As I am trying to write the November letter I find myself occupied with ‘yesterday’s news’—not the lighthearted ‘yesterday’s news’ of our last letter, but that of the larger realities beyond the walls of our space, as well as the larger histories beyond the headlines. With one unwavering eye on Palestine, and the other intermittently checking NOS for updates on the formation of our government following the election victory of far-right populist party PVV, it is difficult to focus on the task at hand, even if the theme I planned to write about seems rather fitting: disillusion. To speak about disillusion in the context of our personal practices feels a bit frivolous at the moment. I guess the struggle I feel is a common one within design; the need to navigate scales of perspective.
By now we are already well into December. It became a bit of a long one, but please make sure to scroll to the end as we have a big announcement from our small XP space…
Expectation vs. Reality
A few weeks ago we were invited by Vide Books to be part of the launch of Silvio Lorusso’s new book What Design Can't Do: Essays on Design and Disillusion at the Huidenclub. As XP representatives, Gijs and I joined Silvio and moderator Clara Balaguer for a conversation on the gap between design’s inherent optimism and the pervasive feelings of disillusionment and impotence experienced by many within the field. Following the book’s twofold division of Part I: Expectations vs. Part II: Reality, Clara asked us to each reflect on our biggest expectation.
Even though I had spent the days prior contemplating my own disillusion whilst sneak peeking through a PDF of the book, my immediate response was that I never really had grand expectations entering the discipline. With grand expectations I mean the idealistic belief that graphic design can save the world, or on a more practical level that I’d be finding a well-paid job in a design studio after graduation.
With no clear aspirations to hold onto, my brain jumped rather frantically from the clouded memory of a young clueless Kirsten doing a BA in graphic design to 30yo Kirsten finding comfort in dealing with freelance Reality among peers. To be honest I don’t exactly remember what came out of my mouth, but I sounded—as Clara confirmed—quite at peace.
No big expectations so no big disappointments, happy community...all is well? For some reason I felt bothered by how I seemed to have painted such a picture. In reality I identify so much more with the winged figure in Dürer’s Melencolia I, the engraving from which cropped fragments can be found throughout What Design Can’t Do, and is used by Silvio to represent the disillusioned everyday designer. Staring into the distance, she sits amidst a chaos of objects and unused tools, too paralysed to create, too stuck in introspection. That has been me.
Melencolia I – Albrecht Dürer (1514)
Often I have described my state of mind as disoriented rather than disillusioned. Does disorientation follow disillusion, losing one’s sense of direction after the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be, or is the lack of direction part of the cause? Probably there is a truth in both, but what I am curious about is whether I can try to better understand the conditions of my disillusion to find ground for reorienting myself. As Silvio emphasises, disillusion is not just a feeling of disenchantment but also involves a reveal—a lifting of the veils of illusion.
Maybe it would be beneficial to answer the question again and more thoroughly: how did I envision my future profession while studying? What hopes did I have even if small or mundane? What underlying assumptions were there? Where did my expectations clash with reality?
To help me reflect I asked my XP peers to share their answers as well:
I think when I left university the first time I expected to find myself in a small scale design studio doing projects for the cultural sector. At the time this was the only path I could really see that didn’t involve working for big brands, doing packaging for alcohol etc. At that age the “First Things First” manifesto and reading Adbusters influenced my expectations a lot but I’d say they talked more about “what designers shouldn’t do” rather than some lofty expectations of what design could achieve. I ended up in a design studio with quite strong principles when it came to activism and the environment, but they weren’t doing purely cultural projects. It was more about embedding these principles in the way we worked.
Leaving there to go and do an MA I think was due to certain expectations not being met. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to use design to really dig into subjects and come up with novel ideas to address them. I was frustrated that graphic design was always brought in after all the decisions had been made of what we will be designing.
I studied Interior Architecture as I thought Architecture was further upstream and I certainly do more projects now where I am designing the medium as well as how it’s decorated. But I realised the job description I was looking for in today’s structures was more a politician than a designer, and I would miss designing too much for that. Now I have boiled it down (or maybe have been worn down) to just wanting to be able to be learning, and to feel that what I do has value. But I am coming to realise that the value part is kind of made up, whether that be by some institution, industry, or you and the people you surround yourself with.
One of our amazing teachers during the NLN master at KABK, Saskia van Stein, gave us a great assignment on the very first day: to write our future selves a letter. She kept the envelopes for two years, we got to open them on graduation day. Here is an excerpt from mine (translated from Dutch):
“Hey future Emma, […] Let’s see if in two years you are as enthusiastic, motivated and hopeful about THE FUTURE! At the moment, I see it very brightly. […]. Ok, what do I hope to be able to say when I read this letter back?”
