Sara De Bondt

True, graphic design is being marginalised, but let’s not forget that margins are in fact graphic spaces; the margins are ours. — Experimental Jetset (Ericson et al., 2009: 93)

In 2019, I curated and designed Off the Grid, an exhibition on post-war Belgian graphic design at Design Museum Gent. The show included public events (Design Museum Gent, 2019–20) and led to a publication (De Bondt, 2022), all of which have been elements of my practice-based doctoral research at KASK School of Arts and Ghent University.


Curating Off the Grid allowed me to define my own research area, namely the investigation of graphic design from a specific country and period. The process also raised broader questions around naming, authorship, and canon-formation, which in turn have enriched my practice as a designer and educator. The curatorial thus became a methodology that allowed me to bring the two sides — my historical research and my graphic design practice — together. In this article, I discuss my engagement with graphic design via the curatorial, and how the latter can be deployed for practice-based graphic design research in and beyond exhibition spaces.

Off the Grid, Design Museum Gent, 2019–20, video: Simon van der Zande (no sound)

Curatorial Graphic Design

Exhibitions are an overlooked and potent means of chronicling and studying graphic design research. More than fifteen years ago, I co-curated The Free Library at M+R Gallery in London with graphic designer Mark Owens. The exhibition came from New York and Philadelphia, where Owens had instigated it in 2004. It mainly included self-initiated work by our friends and peers: graphic designers, artists, and illustrators. In the press release, Owens and I (2005: 1) wrote that the exhibition would function as a ‘reading room, designed to encourage visitors to the gallery to spend time reading, hanging out, and interacting with one another’. In retrospect, I realise that the title and scenography of The Free Library also alluded to a space in which research happens. 

The Free Library, M+M Gallery, London, 2005

Three years later, Owens became co-editor of the catalogue for Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Graphic Design, curated by graphic designer Zak Kyes. This touring group show began at the Architecture Association in London before travelling to Utrecht, Valence, Stockholm, Zurich, and Lausanne. The ambitious exhibition featured many of the same contributors as The Free Library1. But instead of displaying existing work, participants were asked to make ‘an inquiry’ into an architectural subject. This idea of inquiry was important; in the catalogue’s introduction, Kyes and Owens (2005: 11) made a stance against the word ‘research’, claiming that it does not belong to graphic design but to ‘scientific data-gathering and problem-solving’. 

Forms of Inquiry, IASPIS, Stockholm, 2008, photo: Jean-Baptiste Béranger

Forms of Inquiry and its parameters were received variably, and were at times contentious. In her exhibition review, design critic Alice Twemlow (2008) wondered why ‘the practice of graphic design itself’ could not ‘be an investigative tool’. Fellow critic Rick Poynor (2008) also took Forms of Inquiry to task, criticising my generation (born in the late 1970s) of ‘critical designers’ for being too collaborative and inward-looking:  

The critical designers can’t get enough don’t-sweat-it typography and fastidious conceptual restraint. Their shyness about origins does seem short-sighted, though; it’s just the latest example of graphic design’s endemic lack of faith in its own worthiness. […] They stress their role as participants and collaborators, proclaim the value of process over final product. […] If critical graphic design is more than an aloof intellectual pose, it should spend less time hanging out with artists, turn its intelligence outward, and communicate with the public about issues and ideas that matter now.

Twemlow and Poynor’s critiques opened up a series of lively debates about what (critical) graphic design is and does — a conversation that continued through the further iterations of Forms of Inquiry.2 When the show travelled to IASPIS in Stockholm in 2011, Owens replied to Poynor’s remark by arguing that collaboration truly must remain inherent to all graphic design, that ‘being a graphic designer is […] like having a passport that allows you to trespass in multiple domains, whether it be filmmaking, art, writing, publishing, curating, fashion, or even architecture’ (Ericson et al., 2009: 349).

Several participants of Forms of Inquiry continued this reflection around collaboration, research, and process in other curatorial contexts. One well-known example is the object collection and seminar space by The Serving Library, initiated by Stuart Bertolotti-Bailey, Angie Keefer, and David Reinfurt in 2011. After installations in New York, Liverpool, and Antwerp, The Serving Library is now on long-term loan to the non-profit art space 019, in Ghent. As an editor and designer, Bertolotti-Bailey’s assertion that graphic design is ‘a verb, not a noun’, and also a ‘grey area’ (Bailey, 2014) continues to be frequently cited. More recently, graphic designer David Reinfurt staged a performance lecture of his Princeton University design theory class, which led to his publication A *New* Program for Graphic Design in 2019. Reinfurt (2019: 16) reiterated that graphic design is ‘a method applied to working with other subjects’. 

