+ Graphic Design and the redirective practice
of an ornamental approach, 2023.
+ Expressive Decoration and Rational Rivets:
An Ink Set by Eduard Cuyper, 2023.
+ Paleis Talks: Een kunstmatig intelligente verstandhouding
tussen mens en machine, 2023.
+ Paleis Talks: Balancerende belangen
van ontwerper tot opdrachtgever, 2023.
+ Paleis Talks: Nieuwe benaderingen
en letterontwerp, 2023.
+ Patronen: Inpakken of Inlijsten?, 2023.
+ Marble & Metadata, 2022.
Graphic design is omnipresent, yet often discrete, in visually translating communication, organising information and rendering ideas in visual appearances. Thus, graphic design is integral to the societal condition and invested in the spread and solidification of ideologies. Therewith, the practice is inextricably bound to contemporary societal concerns. At the turn of the century, the notion of what it means to be ‘modern’ in contemporary society, which was so proudly advocated at the beginning of the twentieth-century, became an increasingly contested phenomenon. Biases in the fundament and foundation has been examined from various critical lenses; including feminism that challenges the patriarchal foundation, decoloniality that criticises Eurocentricity, or from socialist theories that criticise the influences of capitalism. Discussions reach a polarising boiling point and shatters singularised conceptualisations of modernity; as is pointed out by the notions like ‘multiple modernisms,’ the liquefaction of modernism as Zygmunt Bauman describes in Liquid Modernity (1999), or as the pluriversal thinking advocated by Arturo Escobar in Designs for the Pluriverse (2018), or take into question if societies have been modern at all; as famously addressed by Bruno Latour in We Have Never Been Modern (1991) and Down to Earth Politics in the New Climatic Regime (2018). Furthermore, from an ecological perspective emerges the observation that the consumer society, manufacturing processes and living conditions of modernity are inevitably unsustainable: as indicated by Tony Fry in Design futuring: sustainability, ethics, and new practice (2009) and Becoming human by design (2012). These growing concerns are substantiated by the evidence of climate catastrophe and the loss of biodiversity in era proclaimed as the Anthropocene.
Even the soil underneath our feet may no longer be taken for granted due to threatening effects of global warming and the rise of the sea level: resulting in social-, environmental-, and political issues that inevitably affect design practices. From this emerges the urgency to reorient design practices toward, what Tony Fry describes, an ‘ideological redirection.’ Despite growing concerns about design in the Anthropocene, remarkably little is written about the role of graphic design in the age of climate change. Whereas graphic design is without question involved in the commercial communication of corporate capitalism, persuading and encouraging consumption, it too provides the means of communication for counter movements, political and activism alike. The contribution of the graphic design discipline in the spread and solidification of cultural values and ideological convictions motivates questions about how the discipline can be a redirective practice. How can the graphic discipline contribute to understanding that mankind is not separated from, but in relation to nature?
Like the loss of biodiversity, the processes of modernity, from which design emerged, set in motion the decline of craft and the extermination of ornament. However, critical revisions of what it means to be modern consequently motivates designers to reconsider what has been lost due to the modernisation of design practices. Is it not the ornament that enabled the integration of a fascination for the natural environment, its beauty and its processes, into ‘design’ practices? What is the potential role for the ornament in redirecting the graphic design practice?
Colossal questions motivate research into the role of graphic design in the Anthropocene. Within the overarching debate, this thesis aims to examine how the ornament may inform the redirective practice of the graphic design discipline, in responding to the overarching issues of climate catastrophe. By analysing a variety of case studies from The Netherlands, ranging from 2010 until 2023, this thesis aims to develop a thorough understanding of a contemporary ornamental approach while taking in consideration the diversity of practices and approaches to the graphic design discipline. Through a quadruple inquiry, investigating the tools, the product, the practice, and the approach to the ornament in graphic design, the thesis aims to analyse the potential of the ornament to contribute to a redirective practice. Therewith, the thesis ties into an immense and immersive subject of discussion, indicating an ontological shift in recognising that mankind is not separated from but exists in relation to nature. How can the practice of graphic design, herein, aid in supporting and solidifying the shifting ontological and ideological redirection? In other words, how can the ornament redirect graphic design towards understanding relationalities in the Anthropocene?
The online article features the introduction of the master thesis only.
If interested, feel free to request full access to the thesis via email.
 For a discussion about gender and feminism see Judy Attfield, “Form/Female Follows Function/Male: Feminist Critiques of Design,” in Design Studies: A Reader, ed. Hazel Clark and David Brody (Oxford: Berg), 49-53.; Iain Borden, Jane Rendell and Barbara Penner (eds.) ‘introduction,’ in Gender, Space and Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction (London: Routledge, 1999), 6-12.; Cheryl Buckley, “Made in Patriarchy: Theories of Women and Design – A Reworking,” in Design Studies: A Reader, ed. Hazel Clark and David Brody (Oxford: Berg), 283-9.; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999).
 For a discussion about ‘decoloniality’ see Cinnamon Janzer and Lauren Weinstein, "Social design and neocolonialism," in The Social Design Reader, ed. Elizabeth Resnick, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), 361-374.; Elizabeth Tunstall, Decolonizing Design: A Cultural Justice Guidebook (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2023).; Elizabeth Tunstall, "Decolonizing design innovation: design anthropology, critical anthropology, and indigenous knowledge," in The Social Design Reader, ed. Elizabeth Resnick, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), 345-360.; Rolando Vázquez, Vistas of Modernity: Decolonial Aesthesis and the End of the Contemporary (Amsterdam: Mondriaan Fund, 2020).
 The concept redirective practice is examined in the ‘theoretical framework’ (see section 3.2.1), for a broader discussion see Tony Fry, Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics, and New Practice (Oxford: Berg, 2009), 18-104.; Tony Fry, “Redirective Practice: An Elaboration,” Design Philosophy Papers 5, no. 1 (2007): 5–20.
Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.
Escobar, Arturo. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.
Fry, Tony. “Redirective Practice: An Elaboration.” Design Philosophy Papers 5, no. 1 (2007): 5–20. https://doi.org/10.2752/144871307X13966292017072.
Fry, Tony. Becoming Human by Design. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019.
Fry, Tony. Defuturing: A New Design Philosophy. London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 1999.
Fry, Tony. Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics, and New Practice. Oxford: Berg, 2009.
Latour, Bruno. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018.
Latour, Bruno. Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Oxford: Polity Press, 2017.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.
+ Semiotics in Graphic Design,
An inquiry of shifts of method and meaning in the transition from physical ancient artefact to digital object
Fig 1. Picture of the Nefertiti bust in Neues Museum Berlin. 14th century BC. Limestone, painted; gypsum plaster, rock crystal, wax;
49,0 x 24,5 x 35,0 cm. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Used under GNU Free Documentation License.
Fig. 2. P3D-Model model of Nofretete by Trigon Art, 2008. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Used under CC-NC-BY-SA license.
Both museum and archives like the
British museum, Louvre and Staatliche Museen zu Berlin are digitalising
collections of cultural heritage for analytical, preservation and
distributional purposes. Often, the digital artefacts are released under the
Creative Commons license,
liberating the artefact from the institutional condition, and allow the digital
replica to circulate out of the museum environment. The transformation of the physical
artefact into the digital environment seems to abandon the
materiality of the object, which consequently allows accessible distribution,
reproduction, remediation, appropriation and potentially for the ancient
artefact to acquire new meaning. What shifts occur when the historical museum
object, valued through singularity, historicity, materiality and authenticity,
is reproduced due to digital methods that allow accessible, effortless and
infinite reproduction? Appropriation of cultural heritage stimulates debate
concerning transitions in materiality, methods of reproduction and relation
between ancient historical artefact and digital replica. The question rises how
to interpret and understand the digital reproduction and appropriation when it
seems to abandon traditional understandings of valuation? How does the
reproduction relate to the original and what does it refer to? Through this
paper I aim to indicate the transitions, on which to base the interpretation of
the digital reproduction, through the categorisation of shifts in method
and meaning of the digital reproduction of the Nefertiti Bust,
three-dimensionally scanned by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in 2008 and
released under Creative Commons license in 2019. Thousands of models,
modifications and variations circulate through internet platforms like Etsy and
Sketchfab, often associated with maker spaces, craft culture and hobbyists, but
also commercial corporations like Kuka, an international company specialised in
automatization, and Prusa, an open-source 3D printer manufacturer, showcase
their products and services through demonstrating the reproduction of the
iconic Nefertiti bust.
Fig. 3. Image from Prusa Research, Original Prusa i3
MK3S+ kit. https://www.prusa3d.com/product/original-prusa-i3-mk3s-kit-3/
The construct of knowledge circulating the digitalization of cultural heritage seems divided
into separate approaches, dilemmas and fields of knowledge. The apparent
absence of materiality in the digital environment fosters a philosophical
debate concerning the fundament of material culture.
Various terms introduced, such as hypermateriality, neo-materiality, immaterialism,
digital materiality and virtual materiality, indicate the
difficulty of approaching the matter of the digital condition.
The term ‘post-materialism’ reacts to the complexity and shifts of materiality,
and proposes to abandon the intrinsic ties to tangible forms. The issue,
however, is that post-materialism suggests a temporal condition.
In similar regard, curator Christiane Paul proposes the notion of ‘neomateriality’
to counter the concept of immateriality and dematerialisation; which rejects
The condition of neomateriality builds on the Greek notion of the
‘hyper’ (ὑπέρ), meaning ‘over’ or ‘beyond,’ and refers to the philosophical
understanding of hyper- reality, -virtuality, or -materiality’.
The ‘hyper’ provides the condition in which the distinction between the ‘real’
and the ‘imaginary’ implodes. However, obscuring the border between physical
and digital matter, or the real and the virtual, seems
inadequate for addressing the transition from physical to digital
matter. By treating the digital as an adjective, Gottlieb and Leonardi propose digital
materialism to contextualise materiality within the digital condition. The
social- political discourse centralised on the notion of postmodern culture, influenced a decline in the interest of authenticity–of which
materiality is a fundamental aspect–as a crucial element of value judgement.
When authenticity is subjugated to contemporary value judgements surrounding
democratic principles of accessibility, the position of the replica in relation
to the original has to be reevaluated. During recent years, much
research has been conducted on the relationship between original and
reproduction, primarily divided into aesthetic theory; questioning the value of
authenticity which prioritises the original;
and media theory; which interprets the reproduction as mediated extension of the
In favor of deconstructing the stable relationship between
original and reproduction, Jean Baudrillard famously argued that the
reproduction itself becomes a copy without an original: hence, the simulacrum.
From the field of museology, much attention is paid to the analytical,
preservation and distributional possibilities of the digital technologies,
which holds on to the physical artefact as authentic original.
While the digital artefact becomes subjected to a process of remediation,
arguably even redesign, the original artefacts–originating from the field of
the historian, archaeologist or anthropologist,–causes the digital reproduced
artefacts to be overlooked as designed objects. Research concerning the possibilities
for the individual to access and even distribute or modify cultural heritage
and museum collections are primarily conducted within the environment of legal
studies; determining the range of legitimate restrictions and freedom.
