason for some to be skeptical. Beside this, according to what Ben Bos – then also a member of TD’s management board – reported afterwards, the Aesthedes provided a great number of options the designers and operators were able to expertly explore in the first few years but the computer’s downside was that the output quickly became outdated as people gradually became more adept at the tricks of the computer trade.
TD became embroiled in animated internal discussions about using the computer. Van der Toorn Vrijthoff believed that the Aesthedes technology would give TD a big advantage over other agencies, so much that they would no longer need as many staff. This efficiency-driven attitude created a conflict between him and designers at TD. Some believed that the designs produced by the Aesthedes were similar to those of the popular Spirograph children’s toy.[25] The major accusation was, however, that clever things were being drawn but they were being created without a shred of talent.

Although the Aesthedes almost led to a rift within the agency in the first few months, they purchased two more Aesthedes computer systems one year later.[26]

2.4. Working with the Aesthedes

Apart from the cost, dealing with the computer proved to be quite a challenge for the involved designers at Total Design. Although it was assumed that designers would operate the Aesthedes computer themselves, the equipment turned out to be too complicated. Frans Lieshout one of the designers in charge of using the new equipment explains:

The computer had such great potential and required such skill to operate it properly that it was more efficient to train one or two computer operators to fully optimize working with the machine. The combination of operator and designer meant that they could get the most out of the computer, which turned out to be quite substantial.[27]

Only a few designers who had mastered the technology were allowed to work directly with the Aesthedes. Using the equipment, however, did not come without risk: they could find themselves faced with a situation where one wrong push of a button could delete all the work and the Aesthedes had no back-up system to retrieve it. One of the designers who gained a lot of experience working with the Aesthedes was Robert van Rixtel. When he joined Total Design in 1985 he was immediately made an assistant in Jelle van der Toorn’s team, comprising Joost Klinkenberg, Frans Lieshout and Theo Peters. As he recounted:

The three Aesthedes computers were in a separate darkened room and we all worked in another large room. Initially I was only allowed a cursory glance at them because they cost 300 guilders an hour to use and in addition you had to take the operator into account. It took quite a while before I could think in computer terms and at first I felt out of my depth and found it difficult to translate what I wanted to make. You had to give the operator a clear description, but even that had to be systematically constructed. As a designer you’re more inclined to work intuitively, make changes fast, or even to start again from scratch. And that wasn’t possible. I remember getting so frustrated I grabbed a transparency and stuck it on the computer screen, then pencilled in how I wanted the design to look so at least I could explain what I was trying to create. It worked. To work systematically on that computer you had to envisage the end result and reverse the process. Unlike now, in those days you had to think everything through first and sketch it out step by step. You had to have completed the conceptual process before you started. That’s totally the opposite nowadays because you can usually sketch directly on the computer.[28]

Van Rixtel considers the design for Enter Foundation[29] as a manifest of the new era with the Aesthedes. This word image shown in figure 5, was built up by a grid with five different elements that are interconnected, the word ENTER was written underneath. Even though working with elements was typical for this period, the Aesthedes made it easier to handle the elements and keep them on a tight grid. Five variations for other printed matter were realized by omitting each one of the five elements, an operation that was easily performed with the Aesthedes because of the structured way in which the computer functioned.

Fig. 5 - Total Design, Enter logo, 1987 / Courtesy Robert van Rixtel, Eindhoven

Fig. 5 – Total Design, Enter logo, 1987 / Courtesy Robert van Rixtel, Eindhoven.

The purchase of three Aesthedes’ was an immense investment for TD, therefore the drawing studio was closed down and the staff was forced to make full use of the new machine. Designers, such as Lieshout, Klinkenberg and Van Rixtel, regarded the Aesthedes as a fascinating device to play with and tried pushing the boundaries of the computer’s possibilities. Other designers only used the Aesthedes at TD to elaborate drafts of the printed matter, a task hitherto carried out by a technical drawing studio. However one main issue for a design agency like Total Design was that in the end many designs produced with the computer tended to look uncannily the same. As Lieshout reported:

The Aesthedes could elaborate on concepts that were impossible to produce manually. It drew perfect curves, which could then easily be modified. A lot of the designs from this period featured a surprising number of oval shapes, which are difficult to draw by hand but were a piece of cake for the design computer.[30]

Fig. 6 - Total Design, Suikerunie Annual report 1987, 1988/ Courtesy Wim Crouwel Institute, Amsterdam

Fig. 6 – Total Design, Suikerunie annual report 1987, 1988 / Courtesy Wim Crouwel Institute, Amsterdam.