(Current Emma will rate them by how much these hopes came true, 🟢=very true 🟠=not quite yet 🔴=disillusion)
“that I have come closer to a way of working that I want to and can continue with” 🟠
“that I will be more confident both on a visual and a content level” 🟢
“that I know how to make myself work, also without school-deadlines” 🟠
“that I am not afraid to make the things I want” 🟠
“that I will have built a little network here, outside of Eindhoven bubble” 🟢
“that I will have collaborated with someone cool; that I am already teaching! Maybe a lot?!” 🟢
“that I am creating work outside these school walls, but also outside of design-world-walls” 🟢
“that I will have made at least one semi-professional video” 🟠
“that I have a nice work space, maybe together with cool people” 🟢🟢🟢🟢
“that I no longer work for Cineville, but still make enough money to support myself” 🟢
“that my wrist and hand don’t hurt anymore like right now” 🟢
“that I can sometimes travel for work?!?” 🔴
“that I might live in New York again, or maybe Medellin?” 🔴
“that I will work together with Gijs?!!?” 🟢
(3 of these came true through Extra Practice!)
Funny, I forgot I was already so passionate about teaching back then, right now I see it way more as a bonus gig than a real part of my practice. Overall, pretty ok score? Of course I have felt a little disillusioned at times, especially after the Design Academy Eindhoven BA. But I’m glad I found out by myself that what seemed important in that school/bubble (prestige, fame, relevance, trends, growth, exposure) doesn’t have to align with what I find important – and I know much better what that is now (community, freedom, experiment, balance, learning, fun). Tbh I don’t have much room for disappointment because I mostly feel pretty lucky to be where I am right now. I think letting go of expectations is often a healthy thing to aim for… that being said, I still want to try and turn all of those oranges into greens in 2024 hahaha
I have graduated twice so I feel like I’ve been through two stages of expectations vs. reality and I think the first somehow managed to inform the expectations of the second. Before and during my studies in graphic design (study 1), I had this hopeful idea that I would never be doing the same thing twice. That I would be exploring all kinds of topics and working with all kinds of people and making cool things like record websites, books and magazines about those things. I don’t think I ever thought of design impacting the world, I just wanted to make stuff about things I found interesting.
When I graduated and did internships and eventually had jobs, I realised that this world of graphic design didn’t really exist and even when I managed to be designing books and magazines, it really wasn’t as fun as I thought it might be. I was what in Dutch is called a ‘vormgever’, I was giving form to things which was fine but it skipped my first initial interest in design to start with. I didn’t like missing out on that first step of finding what needs to be given form to in the first place.
The second time I studied, all I knew was that I didn’t want to be doing what I had already done. I think I had residual feelings of disappointment left over from the graphic design world so I started without knowing what I wanted. I had no idea where it would lead me and no idea what would come after, I just knew I wouldn’t/couldn’t go back. Somehow this second round of study was also hopeful, but in a different way to the first, somehow it felt more urgent.
Anyway, I feel like if you work in the art/design world you always have to have a little bit of disillusion just to keep yourself going but sometimes you can do things without knowing where they will lead and that for me is fun.
When Clara asked us about big expectations, I had to think of two.
Expectation #1 was raised at my bachelors in Industrial Design at a new and rather vague program. There were no fixed classes, no exams, just electives and self-guided projects. I loved this freedom, which later felt like a latent longing for art school within a technical university. For many more responsible peers however, this freedom raised some obvious questions: what are we learning? What can we become? Can we even get a job without a solid skillset? These were doubts I preferred to keep buried, and fortunately the creative director of the program had an answer: “You get trained for a position you will have 10 years after graduating!” He most likely meant something like creative director, having vision while others have skills. It soothed me at the time.
Reality: I realise that 10 years after means next year, So beware!
In the meantime there was another Expectation #2 raised. When I studied at Design Academy its star-gazing promises were already a bit toned down: “Don’t expect to find a good position right away, it takes at least 2 years of side jobs, projects, getting by.”
Reality: It’s been 4 years now and I have to admit, it still sounds all too familiar. I think I don’t even aim for a singular ‘good position’ anymore. But if I ever felt disillusion, that seems already far away, settled into acceptance, into trying to make do with what’s here. ‘Artistic research’, I tell people who ask. I don’t expect them to understand its value anymore. Scary, I don’t want to forget it myself either, I still have great Expectations for it (hear that, Reality?).
One expectation I didn’t mention on stage was that I definitely chose to study industrial design because I wanted to, well, ‘save the world with technology’. Then philosophy. Then design. I would often tell people that what motivates my projects is that I secretly think that I’m saving the world through them. I want to feel a connection to a bigger cause, to bigger waves, to history. I know this Expectation is a modernist myth, absurd in the face of ‘yesterday’s news’; that the world is chaotic and whatever is left of the idea of my agency is fully dependent on context and coincidence. If anything, that’s a lesson I could draw from post-graduation Reality.
