From Documenting Design towards a New Paradigm


For the past 25 years, the Republic of Croatia has been embroiled in a process of deindustrialization, economic crisis and stagnation. Impoverished in the aftermath of the war and the so-called “privatisation”, in a cultural sense it has been marked by strong conservative tendencies, repatriarchalization, pressures from the Catholic Church and right-wing civil society organisations. Though these issues are often discussed in the public realm, there are no clear economic and development strategies. Despite the continuous years-long activist and educational work of expert organisations, public and state institutions, ministries, administrations and public companies still do not see or understand the role of design as a necessary aspect of the development of a contemporary society and economy. The National Design Strategy project, for instance, has remained forgotten in a drawer of the HDZ government. Nor has the coalition government of SDP shown any serious structural interest in the development of this field (for instance, by establishing some sort of national design centre or a similar institution that would actively deal with implementing design in public institutions and the economy). Instead it has, time and time again, demonstrated its disorientation with utilizing the design process – clearly evident in the way it handled the issues of the visual identity of the Government and its web portal or the scandal surrounding the design of the new car licence plates.

Considering design is always closely related to the content and the clients – i.e. the broader social context, such a social and economic situation prompted new generations of designers to deliberate their own position, as well as the state and role of their own profession in the new, changed social and technological circumstances. In the last couple of years, designers reacted with a new proactive impact to the current state of affairs, in an attempt to change it.

On the one hand, no longer willing to wait for the development of the industry, new clients or investors, they themselves kick-started a series of “entrepreneurial” initiatives, from self-initiated own production projects (from souvenirs and small-scale artisanal production to the creation of digital applications and their sale on the global market) to attempts of establishing cooperations with other industries (primarily the wood and furniture industry, but also with companies such as Borovo and Ghetaldus), to ambitious projects like the Young Balkan Designers and the Croatian Design Superstore, as platforms for the market promotion and strengthening of domestic design.

On the other hand, the field of graphic design, whichever moniker it has gone by – design of visual communications or today often even just communication design, has, due to the discontinuity of the 1990’s, galvanised in new generations an interest in the past, the relatively unknown and insufficiently documented local traditions as well as the achievements of design production during the socialist period. In step with the pan-European trend of erasing and rewriting history – political revisionism – an interest in the past has emerged, in part as a way of preserving the emancipatory elements of the modern/modernist movement.

In addition to the large-scale, often termed “institutional”, projects of documenting, historicizing and musealising design production from the socialist period, such as Socialism and Modernity, Unfinished Modernisations, a series of exhibitions in the Museum of Arts and Crafts (Alfred Pal, Porcelain Gleam of Socialism and Marija’s Beauty Industry, by the curator Koraljka Vlajo) or the Yugoslav Youth Press as Underground Press project by Marko Zubak, a series of diverse exhibitions initiated and carried out by designers themselves should be pointed out: A Didactic Exhibition: Designed in Croatia (Dejan Kršić); Hidden Design – Rade Končar Design Department (Koraljka Vlajo); Excavations 1: Judge a Book by its Cover and Excavations 2: Production of Signs – Signs of Production (Lana Cavar and Narcisa Vukojević); Who Sees Design in Pula (Oleg Šuran), Sports, Health, Culture and Education – Stools of the Jadran Factory (Ivana Borovnjak and Marko Golub); Mediterranean Games, Split 1979 (Boris Ljubičić); Zvonko Beker and the Post-War Economic Propaganda (Koraljka Vlajo and Marko Golub); Female Designers 1930–1980 (Maša Poljanec and Maja Kolar) in the Gallery of the Croatian Designers Association; Good Choice – Examples of Commercial Communications from the 50s and 60s (Sudac Collection, Zagreb); Jugoton – East of Eden (Sanja Bachrach Krištofić, Kultura umjetnosti, Technical Museum 2014)… Mentionable publications (with their accompanying exhibitions) include Design and Independent Culture (Dea Vidović and Maroje Mrduljaš, Zagreb 2010), Design and New Media – the Croatian Context (1995-2010) by Ivica Mitrović (Design of Visual Communications, Academy of Fine Arts, Split 2012), Save the Sign! by Marijo Krištofić and Sanja Bachrach Krištofić (Kultura umjetnosti, 2014), and the work-in-progress project Glossary of Design and Print Media Terms by Ivan Klisurić and Damir Prizmić (the first stage of this project was produced for the 2014 D-Day fair).