To his opinion a design as shown in the annual report for the Dutch Sugar Union (figure 6) would never have been made without the disposal of Aesthedes design computer.[31]

A closer look at two portfolio books that were issued in 1988 and 1989 at the occassion of TD’s 25th jubilee, presented in figure 7 and 8 shows various projects that were carried out with the Aesthedes (figure 8 in particular shows the design for a stamp; the publication has a remarkable atypical form due to the obliquely cut edges). Even the design for the books were realized on the design computer and the frequent use of curves, dots and diagonals throughout the publication is evident.

Fig. 7 - Total Design, Total Design 25 years, anniversary publication, 1988, spread / Personal collection of the author

Fig. 7 – Total Design, Total Design 25 years, anniversary publication, 1988, spread / Personal collection of the author.

Fig. 8 - Total Design, Design: Total Design, 1989, spread / Personal collection of the author

Fig. 8 – Total Design, Design: Total Design, 1989, spread / Personal collection of the author.

Eventually, Total Design did not reap the financial benefits it expected from computerization, and which it badly needed. However, with hindsight, Van der Toorn Vrijthoff does not regard purchasing the Aesthedes as a bad investment, despite the well-known financial difficulties that dogged the agency in the 1980s, partially due to buying three Aesthedes computers. “Having a design computer”, he reflects now, “gave the agency kudos and boosted its image as a modern, up-to-date design agency”.[32]

Despite all the effort that Claessens had put into the propagating of the Aesthedes the prospect of this computer took an unfortunate twist when, not long after Total Design had bought their Aesthedes, the Apple Macintosh was rolled out onto the market. This handy small computer with a user friendly interface and software soon took over the graphic design sector. Some designers continued working with the Aesthedes alongside the Apple computers. At the end of the decade, Total Design migrated to using only Apple. Van der Toorn Vrijthoff remembers that Total Design scrapped the three old Aesthedes computers in 1990 and the machines were put out on the street for collection by the bulky waste service.

3. Beyond Aesthedes

Despite the fast rise of the Apple MacIntosh Dominique Claessens was able to install a few more Aesthedes computers before selling his company.[33] At the Sdu, Van der Toorn’s successor, Gertjan Leuvelink, was as much as him interested in technology and he fervently believed that designers needed to be computer savvy, so it was through his intercession that the design department acquired the design computer. Leuvelink believed that, as quoted by Heijningen (1988, pp. 253-255):

Texts currently produced by most computers are an abomination from a graphic design perspective, with typefaces that are very unpleasant to read. Page layout is strange and unclear and it’s no wonder people get a headache from reading. All the typefaces are designed by engineers who don’t have a clue about graphic design. It’s about time a graphic expert is called in.

In the case of the Sdu the Aesthedes proved to be a sound investment: adopted for the design of security documents to protect them against forgery, the computer considerably speeded up the design process and yielded a return on their investment after just three years (Middendorp, 2002, pp. 128-129).

Claessens approached several other agencies in the Netherlands including Vorm Vijf and Tel Design in The Hague. Andrew Fallon, one of the partners at Tel Design, remembers a demonstration of the Aesthedes computer, in which Van der Toorn Vrijthoff showed[34] how it could enlarge an image on the screen from one millimetre to one kilometre. Despite being impressed by the technological possibilities the computer had to offer, the partners at Tel Design agreed it was too expensive, especially bearing in mind that the Aesthedes only functioned optimally as a full set of equipment and with a trained operator to boot. Moreover, the fact that it could not process text well was a significant disadvantage. Tel Design had no pressing need to purchase their own Aesthedes because on the few occasions it could be of use, the design computer at the Sdu was available to them.[35]

Overall, while in the case of the Sdu the Aesthedes could meet technical requirements, it was too advanced and too difficult to use for most design agencies and certainly too expensive. Claessens’ assumption was that the Aesthedes would give the designer more freedom for creative work by automating routine operations, but ultimately the computer could not fulfil the promise of being “designer friendly”. In the end it could not compete with other equipments that began to make their way into the market and address designers.