The Serving Library, 019, Ghent, 2020, photo: Michiel De Cleene

Around this same time, further solo and group exhibitions were engaged in more direct questioning of the status of the field.3 One of these was The Way Beyond Art: Wide White Space in 2012, a group show about graphic design for museums and galleries that included my work. Its curator, graphic designer Jon Sueda, described how ‘exploring time and three-dimensional space’ can enable those who identify as ‘critical designers’ to ‘extend the parameters of our practice’ (Byrne, 2011). Within the spaces of the exhibition, such ‘critical designers’ had the opportunity to think through graphic design’s very meaning, from function to naming.

The Way Beyond Art: Wide White Space, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, 2011, photo: Johnna Arnold

It is no coincidence that these shows began to appear at the same time that ‘the curatorial’ emerged as a term in contemporary art discourse. Maria Lind (2021) described it as ‘the dynamic field of constellations in which are embedded various activities having to do with making art public’. For theorist Irit Rogoff, the curatorial is what makes possible ‘events of knowledge, settings where different kinds of knowledge come together, and something new is tested’ (Rogoff, 2012). Some of the ‘critical designers’ were in fact working for ‘curatorial’ theorists like Lind or Rogoff, designing their books and exhibition graphics. 

In hindsight, it is clear how these definitions towards an expanded curatorial field affected critical graphic design. Just as the curatorial is about more than exhibiting objects, critical graphic design sought new, more social and discursive modes of distribution and communication beyond printed matter, typography, and the visual. The classroom, the performative, the voice field, and, yes, the exhibition space all came to reside within a newly expanded design field — open not only to curators, but also to designers and others whose activities include communication, mediation, and exchange.


But was critical design falling prey to what Poynor contends is common self-denigration among graphic designers, who see art, music, or architecture as loftier than their own field?4 Or is critical design’s embrace of the curatorial simply another example of graphic design’s laudable porousness to other disciplines? 


What some consider graphic design’s seemingly perpetual identity crisis has been exacerbated both by its dependency on constantly evolving technologies and its vulnerability to market forces. Based as it is on work for clients in remunerative exchange, it can be perceived as a for-profit activity undeserving of public funding; this would explain its underrepresentation and absences in museum collections and public archives. 


The name ‘graphic design’ itself is the subject of debate, evidenced in part by the many graphic design study programmes that have changed their names in the last decade.5 There is a split on such changes rather than a consensus. However in the catalogue of the large-scale exhibition Graphic Design: Now in Production in 2012–14, graphic designer James Goggin made a case to keep the name ‘graphic design’, precisely because the discipline occupies ‘a unique position between reading, writing, editing and distribution’, and is ‘nuanced and expansive enough in its everyday activities and processes to make renaming unnecessary’ (Blauvelt and Lupton, 2011: 55). 

Graphic Design: Now in Production, Walker Art Center, 2012

From the Curatorial to the Historical

In the 2009 IASPIS reader produced for Forms of Inquiry, educator Ramia Mazé questioned ‘of what’ critical designers were, in fact, critical (Ericson et al., 2009: 379). Poynor might have answered ‘history’. ‘Critical design’, he wrote, ‘can only gain from an explicit acceptance and conscious interrogation of its own evolving history’ (2008). Poynor was here asserting that Kyes and his cohort ignored past debates in the field, pretending that ‘critical graphic design’ was something new. 


I see some truth to Poynor’s critique. My own experience as a student in the 1990s confirms this sort of disciplinary blindness to history. During my BA and MA studies at Sint-Lukas in Brussels graphic design history was not taught.6 As a young graduate my knowledge of graphic design history was partial, to say the least. To fill such a glaring gap, many of my design projects over the years have become excuses for self-teaching, and historical research has become, for me, a continual source of inspiration. As I have increasingly exhibited my more historical and research-driven graphic work over these years, it is almost as if I have in some way been answering Poynor’s call for greater historical consciousness and curatorial approaches in critical design. 


