As Indonesia was liberated from an authoritarian regime over a decade ago, a democratic government emerged—and so did a graphic design archive.
In 2003, the Southeast Asian nation was recovering from a recession and was on the cusp of holding its first direct presidential elections when Hanny Kardinata started an electronic mailing list to share his notes and artifacts on Indonesia’s graphic design past. This casual conversation with fellow designers Henricus Kusbiantoro and the late Priyanto Sunarto blossomed under the country’s more permissive climate, growing into a community that was formalized in 2007 as the Desain Grafis Indonesia (DGI).
For close to a decade, this organization has been amassing notes and works from Indonesian graphic designers, which have now been made into a book, Desain Grafis Indonesia dalam Pusaran Desain Grafis Dunia (Indonesian Graphic Design in the Whirl of World Graphic Design), a 320-page publication by Kardinata that chronicles how the field developed in Indonesia from the early 1900s to 2000.
“The requirement for a ‘historical’ local graphic design publication is critical. Since the formation of art schools in the 1950s, its curriculum illuminates Western art history or Western graphic design history—our own profession’’ narrative [has been] neglected,” explains DGI’s bureau chief Ismiaji Cahyono in an email.
Written in Bahasa Indonesia, the book travels back in time in search of the country’s graphic design identity, beginning when missionaries brought printers to the Dutch colony to produce bibles and newspapers. While Indonesia gained independence after World War II, it wasn’t until the 1970s that a search for a national graphic design style emerged, led by Indonesian artist and designer Abdul Djalil Pirous (better known as AD Pirous), who had returned home after studying overseas at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He pioneered the Decentea (Design Center Association) studio, as well as a graphic design program at the Bandung Institute of Technology. This nationalistic movement powered by technological advancements led to the flourishing of Indonesian graphic design in the subsequent decades, resulting in works that were shaped by the socio-economic conditions of the times. This was perhaps best exemplified by the provocative graphic design produced in the 1990s in protest against the regime of President Suharto, whose just over three decades rule eventually gave way to a more democratic government.
Despite beginning with a hyper-local focus, DGI discovered that Indonesia’s graphic design history was never isolated from the world. During the colonial times, anonymous poster designers combined vernacular culture with Dutch design and popular art movements like Art Deco, while Japanese designers and illustrators became involved in local propaganda production during Japan’s occupation of Indonesia. In more recent times, technology such as airbrush and computers that emerged in the West have also made their way to Indonesia and impacted on the kinds of work produced. When DGI founder Kardinata started his graphic design career in the 1970s, he adopted the dry brush technique to create some of Indonesia’s most illustrative visual communications of the times.
“Local graphic design is not detached from outside influences. We realized that, which is why in the book, local history is interwoven with global history. There we can see similarities and contrasts,” says Ismiaji.
He adds that this book is far from a conclusive account of Indonesia’s graphic design history. Not only have many works been lost over the years (collecting is not a priority amongst Indonesia’s mostly struggling designers), many pioneering practitioners have also passed away. The urgent need to document this quickly fading history is why DGI was formed. While there was already a graphic design organization then, its focus was on professional standards instead of design history. In almost a decade of operations, DGI has become a home for Indonesian graphic design’s past and present. Its mailing list is now a website that offers a comprehensive introduction to its scene. There’s an archive of works by upcoming Indonesian graphic designers as well a directory detailing its prominent practitioners. The site also regularly publishes features, as well as historical and critical essays about the scene.
Offline, DGI initiated the first Indonesian Graphic Design Award in 2009, and more recently, began publishing books. The first, Perspektif: 19 Desainer Grafis Indonesia (Perspective: 19 Young Indonesian Graphic Designers), introduced the world to a new generation of designers, while the following two published a selection of articles from DGI’s website and a visual dictionary on typography terms. its fourth and latest book, Desain Grafis Indonesia dalam Pusaran Desain Grafis Dunia, was three years in the making, and there are plans for a second volume to expand the history of graphic design from 2000s to today. In all of its publications, DGI has involved young Indonesian designers to educate them on bookmaking and their country’s design history.
The ultimate goal for DGI is to build an Indonesian graphic design museum—a dream Kardinata envisioned when he first founded his mailing list. According to Ismiaji, DGI was in serious discussions to set up one in the early years of the group’s formalisation, but it fell through because of technical issues. For years, it has sat on concepts it has drawn up for the museum and its architecture, and is in the midst of seeking investment to try again.
“The history of Indonesian graphic design is a record of the evolution of ideas and values produced by the nation’s people,” writes Ismiaji. “Having a knowledge of our profession’s roots projects a sense of pride and identity, a foundation for future development. For an industry often overlooked, we hope that the book is not too late to inform and inspire current and upcoming generation of designers.”