The story of the Aesthedes tells of a first attempt to equip designers with control over digital technology; the design computer provided a functional answer to the development of automation and digitalization of graphic design that started unfolding in the 1970s. The computer was designed in accordance with standards that applied to traditional mainframe computers and therefore needed, despite all efforts to design a “designer friendly device”, fully trained operators to control it.

The tragic fate of the Aesthedes was that, despite its qualities, the arrival of Apple Macintosh totally vanquished it at one blow. The Mac did not have the considerable limitations of the Aesthedes regarding text and available software. What is more, the Mac was user friendly and, equally important, even though it was priced around 25,000 guilders (approx. 20,000 euros today), it cost a fraction of the Aesthedes.

3.1. Introduction of the microcomputer

Another design agency in The Hague, Vorm Vijf, also had no interest in the purchase of the Aesthedes because it had already acquired its own microcomputer. Vorm Vijf is mentioned in literature as being the first Dutch design agency to start using the Apple Macintosh in the mid 1980s (Middendorp, 2002). Vorm Vijf closely followed developments on the minicomputer side. At that time Vorm Vijf, along with many other agencies in The Hague, had an important partnership with the press and publicity marketing department of the PTT. It was this contact that gave designers at Vorm Vijf access to the latest technology and possibilities.[36]

Furthermore, a stand builder associate of the designers at Vorm Vijf had already introduced them to a predecessor of the Apple Macintosh, the Apple Lisa. When the Macintosh was launched onto the Dutch market in 1984, Vorm Vijf therefore lost no time in purchasing one because, as Ridder said:

One of the advantages the Mac offered was that it came with a printer at the wonderful all-inclusive price of 40,000 guilders. Another advantage was the availability of other software for the Apple, unlike the Aesthedes where all its own software was pre-installed and not compatible with software from other suppliers.[37]

The new personal computers did more than just automating the labour-intensive aspects of the work, they influenced the conceptual side of graphic design, making it easier to elaborate on complex ideas, such as rounding a text, therefore eliminating any practical barriers when executing certain concepts. It should be noted, however, that the freedom this new tool opened up was cautiously used at Vorm Vijf. Looking back at those early days, Ridder described them as being adventurous: “Anything was possible but it was not always aesthetically pleasing”. Vorm Vijf treasured aesthetic purity in their designs and it was therefore a rule that letterforms should be respected; designers were not allowed to use the computer to distort type “under penalty of caning”.[38]

For Total Design, Sdu and Vorm Vijf it was the wish to automate labor-intensive work that formed, to a great extent the motivation to implement the computer in their design offices as they regarded it as an instrument for the production of complex ideas, even if the result was that just more complex concepts were executed

3.2. Towards a new approach

By the end of the 1970s there were almost ninety design agencies in the Netherlands designing logos, corporate identities, house styles and signposting for government and the business community, most still aligned with modernist design. At the same time, however, a fresh generation of designers was graduating who, in tune with the pervading atmosphere of anarchy, punk, and counterculture, soon rebelled against the prevailing culture of the overly dominant large design agencies. And, unlike Vorm Vijf, the younger designers had no qualms about distorting typefaces or images.

“I was totally absorbed by computers”, recounts Max Kisman (born 1953), one of the first Dutch designers who appeared to grasp the possibilities offered by the personal computer. In 1982, shortly after he graduated from the Gerrit Rietveldacademie in Amsterdam, he started experimenting with minicomputers and gaming computers like the Atari, Commodore Amiga and Sinclair ZX Spectrum; as he explained in an interview:

I bought the ZX Spectrum so I could actually learn the ins and outs of a computer. I was able to transfer the built-in typefaces to another place by using the memory, and so modify and change and print them. I learnt what making italics and bold entailed in the typesetting machines, it was simply placing pixels next to each other or moving them around (Frederiks, 2012, p. 9).