While designing the visual identity for the 2010 Belgian design biennial INTERIEUR, I interviewed the designer behind the fair’s original 1968 hand-drawn logotype, Boudewijn Delaere. Together with typeface developer Sueh Li Tan, I developed Delaere’s drawing into a typeface. For the 2009 inaugural identity of Nottingham Contemporary, Jo De Baerdemaeker and I used the phenomenal type specimen collection of St Bride Library in London to digitise a typeface from 1929 Nottingham University College typesetting manuals. In designing the initial wayfinding of WIELS Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels in 2007, I revisited the vacuum-form plastic technique used by artist Marcel Broodthaers in his 1968 Industrial Poems series. By incorporating explicit historical precedents into my work for these and other institutions, I have sought to remind others that no graphic output, no matter how ‘fresh’, is immune to the field’s history. In fact, graphic design is constantly poised on the edge of the curatorial; self-conscious ‘criticality’ and historicised choice is always interacting with the ‘outward’ and contemporary businesses of communicating, speaking, and learning.

Typeface, INTERIEUR 2010

Typeface, Nottingham Contemporary, 2009

Wayfinding, WIELS, 2007

Occasional Papers

In 2008, art historian Antony Hudek and I co-founded the non-profit press Occasional Papers (OP) to create another self-initiated platform combining contemporary graphic work with historical inquiry. OP’s first title, The Master Builder: Talking with Ken Briggs was co-edited by graphic designer Fraser Muggeridge and myself in 2008. The small monograph came into being thanks to and during the last two weeks of an exhibition by curator Sandra Ross at Pump House Gallery, London that same year, devoted to Brigg’s mid-century designs for the National Theatre in London. Muggeridge and I spent many hours speaking with the elderly Briggs (who sadly passed away in 2013) in his home studio archive, recording and transcribing his recollections. From the interviews, we designed the catalogue for Brigg’s archive as it was on display at Pump House. However humble, this first OP title made me realise just how much graphic designers have a stake in their field’s history, and that graphic design itself can be the vehicle for this recuperative and restorative knowledge. This self-taught historical methodology was as significant for me as the final product we published for the exhibition. 

Designs for the National Theatre, Pump House Gallery, London, 2009

In the aforementioned catalogue, Graphic Design: Now in Production, curator and author Ellen Lupton describes OP’s publications as ‘speaking to the elemental necessity and social value of print’ (Blauvelt and Lupton, 2011: 58). In the case of my own work and practice, the curatorial and discursive practice of publishing has become crucial to my design practice. It has included public conversations at book launches, printed matter swap fairs, and on-site book printing workshops with art school students.

Selected events organised by Occasional Papers, 2008–22

Over the past fourteen years and through thirty-eight titles, Antony and I have been engaged with the daily business of running OP — editing, fundraising, distributing, organising, lecturing, and writing. As rewarding and central as this work has been, it has also led me to uncertainty as to what to call myself or how to present my work. When Frank Philippin designed a poster for a talk I gave in Darmstadt, he depicted my name as literally torn in two, representing me as half-designer, half-publisher. As a ‘critical designer’ with curatorial inclinations who has also moved into being a self-taught historian, co-running a historicised design press has brought me to new thresholds and intersections in my practice — to spaces where the accumulation and sharing of knowledge of graphic design history meet the desire to convey or even perform it.

Frank Philippin, Lecture poster, Faculty of Design, University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt, 2012

Teaching while Learning

In 2012, OP published About Graphic Design, the collected writings of graphic designer Richard Hollis, author of several decisive books on the history of graphic design. The title’s release coincided with him giving a lecture on his research methodologies to my students at the Royal College of Art, as well as his solo retrospective at Gallery Libby Sellers, both in London. This exhibition was curated by writer Emily King, and I designed the graphics. Through my work on the book and the exhibition, I became more familiar with Hollis’ approach to historical research. Many design historians are, in fact, practitioners, a status that he notes: ‘The designer understands the actual process better. Most often, the historian, who is not a practising designer, does not’ (Benincasa et al., 2016: 88). Because of the process-oriented nature of graphic design, designers are in a unique position to speak about their work and that of their peers. Educator Teal Triggs adds that the field ‘excels in producing practitioner-historians: graphic designers who have focused on writing about and curating the subject’ (Lzicar and Fornari, 2016: 18). 