The separation into fields of knowledge and theoretical discourse, regarding the
digital trans-historical artefacts, exposes the gap in which the philosophical
debate concerning meaning reaches out into the field of media theory
concerning the method. The method of accessible digital
reproduction is directly related to the circulation of the artefact outside the
professional environment; which consequently affects the societal
interpretation of cultural heritage, hence the meaning of the artefact.
Prior to examining the transformation of the Nefertiti bust to the digital realm,
a summary on the biography of the object serves the purpose of creating insight
into the historical depth of the artefact. In approaching the question ‘How
do things relate to people?’, archaeologist Anthony Harding considers
objects to be immanently related to human purpose–which includes artistic and
religious purposes. Artefacts have a ‘life’ in which the object performs the original
function, which Harding addresses as ‘use-lives.’
Like humans, objects wear, tear and transform through time, which constitute
the biography of the object. Objects may outlive the original purpose,
which means that the artefact physically remains existent without the necessity
of performing the original purpose. After the ‘use-live’ the object may
acquire new purpose and, despite not explicitly mentioned by Harding, this new
stage in the biography of the object may be regarded as the ‘afterlife.’
detail of the Nefertiti bust, it must be acknowledged that little is recorded
about either the bust or Queen Nefertiti herself. Information about the life,
origins and death, are scarce and result in a greater amount of speculations,
than factual records.
It is in the centre of Egypt, approximately 3.420 years after the creation of
the Nefertiti bust, that the artefact is rediscovered in 1912 at the excavation
site of Tell el-Amarna, in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose.
Only a year later the artefact arrives in Berlin, and enters the collection of
James Simon who solely financed the excavation,
displayed at the Egyptian Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, where it
has been on display ever since 1924.
The Nefertiti bust is one of the most iconic pieces on display of the Egyptian
Museum and counts amongst the most famous Egyptian artefacts along with the
funerary mask of Tutankhamun. Concealed in the sculptor’s workshop for over
three millennia caused the vibrant colours, for which the artefact is
explicitly appreciated, to be well preserved.
While often referred to as a work of art, it is crucial to the understanding of
the biography of the object, that the Nefertiti bust was most likely not
considered a finite statue, but a model for the purpose of study and
reproduction, for the sculptors’ eyes only.
In line with the Egyptian belief system of reincarnation, visual representation
heavily influenced the afterlife, for which the representation of the body is
required to be total and complete, unlike the Nefertiti bust which cuts at the
Additionally, it should be taken into consideration that the Egyptian
civilisation, at the time of the creation of the Nefertiti bust, had no
equivalent terminology for art.
What is contemporarily understood as art, in fact, served religious purposes;
to render in representation is to provide for presence and permanence.
Because of technological
development, ancient artefacts are not only photographically reproduced, but to
transcend into the digital environment through CT
and 3D scanning. Both techniques provide digital interpretations, but the
results are fundamentally different. CT scanning provides graphs and schemes,
abstract representations that do not mimic the original, but supplement
the artefact with information. 3D scanning however, separates visual
appearances (colour and texture) from form and translates the physical
qualities into strings of code, which abandon materiality, and translates
the qualities into information (weight, substance, size). [Figure 2.] Reduced
to scalable form onto which colours project, digital Nefertiti circulates as
outside the institutionalised environment. The digital reproduction connects
the digital automated methods of production with the ancient and the artisan.
Fig. 4. Capture of the free and open-source 3D computer software Blender, showing both Nofretete 3D model and the colour map.
The transformation of
the artefact into the digital environment causes shifts in
understanding material culture. Principally, matter is understood as a
tangible physical constitution. Discourse on materiality are inherent to
computing technology because the digital environment is based on the
representation of matter and content, while suppressing its own materiality.
Fibres, hard-disks, motherboards, satellites and the infrastructure of
computing technologies are hidden behind screens and interfaces. In Digital
Materiality? How artefacts without matter, matter Paul Leonardi examines
definitions of materiality in order to establish methods of approaching digital
artefacts. Leonardi proposes to employ materiality not as a noun, which
implies tangible or tactile experiences with physical properties, but as an
adjective to describe ‘material-like features.’
“These alternative, relational definitions move materiality ‘out of the
artifact’ and into the space of interaction between people and artifacts. No
matter whether those artifacts are physical or digital, their ‘materiality’ is
determined, to a substantial degree, by when, how, and why they are used. These
definitions imply that materiality is not a property of artifacts, but a
product of the relationships between artifacts and the people who produce and
The transformation of the physical ancient artefact into the digital environment
abandons the traditional notion of materiality linked to a tangible form, and
shifts to an understanding of materiality that indicates material-like
properties. Disentangling the Nefertiti bust from matter allows for new methods
of reproduction, exceeding the limitations of the physical constitution.
In Art in The Age of
Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin famously addresses the decrease of
aura and gain of exhibition value due to the reproduction of the
work of art.
At the time of writing in 1935, the processes of reproduction were heavily tied
to professionalised practices and institutionalised media. Replicas of the
Nefertiti bust (even photographic) were created through laborious mechanised
processes, based on the models produced by the skilled sculptor Tina
Haim-Wentscher, and authorised by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Increasing
accessibility and affordability of digital technologies enhance possibilities
of reproduction, but consequently affect the digital artefact.
First, because the digital artefact abandons materiality, the reproduction
relies no longer on the skilled hands of artisan and consequently makes both
skill and materiality redundant. This allows the artefact exist in ‘infinite
form’ without dependency on either precious materials, laborious processes, or
time required to produce the replica.
Second, the digital condition allows the artefact to circulate out of the
professionalised or institutional environment. Both the previously museumified
and the means of reproduction are decentralised from the institutional
environment and become accessible to the individual. Anyone with access to both
computer and internet has the potential to access, modify, reproduce and
redistribute the 3,5 millennia year old model of the Nefertiti bust. Thus, digital
materialism allows reproduction and consequently redistribution without interference
of either institute or artisan; that is to say without authorisation, or skill
required to manufacturer matter.
Parallel to the shift of
reproduction methods, is a shift in the cultural interpretation of the artefact. The contemporary condition, in which Western civilization is
dominated by free-market liberal democratic principles, is infinitely different
from the ancient pharaoh-monarchic civilisation that produced the
artefact 3,500 years ago. Even reduced to a smaller scale of time, the
digitised ‘pluriform’ object does not seem to echo the same semantic
interpretation of the archaeological singular authentic find. Where mechanical
reproductions might be valued based on the accuracy of depicting the original,
the digital reproduction seems to embody a different set of ideals. The
hierarchical value judgements of authenticity and singularity are closely tied
to the autonomous rationality of modernity, and are seemingly replaced by an
appreciation for principles oriented towards democracy and accessibility,
ideals rooted in a postmodern culture that instead focusses, to a great extent,
on the plurality of individualism.
Thus, the digital reproduction of the artefact indicate a shift in value
judgement from authentic to democratic. Linked to the transition
from authentic object to democratic object occurs a transition
from institute to individual. In singular authentic condition, the artefact is
located on a pedestal behind glass within the protected walls of the museum
environment, with the aim of preserving both artefact and aura. Even mechanical
reproductions, circulating through authorised media, intend to secure interpretation
of the artefact as valuable museum relic, hence cultural heritage, and aim to
stabilise the relationship between signifier and signified.
Providing the knowledge required for interpreting the cultural relic in the
traditional setting, thus belongs to the responsibility of the institute. The
democratisation of the artefact, through the individual access of the
intervention of Web2.0, dismantles the hierarchical distinctions between sender
and receiver. Consequently, both artefact and meaning are
decentralised. It can be stated, therefore that digital artefacts neglect the
same methods of stabilising the semantic interpretation and transform physical,
cultural and historical conditions into information, which consequently results
in context-free models.
Strict limitations of materiality and singularity, aiming to
guarantee the signified/signifier relationship are no longer absolute,
which subjugate the digital artefact to the epistemic relativism of individual interpretation.
In the spirit of Walter
Benjamin, Jos de Mul investigates how digital reproduction affects the work of
art. The acronym ABCD; Add, Browse, Change, Destroy, provides the fundamental
methods of computing operations, intrinsic to the digital environment.
In relation to the internet, one could suggest ‘Copy, Share or Multiply’ to be
the inherent actions of Web2.0.
The digital methods of reproduction, according to de Mul, allow the work of art
to be altered through filters, crops, zoom or scaling, and therefore result in manipulation
The three-dimensional digital Nefertiti explicitly allows to be scaled,
extruded, duplicated, adjusted or texture to be altered. Consequently, the
digital artifact stresses opportunities for manipulation rather than authenticity.
[Figure 4&5.] Manipulation value and the modes of computing operation
(ABCD) reveal underlying tendencies of the postmodern contemporary (digital-)
cultural. In analyzing digital culture, Mark Deuze proposes participation
to be the main component in maintaining the relative freedom to have and make
an identity, which is crucial in “an increasingly individualized society in a
Participation, as defining principle of digital culture, causes individuals to
become “active agents in the process of meaning-making.”
According to Deuze, the meaning-making occurs through the modification and
manipulation of reality, addressed as remediation; and the assembling of
personal versions of that reality, which he addresses as bricolage.
Fig. 5. The digital Nofretete 3D-Model released by the Staatliche Museen zu
Berlin under a CC-NC-BY-SA license with colour, texture and secular map (left),
and rendered untextured in diffuse gloss. (right)
Remediation aims at the
understanding of mixing the original media with new media; in other words,
mediating the artefact through new media. The term bricolage is derived
from the structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, describing a method of
The ‘bricoleur’ is defined by Lévi-Strauss as an amateur, in opposition
to the professional.
An amateur, coming from the Latin ‘amare’ meaning ‘to love,’ is not
restricted by the same empirical methods as the professional.
“Borrowing, mixture, hybridity, even plagiarism–all ‘despised’ practices in
high modernist science and knowledge systems–became the bricoleur’s trademark,
and postmodernism’s signature line.”
In The Object of Post-Criticism Gregory L. Ulmer defines the bricolage
due to four characteristics “decoupage (or severing); preformed or extant
messages or materials; assemblage (montage); discontinuity or heterogeneity.”
He continues, “Collage is the transfer of materials from one context to
another, and ‘montage’ is the ‘dissemination’ of these borrowings through the
Digital artifacts take the role of the extant ‘material,’ assembled into new
meaning in which the framework of historical facts is reduced to information,
subordinate to the new meaning of montage.
The technological (re-)interpretation, preservation and reproduction of antiquities
open up a one-way dialogue to the past. This intermingling of the time
categorisation of past, present and future challenges linear
notions of time. Walter Benjamin rejected the photographic medium as documentation
of time, for it isolates an event that occurred within time.
Similarly, George Kubler rejects the notion of separated styles as the basis of the history of art and instead
proposes instead, interconnected sequences.
In addition, Thomas Lange proposes the notion of historical constellations.
Just as in astronomy, the making of meaning occurs through interrelating the
original sources of light or events, and the aura that surrounds it. “Thinking
of history in constellations is a much more plastic, formable, fluent, and
dynamic notion. It takes into account what the idea of progression within a
timeline of singular events neglects: the simultaneity of that which does not
belong to the same time period, the anachronism and heterochronism, the layers
of different ‘historic’ constellations (congenitally understood as periods of
time) that are present in every present.”