Kismans design for Vinyl (a magazine for alternative music, shown in figure 9) illustrates how he represents a new generation that shows a new approach to graphic design. A generation who explored the boundaries of the computer, developed a new visual language and embraced the opportunities that technology created to express their own creativity. The desktop computers brought the opportunity to work directly with the device, without the mediation of an operator or technician. The wide availability of software and print devices that quickly succeeded, led to the independence from artworkers, typesetters, lithographers, printers and even publishers, professions that had for years played a part in the creative process of the designer. In the second half of the 1980s designers obtained a new freedom, by using the desktop computer they could independently realize any idea, from concept to print.

Fig. 9 - Max Kisman, Vinyl, 11, 1982/ © Max Kisman

Fig. 9 – Max Kisman, Vinyl, 11, 1982/ © Max Kisman.

4. Designing with the computer

The cases discussed show that the designers’ relationship with and attitudes towards the computer changed over time, and only by examining all the steps in the development can we begin to understand these changes – and the impact of the “digital revolution” that was caused by the introduction of the Mac – in depth. If we examine the introduction of the Apple Macintosh not as the beginning of a revolution but as a step in a series of developments, we begin to recognize a transition in design as a reaction to the computer, to designs for the computer, to designing with the computer.
This article supports the conception that computer technology already played a role in the design practice during the 1960-1980s although, as the story of the Aesthedes computer and the examples discussed prove, in different roles. The computer exerted influence on the design process, first as a source of inspiration and phenomenom of modernity, subsequently as an automated production aid and instrument for the production of complex ideas. The fate of the Aesthedes was that it could not fulfil the promise of being “designer friendly” and the machine was too costly to be able to gain a large market share and thus genuinely become influential in design practice.

When a new generation of designers entered the profession in the 1980s computers were no longer regarded as the expression of a modernist and rationalist attitude, as they had been in the eyes of such designers as Wim Crouwel, Ootje Oxenaar, Jurriaan Schrofer. They were not concerned with the issues of automation and workflow that had preoccupied big agencies like Total Design, the Sdu and Vorm Vijf and, unlike Vorm Vijf, they had no qualms about distorting typefaces or images. It was the combination of this fresh approach to the design practice and the launch of the easy-to-use desktop computer that allowed young designers to find their own visual language, which caused such a marked transition in designing with the computer in 1984.

Translated by: Vivien Cook / Sally Dyer

Acknowledgement
The author wishes to thank the reviewers and editors for their valuable comments and suggestions on previous versions of this paper.


References

Bakker, W., & Bram, K. (2011). Droom van helderheid: huisstijlen, ontwerpbureaus en modernisme in Nederland, 1960-1975. Rotterdam: Uitgeverij 010.

Broos, K., & Hefting, P. (1999). Grafische vormgeving in Nederland: een eeuw. Alphen aan den Rijn: Atrium.

Claessens, D. P. G. (1986). Aesthedes, een computergestuurd vormgeversgereedschap: winnaar van de Gravisieprijs 1984. Utrecht: Van Boekhoven-Bosch.

Frederiks, H. (2012). In mijn werk zit meer gevoel dan ik zelf wil prijsgeven. Dzone, 142, 8-14. Heerhugowaard: Hollandia Publishing.

Fritz, D. (2011). Mapping the Beginnings of Computer-Generated Art in the Netherlands. Retrieved from: http://darkofritz.net/text/DARKO_FRITZ_NL_COMP_ART_n.pdf (accessed December 10, 2012).

Heijningen, L. A. van. (1988). Sdu, De eerste vier eeuwen…: drukken, uitgeven en vormgeven voor en na privatisering. ’s-Gravenhage: SDU.

Hubben, H. (1989). Ontwerp: Total Design: de jaren tachtig. Wormer: Inmerc.

Huygen, F., Sybrand Z., & Haaren, H. van. (2009). Hein van Haaren. Eindhoven: [Z]OO producties.