Richard Hollis, Gallery Libby Sellers, London, 2012

Keeping Hollis’ assertion in mind, one could argue that art schools are ideal laboratories for crafting graphic design histories. In studios and lecture theatres, dynamic histories are often first recorded by practitioners sharing work, experiences, and advice. Influential history books of the field like designer Philip B. Megg’s A History of Graphic Design (1983) first began as research for course material (Carter et al., 2008: 14). Of course, this is not to downplay the importance of traditional research in libraries and archives, but rather to highlight the critical role of immaterial and discursive work — classroom exchanges, workshops, interviews, study collections — in the constitution of graphic design histories. Approaching history within the spaces of design schools and programmes is, in many ways, a natural fit. For example, a design seminar may touch upon the meaning and context of a historical poster by analysing its layout and typeface. And also, as teachers and practitioners, graphic designers are concerned with both words and their form. 


A few years after we published About Graphic Design, we moved to my native Belgium where I enrolled in a doctoral programme. Up to that point I had studied in Brussels, Granada, and Maastricht, and worked in London as an independent designer for thirteen years. When I became a doctoral student in 2015, I was curious to test Goggin’s claim that graphic design has always been ‘nuanced and expansive’, and that a new name like ‘critical graphic design’ was unnecessary or redundant. Building on the dual identity highlighted in the Darmstadt poster, I began searching for a lineage of practices similar to my own. I wanted to see if the two parts — designer on one side, curator-publisher-teacher on the other — could coexist without the erasure of either of their nuances.


As part of my research, and as a practicing designer, interviewing peers felt particularly important and urgent. This was especially the case for me in wanting to reach those designers from the generation that had emerged in the period following World War Two, before they were gone. I started locally, so to speak: investigating in Belgium how my former teachers had developed their own ‘critical practices’. Unlike histories of American, Dutch, German, or Swiss graphic design, the history of Belgian graphic design has largely gone undocumented. The last and only historical overview, published on the occasion of an exhibition at Design Museum Gent, is now twenty-five years old (Lapinne and Lampaert, 1997). Such a gap led to further research methods beyond oral histories: in personal, corporate and state archives as well as flea markets and online searches.

Selected interviews with Herman Lampaert, Sophie Alouf, Boudewijn Delaere, Paul Ibou, and Rob Buytaert, 2019

After about three years of gathering material, I had a hard drive and cupboards overloaded with objects, facts, and images. This collection proved unwieldy in more than just quantity: its quality was diverse, uneven, and often undocumented or lacking provenance. It included materials from low-quality scans to anonymous and undated records, from 3D objects to printed ephemera. To be able to work with it and present it, I would need a uniquely loose format of presentation — one that would allow for multiple readings and collective discussion, and a space where students, teachers, practitioners, and the simply curious could not only look but also gather, learn, share, and discuss. Most importantly, as a practitioner and teacher, I needed to do more than just assemble and re-present, but actively build a space where the presentation could occur. 

In Koeien van Letters, Design Museum Gent, 1997–98

I was developing historiographic and research tools for presentations that could be both authorial (by curators and scenographers) and collective (the participants and audiences), both object-driven and discursive, and perhaps most importantly, a place for shared learning. So, when the invitation came from Design Museum Gent — where the last exhibition on Belgian graphic design history had taken place a generation earlier — to curate a display of my research subject, I could hardly decline.

Creating Contexts

The full title of Off the Grid: Belgian Graphic Design from the 1960s and 1970s as Seen by Sara De Bondt at Design Museum Gent made clear that what would be on display derived from my subjective vantage point. Curating and designing the exhibition forced me to organise, tag, categorise, explain, transfer, and make the material I had collected accessible. Although I was intent on showing archival printed material in vitrines, I was also keeping in mind type designer Peter Bil’ak’s (2006) oft-cited caution on the danger of displaying graphic design in a white cube environment: ‘The entire raison d’être of the work is lost as a side effect of losing the context of the work, and the result is frozen appearance stripped of meaning, liveliness and dynamism of use’. In the case of his exhibition Graphic Design in the White Cube at the 2006 International Biennial of Graphic Design in Brno, Bil’ak’s solution to the potential problem of lost meaning and liveliness was to commission posters that would simultaneously announce the show on the streets of the city and also be exhibited inside its gallery spaces. 

Graphic Design in the White Cube, Brno Biennial, Moravian Gallery, 2006

To maintain this liveliness in Off the Grid, I invited designer Michael Mariott to create the exhibition furniture; pieces that would depart from the clinical or the standard vitrine that can set the atmosphere of exhibits as untouchable relics. Mariott’s reusable bright blue tables and chairs — easy to assemble and store as flat-pack designs, fastened with off-the-shelf pink cable ties — were a far cry from museum display units, and much closer in spirit to the furnishings of a school. 