Approaching historical time as constellations emphasises continues, ongoing
practices and interactions beyond the linear progression of time. Approaching
artefacts through the lens of the historic constellation, is to approach the
biography of the object in relation to external influences. “Constellations
show the expanded and interwoven matrix of layers of time, revealing multiple
connections to later or previous, past and present times.”
The constellation includes the
importance of contextualisation and connects the events of change in
relation to the forces of change. Kubler too states the
parallel between historical and astronomical interpretation, for both are
concerned with time-based appearances.
Stars, historical events and artistic styles alike are connected only as far as
connections are assembled. The interpretation on the appearances establishes connections
between the digital artefact and the excavated artefact. The methods of the bircoleur;
collage and assemblage, thus bear relevancy for these participate
in the making of meaning in the biography of the artefact, hence the historical
constellation. Therewith, the bricoleur assembles the apparent
The assembling of meaning within the digital constellation however, shifts and
decentralizes from the realm of the professional archeologists to the
appreciator. 3D printed scale models of the Nefertiti bust, discontinuing
matter and scale, continue however to ‘borrow’ cultural meaning and
interpretation into the bricolage. The bricoleur does not reject
the cultural interpretation of the ancient artefact, simultaneously too, it
must be acknowledged that neither digital artefact, nor 3D printed
reproduction, signify the same meaning as the excavated bust of Nefertiti.
The notion of the simulacrum, that the copy takes on self-referential existence,
and semiotic theory, that provides the vocabulary to distinguish the artefact
as signifier and referential meaning as signified, allow to
understand that the assembly of the bricoleur provides the digital
reproduction with new meaning. In other words, the reproduced signifier
refers to a different signified than the original signifier. Thus,
the relation between signifier and signified, is subordinate to
cultural interpretation, or as Saussure describes: arbitrary.
To say that the interpretation is arbitrary, is not to say that the
reproduction becomes an empty signifier: one that makes no reference at
all. Instead the reproduction operates as ‘floating signifier’
allowing to perform symbolic semantic functions, while acknowledging the
contradiction that meaning is not stable nor guaranteed, but fluctuate through
In Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti
to Emily Dickinson Camille Paglia states that even
in the 21st century there is a strong appeal to the beauty of the
Through reduction and simplification, the bust embodies elegance and the
idealization of feminine beauty. The Egyptian Museum too states that due to timeless
beauty, Nefertiti transcended as independent global icon, equal to
Botticelli’s Venus or Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.
The quality of feminine beauty assigned to the Nefertiti bust, indicate the
cultural semiotic interpretation of the bust, which leads to the representation,
appropriation and remediation
reproductions as work of art by Isa Genzken and Hans-Peter Feldmann; and
adaptations in popular culture in Mickey Mouse and Beyoncé. Common belief that
Nefertiti enjoyed at least similar political status as the pharaoh, also leads
to feminist reinterpretations. The remediation and appropriation provide the
evidence against the reproduction as self-referential empty signifier
and demonstrate the potential of the floating signifier, allowing the
iconic artefact to acquire new meaning in relation to its constellation or
assembly. The assemblages aim to secure an interpretation of
meaning and potentially aspires to construct a new aura.
According to Benjamin, the aura of the artefact is rooted in the authenticity that
transmits the essence from its beginning and historical testimony.
Stuart Jeffrey describes that the ‘weirdness of the digital realm,’ rooted in
the abandonment of properties relating to the physical realm, appears to have
no substance; no location; no degradation; no ownership; and is infinitely
The ‘strangeness’ of the digital environment abandons the properties that allow
the constitution of the aura. However, the key aspect of aura, according
to Jeffrey, is to be close to the past which indicates that the notion of historicity;
or as Jeffrey describes, sensation and thrill of proximity;
is not exclusively or intrinsic to the physical artefact, but located in the
social modality and biography of the artefact: in other words, the provenance.
This understanding of the aura, linked not necessarily to the
physicality and authenticity of the artefact, but to the biographical constitution
of the artefact, allows according to Jeffrey for the aura to migrate to the
Neither relationship nor reference of original
artefact and digital reproduction is equal or echoes identical meaning,
however, the original artefact legitimizes and historicize the digital
reproduction. To state that the digital artefact is subject or ‘slavish’ to the
original artefact, is to overlook the main argument that the original and
reproduction correspond to a different set of ideals, interpretations and value
judgements. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that the validation and
appreciation for the digitized ‘democratized’ artefact is constructed upon the
appreciation of the authentic original. It indicates that the original artefact
is not threatened by the digital reproduction, but rather operates as alibi for
The bricoleur, assembling new mediations connects the remediation to the
biographical chain of events and participate in linking oneself and the
remediation to the historical and biographical chain of events.
Approaching the methods of digital
reproduction through the terminology and vocabulary of postmodern thought,
demonstrates the interconnectivity between methods of production and the
contemporary cultural interpretation of value judgements. Therewith it
stimulates further inquiry how these contemporary interpretations and attitudes
towards cultural heritage relate to ethical concern of cultural appropriation. Technological,
social- and political, developments reflect the shifts in cultural values. The
shift from authenticity to principles of democracy and
accessibility, lead to the democratisation and open distribution of
institutionalised collections of cultural heritage. In addition, the transition
from physical to digital condition and abandonment of traditional
understanding of materiality allows for the acceleration of accessible,
decentralised distribution of the artefact and stimulate reproduction, distribution,
modification and participation. The digital reproduction does not embody the
same ideals of authenticity, nor necessarily the ambition to mimic the
original, but through the methods of the bricoleur; assembly and
collage; enhances the ideals of the contemporary postmodern culture.
Ardèvol, Elisenda., Pink, Sarah., Lanzeni, Débora., ed. Digital Materialities: Design and Anthropology. Oxford: Routledge,
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Baudrillard, Jean. “The Ecstasy of Communication.” In Postmodern
Culture, edited by Hal Foster, 126–34. London: Pluto Press, 1987.
Barthes, Roland. The Semiotic Challenge. Oxford: Basil
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+ In Design We Trust, 2021.
Reduced to an essence, graphic design is the practice of visual communication. The
craft originates from artistic practices yet is influenced too by communicative
theories and technological advancements. Often, the profession is
differentiated from art by the emphasis on communication. Where there is a high
tolerance of symbolic meaning in the arts, graphic design seems not equally
able to depend on the ambiguity of symbolic interpretation. The practice of
visual communication heavily relies on the linguistic study of the sign,
which results in the following question. How does the linguistic concept of the
sign operate as a method of visual communication within the practice of
the graphic designer? In Graphic Design as Communication, Malcom Barnard
approaches graphic design as communicative practice and constructs semiology,
the study of the sign, as a method of communication.
In Visual rhetoric and semiotics,
Edward Triggs connects the sign to the art of persuasion.
This paper compares both theories on
semiology and semiotics with the aim of revealing the differences.
The comparison shows the placement of the sign in relation to the visual
communicative practice of the graphic designer.
First thing that stands out in the comparison is the difference in
terminology. Both Semiology used by Barnard, and semiotics by
Triggs, address the science of signs and meanings.
Semiology finds its origin in
the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) who studied the structure of the sign.
For Saussure and Barnard, the sign is constituted out of two elements. The
signifier (the representation), and the signified (what the
representation refers to). Interpreting meaning occurs through the relation
between the two elements, referred to as signification. For Edward
Triggs, the sign is “a mental construct which arises when there is
recognition of a correlation between an expression (signifier) and its content
Triggs describes the sign, based on the Aristotelian notion, stating
that “each part of a natural thing has the potential of the complete thing of
which it is part.”
In other words, the potential of the totality is intrinsic to its partiality.
For the sign, this means that what it refers to is an element of the
reference itself. In Sign: An Introduction to Semiotics, Thomas Sebeok
explains the Aristotelian notion further. “Aristotle defined the sign as
consisting of three dimensions: (1) the physical part of the sign itself; (2)
the referent to which it calls attention; and (3) its evocation of a meaning.”
Semiotics defines the sign
as trichotomy in which the stimulus for the interpretation (evocation) is
inherit to the total entity of the sign.
Another difference between semiology and semiotics
concerns the limitation of the sign. In other words, does the sign need to be
either symbol or icon, or can other elements used within graphic design such as
shapes, lines, grids, colours and textures can perform the function of the sign
too? Consequent to the limitation of the sign, rises the question of the sign
communicates intentionally. If anything can perform the function of the
sign, then elements that constitute the design without the intent to
call upon associations, may do so nevertheless. In a comparative study between
semiotics and semiology, Halina Sendera Mohd Yakin and Andreas Totu describe
Saussure studied behavior and according to his views, A sign is resulted from an
imagination or an activity of human minds that is expressed through language
codes and understood by the individuals who are involved in the communication
process. In other words, a sign for Saussure is something delivered by someone
with a purpose and specific meaning intentionally. (Yakin, Totu, 7)
the Aristotelian concept, the sign is a fragment that stimulates the association
of its totality. This provides a broad definition in which practically anything
can become a sign even without intent and consequently may unintentionally
appeal to associations. Lines and textures may call upon associations and a
mere page number may resemble the design of the book. Thus, there is a
difference between the hierarchical binary concept of semiology in which
the interpretation intentionally emerges from the relation between signifier
and the triadic concept of semiotics which addresses the interpretation
as, an inherent part of the sign structure.
Barnard approaches semiology by separating methods of
communication based on what John Fiske describes as the two main schools in
the study of communication.
“The first sees communication as the transmission of messages. (…) The
second school sees communication as the production and exchange of meanings.”
To form a theory of semiology,
Barnard first addresses communication theory and the metaphors used to describe
the conveying of meaning. What occurs is a linear process of communication in
which the sender transmits the intended message towards the receiver. Semiology,
according to Barnard, differs from communication theory on three principles.
First, communication theory forms a
linear process through transmitting meaning from sender towards receiver, wherein
semiology, meaning occurs through the production and exchange of
Second, meaning thus, is consequent to the production and exchange of meaning
instead of a pre-conceived message. Third, there is no meaning as long
as there is no interpretation. With this, Barnard makes an important
distinction from Saussure, who emphasises meaning a priori.
The notion of the pre-conceived message affects communication and
thus graphic design. If there is an intention in communication, the act
can be judged in terms of efficiency. “Efficiency here means that the
message arriving at the receiver is or should be identical to the one
Where Barnard rejects effectiveness in semiology, Triggs describes the
designer’s involvement in making the persuasive messages effective.
Triggs defines the message of print media (therewith hints on the
role of graphic design) as a selection and organisation of visual elements. Semiotics,
according to Triggs, is “being concerned with the relationships of things and
meaning,” and thus “provides assistance when selecting and configuring
The semiotic elements are the visual demonstrations or evidences that assist
the development of the rhetorical argument. “Rhetoric, simply defined, is the
art of persuasion.”
For Barnard it is arguable that all graphic design performs a rhetoric function
because “it all exists in order to change people’s thought or behaviour in some
way or another.”
This reveals the intrinsic connection between the semiotic method of visual
communication and the function of the graphic designer. According to Triggs, messages
intend to inform, instruct, identify, entertain or persuade.
This bears resemblance to how
Barnard describes information, persuasion, decoration, magic, metalinguistic
and phatic, as the functions of design.
