Are designers better people?

Zlatka Salopek

In the previous edition of this valuable publication, the uncertainty of the state of the design scene in the dramatic and at that time still unpredictable short-term and long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic was expressed several times. However, to my great delight, the “new normal” brought us a flood of production with a record 573 registered works. To my further delight, out of almost six hundred works, the vast majority are indeed of very high quality. One can count on the fingers of one hand the submitted work that seem to be completely lost in the design context or below any reasonable, minimum professional standard. Voting along with the other members of the Selection Committee takes place very democratically. Each selector has equal right to vote for works from all areas. I consider this a great practice, as it eliminates excessively hermetic projects, should they arise.

The Selection Committee really had to choose the best from that large amount of works. Let me clarify: the logistical framework and capacities of the biennial exhibition are closely related and closely interact with the level of quality of the submitted and selected projects themselves. This means that the higher overall quality of the submitted works brings with it stricter, sharper, more competitive criteria. The way of working in the online interface, established two years ago, gives the jury mathematical precision and reduces the possibility of the influence of louder and more intrusive jurors on the rest of the selection team, but joint sessions that served to define the point threshold and reasoned discussion about projects that any of us considered that they were ranked too high or too low due to a lack of context or detail that merits reconsideration of the work, humanized the process and made it still resemble the juries we were used to in pre-Covid times.

All in all, this is quite a complicated and tiring job that carries a lot of responsibility. However, I am very grateful for this task – when would I otherwise take a week or two out of the year to thoroughly familiarize myself with the state of the scene? When would I find out who our contemporary clients are? Which agencies are the new emperors of the digital arena, which studio can claim the title of feminist champion of independent culture? I always follow what’s happening, but otherwise I don’t have the opportunity (and obligation) to delve into it this thoroughly. I will convey to you a few short conclusions that I came to through the work on the selection, without naming specific colleagues. Despite my own pragmatic character that likes to answer questions, in my text you will come across several questions that still await answers.

Design for the independent cultural scene vs. agency design

I can’t resist mentioning (laughing wickedly) the phrase “artistic design” versus “commercial design”. That elusive contradiction that is neither true, nor contradictory, has always disgusted me a little. Do you know any design project that does NOT sell something? Maybe it’s not a product, but an idea, and maybe it does not bring money but, for example, attention, but in essence it is the same. Also, is there really a project that doesn’t require a certain amount of artistic expertise, impression and attitude? The commercial nature of something should not serve as an alibi for substandard work.

Therefore, this newer opposition seems somewhat more sympathetic to me. But, as noted in recent years, Croatian design is growing and progressing, and a big change has undoubtedly occurred on the agency scene. It is about several agencies, but with tectonic effects. In my opinion, the most important effect is the significant increase in the quality of mainstream production, as design for the independent scene has moved to mainstream agencies. Or we could (satisfiedly) say, it’s not even the mainstream it used to be?

Small and large categories

By the term “small” or “large” category, I do not mean the quality or complexity of works within a particular category. That’s a story in itself. Many of the presented works within the Spatial and graphic interventions and systems category or ones within the Integrated projects/products category are far more complex than most of the works in other categories. No, I mean something basic, but also more indicative – the number of works in a particular category.

Over the years, even decades, since the HDD biennial exhibition has existed, we have witnessed the changing of categories, the merging of some and the emergence of others. It is also a reflection of the changing face of Croatia, changes in the economy, changes in the circumstances and context in which designers work. In short, our world is changing irreversibly, and this can be read quite well from Croatian design.

Let’s start with the smallest category. Within Fashion and Clothing Design, there are dramatically fewer submitted works, both in the professional and student segments. This certainly, according to the knowledge of the members of the Selection Committee, does not reflect the actual situation in Croatia. Perhaps the reason lies in the fact that fashion designers do not see the biennial exhibitions of the Croatian Design Association as a platform for the presentation of their works, and perhaps the medium of the exhibition itself is unsuitable for fashion work compared to conventional ways of presenting fashion through, for example, fashion shows, fashion photography and editorials. Also, part of the student works created at the Faculty of Textile Technology (TTF), the central higher education institution for fashion design in Croatia, was submitted and selected this year within the Product / Industrial Design category, apparently thanks to the cooperation of the TTF with the company Regeneracija, i.e. ReGalerija, in a multidisciplinary education process.

