Im Gespräch mit Daniel van der Velden, Mitgründer von Metahaven aus Amsterdam, über Nation Branding, die Macht des Designs und die visuelle Identität von ISIS.
agenda design: In 2010 you published Uncorporate Identity, a book that is very insightful, almost prescient. It deals with nation branding, Europe’s borders in regard to refugees, the role of terrorism and the power-shift towards networks. How did the book come about?
Daniel van der Velden: Originally, we only wanted to do a book about the identity that we developed for the Principality of Sealand, the first project we ever did. As we were writing, the book grew and got more serious. We started to interview more people and collected a lot of material about what we would now call Design, Identity & Geopolitics. The title of the book was clear from the beginning, although we didn’t have a programmatic statement of what an Uncorporate Identity actually was. But we knew it would be a book against the typical branding books and how-to-guides on logos and identities. It was meant to be an anti-design book about design.
agenda design: The book is quite exclusive – not just because it is now an expensive collectors item – its design is almost hostile. Why did you make it so hard for the reader?
Daniel van der Velden: We were not interested in just making a straightforward book “about something.” It has a strong stylistic signature, but I wouldn’t call it hostile. The themes that we deal with are complex, and the type of design that we use adds another layer of complexity. But if we had presented it in a straightforward way, we might have gotten a complaint from the design world that we didn’t reflect the complexity of the topic in the design. You can’t make it right for everyone. Now people say that the book contains all kinds of predictions of stuff that has become relevant. When we started out as Metahaven, people thought we were just trying to get exposure for work that we did proactively, without a typical client. It took a while for them to realise that we were serious and this was not just a gimmick to advertise our Sealand project. By the time the book came out, we had some good reviews, for example from the International New York Times (which was then still called the International Herald Tribune). But I think that many people from the design world didn’t really read it and became interested in, or better, aware of the content only some years later.
agenda design: Your book seems like a response to Wally Olins’ Corporate Identity, which came out twenty years earlier. You quote him a few times and in a way build on his work. Are you fundamentally against his position?
Daniel van der Velden: The main reason we got interested in Wally Olins work was because he also wrote a book about how to do nation branding. This was around the turn of the millennium, when many former Soviet states were trying to attract tourism and foreign investment. Olins argued that countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were in need of nation branding because nobody in the West could tell them apart. We found this Western view of branding the world really short-sighted. This was really the first time that nation branding became a topic for graphic design, and that is why we were so heavily invested in the conjunction of our views and those of Wally Olins. He was the person to respond to, but ours is not an anti-Wally Olins book. It is just presenting a completely different approach to design and branding.
agenda design: A lot of your work is about the relationship between design and power. Often design primarily serves as an amplifier for those already in power. Do you think that the designers themselves have political power because of their skills?
Daniel van der Velden: I don’t think we have a good model yet for how design relates to power. Design in its broader sense certainly is powerful. Some design is so well known, and so often used, that it seems impossible to imagine the world without it. Design can create usefulness and reach ubiquity through network effects – it thus very actively constitutes the world and in that sense it is very powerful. Individual designers don’t necessarily have power. But they have agency and they can choose what it is they want to do, with whom to work with and form alliances. Not just in terms of defending their political views but also their rights. Designers can do things that have an effect on power.
agenda design: In your book you also wrote about the identity of Al-Qaeda … how do you evaluate today’s role of design for outsider groups such as Anonymous and terrorists such as ISIS?
Daniel van der Velden: I think that it is very relevant. The interesting thing about Anonymous is, that they got their image from the film V for Vendetta – the design was never intended to be a political symbol in that sense. The identity construction happened partly by accident, but it works, and is quite consistent. Everyone can join – it is an open structure. This type of development is typical for the years between 2010 and 2015 where a lot of these meme-like adaptations happened. The “Islamic State” obviously has a very strong sense of branding. In the beginning, many people were surprised by how well designed a lot of their media materials were. It didn’t fit the image of Osama bin Laden sitting in a cave. And these videos don’t just come from a religious or political viewpoint, they draw on western tropes and are clearly inspired by fantasy and horror genres. What we now see is a Full-HD cinematic approach to the branding of terrorism. And that in part has to do with the democratisation, or more even distribution, of hardware and software. It is no longer the prerogative of anyone in the West to define or restrict the use of these tools.
Metahaven wurde 2007 von Vinca Kruk und Daniel van der Velden in Amsterdam gegründet und versteht sich als Thinktank für Ästhetik und Politik. Beide studierten ursprünglich Grafikdesign an der Willem de Kooning Akademie in Amsterdam und sind heute Designprofessoren an der Schweizer European Graduate School. Neben ihren oft spekulativen, kritischen und experimentellen Designprojekten sind sie vor allem für ihre designtheoretischen Essays bekannt.