The fundamental distinction between Barnard and Triggs follows from the
separation between semiotic methods of communication from the function
of communication. Triggs employs semiotics as an instrument to visual
rhetoric, which is intrinsically bound to the persuasive (rhetoric) function of
print media. Barnard disconnects semiology from the functions of design,
instead places the notion of semiology as a separate method of communication.
For the sign to communicate, it must be activated.
Where the stimulus of the
sign can be almost anything, the activation too may take on the form of another
sign, or through the treatment of the sign. For the graphic designer this could
lead to what Triggs describe as physically altering the image.
“Color also affects the perception
of the sign. In contrast to a full colour reproduction which reinforces the reality
which existed in front of the lens, the translation of reality into black and
white is a step away from ‘real-ness’ and a step toward ‘sign-ness.’
The activation of the sign however,
does not secure the interpretation of the sign. Barnard too recognises that the
sign only conveys meaning if it is understood as a sign. He refers to Derrida
when stating that “there is no meaning before that ‘receiver’ interprets the
meaning of the message, producing themselves as a member of a cultural group in
that interpretation, and the meaning is not separable from the interaction of
Similarly, Triggs emphasises the act of interpretation as recognition
and acknowledges the receiver’s capacity to make associations based on the
“correlation between an expression (signifier) and its content (signified).”
In the essay Encoding/Decoding (1980), Stuart Hall explains
the articulated practices of production, circulation, distribution/consumption
and reproduction to be both distinct and connected.
The linear model of communication
sender/message/receiver provides a structure in which the sender encodes
meaning into the medium which the receiver decodes. Consequently,
the decoded meaning might not be identical to the encoded meaning. “The degrees
of symmetry–that is, the degree of ‘understanding’ and ‘misunderstanding’ in
communicative exchange–depend on the degrees of symmetry/asymmetry (…)
established between the positions of the “personifications”, encoder-producer
Thus, the interpretation depends on similarities between the encoder and
decoder. Barnard clarifies the potential encoded asymmetry, through what
Saussure describes as the arbitrariness of the relation between the signifier
meaning that there is no fixed association. “Because the relationship between
signifier and signified is arbitrary, it is conventional. And because it is
conventional, it is cultural.”
There is no total authority over the message. The sender is not the imperious
master of systems of language.
Instead, both sender (encoder) and receiver (decoder), submit
to cultural constructs that interfere with the coding processes and results that
there is no fixed relationship between the signifier and signified.
The comparison between semiology as a method of communication and semiotics as
rhetoric instrument exemplifies differences on two levels. First, there is a
distinction in the approach of the interpretation of the sign as
either the result of the relation between the signifier and the signified,
therefor according to Barnard, separated from the sign, or as an
intrinsic aspect of the sign, as it is for Triggs. This directly affects the
construction of meaning that, according to Triggs, is intentional,
and constructed by the designer through stimuli, that stimulates
associations. For Barnard’s notion of semiology, meaning exists not a
priori but emerges through interpretative interaction. This affects the graphic
designer’s intention to convey specific meaning, as much as it liberates
meaning from pre-conceived intentions. The second distinction concerns the role
of semiotics as either method or function. The comparison
between Graphic Design as Communication by Malcom Barnard, and Visual
rhetoric and semiotics by Edward Triggs shows a difference between semiology
and semiotics that shape two approaches to the sign as a method
for visual communication. By approaching semiology as a separate method
of communication, Barnard separates it from the functions of the graphic
designer. For Triggs, semiotics is the instrument of visual rhetoric and
therewith bound to the persuasive function of the graphic designer (printed
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and Leslie Atzmon, 425–432. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2019.
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+ Corona Civica, 2018.
Fig. 1. Wim Duisenberg (1935-2005), director of De Nederlandse Bank at the presentation of the new 250-guilder banknote. Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1986. Unknown, Untitled, 1986, photograph, Het Nationaal Archief, The Hague.
Political institutions, corporations, news providers
all alike, implement design strategies to shape credible and trustworthy means
of communications. The banknote explicitly provides an interesting case study
for it necessitates to distil trust in both the medium and the economic system.
The banknote is graphic artefact that beholds extraordinary knowledge and
expertise; technological ingenuity in the production and prevention of illegal
reproductions; and outstanding graphic design virtuosity. Pieces of paper take
the form of user objects that instrumentalise and enable social-
economical interactions. After the Second World War a decline of trust in
political institutions, nationalism and arguably overexposure of propaganda
rhetoric, required new methods to design trust. In this era, a paper currency
emerged which was both locally and internationally described as monopoly
money. The design of the renowned and famed Dutch guilder banknotes challenged
traditional motifs and replaced figures of nobility, heroism and nationalism
with a snipe, sunflower and lighthouse. From this the question emerges: How
does graphic design shape trust? The 250-guilder banknote–elected as the most
beautiful design according to the Dutch newspaper Trouw
–is most commonly referred to as The Lighthouse for its main motif. It
was part of the second series designed by Robert Deodaat (Ootje) Oxenaar
(1929-2017), commissioned by De Nederlandse Bank, created between 1977 and
1987, and released on the 25th of July 1985. In 1986 the banknote entered
public circulation, enabling financial interactions until the replacement of
the guilder by the international currency of the Euro in 2002. The banknote is
produced through various complex production techniques–including dry offset
printing, wet offset printing, letter- and hot stamp press–to protect the
currency against counterfeiting.
Fig. 2. Gold coin of Croesus, c. 550 B.C. Minted in Sardis, gold 7 x 10 mm, The British Museum.
In essence, money is the medium that enables
transactions between man and societies. In the ancient world, entire economies
and social societies were based on barter. Precious metals and minerals were
used as neutral medium to mediate between the exchange of services and goods on
both individual level and the grander scale of the organisation of city and
state. Effectively the size of the lumps of precious mineral did not matter,
the weight and quality did. However, estimating the weight and quality of each
precious metal alone dramatically slows down transactions, let alone that gold
in its natural condition is often mixed with silver or other less precious
metals. During the 6th century B.C. the Lydian society, located in
what is now known as Turkey, developed a method of purifying the gold. The
Lydian seal was impressed onto the purified gold, guaranteeing its quality and
therewith value. What emerged was the medium of coinage: a standardised piece
of precious metal, marked and approved by the state, guaranteeing its validity.
Coinage being a small item, had often to
claim legitimacy through minimal representation. Therefore, often
representations of animals were employed to symbolise the authority that
guaranteed the value of the currency. Later, more complex designs were passed
on, depicting coats of arms, motto’s or portraits. The first effigy to appear
on coinage known, was that of Alexander the Great. The silver coins carrying
the depiction of an historical figure, elevated the personae to legendary
status. It is amongst the first examples that effectively spread the portrait
of a political leader onto its subjects through imposing the portrait on
currency. Therewith the political leader through the seal, guarantees the value
of the currency and consequently approves all transactions made with it. It
transformed the figure of a young ambitious ruler to symbol for authority,
political power, state and national glory. The coin however, was minted decades
after the death of Alexander and commissioned by Lysimachus who was competing
with rival warlords to inherit Alexander’s legacy. It is as Neil MacGregor
describes, as a textbook example of exploiting the authority and glamour of a
historical personae to pursue political power.
For centuries trust in the currency was primarily
based on the value of the precious metal, signified through the seal imposed on
the material itself. Banknotes however, obscure the trustworthy relationship
between material and value.
The first paper currencies were introduced
during the 7th century Tang dynasty in China due to a shortage of
metal coins. Paper money therefor acted as a temporal substitute for the actual
currency. During the 17th century paper money was introduced in
Europe as a medium to manage the abundance of coins. For merchants having to
carry large quantities of coins, a method of storing the substance of metal did
not only brought safety, but also logistic conveniences. “To overcome these
inefficiencies some money-changers offered to store the coins at their safe
offices. In exchange, the merchants received a formal document telling that the
merchant could pick up his coins at any time at the office of the money-changer
of the other sales man. These obligations were only legally binding because of
the signatures of both the money-changer and the merchant. The merchant could
transfer the document to a third party, who had to sign the document
Thus, essentially the banknote itself is no more than a piece of paper,
promising purchasing power.
The deposit notification itself renders
practically worthless, yet promises to pay to the bearer. Therewith the medium
of the banknote relies even more so on design to communicate a sense of
trustworthiness and value, and so claim for financial value. The claim is
conducted through the elements depicted on the banknote that function as
signifiers for value and wealth but perhaps even more important: trust. Trust
in both the currency and the nation state or expanded geographical area in
which the currency is used.
While in current times the portrait seem a
current theme in currencies, most human figures represented on currencies
actually depicted references to (classical-) mythology, or represent real but
unknown people such as social classes – the labourer or nobility.
It was only until
the turbulent 1920s, the stock market crash and Great Depression, that
portraits of prominent compatriots were used to generate trust in the currency.
In addition to the
portraits, other elements such as the signature of the bank director, relief
borders, coat of arms, micro-typography, flags, seals, legal numbers, security
features, penalty texts, gravure and guilloches are often employed as signifiers
of legitimacy. These design features harness patriotic symbols of pride and
empathy to generate trustworthiness. Consequently, the design of the banknote
becomes a demonstration and glorification of nationalism. As designer and
author Ruben Pater points out, the acts which we would regard in retrospect as
graphic design, contributed to the creation of the fundamental tools of
Fig. 3. J. Rittershaus, Zilverbon: 2,5 guilder banknote, 1938. Produced by Drukkerij J.H. de Bussy, Amsterdam, guilloche, 76 x 160 mm, De Nederlandsche Bank (photo: Archief Geldmuseum).
Carel Adolph Lion Cachet, 10 Guilder banknote, 1936. Produced by Joh. Enschedé en Zonen, Haarlem, offset, 155 x 87 mm, De Nederlandsche Bank (photo: Rijksmuseum).
While the design of currencies forms an
intriguing case study, we should be aware of the fact that money too financed
countless wars and enables exploitation. The Dutch Guilders is by no means an
exception. Despite the guilder preceded the rise of the Dutch Republic, the
currency nevertheless formed the basis for economical structure for the seafaring
merchant nation, which owes a great sum of its newly generated wealth to the
exploitation of the slave trade. In the extensive research exploring the
history of the Dutch banknote design, Jaap Bolten describes the first guilder
banknote as an unpretentious affair.
was a piece of information, part of it printed in simple letterpress, the rest
written by hand, its credibility endorsed by the signatures of the highest bank
officials. A complex border, difficult to imitate in those days because the
printer was the exclusive owner of the forms, was supposed to protect the piece
of paper against forgery.”
This demonstrates an act that intentionally complicates the design in order to
It is in the design from Robert Deodaat (Ootje)
Oxenaar that the design of trust takes on a shift by replacing the testators as
main motif for the guilder design, with a bird, a flower and a building. The
traditional signifier of the portrait as representation of nationalism and
trust was rejected by Oxenaar for the sake of value recognition, which caused
Oxenaar to employ a different approach to instil trust in the design of the
Fig. 5. Robert Deodaat (Ootje) Oxenaar, design for the 250-guilder banknote Vuurtoren, 1985. Produced by Joh. Enschedé en Zonen, Haarlem, offset, 76 x 160 mm, De Nederlandsche Bank (photo: Archief Geldmuseum).