Huygen, F. (2013). Jurriaan Schrofer: grafisch ontwerper, fotoboekenpionier, art director, docent, kunstbestuurder, omgevingskunstenaar, 1926-1990. Amsterdam: Valiz.

Huygen, F., & Boekraad, H. C. (1997). Wim Crouwel: mode en module. Rotterdam: Uitgeverij 010 / Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum.

Kreyfelt, M. von. (1985). Say what you want. I can make it. Items, 17, 4, 4-9. Weesp: Openbaar Kunstbezit.

Kuijpers, E., & Brinkman, E. (2011). R. D. E. (Ootje) Oxenaar: ontwerper + opdrachtgever. Rotterdam: Uitgeverij 010.

Middendorp, J. (2002). Ha, daar gaat er een van mij!: kroniek van het grafisch ontwerpen in Den Haag 1945-2000. Rotterdam: Stroom HCBK / Uitgeverij 010.

Molenkamp, M., & Bavelaar, H. (2010). De stijl van het Rijk: de visuele identiteit van de Rijksoverheid. Den Haag: Ministerie van Algemene Zaken.

Poynor, R. (2003). No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Schreuders, P. (1997). Lay in, lay out. Amsterdam: Gerrit Jan Thiemefonds.

Staal, G., & Wolters, H. (1987). Holland in vorm: vormgeving in Nederland 1945-1987. ’s-Gravenhage: Stichting Holland in Vorm /Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum.


Note    (↵ returns to text)