Michael Marriott, designs for exhibition seating, Off the Grid, 2019

The act of convening extended to people. Under the staircase leading to the basement gallery space, I installed a pared down lecture theatre — a lectern, a few chairs, and a carpet — that provided room for classes and lectures from local art schools. The carpet I designed to identify the ‘school’ area was printed with photographs from the archives of the late Belgian graphic designer Corneille Hannoset. I felt that it was important to signify that historical precedent remains the basis and foundation of fledgling histories of graphic design: that it is to be sampled, reused, and ultimately made useful.

Off the Grid, Design Museum Gent, 2019–20, photo: Michael Delausnay

When Poynor critiqued my generation’s lack of interest in design history in 2008, he referred to the 1990s debates around the ‘designer as author’ (Poynor, 2008), in which designers called upon each other to transcend service-oriented production and make more personal, social, and investigative work. Some began to question the worshipping of the individual celebrity designer. In his influential 1996 article ‘The Designer as Author’, graphic designer Michael Rock wondered if it even mattered who the maker is: ‘If we really want to go beyond the designer-as-hero model, we may have to imagine a time when we can ask, “what difference does it make who designed it?”’ (Rock, 1996)


In Off the Grid, the many works by anonymous designers posed a challenge to the re-positioning of objects in their linear historical contexts. The unsigned election posters I discovered in various Belgian labour and union archives seemed mute — no amount of historical re-staging seemed capable of reviving them.7 To include them in Off the Grid, I turned to graphic design tools to organise their display: hanging them on the wall like laying out images on the spread of a book.

Off the Grid, Design Museum Gent, 2019–20, photo: Michael Delausnay

Other works had questionable authorship, such as some of the posters by pioneers Jean-Jacques Stiefenhofer or Paul Ibou. These were examples of designers who had used noms de plume when client interference made them unhappy with the final result (in the case of the former), or had occasionally redacted co-design credits (in the case of the latter).

Jean-Jacques Stiefenhofer credit, Flanders Architecture Archives, Antwerp

Credits redacted by Paul Ibou, Letterenhuis, Antwerp

The architectural environment of Design Museum Gent helped me envision the exhibitionOff the Grid occupied the museum’s basement space while a retrospective of architect Lina Bo Bardi’s furniture was on display in the loftier ground floor space above. This layering is itself significant: Off the Grid was positioned under the main modernist storyline embodied within Bo Bardi’s chairs and cabinets. The museum’s basement, as it were, was the footnote, a repository for the messy and unprocessed material so often overlooked by ‘history’. Truly, this physical location was faithful to the exhibition’s thesis that graphic design history in Belgium is both sorely lacking and that unlike art objects — including modernist furniture, now elevated to the status of art — graphic design lends itself poorly to permanent museum displays. Design historian Clémence Imbert has emphasised the resistance of graphic design to gallery exhibits (Marrier, 2018: 11); sociologists Roberta Shapiro and Nathalie Heinich (2012) have, echoing Bil’ak’s critique, coined the term ‘artification’ to describe what happens when a vernacular object is placed within a museum. Off the Grid chose to speak to this ambiguity, by imagining a ‘bottom-up’ display of material that resists museumification as it plays into it at the same time. 

Simon van der Zande and Sara De Bondt, footage for Off the Grid, Design Museum Gent, 2019 (no sound)

The need to resist ‘artification’ in the staging of the graphic design object can be seen as a challenge. I have preferred to see it as an opportunity: to make a productive rebuttal against display scenarios that appease. As Triggs has observed, canonical histories have tended to depend upon conventional display methods: ‘The history of graphic design has been dominated by a canon based on prominent designers; usually white, middle-class males — and informs how graphic design is displayed’ (Lzicar and Fornari, 2016: 21). Off the Grid, by contrast, consciously suspended Belgian graphic design history in the margins. Its only context was the museum’s basement — somewhere between exhibition space and storage, archive and classroom. In so doing, the exhibition intended to inherently acknowledge the ‘essentially circumstantial’ nature of the graphic object as theorised by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard (1997: 41): 

Graphic art is not just good to sell things. It is always an object of circumstances and consequently ephemeral. Of course, you can put it in archives, collect it and exhibit it—this is what we’re doing here. You thus suspend certain of the finalities we have designated: persuading, testifying. You retain only pleasing, which exceeds circumstance. You turn a piece of graphic art into an artwork. But you deceive and are deceived. The graphic object is circumstantial, but essentially so. Inseparable from the event it promotes, thus from the location, the moment, and the public where the thing happens.  