The object, the 250 guilder banknote, is a simple
(silk-) paper bill, fitting in one’s hand. Qualities such as the weightlessness
and smooth texture of the paper are lost in digital representation. When viewed
in landscape orientation, the depiction of the lighthouse is positioned
horizontally. Despite that this orientation feels somehow natural in relation
to the size and proportions of the banknote, it is quite a prominent feature of
the design by Oxenaar. Not only is it unique in this series of designs for the
guilder banknotes, but it is remarkable a-typical for the design of a banknote
A complex geometric composition of lines
and colour form the graphic representation of a lighthouse. An almost
portrait-like frontal view on the lighthouse and the presumably absence of
linear perspective or vanishing point elevates our own position towards the
lighthouse. This unnatural perspective alienates the view from pictorial
reality, which contributes to our interpretation of the lighthouse as iconic or
graphic representation. Line patterning on the edges of flat surfaces suggest
shadows that intuitively are understood as the rendering of cylindrical
three-dimensional forms. Although the vibrant colour scheme is primarily
limited to a dominant in between crimson red and purple amaranth like colour,
supplemented with softer and colder blue tones, the overall colour scheme
hardly depicts any solids of colour. The majority of colours come to being
through either a colour gradient, or complex hatch patterns. The
supplementation of softer and colder blue tones strengthens the saturation and
high value of the overall appearance. The gradient of hue and value within the
circular shapes in the background, do not only suggest an aura of light
surrounding the lighthouse, but simultaneously suggest an aerial perspective,
creating a depth that places the lighthouse in the foreground.
Once attention is paid to the presumably
symmetric composition it stands out that due to the usage of colour and hatch
patterns the composition is not only asymmetrical, but too takes a slight
leftward shift outside of the centre. Hardly noticeable at all for it balances
out the weight of the dense typographic numerals in the top right corner.
Therewith it both disrupts and suggests symmetry. It is exactly due to this
disruption of that the geometric design avoids a static appearance.
As a medium, the banknote itself operates as a tool of
economic interactions. Considering therefor the banknote as a medium to secure
credibility in both economical system and nation state, the design decision to
depict the lighthouse is explicitly noteworthy. Legal documents such as the
paper currency provide the ideal territory for communicating and celebrating
national prestige. This is the case too for the earlier series of the guilder
banknotes designed by Oxenaar that depicts prominent Dutch figures such as
Joost van den Vondel, Frans Hals, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Michiel de Ruyter
en Baruch Spinoza–poet, composer, painter, admiral and philosopher. Then the
series with the snipe, sunflower and lighthouse stand out, for replacing celebrated
personae, with an appreciation for the local natural environment. The
lighthouse thereby, becomes a strong symbol, not only as a beacon of trust, but
also for the entire connectivity with the sea. The seafaring country below sea
level is in continuous conflict, yet it too is the mercantile trading mentality
that acquired its great wealth. Through the symbolic representation of the
lighthouse, these connections are carefully established while avoiding
connections with the rather negative aspects of colonialism.
Robert Deodaat (Ootje) Oxenaar, born on the 7th of
October in 1929, grew up in a middle-class family in The Hague. His grandfather
was a professional soldier and colonel, and his father a well-respected reserve
officer prior to the Second World War. Oxenaars admiration for his ancestor’s
military profession changed after the outbreak of the Second World War.
Representations of authorities such as the uniform that once provided a sense
of safety became expressions of fear and oppression. He interrupted his studies
at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague during 1947 and 1953, for compulsory
military service, where Oxenaar immediately announced not to shoot at other
people under any circumstances. He formed an almost anarchistic conviction with
a distrust of pragmatic party politics and tradition. In the biography Ootje
Oxenaar: Designer + commissioner Els Kuijpers writes that the artist
mentality including the apparent paradoxical combination of involvement and
aloofness, expresses an objection to routine and regularity, and proposes
instead a method of life that through humour challenges the limits of the
Oxenaar's (artistic-) attitude was
noticeable not only in the way he approached his clients but also in the
signature he left on his work, often through humour and hidden messages.
He marked the 1000-guilder banknote with his fingerprint, hidden in the curls of
Spinoza. In the 250-guilder banknote he hid the names of his girlfriend and
granddaughter in the lighthouse and a picture of her rabbit in the watermark.
When De Nederlandsche Bank found out after production of the banknotes and
disapproved, Oxenaar replied by stating that contributed to the security
features of the banknote.
The societal unity that emerged as a side effect of
the post-war reconstruction was shattered during the second half of the
twentieth century due to the multiplicity of echoing communication systems. The
bitter aftertaste of witnessing the devastating effects of superior –
nationalist – political power, resulted in (an often aggressive) distrust
towards all that resembled institutional hierarchies. The legitimacy of any
form of institutional power was exposed under the spotlights of publicity and
The polarisation of ideologies and mass democracy resulted in political
distrust. During the accession of Queen Beatrix in April 1980, the streets of
Amsterdam were filled with protestors and the amount of riots was unknown to a
society in peacetime. On the 21st of November 198, the streets of Amsterdam
were crushed with half a million-people protesting against nuclear weapons. It
was followed by another Anti-Nuclear Weapon Demonstration in The Hague in 1983,
the largest demonstration ever held in the Netherlands. These events marked the
second half of the twentieth century in Dutch society as an age of distrust.
Those who are
not to be misled by the appearances of welfare and abundance, or brilliance of
technological ingenuity, know that the society is not free from friction
between interpersonal relationships.
Fig. 6. Marcel Antonisse, Untitled, 1983, photograph, Het Nationaal Archief, The Hague.
Only rarely in history, one could speak of balance
between poverty and welfare.
The beginning of the 20th century brought
a change that got accelerated by the productivity of the Second World War, that
too laid the foundation for the rapid reconstructions of states and societies.
This productivity resulted in welfare societies of abundance. Welfare however,
is no exclusive economical concept and too influenced social structures and
political society. Arguably it is the increase of leisure that truly brought
the most influential transformations rather than the endless stream of novel
goods and consumables.
While previously, the individual capital of the common class
was reserved for essential expenses – such as taking care of the household and
paying the rent – new meaning was provided in the age of mass-consumption. New
riches such as technological tools, media, leisure services or even distant
travels were within reach for the common class. Both meaning and potential of
money shifted during the twentieth century.
When graphic design in the modern age acquires the
status of an autonomous practice, debate arises concerning the position of the
graphic design as a practice in relation to art, and the position of the
designer in relation to the commission and commissioner. Aspects such as
authority and expression are subsequent to the role of the designer. This has
caused friction fundamental to the profession of the graphic designer.
First friction arises with the dilemma
concerning the relation between art and design. There is an interpretation of
the practice of the graphic designer as either a commercial or cultural
practice. Now the one does not necessarily exclude the other, arguably they are
intrinsically linked. Nevertheless, valuing the one above the other will lead
to a different interpretation of the relation between art and design.
Second, friction concerns
the position of the graphic designer in relation to client or commissioner. The
various standpoints can be categorised according to the two following basic
principles; (1) the designer as mediator, that is to say an objective visual expert
that employs graphic methods solely to the purpose of communication without
interfering with the message; (2) The graphic designer as an artist. This aims
at an attitude acknowledging the subjectivity of the designer and embracing
visual expression as a method of communication.
In retrospect, one will be tempted to
classify the one as modern (mediator) and the latter as post-modern (artist).
However, it is important to acknowledge that these classifications are not or
scarcely used at the time of debate. Placing Oxenaar within this discussion
does not seem to go without difficulty. The modernist influences and ideals
seem to be omnipresent in the oeuvre of Oxenaar, as is the rejection of these ideals.
To be able to understand Oxenaar’s position within the contemporary field of
the graphic designer, a better understanding of the current influences of the
working field is required.
After the German occupation of the Netherlands during
the Second World War, the grip on (cultural-) society was abolished. The vivid
memory of visual manipulation through propaganda, and the nationalist usage of
style by the fascist parties, caused a separation in design approaches that
heavily influenced design during the post-war period. A new association for the
practitioners of applied arts was formed, known as the GKf (Gebonden
Kunstenaars federatie). The union included craftsmen from various professions
including; (wall-) painters, interior architects, graphic designers, and
photographers. Admission to the prestigious association was only accepted
through a strict balloting process based on recommendation and quality in
relation to professional competences and craftsmanship. The GKf unified artists
with the shared conviction that the applied arts are in fact related to (high-)
art and results in commissioned production in which the cultural value prevails
over commercial value. In contrast to this cultural oriented approach, emerged
the VRI (Vereniging van Reclameontwerpers en illustratoren) the union for
advertising designers and illustrators in 1948. Where the GKf seems to generate
mostly symbolic and cultural profits, the market oriented approach of the VRI results
in rather direct financial profits.
Celebrated democratic ideals (of the liberated Dutch
society) translated themselves into a notion of the designer as mediator
between message and audience. The strong emphasis on informing rather than
seducing employed traditional (modern-) typographic norms, rules and design
principles in service of legibility and clarity, which aim at objective
communication and design. "Treumann [who had been among the first generation of
GKf members], whose conception of design left less room for individual
expression, stressed the ethical dimension of design by focusing on the
communicative role of the designer as intermediary between the client and the
designers task was to inform, and deliberately de-associate oneself and
personal preferences from the professional act of designing information.
Interference in the message ought to be avoided at all costs and the legitimacy
of design arose from the value of clarity and readability. Contemporary
designers such as the prominent Wim Crouwel (1928 - 2019), were impressed by
the Swiss modernist style that sought for the purest expression through
non-figurative graphic means. Crouwel was strongly convinced of the notion of
the graphic designer as a service provider. An expert in visual communication
that through functional usage of the medium, simplicity and clarity, would
visually formulate the message without interference or subjectivity. Wim
Crouwel and the interdisciplinary design studio Total Design which he established
in 1963, almost became spokesman for the notion of the designer as mediator
within The Netherlands. His prominence in the design field and current debate,
shaped many contemporary and future designers, both proponents and opponents.
In strong contrast to this modern design
attitude, various designers sought for the liberation of the dogmatic
restrictive design principles, through experiment and visual expression. “Many
of them shared a past in the wartime resistance, and accordingly an attitude of
exceptional independence and self-reliance. They defended their right to
artistic freedom and individual vision.”
Argumentation on the position of the
graphic designer reached a zenith at the debate hosted in museum Fodor in 1972
which acquired almost mythical proportions. Crouwel’s conviction of the
designer as mediator was challenged by the prominent Dutch designer Jan van
Toorn(1932-2020). Where Crouwel operates within the professionalised studio
environment, Van Toorn works as a freelance graphic designer that generates
his basic income by educating at the Rietveld Academy. This fundamental
difference allows Van Toorn – who we shall later regard as postmodernist – to
only work within the cultural field. Van Toorn argues that “the double role of
the conveyer, the designer, is to transfer the content without intervening with
the content. However, one cannot avoid the subjectivity of the designer. That
dialectic cannot be denied and should be used in your favour.”
