Do You Hate Your Boss?

Design and activism, 2020

Via @dumbshitclients Instagram, 2020.

Unions may sound old-fashioned, but with low wages, rising prices, and flexible contracts, there is a renewed interest in worker solidarity. Organizing with your co-workers is often the only way to improve low wages and bad working conditions. What are unions and solidarity networks, and why are they relevant again? This article talks about three new unions that have emerged in The Netherlands in recent years and for whom I occasionally make designs.

You probably have faced bad conditions at work at one point in your life; unpaid overtime, a pay cut, working weekends, a toxic work environment, or a boss that refuses to give you a raise even though the company makes a profit. Just being by yourself, it is hard or even impossible to do something about this, since it’s your boss’s word against yours. Not everyone has the courage to speak up against the person in charge. Many would rather find a different job to avoid confrontation. But what if there are no other jobs?

One of the first organized strikes by peat workers in Friesland, 1890.

If other colleagues experience maltreatment at the workplace too, talking to your co-workers is a good way to start to change things. If you address issues collectively, it is more likely to have an effect than if one person does it. If the boss still doesn’t listen, you can make a list of demands. In case the boss still doesn’t budge, there are direct actions possible like picketing, social media campaigns, or other forms of ‘public shaming’. Damaging PR is effective, and you will see how quickly your boss changes their mind. Bosses often don’t realize they need you more than you need them.

Unions, or solidarity networks, are simply employees who organize themselves to make sure they are treated fairly and are not exploited by bosses. That’s how unions came into being in the late 1800s, and that’s why workers at Starbucks, Google, and Amazon recently have started to unionize.

Union bug from the Detroit Printing Co-op
part of the anarchist union Industrial workers of the World (IWW), 1969.

Typographers Union

Historically, printers and typographers were organized in strong unions, such as the International Typographical Union (1852–1986). The ITU is the oldest labour organization in the US and secured an eight-hour work day in 1906, after spending $4 million on strike support. In 1964 the ITU counted 121,858 members. Print work produced in unionized print shops would carry a ‘union bug’, a small graphic element that showed the work had been done in unionized printshops (CAPS LOCK, 2021).

The 1950s and 1960s was the heydey of unions. More than a third of workers were part of unions, which gave them enormous bargaining power. Workers enjoyed good wages and health care, although women and people of colour were excluded and did not share this social wealth. In the 1970s deregulation and electronic communication made it possible to move manufacturing to low-wage countries, and unions suffered from mass lay-offs. Neoliberal governments in Europe and the U.S. used police violence to break the power of unions.

Since the 1990s, wages and worker rights have only declined. We were told flexible contracts and the gig economy were needed to stay ‘competitive’, and were are all encouraged to become entrepreneurs. That didn’t make us rich, but it did make it impossible to find a permanent well-paid job. Now we are moving from gig to gig for small fees, while profits for companies have skyrocketed. 63 percent of all the wealth created in 2021 and 2022 ended up in the hands of the richest one percent1.

Deteriorating working conditions during the last decade has led to a renewed interest in unions, also amongst designers. Articles like these and publications like these. In the UK the collective Evening Class has succesfully started a union for freelance and employed creative workers called Designers + Cultural Workers Union.

Vloerwerk picket at EasyHotel, 2020.


In Amsterdam a group of employees and freelancers with conflicts at their work decided to join forces. They started solidarity network Vloerwerk; an organized group of people that can raise money, picket, or do other actions to assist workers in conflicts with their employer. The more people are on your side, the stronger you stand. This is helpful when you are being fired for the wrong reasons, if you did not receive a pay check, or if you are a freelancer with a client who did not pay. Vloerwerk in is a solidarity network that helps employees or freelancers in work conflicts by using direct action, and is very effective in reclaiming unpaid wages or demanding pay for freelancers, or getting people their jobs back if they were wrongfully dismissed. Just by organizing a group of six or seven people, they have managed to put enough pressure on employers (CAPS LOCK, 2021).

<i>De Syndicalist</i>, 1934 and <i>Het Vrije Volk</i>, 1945. Typeset in Nobel.