Though activities are most proliferative in Croatia, especially Zagreb, we can see similar interests within the design field in other countries of the former Yugoslavia as well. Aside from classic museum exhibitions such as Good Design (Belgrade), Iskra: Non-Aligned Design, The 20th Century Poster in Slovenia and the retrospective of Niko Kralj and Marko Turk (Museum of Architecture and Design, Ljubljana), in the last several years, a historiographic approach to Yugoslavian design has also been taken up by independent design projects such as ID: Ideology of Design (, Novi Sad) and the collection and publication Museum in Exile by Asim Đelilović (Sarajevo). Programmes of the regional student conferences “Deisgner: Author or Universal Soldier” (Belgrade), “SOS” (Sarajevo), and “Fluid” (Cetinje) regularly comprised historiographic lectures (Žiga Testen, Boštjan Botas Kenda, Borut Vild…) and exhibitions documenting subjects from the history of Yugoslav design (Design and Independent Culture; Polet – Economic Propaganda in Yugoslavia 1969-1980, Metaklinika, Belgrade;

Along with the tentatively historiographic projects Jusprojekt (Darko & Marko Miladinović/Studio Armada, Ljubljana; and Yugotip (, other blogs and tumblr sites worth mentioning include yugodrom, which all represent interesting sources of material, but suffer from a structural lack of precise and complete (often even correct) information, as well as a lack of contextualization, presenting design works as isolated, frequently merely nostalgic or even comical artefacts.

Even in the global Anglo-American context, design history did not appear as a discrete academic discipline until the 1970s. The interest in studying the history of design was most often the result of practical work and the need, as part of the education and training of new young designers, to familiarize them with exemplary works, designers and styles of the past as models for their own professional practice. Certainly design criticism, history and theory have their use and their audience outside of educational work at university design departments, but for many designers the primary role, significance and social purpose of the historiography of design is precisely in the establishment of transgenerational connections, learning through the analysis and research of past accomplishments. Familiarity with the history of the discipline, particularly the local and regional history, provides designers with self-awareness, the possibility to build upon tradition and create one’s own formative models. Documenting and studying works of design, institutional organisations, as well as the development of a critical and theoretical discourse on design allows us insights into various aspects of the social and institutional impact, industrial production, market and offering. It is precisely because of a lack of organised documentation, records and collections that we miss such insights so sorely or are too prone to relentless uncritical repetitions of established clichés. We would all do ourselves a great favour if we finally allowed ourselves to put to bed the notion that somehow the critical and theoretical discourse of the 1960s and 1970s by far exceeded the concrete results of this period. This notion is primarily the result of a research and theoretical position that privileges theory and then persistently begrudges the society and industry for not following in its steps, and the insistence of art historians to favour formal innovations and masterpieces over documenting and studying what really is at hand, no matter how ephemeral it seems. This is exactly one of the reasons why, as is often pointed out, we lack so much data today – basic documentation, catalogues, records and museum collections, a problem that was only compounded by the post-socialist destruction of a great number of companies and institutions.

However, the recent designer-initiated series of research and exhibition projects aimed at “excavating” the heritage of modernism demonstrates how skewed our view was of the scope and even quality of the design production of the second half of the 20th century. By studying, re-reading and re-contextualizing the theoretical and critical production, we can valorise the design production and its accomplishments more realistically.

Without knowing and understanding the history, it is impossible to understand the present, and the (emerging) discipline of design history provides us with the context and tools necessary for understanding and interpreting the present, as well as a foundation for future impact.

