Vier5, Paris & Kassel, documenta 14 poster.

Visitors to the first half of the documenta 14 program in Athens, Greece have wandered the streets with bewilderment while attempting to find the art show’s various venues; the mischievous wayfinding (or way-losing?) is made up of red-and-white placards that blend in with other traffic signs. This deliberately deceptive signage is just one part of the exhibition’s provocative graphic design program: there are also placards that look like protest signs, an unfinished reader, newspapers that obscure the location of the reader’s native tongue, and a very definite lack of a logo.

The historic art exhibition, which takes place every four years in the German city of Kassel, opens this week, but has already had a program in Greece as part of its Learning from Athens chapter of events. While balancing two cities, two time-lines, and three languages is already complicated enough from a design perspective, curator Adam Szymczyk decided to add another layer of complexity to the event’s communications; inviting four studios to work on the design, and scrapping any notion of an overarching identity.

Vier5, Ludovic Balland, Laurenz Brunner & Julia Born, and Mevis & van Deursen are the four graphic design groups involved. They’ve been given no rules or guidelines from Szymczyk, and the work has been equally divided between them. Since the initial meeting took place, they’ve purposefully avoided contact with one another regarding design details. It’s a provocative experiment that probes at the industry’s obsession with identity systems, and the way that identity is in thrall to marketing and branding. In many ways, this has always been the spirit of the show: from its inception the exhibition has made use of its communication design to make politically motivated statements.

The first documenta in Kassel at Museum of Fridericianum, 1955

Taking up a challenge issued by Kassel’s mayor to reflect the state of global art in a given year, designer and teacher of exhibition design Arnold Bode first conceived of documenta in the context of post-war Germany in 1955. The exhibition primarily took place—as it still does—in the Northern city’s Museum of Fridericianum, which was built in the mid-18th century as the first public museum in Europe. Badly damaged by WWII air raids and still in ruins, Bode—a strong believer in the significance of the modernist movement—saw the location as the right space for an exhibition of “art of our time”. He believed that through spatial design, he could craft an image of regeneration, and transform the palace in a way that would persuade contemporary opponents of modernism of the significance of abstract art and the modernist tradition for the renewal of the country’s culture.

Banners on the exterior of the building and the reader cover were designed in the aesthetic of modernism; both used typography as an abstract element, harkening back to the Bauhaus school and juxtaposed with the ornate yet rundown exterior of the museum. The communications’ nod to modernism is especially evident on the reader’s cover, in its use of an enlarged, clean lower-case, sans-serif “D” for documenta. This lower-case lettering was a radical democratic gesture at the time, and an echo of the Bauhaus’s distinct typographic sensibility.

The first documenta catalog, 1955

Since that first documenta, each subsequent show has aimed to reinvent itself through the engagement of its participants and the general public, as well as through the creation of a challenging new visual identity. The design of dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012 was developed by the Italian studio Leftloft, which sought a flexible design grammar while simultaneously acknowledging the history of the exhibition.

“documenta’s true identity,” said Leftloft in 2010, “can be described as the sum of many different signs and meanings, as a process rather than a fixed reality… To avoid the risk of altering documenta’s nature by superimposing a fixed graphic identity onto it, we decided to define a flexible visual grammar. Our aim is to achieve a consistent and effective non identity which will not rely on the repetition of a single graphic element.”

To achieve this, Leftloft focused—like Bode in the ’50s—on the typographic identity of the exhibition. While the use of a lower rather than uppercase D was a radical gesture in the ’50s, in the post-digital context of documenta 13 the studio felt that lowercase lettering suggested lazy typing on a cellphone. Instead it opted to write documenta with a lowercase d followed by uppercase letters for “-OCUMENTA”. The typography of the name varied in each manifestation—from press releases, to the website, to the letterhead, and artists’ books—resulting in a set of dOCUMENTA (13) logos that were distinctly different, but united by the same visual syntax. 

Leftloft, dOCUMENTA (13) identity, 2012

What Leftloft’s design cleverly explores is the idea of rejecting a single identity to reflect the multiplicity of perspectives and meanings that documenta espouses. Multiplicity here is something symbolized and represented by the visual program, versus the visual program actually being generated by multiple perspectives.

documenta 14 takes this idea one step further, inviting four studios to work on the event’s communications, continuing the investigation of “weakening the notion of an identity.” With no typographic guidelines, cohering color palettes, logo, or any other rules to follow, each studio has responded to the needs of a particular piece of media.

“We didn’t want this to be a ‘democratic design process,’ with constant back and forth and continual discussion,” says Ludovic Balland, whose main contributions are the design of the reader and weekly newspapers in Athens. “We all agreed that each studio should work to its own tune, and not attempt to play like one another.” The only media in which every studio participated were four unique posters for the event.