Vloerwerk doesn’t really have a logo or an identity, because it doesn’t need one. Banners, stickers, and other visual materials are made together in preparation for actions. However they asked me to design some stickers and T-shirts to attract new members. The only limitations I used were the red and black color of anarchism that they already used, and I introduced the Nobel typeface. This typeface was designed by socialist type designer Sjoerd de Roos for Lettergieterij Amsterdam between 1929–1935, and used for the Dutch anarchist newspaper De Syndicalist.

Stickers for Vloerwerk, typeset in Nobel. This typeface was designed by socialist type designer Sjoerd de Roos for Lettergieterij Amsterdam, 1929–1935. T-shirts and stickers at the Vloerwerk distro. T-shirts for Vloerwerk.

Radical Riders

In the pandemic, bicycle delivery emerged as a market to deliver of food and groceries when people couldn’t go out. In each neighborhood, so-called ‘dark stores’ sprung up where bike delivery riders picked up online orders to deliver them to your door. Companies like Gorillas, Getir, Zapp, Flink, Deliveroo and Uber Foods all tried to compete for a market monopoly at the expense of riders. While many people were unemployed during the pandemic, companies could get away with mistreating and underpaying delivery riders. Some companies like Gorillas promised a delivery time of maximum ten minutes, forcing riders to drive at reckless speeds in all weather types.

In August 2021 riders in Berlin started to organize to improve the bad working conditions. Many companies hire riders as freelancers, taking no responsibility for accidents and giving no benefits or pension. Often riders aren’t given breaks that have a right to, and many didn’t receive the pay for the time that they worked. Bikes are often malfunctioning and riders are expected to use their own smartphones without compensation. Paperwork is notoriously complex, and many riders have no idea what rights they have.

Picket by the Radical Riders.

Radical Riders was set up as a union for and by riders themselves in Amsterdam and quickly spread to Utrecht and Groningen. In one of their cases, a rider broke his leg during a delivery after the seat of his bicycle broke. Unable to work, he lost his house and ended up homeless. Other riders got fired for joining a union - which is illegal. By picketing outside of offices, the Radical Riders managed to get financial compensation for riders that suffered accidents or were fired without a valid reason. I made some stickers designs for them to help them grow in size. These were massively pasted near dark stores and busy streets in Amsterdam.

Sticker designs for the Radical Riders.

Horeca United

Everyone who has ever worked as a dishwasher, cook, or waiter knows that the restaurant business is one of the most exploitative there is. This is one of the only sectors where 12 hours shifts are still legal, where even experienced workers are underpaid, and personnel aren’t allowed to take proper breaks while running to provide for other people’s food. The fancier restaurants in Amsterdam pride themselves on having staff work 12 hours shifts for five days without breaks. This is illegal, but unfortunately still a common practice because working at such restaurants is ‘good for your cv’. Restaurant owners on the other hand, make a lot of money and often own chains of restaurants, living in million dollar lofts. Employees are often paid minimum wage and cannot even afford to eat in the restaurant they work at.

Horeca United members picketing outside a restaurant terrace, 2021.

Two women who had worked in the restaurant business (called Horeca in Dutch) for many years, decided to start a union. They got involved in a conflict with their boss. They noticed after their contracts ended that the transition pay was missing (mandatory for restaurant workers), and that they had received too little wage compared to their functions. They decided to organize and picket outside of one of the restaurants the boss owns. It caused a ruckes, confronting the clientele with how badly the owner was treating the staff. The boss eventually agreed to pay the amount that was owed. Now their union has over 50 members and I was asked to design a logo and some promotional material.

Designs for Horeca United, 2022.

The Power of Solidarity Networks

Solidarity networks such as Horeca United and Vloerwerk are different from the large traditional unions, which limit themselves to negotiating minor salary raises for thousands of workers. Although this is important, they present themselves more as a partner of business owners than as adversaries. These ‘old school’ unions do very little to support individual cases unless you pay for a ‘premium membership’, and some are even started by the companies themselves as internal departments. Even if these unions start a case, legal battles can take years. Horeca United and Vloerwerk are small, agile and voluntary, made up by workers for workers. They focus on anarchist principles of mutual aid and direct action. Instead of spending a lot of money on legal fees, they come up with creative and effective actions to hit bosses where it hurts. If you ask for their help, you have to participate and help others as well. While organizing, everyone learns how the union works. And they have been doing so, very succesfully.

Want to form your own union or solidarity network? Go to the website of the IWW or read this pamphlet(PDF) by the Workers Solidarity Alliance.