As I had hoped, many visitors to Off the Grid approached me about the content of its exhibits: a poster for a concert they had enjoyed, or the cover of a book someone else had read. I knew that the observation by design historian Bridget Wilkins must always be kept in mind: that context is not the only variable, but that users and interpreters come from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, no matter where they may be accessing the work. She argues that ‘An excessive concentration on the look of a piece of graphics also ignores the fact that we live in multicultural societies and that visual images are understood by different cultures in different ways’ (De Bondt and de Smet, 2012: 71). 


Graphic design is also often inherently either dealing in multiplicity, free, disposable, or all of the above; there may be little control over who uses it, when, or how. Accepting the objects’ loss of context as a given, Off the Grid sought to transform this lack into an invitation to generate new meanings — in the words of design researcher Maddalena Dalla Mura, to ‘generate another kind of discussion, to expose design to another set of ideas, perceptions, and critiques’ (Marrier, 2018: 33). For Dalla Mura, this intentional occupation of other contexts is ‘a form of critical practice’ (2018: 33). In the case of Off the Grid, this became a vital foundational concept, as any newly generated interpretations would have been unimaginable in the objects’ original time and place of mid-century Belgium. 


Two terms, ‘critical’ and ‘authorship’, were central to the ethos of Off the Grid. The show featured footage from the interviews I conducted with graphic designers active in Belgium between the 1950s and 80s. However, in its display the exhibition did not engage in debating the intrinsic criticality, or lack thereof, of objects or practices. Rather it chose to position them in their often unremarkable and un-authored materiality. Unlike a traditional museum setting in which works may be organised by author, technique, or chronology, the objects were grouped under keywords relevant to my own design practice: typography, format, collaboration, social relevance, seriality, pattern, economy of means, surface, colour, and education. These terms were clarified in the wall texts and exhibition guide. I aimed to be as transparent as possible about the subjective nature of this collection, both in its inclusions and its historicisations. The friction between the materiality of objects, individual recollections, contemporary display, and transhistorical terms was designed to spark debate, and ultimately to query if any canonical nationalist history of graphic design could be epistemologically sound. 

Floorplan, Off the Grid, Design Museum Gent, 2019–20

Exhibition guide (click image to download pdf)

As a pedagogical site, Off the Grid generated many new forms of knowledge-sharing and collective authorship, from a lecture series (This is...) to a radio broadcast featuring practicing graphic designers in Belgium (Talking Letterheads). It also culminated in historiographical and educational initiatives, such as collective Wikipedia writing sessions with my students and a decolonising design workshop with artist Grace Ndiritu.8

Selected public programme, Off the Grid, 2019–20

Graphic Frontiers

One advantage of facing the nearly empty slate of Belgian graphic design history is that it is not necessary (or possible) to spend much time deconstructing a canon, as one does not exist. Instead, I aimed to construct inclusive stories and encourage, to borrow Martha Scotford’s key term, ‘messy histories’. Scotford’s influential thesis on design is that the field’s obsession with success has contributed to women and people from diverse ethnicities being side-lined, and that any history of design should acknowledge the work of employees, spouses, and significant others, collaborators, teachers, critics, historians, and theoreticians. Scotford (1994) urges us to pay special attention to:

Design works that are not produced for natural or large institutions but for small enterprises or local causes; design works that are not produced in great numbers and even may be at the scale of a “cottage industry”; design works that may use cultural codes not part of mainstream culture; design work for small and specialised audiences; design work in forms more personal and expressive; design practices organised around family life and personal issues; design that turns it back on mainstream design, etc. 

In the exhibition catalogue for Signals from the Periphery: Alternative Practices of Graphic Design curated by graphic designers Laura Pappa and Elisabeth Klement, the designer Olya Troitskaya — founder of London-based collective Evening Class — also highlighted the need to recognise these other types of work as design: ‘I’m interested’, she writes, ‘in the way emotional labour goes unrecognised. To try to design our working relationships and challenge the hidden and explicit hierarchies that emerge is an ongoing design activity’ (Klement and Pappa, 2017: 15).

Signals from the Periphery, Tallinn Art Hall, 2017, photo: Karel Koplimets

In the context of Off the Grid, the messy histories on display allowed the exhibition to resist what seemed to be its clear nationalist premise. While Belgium remained the historical framework of the work on view, the subjective telling of the stories within the display inevitably failed to cohere into neat geographic storylines. This was an important development for me as a Belgian-born graphic designer whose career has been spent mostly abroad. It was even more important given the rightward shift in current Flemish politics, and the precise tendency towards the reappropriation of nationalist heritage and canon formation. 