When modernist graphic design is summarised as a style
that advocates the reduction of elements and expression in favour of
objectivity and clarity, postmodernism can be regarded as the antidote of
this reduction minimal approach and dogmatic conventions through all elements
of the graphic language; image, meaning, typography but even the attitude of
the graphic designer. “The major thrust of postmodern graphic design is a
spirit of liberation, a freedom to be intuitive and personal, and a willingness
to go against the modern design so dominant through much of the twentieth
Norms, regulations and convictions on typography (such as the choice for a typeface,
quantity of typefaces used, type-size, leading and spacing) are discarded for
the sake of expression. Not only the written word conveys meaning, but the
typographic style too, is employed as a communicative method. “The supreme
guiding principle of typography, legibility (Tschichold), has turned it into a
perfect but dead discipline. Both protected and imprisoned by its professional
reservation, it works invisibly on its oeuvre that is all around us but is
impenetrable: nothing trickles through into the text, nothing squeezes in
between the code and the message. Why not? We know that the text is not a
neutral medium that transparently reflects reality, and that typography is no
crystal goblet either.”
Also (edited-) image gains a certain
presence in the design language of the postmodern style. Where the modernist
designers only cautiously use the photographic image in recognition of the
rhetoric of the image, the postmodernist designers seem to embrace the
subjective interpretation. In Graphic Design as Communication, Malcolm
Barnard describes how images were released from fixed interpretations during
the era of post-modernity. “Old identities and concepts are perceived as have
lost their founding values, from which standards could be set and judgements
“Where (in modernism) there used to be a series of what might be called ‘guarantees’,
reassuring people of the stable relation between signifier and signified, there
is (in postmodernism) only the reference to another signifier and another
This causes a shift in the attitude of the designer.
The designer has to take active agency and consequently the role of the
designer shifts from mediator, to active participant.
Regarding the design for the 250-guilder banknote in
relation to the current design attitudes and influences, the extraordinary
depiction of the lighthouse on the banknote becomes a prominent feature. Generally speaking, it is not uncommon for a
government to prefer more traditional and historical methods above
modern design approaches. It was often thought that the history of a country
attained a certain amount of status. It was therefore used to prove a national
character, and so governments have been rather slow in incorporating modernity.
Oxenaar however describes anxiety when considering
fundamentals as absolute truth. He finds it reassuring that the
Zeitgeist of modernism and the reflective Dutch attitude allowed for
In the design he abandons the portraits and representation of the human on the
banknote as a rejection of the authoritarian, nationalist and traditional
values, but foremost because the portrait does not contribute to the value
recognition of the paper currency.
Instead the subject matter itself (flora, fauna and architecture) and an
explicit colour scheme are employed as elements of distinction between the one
banknote and the other.
Through the graphic representation of the
lighthouse the design calls upon the symbolic interpretation of that archetype.
Thereby, Oxenaar builds on what is described by Malcolm Barnard as the
guarantee of the image.
The stable relationship between signifier and signified. Design critic Els
Kuijpers consequently doubts the effectiveness of the work in questioning
It remains a moot point, however, whether the series
reflected fundamentally on the programme of the banknote. Oxenaar’s aesthetic,
decorative handling that exuberantly celebrates form and colour has been called
Postmodernist for its emphasis on the jouissance in the game instead of on the
marbles themselves – that is, on the text and the signifier rather than on the
work and its meaning (aesthetics above ethics). It is debatable how effective
Oxenaar’s questioning of the rigid dictates of Modernism really was. After all,
the prevalence of an ongoing deconstructive calling into question above
substantial argumentation runs the risk of fragmenting the ratio beneath the
form. By no longer recognising any argument at all, it eventually undermines
its own validity because there is no basis left for action based on reasoning.
So this Postmodernism is simply a variant of Modernism. (Kuijpers, 37)
This contributes to the point that Oxenaars work is
based on the medium of the banknote, rather than the programme of the banknote.
And through disregarding the traditional methods or design elements of that
medium, we see a reinterpretation of that medium. When traditional methods of
communicating trust and authority (through the portrait) are rejected, other
methods and signifiers need to be employed.
In the extensive research exploring the
history of the Dutch banknote design, Jaap Bolten describes the first guilder
banknote as an unpretentious affair. “It was a piece of information, part of it
printed in simple letterpress, the rest written by hand, its credibility
endorsed by the signatures of the highest Bank officials. A complex border,
difficult to imitate in those days because the printer was the exclusive owner
of the forms, was supposed to protect the piece of paper against forgery.”
This demonstrates an act of design that intentionally complicates the design in order to instil trust in
the medium. Trust in the authority that guarantees the value of the medium, but
arguably too, trust in the medium itself. The complexity legitimizes the
medium, regardless of the institutional value.
Oxenaar emphasizes the medium (and thus,
that what needs to be expressed by the medium) through the intrinsic
characteristics of the medium. Complexity ensures the protection against
counterfeiting. Thus it seems that Oxenaar exploits this complexity and
utilises this notion as a design strategy to instil trust in the medium.
“Oxenaar’s security measures were not the sum of inventions and contrivances,
but they were a constituent part of the form without creating problems for the
production of the banknote.”
Fig. 7. Succesvolle lancering van de inkeping betaalpas ‘notch’, 2020. Amsterdam, plastic imprinted debit card, 85,59 mm x 53,97 mm, ING.
Fig. 8. Je eigen afbeelding op je Betaalpas: Personaliseer je pas. Amsterdam, plastic imprinted debit card, 85,59 mm x 53,97 mm, ING
The shaping of trust through design, seems to shift to
a sense of trust in the medium itself. The complicated designs and
constructions of banknote are replaced with inornate designs for credit cards,
which too with time will be surpassed by contactless payments with smartphones
and -watches. Once, the expertise of both designer and producers were required
to simulate a sense of trust. Nowadays, either motivated by trust or
convenience, the complexity of the design is surpassed by the credibility of
the medium. Interesting is that large sums of banks even allow customers to
‘personalise’ bank cards through imprinting it with one’s own picture. Even
more interesting is that this customisation may not include any political or
religious depiction, flags or currencies. In other words, the plastic
currencies of the digital age may in no way refer to currencies or national
identity at all. The analysis of the banknote, however, demonstrate that
notions of locality, nationality and identity are woven into the fabric of the
currency of a geographical and temporal environment. Thus, the shift of trust
indicates a shift in cultural values.
So, how does graphic design shape trust? In the case
of the 250-guilder banknote, Oxenaar employs complexity as a design strategy for
the communication of trust. By rejecting trustworthy icons of patriots, the
guilder banknote demonstrates a design of trust that is not located in
its depiction, but in the totality of the design that synthesise the aesthetic
with the technique. The design not only includes the safety measures, but
actively embraces and embodies the security features within the design and
demonstrates a method of communication through the intrinsic qualities of the
medium. The design utilises the security features to enhance the complexity,
resulting in a sense of trust by exposing its invulnerable mechanics.
Special thanks to Jane Tynan and Celin Röhrig
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Nature is perfect and final, purposeful yet meaningless. All meaning is derived from human interpretation and can only exist through means of interpretation. Therefore nature, regardless of its own intention may acquire symbolic meaning. According to Sigmund Freud the symbol is a representation of something other than its appearance (Ricoeur, 1970). It is a distortion of elementary meaning and consequently carries double meaning that requires the process of interpretation. This takes place between the signifier – that what it means – and the signified – that what is visually expressed.
In ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ (Freud, 1930) Freud makes a distinction between necessity and desire. The latter describes a desire for beauty, known in philosophic and artistic discourse as aesthetics. According to the Greek philosophy, the apprehension of beauty equals the apprehension of perfection and thus, the divine.
Furthermore, to bridge between necessity and desire, survival and beauty, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes argue that from origin, mankind has had an interest in dominance, as method of securing ones own position. The right of the strongest is no right at all, for it is continuously contested by competitors, thus superiority is never proven eternally. Dominance can be expressed in more ways than solely through oppression, and so, superiority can also be the result of admiration.
Aesthetic production and symbolic meaning are often employed to evoke such admiration and institute dominancy. Therefore it appears as follows, the pursue of perfection and symbolic meaning is in the interest of the superior, and provides a methodology to secure and justify their claim of superiority as such.
The methodology of symbolism is heavily dependent on the visually recognisable character of the signified. This can take an abstract form, but also is commonly connected to elements existing in the natural environment. The decoration of both the body and buildings is not only an aesthetical admiration of natural beauty, but also and foremost an expression of luxury, prosperity, wealth, success and social or political status. An example can be found in the era of Dutch colonialism, where governmental buildings and houses of merchants and aristocrats were decorated with the representation of foreign spices, fruits and vegetables. Other forms of symbolism are connected to the spiritual world, divinity and worship. Such is the case for the Laurus Nobilis, commonly known as the laurel tree, that is originally connected to the Greco-Roman mythological deity Apollo.
In the days before time the laurel forest knoswn as laurisilva, covered most of the Mediterranean basin. But as time passed by, the laurel forest gradually retreated and has been replaced by more drought-tolerant species.
The etymology of the aromatic evergreen already claims noble status. Pliny the Elder wrote that Apollo’s favourite tree was not suited for fire nor sacrifice and states that
'it is very evident that the laurel protests against such usage by crackling as it does in the fire, thus, in a manner, giving expression to its abhorrence of such treatment.’ (Pliny and Rackham, 1938)
Emperors too, in their claim for status and divinity, employed the symbolic value of the Laurus Nobilis, in means of both flower and crown (laurel wreath). Tiberius himself only worn the laurel wreath in stormy weather, for it was widely believed that the laurel was immune to lightning, and Augustus had the entrance to his house on the Palatine Hill flanked by a laurel tree at each side.
Up until present day, the representation of the laurel – most often as wreath – claims security, power, unity and safety. A symbol that is widespread through the visual identity of both political and economic organisations to support their claim of prosperity and trustworthiness. This text is an amplification that explores the symbolic value of the laurel wreath through four different stages: the mythological origin, the historical development, the meaning of the symbol and the transitional process from its natural status. What follows is a conclusive text, combining all explorations to identify the complexity of the symbolic representation of the corona civica.
After the all destructive great flood, the grounds of earth consumed the water and became more fruitful and fertile than ever before. Causing new species to emerge from the surface of the earth and others to grow beyond their previous conditions. So did a perilous poisonous serpent, already alarming in its threatening appearance. The venomous creature scavenged the surfaces of Earth for weaklings and prey and found both in the mortal beings called human.
Endangered by the cruel python, mankind prayed to the Gods to relieve them from this tyranny. Apollo – son of Zeus himself, god of music, poetry and the oracle – descended from the heavens to aid mankind in their horror. With his divine skill in archery and razor-sharp arrows – previously only destined for hunting – he managed to slay the man-devouring python. By doing so, Apollo acquired the status of saviour of mankind and gained favour amongst the human race.
One day, the Olympian noticed the young Eros – known by the Latin equivalent as Cupid – walking around with a bow of himself. Apollo, conceited in his own victory over the python, addresses the youngling, “What has, a child like yourself, to do with such warlike equipment? Leave it for the superior among us, with hands worthy of great power like myself.