Thanks to the people of Vloerwerk, Radical Riders and Horeca United.


Book, 2021

Capitalism could not exist without the coins, banknotes, documents, information graphics, interfaces, branding, and advertising made by graphic designers. Even strategies such as social design and speculative design are easily appropriated to serve economic growth. It seems design is locked in a cycle of exploitation and extraction, furthering inequality and environmental collapse.

CAPS LOCK is a reference work that uses clear language and visual examples to show how graphic design and capitalism have come to be inextricably linked. The book features designed objects, but also examines how the professional practice of designers itself supports capitalism. Six radical graphic design collectives are featured that resist capitalist thinking in their own way, inspiring a more sustainable and less exploitative practice of graphic design.

Left image: Quintin Massys, The Tax Collectors, 1520.


Apathy befalls many graphic designers when trying to imagine a design practice outside of capitalism. A long line of designers have critiqued capitalism, from the First Things First manifesto in 1964 all the way back to William Morris (1834–1896). Through its anti-capitalist critique, graphic design has become more, not less entangled with capitalism. It seems that three centuries of this dominant economic system has paralyzed our ability to imagine alternatives. The feeling that no individual or collective can change anything until either dystopia n or utopian fantasies of total collapse or full transformation, respectively, are realized.

I spent the last three years trying to answer the question if ethical graphic design can exist under capitalism. The focus is on graphic designers, but this perspective could also extend to other disciplines. The search starts by finding the origins of the current economic system, and how design has come to be so intertwined with it. Thinkers from sociology, economics, social geography, critical theory, and anthropology are consulted for the theoretical foundations. Another reference point is my own twenty years of work experience as a graphic designer. I have worked in advertising, branding, infographic design, social design, speculative design, and critical design. I have made activist campaigns, annual reports for banks, and interfaces for consumer websites. I have worked under a boss, as a freelancer, I have run my own business, and have taught in design schools on several levels. From that experience I have been involved in many of the capitalist design practices mentioned in this book.

On the design of credit cards.


Capitalism has failed to deliver on its promise that it would create an economic system of freedom and prosperity for all. Originally capitalism came from the Enlightenment, in the pursuit of freeing the individual from the control of church, nobility, and family. The idea being that if all individuals would pursue their self-interest, this would best serve both them and society. In theory every person has the same opportunities under capitalism, but in practice, only a tiny portion of people own the wealth and the means of production, and the rest of us has to work for a wage.

After more than two centuries 2,000 billionaires have more wealth than the poorest 60 percent of the world population combined, and extractive industries have depleted the earth and are threatening the world’s ecosystems with imminent collapse. Income inequality has increased in most developed countries since 1990. Since 2014 extreme poverty has been rising with 688 million people going hungry on a regular basis. Even the more privileged workers in the wealthier countries suffer from higher burnout rates and depression to meet the high productivity benchmarks. Endless consumption by the wealthy has led to an interlocking system of design, production, consumption, and waste that is nearing a point of no return. Capitalism must be resisted because it ultimately threatens the survival of life itself.

Table of contents.


Given the complexity of the relation between graphic design and capitalism, the topic cannot possibly be covered in one book. Instead of attempting a complete overview, each chapter takes a different perspective on the subject by focusing on the various roles of designers. Each role contains an historical outline, followed by practical examples. Together, the twelve roles present a cross-section of the political economy of graphic design that provides insights from different perspectives.

Work by Iconoclasistas, AR.

The first part explains how the work of graphic designers bolsters capitalism and economic relations. ‘The Designer as Scribe’ is about the predecessor of the typographer. The scribe or clerk was crucial in organizing complex economic societies by keeping financial records, designing coins, banknotes, stocks, and other graphic notations that instil trust in the financial system. ‘The Designer as Engineer’ is about the systematic ordering of markets using graphic documents such as forms, contracts, passports, infographics, and maps. A process of standardization that allowed international markets in capitalism to function. Brands, logos, advertising, corporate identities, and interfaces are discussed in ‘The Designer as Brander’ and ‘The Designer as Salesperson’. Further examples of contemporary work of graphic designers that each in its own way serves the commodification of all parts of society.

Work by Ruben Pater against gentrification in Amsterdam, NL.