Head of Communication’s Henriette Gallus explains the decision behind working with a large group of practitioners in the following way:

“documenta 14 questions all notions of one-directional understanding, of one right answer to one right question, and re-framing content into recognizable patterns. The approach is conceptual, in the least because we need to accommodate three languages in our communication and design and two locations.

We are skeptical of quick and easy shortcut solutions, and seek to facilitate a multitude of voices in the curatorial process and in the artistic process. Therefore we felt it was important to reflect that in the graphic design, the website, posters, and books.

The entire venture is a comment and critique on the current state of graphic design and its shackling to corporate identity, an experiment that attempts to show how the needs of corporate identity prevent a graphic designer from creating a complex and rich response to a brief. Instead of creating one identity for use across various media, documenta 14’s approach allows each piece to be shaped by its purpose.

documenta 14 magazine: South as a State of Mind, issue 7. Design by Mevis & Van Deursen.

“We don’t believe in corporate identity,” says Balland. “We believe that visual communication is related to a specific format, and a specific format needs a specific design. A corporate identity demands efficiency as it requires the production of so many things at the same time. That is the loss though: by necessity, you are forced to reduce. We tried to be specific instead of diverse.

Design needs complexity, it needs layers, it needs specificity. A classic corporate identity dilutes content into a big soup.

“The concept is extremely interesting in a time where most people only think in terms of branding and marketing strategies,” add Mevis & Van Deursen. “If you have a very strong story to tell, you can probably do it well, and maybe even better without branding platforms and identities.”

The most cohesive element of documenta’s communications is its website; likely the first encounter a visitor will have with the show. Berlin-based graphic designer Laurenz Brunner and Zurich-based Julia Born are behind the website and the office’s typography and business cards, for which they’ve created a custom serif that also included drawing the full Greek alphabet.

“We intended it not to be corporate, but feel more personal, as if it was being used at the beginning of a letter and addressing a reader.”

Taking an altogether different approach, Parisians Vier5’s signage for Athens experiments with how wayfinding can function at an event. It’s been designed to reflect, as Gallus puts it, “the infrastructure and turmoil of the city itself; it’s a challenge for the visitor in that it’s not simply navigable, which was to some degree our intention.” Vier5’s signage is rooted in documenta 14’s working title, “Learning from Athens” mimicking hand-drawn street signs that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

documenta 14 Athens signage, Vier5. Photograph: Slanted.de

Intended to reflect the country’s current political and economic turmoil, what these signs actually achieve is the creation of a new kind of relationship between visitors and the city that is altogether different from other conferences and events. As visitors scan the streets for wayfinding, they are forced to be extra perceptive. Conference and event culture can create a narrow experience of a city by shepherding visitors from one place to another, especially through the use of blunt, attention-grabbing signage. Creating an overarching and obvious identity can encourage a division of space, and erases the possibility for chance encounters by creating borders. Without a cohesive visual system to guide the visitor from one venue to another, documenta encourages a greater possibility for serendipity.

Despite this conceptual promise though, documenta 14 has received plenty of criticism. Graffiti, in the same thick scrawl of the event signage, sprung up in Athens castigating the show as “Crapumenta 14.” Posters reading “Learning From Athens” were quickly blotted out to read “earning from Athens.”

documenta 14 Athens signage, Vier5. Photograph: Slanted.de

Ludovic Balland’s designs invite another perspective on documenta. As well as producing weekly newspapers during the Athens run, Balland has designed the accompanying documenta Reader, which in some respect is the exhibition’s most definitive guide.

“Adam assumed and accepted that some visitors might lose themselves at documenta—that they might not understand at first, and that they’d need to get involved in order to,” says Balland. “That’s why the concept behind The Reader is that it’s an unfinished book, like a mock-up. It doesn’t boast: it’s just cardboard, very thick, so it almost feels like the reader can finish it herself. She can make a jacket, etc., and it’s ultimately about her.

“On the cover, we hid the number 14 slightly and left the front blank. With this, we’re saying: it’s not about the brand ‘documenta number 14’, it’s much more about the visitor. We’re saying that the branding is not important: branding does not make the fair.”

There’s a lot more paraphernalia and communications to discover and uncover over the next month in Kassel. What’s fascinating about closely reading the design is that despite the differences in aesthetics and approaches, similarities emerge—be it notions of duplicity, confusion, agency, interaction, collaboration, economics, or fragmentation. Balland tells me that despite the odds and having no contact throughout the design process, he and Mevis & Van Deursen ended up designing very similar 14s for their posters. He received a text from his mom with a photo of Mevis & Van Deursen’s version, saying “I spotted your design!” The story goes to show that even though there are many ways to represent something, the resounding themes do shine through if you pay enough attention.