Behold the victory of my own, in the destruction of the poisonous serpent stretching over the domain of man, and be content in your inferior position.” Aphrodite’s child listened to the words spoken by the haughty Apollo and answered, “Your arrows may strike lethal and fatal, for that is true. Equally so will mine strike you. This patronising tone of yours shall be answered with actions of mine.” And so, Eros equipped his bow with two arrows from his quiver. One with desire, the other with repellence, for Eros too strikes with precision. The arrow of desire finds his way to Apollo’s heart, while the arrow of repellence befell on the nymph Daphne.
When Apollo noticed the beautiful young maiden, he was struck with desire and wished to be with her. His approach, however, scared the serene Daphne and caused her to flee. The mighty and handsome god Apollo, unfamiliar with rejection and possessed by love pursued in the chase. “Do not mistake me for pervert nor peasant, son of Zeus is who I am, and it is only for love that I pursue you!” cried Apollo. But it made no difference for the frightened Daphne. When strength and velocity start to fail Daphne, she cries out to her father, Peneus the river god: “Help me, Peneus, open thy arms, your realm of rivers and enclose me in your safety, or alter my form which has brought me this daunting situation!” Scarcely she spoke while stiffness seized her limbs. Like roots her toes grooved into the dirt, and her arms raised for the skies while transforming into branches. Her hair, dancing in the wind, turned green and took the form of laurel leafs. Not a single characteristic of her initial appearance was preserved, solely her beauty remained. Apollo stood amazed, witnessing the transformation. It was only now that he could embrace her.
Despite regretting the metamorphosis, his love still lingered on. “Since you can no longer be my wife, you shall assuredly be my tree.” He spoke: “It shall be your hair that I shall wear as my own, and my harp that shall be decorated with the material you provide me with.”
And so, he plucked the leafs of the laurel and blended them with the hair of his own, and carved a harp out of the wood of the laurel tree.
No lesser than Apollo – saviour of mankind – himself declared the laurel to be sacred. Thus it is, that by its appearance it bears resemblance to the greatness of the immortal divine deity. Every four years, the ancient Greeks celebrated Apollo’s victory over the python with the ‘Pythian games’. This was only one of the four games amongst which was the Olympic games, which is still in its current form a worldwide famed celebration of physical superiority.
Unlike the Olympic games, the Pythian games did not only praise the physical strength of athletes, but also provided a stage for competitions of culture. And so, located at Delphi – where the oracle of Delphi too is devoted to Apollo – the Pythian games allowed artists, singers and dancers to compete amongst each other. The victor of the Pythian games was suitably rewarded with the laurel wreath.
So it is that a long history of associating the laurel wreath with victory begun. The laurel wreath took the form of a crown without any royal significance, and so a reward obtainable by the common, the cunning, the loyal and the strong. The crown itself, as traditional wearable representation of monarchy or divinity is great possibly the most enduring symbol of the sovereign.
Where in different cultures a variation of regalia is employed to signify authority – scepters, rods and robes, – it is the crown that developed simultaneously in the wide range of cultures over time without any form of connectivity.
The etymology alone – crown coming from the Latin: corona – secures the divine status of the headgear, for in fact it describes the aura of light that surrounds the sun and the stars. Resting on the head, it secures not only a position most likely seen by others – in contrast to rings, belts or the royal shoelace – but also claims a symbolic position in relation to the human body. For the head is the most superior of the body, in which all faculties of the mind take place. It is the sense of human agency and rational capacity that separates civil society from brute and beast. Hair itself, styling or the absence of such, is already a representation of social and (-or) political status. Well shaved Egyptians and Renaissance wigs are examples of such. So it seems, that all pieces of ornamentations and decorations of the head join the ranks of nobility.
It proves hard to point out the origin for it dates back beyond our recordings of time. Yet the ancestry of our perception of the crown can already be found in diadems worn by the Persian Achaemenid emperors. The ornamented headbands made of silks and satins found its material translation into precious materials decorated with rare earths and jewellery.
Additionally, it would be unforgivable to exclude the collection of Egyptian crowns; Hedjet, Deshret, Pschent and Khepresh worn by the pharaohs. Each crown carries specific symbolic meaning, for Hedjet represented Upper Egypt, Deshret Lower Egypt, Pschent the unification of
Lower and Upper Egypt, and finally the Khepresh known as the war crown, which was meant to evoke the divine power of the pharaoh in military conquest. While the Egyptians maintained a clear distinction between the crown and its representation (relating to either territory or military purposes), the golden laurel wreath blends all. The splendour of decorative value carries the divine right of power, legitimacy, absolute authority and perhaps even righteousness and immortality.
Even the Crown of Thorns bears with its horrific suffering religious and spiritual significance. However, the laurel wreath in contrast to the more dominant perception of the crown, bears no resemblance to monarchical structures or power through inheritance. Thereby as a symbol, it represents a form of glory gained through the actions of the individual. Actions which lead to the glorification of that individual in context of the collective, thus the honour of man through his own agency. The crown of the common is the reward achievable by all, a glorification of action achievable by all, unlike status through noble birth.
Hence the laurel wreath gained the title ‘corona civica’ (the civil crown) in Roman civilisation. It was the second highest honour to which the common citizen could aspire, reserved only for those victorious in combat who due to their violent actions saved fellow citizens or legionaries. It was only surpassed by the rarest of all, namely the ‘corona graminea’ (the grass crown), which was appointed only to officers and commanders whose actions saved the entire legion.
In the Roman society, honour was reserved for the victorious, which primarily concerned violent conquest and warfare.
Admirable only, was the strength of men contested in combat, or wisdom and strategic insight, that resulted in victory on the battlefield. Despite the dependency on trade, no merchant claimed noble status. The glorious champion of Rome, were those who claim victory over the slave rebellion that threatened the republic, those who launch holocausts and raids in foreign country home only to competitors in commerce, or those who annexed new lands into their territory. Both citizen and slave, legionnaire and gladiator, only claim honour through the actions of the brute. Rome – despite perhaps honourable memories – was a brutal state in which senator met senator, dagger in hand or opposed one and another on the battlefield.
Power, wealth, glory and status are inherently social faculties that can only exist through the perception of the other. Thus emerges a necessity to obtain an appearance that represents and embodies such. Once rewarded, the carrier was allowed to wear the corona civica until death. And so the crown would be worn with pride and honour at public events — festivals and spectacles such as chariot races and gladiator games — to embody his glory and significance. The corona civica became a well-known public symbol, transforming a mythological story and the representation of glory into a wearable object.
In the year 81BC, the Mytilene revolt at Lesbos against the Roman Republic is overcome, due to the violent effort of the Roman legionnaires. It is precisely at this battle that the young – nowadays most well-known political figure – Gaius Julius Caesar makes his first appearance on stage and due to his contribution in combat is rewarded the ‘corona civica’. This is still decades before his role as consul, exile and conquest of Gall which inevitably resulted in his immortal fame.
Not only did the actions of his life acquired fame beyond the grave, but his effort also laid the fundament for the transition from the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. An empire hardly matched in size or fame throughout the centuries, that flourished due to its military strength and techniques, but also by means of art, literature and philosophy. Thereby it created a set of ideals that continued to reoccur.
Centuries later, the same Roman principles and Caesarean image were adopted by the military leader, who also acclaimed worldwide fame, Napoleon Bonaparte. All warfare, politics and art were based on the roman model. He understood the importance of his image and so, ordered painting after painting, displaying himself – young and flawless – victorious in battle, just like the roman senate who would heroically lead the legionnaires into combat. Artistic propaganda created the perception of an undefeatable heroic leader on his road to victory. Like a roman senate, he knew the importance of representation and too employed symbolism as agent and advocate. Displayed either victorious in combat or wearing the symbol of such – the corona civica – he immortalised his own image over the course of time.
During the coronation in 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte entered the Notre-Dame Cathedral wearing a golden laurel wreath, accepted the crown and raised it symbolically above his head after which he placed it on the head of his wife Joséphine de Beauharnais.
The Crown of Charlemagne – specially forged for Napoleon himself – never reached the head of the Emperor during the coronation for it was already occupied by the corona civica.
No other crown is a more accurate and superior representation of victory than the golden laurel wreath. Yet what remains to discover is the meaning of victory. The etymological stems from the Latin ‘victor’ synonymous for conqueror. Thereby it appears that victory is solely concerned with acts of warfare and can only be found in military practice.
Victory thus is the success or triumph as result of battle or combat, the ultimate and decisive supremacy in warfare. This seems to exclude all personal, spiritual, intellectual and individual matters such as the possibility of moral victories. However, in the mythology of Apollo, we see a pluriform conception of victory. One indeed, as result of the violent destruction of the opponent – in this case the python – yet the other as the result of love and desire. From this perspective, it appears true that victory can be achieved due to personal endeavour, independent from violent conquest. Nevertheless, a closer inspection of the mythological story is required to reveal the true meaning of Apollo’s personal victory in love.
Caught in a chase by the lusty libidinous Apollo, Daphne herself anxious for his desire, accepted all alternatives and cried out: “Help me Peneus, open thy arms, your realm of rivers and enclose me in your safety, or alter my form which has brought me this daunting situation!”
With remorse, regret and pity, Apollo witnessed her transformation into the Laurus Nobilis. Despite her new physical form, his love and attraction did not settle. He desired her body still, and sequentially used it to decorate his harp and hair, and wore the leafs of Daphne like it were hairs of his own.
This mythological story perfectly illustrates the complexity of victory, by the display of both desire and rejection. Daphne has no interest in being desired nor obtained by the lustful Apollo, no matter his divine status or parenthood. Meanwhile Apollo has no interest in her rejection and only considers his own desire. Thus a relation emerges between oppressor and the oppressed. It is a relation in which the oppressor is not at all interested in the wellbeing of the other – nor being in harmony with – but rather with obsessive behaviour of aiming to obtain another. Thereby it is that the quest of love is not at all an endeavour of admiration, but instead a rather violent conquest in obtaining through the destruction of the other.
Within this mythological story, the process of destruction is literally translated in acquirement. As soon as the body is transformed, it is used as source material for the production of goods in the interest of Apollo. The victorious obtained the defeated through domination and destruction. This describes what it means to have victory.
It is in the work of psychoanalyst and writer Erich Fromm that we see a clear distinction between two modes of existence that relate to this perception of victory. In ‘To Have or To Be’ Fromm describes a distinction between having and being through the following poems;
Flower in a crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower–but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
I walked in the woods
All by myself,
To seek nothing,
That was on my mind.
I saw in the shade
A little flower stand,
Bright like the stars
Like beautiful eyes.
I wanted to pluck it,
But it said sweetly:
Is it to wilt
That I must be broken?
I took it out
With all its roots,
Carried it to the garden
At the pretty house.
And planted it again
In a quiet place;
Now it ever spreads
And blossoms forth.
The difference between the two poems is striking, for Tennyson reacts with a desire to obtain the flower – both as object and in understanding – and so, aims to have it. “He “plucks” it “root and all.” And while he ends with an intellectual speculation about the flower’s possible function for his attaining insight into the nature of God and man, the flower itself is killed as a result of his interest in it.” (Fromm, 1979) In the poem by Goethe, we see a similar desire to have the flower, but also an awareness that in the process of obtaining it, the original will be destroyed.