The second part explores how designers themselves are economic actors too. ‘The Designer as Worker’ and ‘The Designer as Entrepreneur’ take a closer look at wages, working hours, burnouts, unpaid internships, freelancing, exploitation, bosses, and the possible alternatives to these toxic work conditions. ‘The Designer as Amateur’ continues to question professionalism in design itself. Who can call themselves graphic designers? Who gets paid for design and who doesn’t? ‘The Design as Educator’ explores how education prepares designers for working in capitalist conditions, and some of the alternatives that challenge the view of design education as a factory that produces graphic design workers.

Chapter opening The Designer as Worker. Image by

The third part dives into some of the strategies that have emerged from within design in response to capitalism. ‘The Designer as Hacker’ looks at how the hacker ethic can change the designer’s dependance on the tools and platforms made by large corporations. We also see how digital tools can intensify consumer manipulation. ‘The Designer as Futurist’ presents strategies by designers who want to improve society by thinking beyond what is feasible. Future design methods, such as speculative design, were intended to criticize consumerism, but have also had the reverse effect. ‘The Designer as Philanthropist’ is a response by designers who wish to use their skill to help others, for example social design. We find that even design with good intentions can also be neocolonial and turn out to amplify the powers of capitalism and keeping inequality in place. Finally, ’The Designer as Activist’ questions the rhetoric of activism in design, and suggests how a shift towards thinking of design as a commons may resolve some of the paradoxes that designers face.

Work by Cooperative de Diseño, AR.

The end of the book features six design collectives from around the world whose anti-capitalist practices challenge ideas of competition and exploitation. They have practiced anti-capitalist forms of graphic design for many years, and parallel to the theory this can help us understand what practical obstacles are up ahead. Brave New Alps from Italy, Common Knowledge from the UK, Cooperativa de Diseño from Argentina, Mídia NINJA from Brazil, Open Source Publishing from Belgium, and The Public from Canada. Their years of experience can provide insights and practical ideas for those who want to change their practice.

Thanks to all those involved in the making of this book. All images by Valiz publishers.

Work by The Public, CA.


You can watch a free CAPS LOCK lecture online that I did for the DAE lecture series on May 27, 2021.Click here for Youtube link.
Another lecture about CAPS LOCK was done for Index, NYC on October 1, 2021.Click here for Vimeo link.
Here is the link to my lecture at Elisava in Barcelona, Catalunya on October 28.
The lecture I did for AIGA and Artbook can be viewed here.


You can read here the interview with Steven Heller for Print Mag.


CAPS LOCK is published by Valiz publishers in the Netherlands. You can order it from the website or from your local bookstore. An ebook will be available in Fall/Winter of 2021.


CAPS LOCK: How capitalism took hold of graphic design, and how to escape from it
August 2021, Valiz Publishers
18,4 x 11,7 cm (h x w)
552 pp. | English
ISBN 978-94-92095-81-7

Love Compost
Hate Fascism

Visual Essay, 2020

What can composting teach us about fighting fascism? What forms of toxic masculinity should be discarded and composted until something better emerges? This visual essay for the Hungarian magazine Phoenix explores composting and anti-fascism.

A fire in Tiverton in Devon, England, 1612. From Adrian Tinniswood, <i>By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire of London </i>(London: Jonathan Cape, 2003), pp. 76–77.

The phoenix is a powerful image. A proverbial fire that burns down institutions, abolishes prisons, lays parliaments in ruins. The dream of a new society built on the ashes of the old has always intrigued the ranks of revolutionary ideas. The idea of a clean slate, a fresh start certainly sound promising. If this were to actually happen, ashes will have to be cleaned up and structures rebuilt, usually by the same toiling wretched who had grudgingly built the previous world. Because whatever the new world will be, the wealthy won’t be building it. Inspired by Donna Haraway, I propose a strategy of composting instead of burning down. Composting reuses existing organic matter, to grow new life. A radically different idea than the ‘clean slate’ modernist politics that has wiped out too much life already.