Yet while it’s a myth, it’s still there, in my inherited structure of feeling. I think I aim for a way of embracing this ‘saving the world’ attitude post-ironically: from illusion to disillusion to make-believe, play, a lucid dream. Yes it’s an absurd fiction but it’s a game I can try to play to make meaning, collectively. A hopeful dream to connect over, where ‘artistic research’ can play a part. XP helps me keep this dream alive. Even when people outside don’t get it (yet), there is this small support structure of peers who do and help me develop, until hopefully, one day, someone outside will too. (Bc yes I do aim for more connection with research contexts so hmu! )
Similarly to the others I have had the privilege of livin' la vita contemplativa inside the illusory protective walls of an art and design school more than once. My desire to make work in a way that gives me space to think about meaning and value sprouted towards the end of my graphic design BA, and was further cultivated in the information design MA. There was some expectation that this kind of practice would be possible in the Real World, but next to the optimistic idealist there was always a pragmatic (cautious?) realist within me that knew money isn’t easily made like that. The slice of reality in-between my two rounds of student-life taught me that doing autonomous work next to a part-time job can be challenging, but I was convinced there was a way to balance or integrate work which provides livelihood with work that ‘gives me life’.
After my second graduation I was determined to be full-time self-employed with a divided practice split between graphic design commissions and self-initiated projects, endlessly compartmentalising my week to make space for both. However even within those compartments I still never managed to give either one my undivided attention, which led to me feeling not technically equipped or experienced enough as a graphic designer nor enough of a lucid critical thinker/maker to pursue artistic research.
Perhaps a big underlying expectation has been the idea that design as an act of ‘imposing meaningful order’ (as defined by Victor Papanek) will provide clarity and that I can design my way out of my problems, my mess. Furthermore, the notion that once there is order and serenity I can finally function properly.
Reality hit hard after I received a generous grant that I expected would give me time and space to pursue whatever I wanted without too much compromise. Disillusion spiked when having that privilege couldn’t make up for the fact that I was deeply disoriented, lacking a clear sense of position and context, and that my attempt at doing a project around my relationship with time and work put me in a weird introspective loop.
Looking back however I can see how within the chaos of the past two years there were many exchanges and collaborations with really great people and contributions to valuable projects and initiatives that allowed me to connect to actual contexts and appreciate my modest role within them.
In ‘What Design Can’t Do’ Silvio speaks of smart culture (which centers the individual and puts novel ideas and creations in the limelight) vs. contribution culture (which maintains and builds upon what is there). I’m realising more and more how I am a product of the first and expected to fit in that, but feel much more purposeful pursuing the second.
While writing out this reflection I could feel the melancholy make way for a sense of relief. It feels strangely reassuring to accept that, as Silvio writes, ‘rather than producing meaningful order, design might be about inhabiting chaos’. Maybe the perpetual compromise between realism and idealism is not only inevitable, but necessary to find temporary grounding.
This brings me to another Dürer engraving that Silvio refers towards the end of the book:
St. Jerome in his Study – Albrecht Dürer (1514)
St. Jerome in his Study depicts a sun-lit room that is neatly organised yet not too rigidly, inside which the figure sits at his desk in what looks like a contemplative flow state, translating the bible into Latin (quite a maintenance task/contribution!). Reminders of mortality and the passage of time surround him, yet they do not paralyse him. He seems to have found peace in his craft. This image of ‘provisional yet fulfilling sense of order’, as Silvio describes, is what I was aspiring to. However I would update mine with few more things, like an open door to the street, a football in a corner, a watermelon in the window, a browser with localhost:8000 open in one tab and a newsfeed in the other, a CSS file with BEM structure, a daybed, an open notebook with ‘monthly meeting notes’ and some dirty dishes on a big table, and—of course—a couple more desks with my dear pals behind it.
Get your copy of What Design Can’t Do: Essays on Design and Disillusion in Rotterdam at Vide Books or online at Set Margins
Now over to Emma for our big announcement:
📦📦📦 Extra Practice is moving!! 📦📦📦
As much as we love and cherish our little 39m corner on Zwaanshals 209, we are leaving her for a 69m2 place across the river, a 5 minute walk from current XP. We saw it in September, a newly renovated space on a bubbly street in Crooswijk. We had to write an extensive proposal to be considered for it (the neighbourhood had a say in the selection) and they chose us. We are very excited about this new extra space, expect a new, improved and more event-focused XP in 2024!
Things are (literally) moving fast: we will be packing up our things on dec 13th. Since the holidays are coming up and our British boys leave to UK soon, there is only a small window for us to throw a goodbye party for Zwaanshals space - and she deserves one! So we’ve decided to combine it with another event that was already planned together with Yara Veloso on December 12th:
XP’s doors will be open from 10AM to 10PM with a full wrapping program:
10 :00–17:00 ✔️ WRAP-IT-UP WORKDAY
it’s almost time to wrap up the year; is there a (digital) project or task you have been wanting to finish but just never got around to? Come to XP, bring your laptop, and let’s get it DONE! We’ll take care of lunch, and a bit of structure in the day, to make sure we complete our stuff together.
byo wrap toppings (= literally anything)
invite & full program soon on instagram
The new Robida magazine #9 from our friends in Topolo is out! Gijs and Jack had the honour of contributing to this issue. Read about bell towers, a tour through gijs.garden, and much more in relation to the theme of Soil.
Thanks for making it all the way to end <3 Hope to see you next week, or next year in XP 2.0!