  1. This article focusses primarily on the creative design process. The design process as opposed to the production process is the stage where an idea takes shape, a conceptual stage and subsequently every activity that turns the concept into a design.
  2. This article is based on the broader study of this subject that the author is currently carrying out as a PhD candidate in the doctoral programme of the University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Humanities, supervised by prof. dr. J.J. Noordegraaf (Universiteit van Amsterdam) and dr. J.V. Hoogslag (Anglia Ruskin University).
  3. In the Netherlands some first steps towards the creative application of computers had already been taken in the 1960s, when scientists began conducting computer experiments (Fritz, 2011).
  4. The examples discussed in this article are based on literature. The general surveys of Staal and Wolters (1987) and Broos and Hefting (1993) offered a starting point and both Molenkamp and Bavelaar (2010) and Middendorp (2002) offer valuable insight in the significant role played by the government as a commissioning body. Heijningen (1988) describes in detail the technological and organizational developments at the Government-owned design and publishing house Sdu. Besides the aforementioned publications, the monographs on Ootje Oxenaar (Kuypers, 2011), Wim Crouwel (Huygen, 2015) and Jurriaan Schrofer (Huygen, 2014), along with their archives – with which I became familiar while working at the Dutch Archives of Graphic Designers (NAGO) – offered additional insight. The archives of Ootje Oxenaar and Jurriaan Schrofer are kept at the Special Collections department of the Library of the University of Amsterdam, the archives of Wim Crouwel are kept at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. The www.nago.nl and http://www.wimcrouwelinstituut.nl/nago/ websites help finding information and access to all of these archives.
    In addition conversations with the people involved have been one main source of information for the period around 1980.
  5. The typeface was first published in 1967 as Kwadraatblad, an experimental journal issued by the progressive Printing House Steendrukkerij De Jong & Co. The New Alphabet caused quite a stir and in response two more quarterly journals were dedicated to an alphabet, one by Timothy Epps and one by Anthon Beeke, both of which appeared in 1970.
  6. Personal conversation of the author with Wim Crouwel, March 2012. Crouwel acknowledged that this process “was totally ridiculous” but at the time he thought it could simplify the layout process “for pages with illustrations and text”.
  7. The PTT, the state-owned company for Dutch post and telecommunications had an important role early on in the twentieth century in commissioning Dutch designers and artists. Hein van Haaren was director of the department of aesthetic design from 1966 to 1976, during which time he revitalized the company policy of inviting artists and designers to design postage stamps, among other things. When Van Haaren left the PTT for the state-owned printer and publisher Sdu in 1976, he was succeeded by his deputy R.D.E. Oxenaar (known as Ootje Oxenaar).
  8. Oxenaar Archives inventory number OX00144, box OX005 at Wim Crouwel Instituut/Bijzondere Collecties University Library of University of Amsterdam. (http://www.wimcrouwelinstituut.nl/nago/dossier.php?id=27362) (all online resources mentioned in the text were last accessed on July 2016).
  9. The news of the issue of the computer-created stamps was brought by several National newspapers in the Netherlands, De Waarheid on March 6, 1970, reported that “For the first time in the history of the Dutch PTT stamps are designed by a computer” (p. 6). The newspapers Het Vrije Volk (March 6, 1970, p. 2), Het Algemeen Handelsblad (March 6, 1970, p. 13), De Tijd (March 6, 1970, p. 6) and Telegraaf (March, 7 1970, p. 2) also reported this in similar words.
  10. At the TU Eindhoven Oxenaar worked with the numerical management group who used the Coragraaf DC electronic drawing machine manufactured by Contraves AG. The linear patterns were easy to reproduce because the printers, Drukkerij Joh. Enschedé, had their own Coragraaf computer-driven drawing arm.
  11. His use of complex patterns and structures is especially noticeable in some of the book-cover series he designed for Mouton Publishing house, e.g.: les textes sociologiques (1968-74), le savoir historique (1972-74), religion and reason (1971-79) and the design he made for a new Dutch passport in the early seventies, http://www.wimcrouwelinstituut.nl/nago/rubriek.php?id=661 and http://www.wimcrouwelinstituut.nl/nago/object.php?id=1401.
  12. Schrofer Archives Wim Crouwel Instituut/Bijzondere Collecties University Library of University of Amsterdam. Invent.nr. JS00310A, JS00310 box JS 033.
  13. As computer artist Struycken was familiar to technology, his first encounter with computers dated from the late 1960s and, since that moment, he almost exclusively shifted his art practice to computer-generated work (Fritz, 2011, p. 19). Struycken worked on the stamp with typographer Gerard Unger (born 1942) who had prepared the letters for the digital typesetting machines.
  14. A detailed description (in Dutch) of this technical process by Paul Hefting, art-historian and for PTT involved in the commissioning of Struycken, is found at https://kalden.home.xs4all.nl/stru/struycken-nl.htm.
  15. With the exception of Peter Struycken who continued using the computer to create his art-objects.
  16. Not even Peter Struycken who, at that time, had probably the most experience with computers and programming as an already established computer-artist.
  17. By the mid 1970s the agency, and Crouwel himself, were considered as protagonists of “cold and emotionless design” and even accused of being “criminal” (Schreuders, 1977, pp. 24-25) and representatives of “New Ugliness” by “Tamar”, pseudonym of the Dutch writer Renate Rubinstein in Vrij Nederland (March 10, 1979).
  18. Between 1980 and 1985 Crouwel remained involved with TD as an advisor and his love of technology was no secret, as mentioned above. So when Total Design purchased an Aesthedes in the 1982 it came as no surprise that he welcomed it with open arms, as he told me in the conversation we made in March 2012.
  19. During the 1970s the Netherlands were confronted by economic downspin caused by the worldwide oil crises and this lead to a time of rising unemployment, rising budget deficits.
  20. The information about Van der Toorn Vrijthoff and the quotes are drawn from the conversation made by the author with him in March 2016.
  21. Sdu was privatized in 1987.
  22. Jelle Van der Toorn Vrijthoff in conversation with the author, March 2016.
  23. Jelle Van der Toorn Vrijthoff in conversation with the author, March 2016.
  24. Various media from that period mention the price without discount, which amounted to about 500,000 Dutch guilders (approx. 400,000 euros today), however a reduction of this amount is also mentioned for clients in exchange of services. This was for instance the case with the purchase by Minerva Academie in Groningen where terms were extensively negotiated, according to involved parties in a.o. the newspaper Nieuwsblad van het Noorden, November 27,
  25. Ben Bos in conversation with the author, May 2012.
  26. Jelle van der Toorn Vrijthoff in conversation with the author, March 2016.
  27. Frans Lieshout in conversation with the author, March 2016.
  28. Robert van Rixtel in conversation with the author, March 2012.
  29. Enter foundation based in Veenendaal is a training institute for communication and information industry.
  30. Frans Lieshout in conversation with the author, March 2016.
  31. Frans Lieshout in conversation with the author, March 2016.
  32. Jelle van der Toorn Vrijthoff in conversation with the author, March 2016.
  33. Aesthedes company was sold to Barco (Belgium) in 1989 and production of new machines ended not much later.
  34. On various occassions testified Van der Toorn Vrijthoff of his positive user experience with the Aesthedes; both at demonstrations of the computer to potential clients as with a contribution to the Gravisie publication (1987).
  35. Andrew Fallon in conversation with the author, May 2012.
  36. Joop Ridder, then a partner at Vorm Vijf, explained in conversation with the author, February 2016: “Telephones and computers are inextricably linked. When carrying out assignments for the PTT, Vorm Vijf worked closely with a company that specialized in video technology and this collaboration stimulated even greater interest in technology for some of the designers in the agency”.
  37. Joop Ridder in conversation with the author, February 2016.
  38. Joop Ridder in conversation with the author, February 2016.