It is intriguing that researchers from other fields, close to and complementary with the historiography of design, very rarely deal with design products. Cultural and visual studies, for instance, often deal with painting, photography, film, fashion – but rarely design. Even when dealt with, design is often reduced to individual examples or is used to cover other fields that are of interest due to content and media-related or social reasons, such as advertising images, but mostly without covering and analysing the specific qualities or broader context of the design. Critic Rick Poynor suggested, in his text Out of the Studio: Graphic Design History and Visual Studies, that “visual studies … have the potential to offer the most propitious base, outside the design studio, for new critical approaches to graphic design history”. (Design Observer, 01.10.2011, Visual studies have not developed yet as an academic discipline in Croatia, which is why the destiny of the historiography of design or design theory is best not tied to visual studies, especially since this would probably result in yet another limited understanding of the term design.

It is therefore necessary to offer another paradigm, a different model that will include issues of historiography, education and design practices in new, changed circumstances. Design history needs to urgently emancipate itself from art history. At the same time, researching and teaching design criticism, theory and history must become integral and equal parts of both the education and professional practice of designers. It is restructuring that we need – not just of our understanding of design history as an academic discipline, but restructuring of design itself as a whole; as a critical and discursive practice.

Besides the immediate benefits for the education of students and young professionals, and self-initiated documentation, analytical, critical and historiographic activities of designers, this paradigm of design history will also contribute to the development of the domestic discourse on design, delivering it from the traditional shackles of an art-historian approach. Designers’ historiographic activities introduce an informed approach to the subject of the study itself, which includes a deeper understanding of the creation process, the technical and technological specificities, the craft-related details that normally and too frequently remain out of the purview of conventional historians. Turning away from the paradigm that focuses on prominent individual designers, style periods, innovation and masterpieces will allow and prompt an emphasis on the collective aspects of design production, the dynamic relationship between the social and the individual, the designer and the user/consumer, as well as an inclusive historiography of design that comprises anonymous (vernacular, uneducated) design, paying attention not only to quality decisions, but also to seemingly routine works, errors, failures and misses. A better understanding of the design and production methods, the position, role, modes of operation, symbolic and commodity value of designed objects that are a result of mass industrial production in a system of capitalist production and exchange has an important political function. Historical narratives provide us with a framework for the understanding of design practices (whether it be the past, present or even projections of the future), thus indicating the procedures and ways in which design participates in the construction and reconstruction of social reality, the political establishment, culture, etc.

In this context, it is particularly important and interesting that in their occupation with the historiography of their own profession and popular culture in general, designers can utilize alternative possibilities and practices of narration and visualisation, in addition to writing publications and the classic curatorial-museal approach: often through hybrid documentation, visualisation, reconstruction and reinterpretation practices, the use of infographics, video, animation or various uses of the internet. This is why design history, through the optics, filter and performance of designers themselves, is not directed only at design students, but equally at the expert (both design and academic) public as well as the broadest popular public.

This is not to say that designers could or should fully replace professional critics, historians and curators, but these critical, analytical and (auto)reflective aspects are an inseparable part of the design process itself and the field of design as such. Though we can analytically separate them, in the design process, documenting, data collection (including historical references), analysis, criticism and the practice of design itself constantly overlap and relate to each other through mutual impacts and feedbacks. These processes are never sequential, discrete and closed entities, as usually presented in diagrams of the “design process”. Rather than viewing these other disciplines as having recently become an integral part of design, we retroactively realize that design never was merely the solving of (others’) problems, but was always a critical practice, a combination of practice and theory, criticism and historiography, the utilitarian and the ideological, whereas design practice always is placed between the realistically possible and the optimal projection of the future.

It is precisely here that the potential significance and role of design lies – as a discursive, critical practice that includes the results, knowledge and methods of other fields and disciplines: from design as a practice, criticism and theory, cultural and visual studies, semiotics, image sciences and media studies, to critical theory, psychoanalysis or sociology. A contemporary critical designer should not merely “acquire competences” on how to design something “well” and “professionally”, but also on how to raise one’s voice and ask more complex questions, such as: what does it mean to design something ‘well’, or what does the ideology of professionalism hide or enable? Rather than merely allowing designers to design in a socially responsible way, this also allows them to educate and stimulate the wider public and audience, and to pose such questions publicly and deliberate the answers offered and the possibilities imposed.

Dan D, HDD, Zagreb, May-June 2015.

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