The alternative is to relocate the flower as such, that both form and function remain unaltered. It is rather the environment and surrounding of the flower that has changed, and in doing so the admirable continues to exist as such, but also in harmony with the admirer. It is this second notion that Erich Fromm describes as being. It is obvious that the second notion – the notion of being – is a far more noble perception, yet it appears that victory in its previous definition solely relates to the mode of having victory. It is – as described by Erich Fromm – a process in which the original is destroyed as the result of admiration. This is the case for both the poem written by Tennyson, as it is for the mythological story of Apollo and Daphne.
Indeed when victory appears solely as a synonym for triumph, it describes superiority in a violent conquest or battle – final and ultimate – thus the having of a victory. Whereas we aim to describe victory in the mode of being we relate to it as being successful. It is the achievement or accomplishment of one’s goals, which do not inherently relate to violence or bloodshed, and thus present us with a far more applicable, honourable and ideal perception of victory.
Since the symbolic origin of the corona civica relates to the brutal process of victory through the violent destruction of the original, it relates to a vulgar and vicious perception of victory and thus a direct representation of desire for power and lust for having victory.
The glorified symbolism of victory, is inherently linked to the violent destruction of all it opposes. Already the image making of the past shows the corona civica in visual representation. This representation of glory without the physical necessity of neither living victor nor laurel wreath, allowed for the distribution of the image, and so reputation of the glorious.
The representation of the symbol serves as a testimony for the glory of the depicted. This is the evolution of the symbol in which it releases itself from its physical dependency. Here, we witness a transformation of the laurel wreath into the visual representation signifying the symbolic value of such, without the necessity of physically being present, nor related.
Even more so, the symbol evolved to such an extent that the physical identity of such does no longer influence the method and meaning of the visual representation. That is to say, that the symbol effectively separated itself from its physical dependency. It can be applied, used and reproduced without its true nature corresponding to its representation, while still evoking the same reaction and interpretation of the symbol.
This is seemingly a complicated process, but in fact describes nothing else than the spectator understanding the visual representation without the support of physical reality.
Looking at a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, the spectator – even if unfamiliar with the depicted – understands through the symbolic interpretation the status of the depicted.
The painting in which the glorious is to be portrayed, is by its very own nature (until the possibilities of mechanical and digital reproduction) limited to the physical realities of its own existence, that is to say the location of such. The location of such – museum or private gallery – determines the physical limitation that only allows access to a specific audience to witness the glory of the depicted.
The corona civica – the symbolism of victory – undergoes a transition that exceeds not only its physical reality but also its singular artistic representation and transcends into the multiplicity of practical application. It does so for example by its translation into coinage. The translation from the artistic practice – witnessed only by the few – into the practical economic usage – witnessed by all – appears to be a brilliant tactic, not only for the distribution of its representation, but also to secure the value of such. In contrast to other distribution techniques at the time – like the pamphlet – the coin carries intrinsic and fundamental value. It is therefore that the coin does not only become the carrier of the message, but also supports the message.
At first glance, this transition seems to primarily concern the method of symbolism as either physical or visual representation.
However, the process of dissolution also distinguished from the individual and allows for the symbol to be connected to a collective.
While the physical object of the corona civica takes the form of a crown, directly relating to the head on which it rest, the visual representation can be applied on anything, anywhere at all times. Thus the symbol – suitable or not – can be applied to any movement or organisation and can liberate itself from the individual.
A simple example of such case, is when a glorious individual through his hard labour and action, by all means earned the corona civica, and in his pride and gratitude applies the symbolic representation to his heraldry or family signature. The coat of arms, which symbolically stands for the glory of those it represents, will live on after the death of the victorious individual himself. Yet future or distant members of this family, also take credit and claim the same victory without having shared the burden or effort. Every member of the collective – regardless of their contribution – claims heroic victory, the moment the representation of the corona civica transcends in the symbolic sphere.
The transition from the symbolic representation of the individual to the collective is essential to understand the complexity of the contemporary application of symbolism. It is namely in our contemporary society and age in which we witness a shift towards the representation of the glory of organisation and institute.
Within this, the symbolic value is exploited as a glorification of primarily the visual identity of political and economic organisations that too, claim victory and employ symbolism to support their effort and claim. The symbolic visual identity aims to establish a reputation of glory, in essence trustworthy, thus to be glorious and victorious in the near future. This rhetoric design method is most often applied in two categories of organisation, (1) political organisations and (2) sport related organisations. Within the category of sports, the application of symbolism seems suitable for it is by nature a competition driven affair. Although sport is no warfare, there is always friction and competition involved and maintains by such its relation towards the battleground. To play a match is to strive for victory which can only be achieved by superiority over the other player or team. Only one champion claiming victory and superiority over the others.
It is in particular the category of political driven organisations in which the representation of victory – through destruction of the other – acquires dubious status. Until so far, that politics is translated into the battlefield, it is exactly the purpose of politics to organise affairs in an all cohesive coherent form. Even the United Nations for example, uses the symbolism of the corona civica as representation of peace and unity, but seemingly forgets (or worse, ignores) that the origin of the symbol only signifies peace through the destruction of all it opposes. Consequently it seems that the symbol of the corona civica is continuously applied to support the status of the institute, with a certain ignorance towards the process and meaning of victory.
The symbolism of glory institutes historically approved propaganda. This is the case for the present, the past and prehistory. Both modern and historical representations build upon the image and value of the corona civica established during the Roman era. Chances are that people refer to Caesar (despite some might unconsciously refer to Augustus) if asked for the origin of the corona civica, for he is for many of us, the first known carrier of the civil crown. Even though men preceded him, the records are scarce – and fame even less – of those who earned the corona civica during the time of the Republic, let alone the victors of the Pythian games. Indeed Gaius Julius Caesar is often associated with ideals of unity for his annexation of Gall, alliance with Egypt, end of the famine and civil war.
All these acts of peace and unity however, are the result of violent conquests. Gall, Egypt and the civil war, are all cases of peace in which the opposition is crushed. Therefore, the glorious corona civica resting on the head of noble Caesar, appears as nothing more than the bone necklace hanging around the neck of the barbarians it aims to crush.
The meaning of victory – peace as result of violent conquest – its desire, vulgarity and complexity are already disguised in the mythology that dates back to the very roots of Western civilisation.
The case of Apollo namely describes two forms of conquest, yet with similar result. At first, we see a case of conquest that directly relates to the violent destruction of the other, the python. Indeed, the python in all its destructive power threatened the preservation of man and since there is no reasoning nor sanctioning a perilous poisonous serpent, it must be destroyed for the sake of mankind. There is a relation at stake that can only result in either victory or defeat.
The process of destruction in the second case – the case of Daphne that is, – is perhaps less obvious but equally present. It is namely because the destruction is separated into two stages, one the transformation and second the obtaining.
First, we should acknowledge that the desire without fulfilment is a punishment as result of Apollo’s patronising behaviour and attitude towards Eros.
Secondly, that Eros represents desire in a foremost primal and sexual sense. The first stage of destruction – Daphne’s metamorphosis – should be considered the direct result of Apollo’s chase and approach. In other words, it is his own (sexual-) desire, that solely relates to his own interest and nothing but his own interest, that caused Daphne – the un-interested – to run, flee and turn into a tree. Therefore his desire to obtain her, can no longer be fulfilled. When this story is regarded within the context of victory and defeat, this surely fits the description of defeat. More explicitly, the defeat of both parties. Apollo lost – due to his own actions – his love, Daphne her form and existence.
The story continues with the romantic poetic expression, that because of his admiration, he adopted the tree nevertheless. Of course, – knowing that Greek mythology is more about violence, orgies and ecstasy than anything else – it is questionable if he obtained the laurel as an act of love, or that he completely ravished the tree out of (sexual-) frustration.
It is likely that Apollo did not feel the same satisfaction after his acquisition of Daphne, as much as his satisfaction after slaying a massive venomous python. Nevertheless the destruction of both is final. Thus the mythology inevitably represents victory through the destruction of the other.
It appears however that the complexity of victory has been lost over time, and that consciously or unconsciously, the Laurus Nobilis is applied as a symbol for peace and unity. Institutes, nations and organisations in our era, both from economic and political background, (of which the latter is more concerning) shamelessly apply the symbolism as naïve representation of peace, trust, victory and alliance, solely with the purpose of supporting the claim of the superior and sovereign.
The ignorant attitude towards the process of victory, causes our interpretation and understanding of the complexity oblivious. This troublesome naivety is the result of the symbolic transition, that takes part in three stages. First, the transition from physical object into the realm of visual representation, and second the separation from its ritualistic, mythological origin and value.
The combination of such, allowed for anarchism in the application of symbolism (which is the third transition), in which both; individual and collective, political and economic, state and counter movement may claim for victory by means of the visual symbolic personification of such. Yet, it is the state and the sovereign that benefits most from such representation. This anarchism, and application of symbolism with underlying strategic purposes lead to a collective misunderstanding.
Together, it did not neutralise the meaning and connotation of the symbol, but rather transformed it into historically approved propaganda, that takes stage in visual communication, solely to support the claim of the institute, beneficial to itself alone, while simultaneously the perception, knowledge and understanding of the symbolic origin and its complexity is in decline.
The issue at stake is not so much the shift in meaning of the symbol, for no natural condition intrinsically carries meaning, instead all meaning is derived from the human process of interpretation. The shifts of mankind – values, cultures, knowledges, religions, method of production, ideology etc. – equally causes shifts in interpretation and thus potentially a shift in the symbolic meaning and collective understanding.
The loss, considering the corona civica is divisible by the meaning and ideology of the symbol. First, the meaning in relation to the mythological origin, carries with it, the complexity of victory. Victory is the violent destruction of the other. Secondly, the ideology, for the corona civica– despite inevitably related to violent victory, – was object and reward for the civil (civil crown).
Although the individual receives the crown as result of actions, primarily in favour of the institute (namely the destruction of the other) it still signifies the individual glory. Nowadays instead, the institute itself claims that glory. The ultimate claim for glory truly belongs to none, yet symbolic interpretation to all.
Nature is perfect and final, purposeful yet meaningless.
Erich Fromm, ‘To Have or To Be’ (ABACUS Sphere Books Ltd, London. 1979).
Pliny the Elder. Natural History Book XV.135.
Paul Ricoeur, ‘Freud and Philosophy an Essay on Interpretation’ (Yale University Press, London. 1970).
Sigmund Freud, ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’ (Norton & Company, New York. 1930).
James Ward, ‘Historic Ornament’ (Chapman and Hall, 1897).
Franz Sales Meyer, ‘Handbook of Ornament’ (New York: Dover. 1977).
Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (Penguin books, London. 2008).
Emilie Kip Baker, ‘Stories of Old Greece and Rome’ (Project Gutenberg, 2014).
Thomas Bulfinch, ‘Bulfinch’s Mythologies’ (Canterbury Classics, San Diego. 2014).
Ruben Pater, ‘The Politics of Design’ (BIS Publishers, Amsterdam. 2016).
This thesis is part of the graduation program of the Bachelor study in Graphic Design at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague.
Special thanks to Füsun Türetken, Merel Boers, Matthias Kreutzer, Jan Robert Leegte, Silvio Lorusso, Pascal de Man, Nedislav Kamburov and Evy van Schelt.