Scotford’s conception of ‘messy histories’ is especially apropos in this case. Belgium is a notoriously messy country, polarised and multilingual. Since its independence in 1830, it has struggled with an absence of a strong national identity — pulled between Flemish and Walloon communities, and only recently starting to contend with its colonial past. These tensions make it difficult for the country to trust federal institutions that other countries take for granted, such as national museums and archives. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the field of graphic design: to this day, there is not a single public institution dedicated to collecting and preserving graphic design in Belgium. 


Yet this messiness, this inadvertent multiculturalism, and this lack of institutionalism has also been liberating and beneficial. Throughout my research for Off the Grid, I was pleased to discover how many graphic designers in Belgium are transnational, as I am. Not only have many Belgian-born designers studied abroad, but a large number of successful designers based in Belgium have been immigrants.9 As the Brussels-based Hungarian graphic designer Charles Rohonyi (1971: 17) wrote: ‘Belgium is undoubtedly the one European country with the highest number of foreigners per square mile. This has equally made it a country “without graphic frontiers”.’ Off the Grid aimed to highlight this diversity. At the same time, even paradoxically as it rejected nationalism, it aimed to alert Belgian institutions and stakeholders to the necessity of preserving histories for future foundations. 


Through my historical research, it was gratifying to learn that several Belgian graphic designers had indeed used the curatorial to question and develop their expanded practices long before the ‘designer as author’ or ‘critical designer’ debates. For the trailblazing designer Jeanine Behaeghel, exhibitions were a means of defining her trajectory in a field dominated by men. At the end of her studies in 1962, she curated a show of her Düsseldorf Academy class in her hometown of Bruges. Three years later, she exhibited her own work to mark the founding of her graphic design practice, Studio Behaeghel. And finally, in 1975, she announced her withdrawal from design via an exhibition. Another example is Multi-Art, a publishing imprint, bookshop, and gallery founded by Liliane-Emma Staal and Paul Ibou in Antwerp in 1969. They have characterised their design-art imprint as participatory: ‘The art moves and viewers can interact with it. The contemporary notion comes full circle: democratisation, consumption, participation’ (De Bruyn, n.d.: 105). Collaboration and exhibition were key motivators in Staal and Ibou’s design work, just as they are for me. 

Multi-Art, Boekenbeurs Antwerpen (Antwerp Book Fair), 1971

Besides individual practitioners, Off the Grid also featured the work of vocational organisations that organised and supported graphic design exhibitions, none of which exist today. These included the Design Centre (1964–86) or the Chambre Belge des Graphistes (Belgian Chamber of Graphic Design, 1948–78). The Chambre staged monthly exhibitions by members and guests at its Brussels clubhouse, which was open outside office hours and free of charge in order to reach a wider audience. In 1961 and in a move reminiscent of Bi’lak’s Brno exhibition and The Free Library, the Chambre organised Manifest van de 9, an exhibition of self-initiated work by its members around the streets of Brussels. These were specifically ‘not commissions, but proposals originating from one’s own vision, questioning whether graphic designers should become their own clients rather than wait for commissions’ (Lapinne and Lampaert, 1997: 82). In the 1975 catalogue for the Chambre’s group show at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, curator Pierre Baudson (1975: 11) provided a roadmap for where graphic design would go in the digital era, for both designers and audiences: ‘graphic design, at the highest level, [can] be an extraordinary method of achieving self-realisation […] and that of others’. 

Manifest van de 9, Brussels, 1961

Unfinished Business

In the context of my doctoral research but also in line with my curatorial approach, it was important for me to delay any publications about the exhibition until it had performed its collective work. The number of visitors (25,246) may be instructive in terms of graphic design’s growing popularity, or could be indicative of Bo Bardi’s continued appeal. But more instructive now, with the ability to take stock of this audience, has been the examination of attendees’ demographic composition, which included large numbers of students, practitioners, researchers in different fields, and more casual visitors, many of whom took part in lectures, workshops, or classes throughout the exhibition’s three months. Any book reflecting on such collective participation did not, in my opinion, belong in either standard catalogue format or academic publishing. 