Something that is no longer and is not yet: the advent of the computer and the digital from the pages of “Linea grafica” magazine, 1985-2000

This article looks at the reception of the computer and of the digital revolution in Italy through the pages of the specialised magazine Linea grafica from 1970 to 2000. The examination of the magazine highlights the appearance of thematic strands and issues, detecting exclusions and silences as well, with regard to the advent of the new technologies, and offers suggestions for further investigation. In particular, the analysis illuminates the emergence of a discourse within the magazine itself, that evolves from a consideration of the computer primarily as a tool to the acknowledgment of the radical qualitative change in the production and consumption of graphic design brought about by digital technologies, and of the digital environment as an immersive dimension and a metaphor for communication as such.


This article is only available in Italian.

Qualcosa che non c’è più e qualcosa che non c’è ancora: l’avvento del computer e del digitale nelle pagine di Linea grafica, 1970-2000

Visions in pursuit of the future: Technological change in U&lc magazine, 1973-1993

U&lc (Upper & lower case) magazine is generally associated with the expressive typographic experimentations of Herb Lubalin. It is also remembered as a showcase for the typefaces released by the International Typeface Corporation, which founded the magazine in 1973 to promote them. This article relies on the online archives of the magazine (which ceased publication in 1999) to investigate a lesser known, but not marginal, aspect of its history: its role in mediating the new photographic, electronic and digital technologies to an audience of graphic designers and art directors. The focus is not so much on the evolution of technology, or the development of systems and devices, but rather on the way in which the new technologies were described and adopted by the magazine, under the direction of Lubalin and later of Edward Gottschall. The analysis of the publication between 1973 and 1993 reveals a constant effort to keep up with the pace of the transformation underway, in both the editorial and advertising pages, responding to what was immediately perceived as a revolution with “visions” projected into the future, as is evident in the special issues Vision ’77 and Vision ’80. These visions, however, also testify to the effort involved in keeping up, the apprehension and disorientation caused by changes so rapid that it was difficult to keep abreast.


This article is only available in Italian.

Visioni alla rincorsa del futuro: il cambiamento tecnologico nella rivista U&lc, 1973-1983

“Design By Numbers”: John Maeda e la computazione applicata al graphic design

Design By Numbers (DBN) was a pioneering pedagogical experiment led by John Maeda in the second half of the nineties at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. Assuming that the computer was not to be considered just a tool, but the most important means for visual production and processing in the contemporary era, the lab sought to familiarize graphic designers with the computational languages inherently underlying the working principles of digital media. The essay retraces the experience from both a historiographical and pedagogical perspective, firstly contextualizing it within the evolutionary path of the Media Lab, secondly analyzing its didactic framework as such, and finally examining the cultural impact of an educational project which, as a whole, has played a significant role in promoting the accessibility and assimilation of new technologies by the graphic design community.


This article is only available in Italian.

“Design By Numbers”: John Maeda e la computazione applicata al graphic design