The Concept/initiative/critical design category traditionally includes a small number of high-quality projects, and it is interesting to note that this category also serves as a basket into which it is possible to submit unfinished projects (which some applicants did not realize, so they persistently submitted their unrealized projects to the categories reserved for realized, existing and published works).

Design in digital media is a bit crowded with interaction design. These are two terms that in their essence do not have much in common, but they found themselves together by force of chance. Maybe in the future we should consider creating a new category of experience design and leave digital media alone. Which leads us to another topic: there is digital in all categories, design has long gone beyond “website design”, every serious project has its presence in the virtual world in one way or another.

Over time, the very limited Packaging design category became very opulent, flamboyant and propulsive, and Industrial design grew from the sphere of concepts and self-initiated projects into a reflection of the existence of the real furniture industry; few, but extremely high quality and recognition. Therefore, I am disturbed by the new trend in which, it seems, students at Zagreb’s School of Design choose the course of industrial design in much smaller numbers, which may have its own market reasons and indicators, it may also be about healthy and dynamic competition between disciplines, about the superiority of the digital sphere over the material, or about the effects of the pandemic on the teaching process itself, but the stagnation of one course in relation to the other is not good or stimulating for any of them, not even for the design community – on the contrary, it is precisely the balance and interdisciplinary spirit of the Zagreb School of Design that is not only its recognizable determinant in relation to other similar faculties, but also the basis for the development of design in Croatia in general.

The already mentioned category of Spatial and graphic interventions and systems is experiencing a similar boom as packaging, but on a far more interdisciplinary basis. It is full of meticulously and skilfully designed interpretation points and permanent exhibitions, installation designs that are demanding and very well made in all fields – from architecture, through spatial design, signage and spatial graphics, to designing experience and digital environments. In short, in the number and quality level of projects in this category, we see what happens when a certain amount of effort and financial investment flows into the cultural area, which is also interesting from the point of view of tourist exploitation. The results are excellent! This leads us to the category about which there is a certain level of confusion: The Integrated project/product. Many projects from other categories could be moved there, and vice versa, some projects might have more success in some other categories, for example in industrial design or packaging.

There is only one constant in measuring the “small” and “large” categories: Visual communication design continues to dramatically outnumber all other categories.

Are designers better people?

During the selection process, the question of how Covid-19 affected design in Croatia came up several times. In the previous Croatian Design Review 19/20, a certain discomfort permeated with uncertainty was expressed, and the answers to these questions were postponed for a later time when it would be clearer how our environment has changed and what level of influence it has had on our lives and design work.

I can repeat the good news that there are more submitted works than ever, and I can also announce my personal delight that a significant shift towards inclusivity, care for mental health and respect for human emotional states can be felt in a large number of works. This deviation is felt in all fields: from the topics the works deal with, through the way they approach the problem, to the diligence with which they successfully transfer narratives and efforts from one medium to another.

In the end

Considering that there are now really numerous educational institutions in the field of design in Croatia, the question arises, why are there so few student works, and why are they of such variable quality? I am sure that there are far more students who want to exhibit their works at such a large juried exhibition than can be guessed from this year’s applications, and I am sure that many of them have very good works. The kind of attention that an exhibition like this brings can only be useful for young designers, no matter how terrifying the fact that your work will be judged by some unknown people with a certain reputation may seem. From the applications, it is clear which institutions, even which professors, encourage their students in this direction.

This time, the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award is the legendary designer of international fame, Boris Ljubičić. Here it seems appropriate to ask a question to my colleagues, especially those younger than myself: why is the most vocal Croatian designer, persistent fighter on the front for national identity and tireless educator (in every chance he gets) a gentleman in the honorable age of 77 and not a young 27 year old?