Off the Grid: Histories of Belgian graphic design, Occasional Papers, 2022

As defined by Lind, Rogoff, and others, the curatorial is a spectrum, from research to dissemination via exhibition and publication. Indeed, as a curatorial research project, Off the Grid traced an unbroken line between arranging posters on a wall, hosting discussions in the exhibition space, and finally laying out images on the pages of a book. Off the Grid: Histories of Belgian graphic design, was published by Occasional Papers in 2022. It aims to capture the multiplicity of voices that were present in the exhibition space, with a varied selection of contributions by designers, historians, archivists, students, antiquarians, teachers, artists, type designers, printers, curators, and myself. The book addresses head-on further related topics only tangentially referred to in the exhibition, such as labour relations, colonisation, designer-as-author debates, education, and type design. 


As a project, Off the Grid allowed me to measure how far we’ve travelled since Forms of Inquiry fifteen years ago. For one, ‘critical design’ no longer strikes anyone as provocative terminology, and indeed several other terms have followed it since. As authors Francisco Laranjo and Brad Haylock (2014) have remarked, all graphic design is, in some form or other, critical, and ‘therefore a special term is unnecessary and redundant’; in this view, critical design is itself a ‘tautology’ (Coombs, 2019: 17).


There may also be more pragmatic reasons why the graphic design field has moved on from debates around critical and speculative design. Jobs have become harder to come by and designers are under increased time pressure to perform and promote themselves. In 2018, designer and author Silvio Lorusso spoke of running a studio as one among other means of survival: ‘Nowadays tutoring in a school, obtaining a scholarship or grant, or even doing shifts in a bar is often the only way to practice graphic design’ (Lindgren, 2018: 246). He pointed to a severe side-effect of the emerging times: ‘slowly graphic design, which until recently represented a professional and identity pivot, shifts centrifugally towards the margins’ (Lindgren, 2018: 246). 


As I hope to have made clear, I am not convinced that such marginalisation is detrimental to graphic design history. From its basement location to its relatively obscure content (in terms of name recognition), Off the Grid has seen margins as productive spaces; indeed, at a safe distance from centrifugal discourses centred on authorship, influence, and historical significance. For economic reasons rightly identified by Lorusso, I have continued my studio practice, my teaching duties, and my doctoral work, all while exploring alternative distribution systems.

In 2020, Occasional Papers published Natural Enemies of Books: A Messy History of Women in Printing and Typography. One of its editors, Sara Kaaman of graphic design collective MMS, issued a stark call for design to change:

It’s about renegotiating what can be considered design, what kind of practice and activities can be introduced to what design can be. It’s in flux today, and keeping it open and welcoming to other methods into it that haven’t been labelled graphic design before has so much to win because it becomes so much richer a practice, field or profession. (Kaaman, 2020)

The title Off the Grid referred to a need felt by designers like myself and others, a desire to step out of past debates around graphic design’s identity and away from the discursive and hierarchical grids into which designers have been typically locked. To return to Bertolotti-Bailey’s observation, once ‘off the grid’, graphic design is more apt to be considered as a verb. 


But Off the Grid also referred to being unregistered, disconnected, an outsider — as Belgian graphic design has been within the broader international design history canon. Off the Grid as an installation was in this sense reparative, since it made clear how exhibitions can generate new networks between objects and people, across nationalities and generations. They have the ability to encourage curators, designers, participants, and visitors to connect and exchange information, as well as to foster discourse among graphic designers. 


Such discourse has allowed me to more precisely conceptualise a field of which I was already a member and actor. As Lind has argued, the curatorial acts ‘as a way of thinking in terms of interconnections: linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories, and discourses in physical space like an active catalyst, generating twists, turns and tensions’ (Lind, 2009: 103). In this exhibition, what came out of such interconnections exceeded my interpretations and refused singular authorship. Curating it allowed me to undertake and then leave open the narrative of Belgian graphic design history, to collective re-/un-writing. This project has addressed difficult and urgent areas of collective memory — resurgent nationalism, colonialism, labour and gender relations — while keeping space for the endlessly unfinished business of new narratives that can cope with the messiness of history. 

My research is funded by the Arts Research Fund of HOGENT and is part of a doctoral research in the arts at KASK & Conservatory (HOGENT – Howest). I want to thank my supervisors, Helena De Preester and Luc Derycke, and doctoral committee members Ruth Blacksell and Armand Mevis. Thanks also to Katrien Laporte, Evelien Bracke and Eva Van Regenmortel at Design Museum Gent. Last but not least, I am deeply grateful to Antony Hudek for his continuous feedback and input.


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