Antisocial Primitivism

‘Fascism is a technologically equipped primitivism’ wrote Guy Debord in 1968. What makes fascism ‘primitive’ is that it appeals to an emotional rather than rational state; your unhappiness is the fault of the other, instead of; global complex processes that exploit your labour and are the reason you cannot afford a home. Inequality and climate change are reduced to cultural differences, which are easier to communicate. Trump has been expertly employing the ‘It’s true because I feel it’ tactic. Another way in which fascists are primitive is that they construct a false mythical past to ground their identity politics. The US that was ‘once great’ (before or after the genocide of its inhabitants?), and a Europe that was ‘once white and Christian’ (Europeans came from India), claims that are purposefully vague to serve as emotional arguments. The inconsistency is most obvious by its technology, as Debord points out. A kind of abstract primitivism and regionalism is invoked by fascism, but one that still depends on technology, a global capitalist economy, and slave labour in the Global South.

It would be wonderful if a great fire would rid the world of fascists, but the soil of fear and anger from which they were grown would still exists. It is not like our history books didn’t warn us. Perhaps something went wrong with the composting. Politics of fear and thoughtlessness are powerful because they appeal to a gut feeling. Maybe this is why rational arguments from the left rarely work to persuade them, even though many fascists vote against their own interests.

Fascist primitivism is a false primitivism, as that it is not based on historic facts. Ironically many fascists, like the Dutch Thierry Baudet are obsessed with history, but openly support and promote conspiracy theories. Fascism is exactly that: a politics of thoughtlessness based only on fear, but supported by industrialists because they are the ones profiting from destruction. It’s like you are saying: I want to build a border around my country, and go back to the 1920s, but please let’s keep the free flow of capital, cheap consumer goods and high technology weaponry. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

That Feeling When No Girlfriend

Fascists are grown in the online, bare soil of sexual frustration. ‘Involuntary celibates’ (incels), are a fringe internet subculture of frustrated young men who are unable to have sexual relations with women. On fringe websites they meet likeminded peers, in TFW NO GF, or ‘that feeling when no girlfriend’. Incels have difficulty accepting that women are equal, find refuge in Nazi ideologies and white supremacy to compensate for their male insecurities. These online subcultures are by no means a flock of harmless pimpled virgins, but have now formed armed militia in the US and are actively seeking violent confrontations.

Mussolini monument, Rome, Italy. Overlaid with a stone phallus (herm) from the Larissa museum in Greece. <i>‘We believe that the family is the foundation of the nation and that it must be defended. We make it clear that only a man and a woman can be married and establish a family.’</i>—Viktor Orbán

Castration Anxiety

Authoritarian leaders today are known for their sexism and misogyny under the pretense of ‘family values’. ‘Viktor Orbán is afraid of women. He can’t speak to women normally. He has a complex around women’, said a Hungarian female politician. Trump repeatedly makes inappropriate comments about his ‘hot’ daughter and he reduces the women he meets to their looks. His three marriages and his public sexual harassment stand opposite to Christian family values, only paying lip service to his white Christian voters. Putins power is built on conservative orthodox family values while at the same time divorcing his wife for a thirty year younger woman. So, while the white nuclear family is the cornerstone of fascism, apparently even its leaders are unwilling to subject themselves to its rules. Looking closer at what fascists mean by a return to ‘family values’ or conservative gender roles from a claimed ‘Christian origin’, reveal in fact a deep sexual frustration.

Freuds early psychoanalysis theory brought forward ‘castration anxiety’, as the fear of men to lose their masculinity by means of (metaphorical) castration. The fear of not being masculine enough becomes a drive for power. Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich saw a libidinal power in the rhythmic parades and fascinations with fascist uniforms. He believed sexual repression was a key factor of fascism. Reich saw the ‘authoritarian family’ as the main structure of fascist society, where sexuality is confined to the duty of ‘breeding’ new white subjects — a sexual biopolitics that leaves little room for sex as enjoyment or expression of love. Whether or not the libidinal underpinnings of fascism are accurate (Reich is controversial to say the least), it is clear that neofascist tendencies in the 2010s are strongly rooted in misogyny and male sexual frustration, like gamergate and the Westgate shooting.

<i>‘What a mighty man he turns out to be! He raped ten women
—I would never have expected this from him. He surprised us all—we all envy him‘.</i>— Vladimir Putin

Love Compost, Hate Fascism

Composting is a way to recycle organic matter, usually from garden and kitchen waste, to create nutrient soil conditioner or natural fertilizer. Composting takes time and effort, it is the natural process of sifting through the material, making sure every part of organic matter serves an afterlife. It is easy to burn things, but what is truly difficult is to keep something alive. To treasure all things, living and decomposing, is because everything can be useful in its own way. Soil then becomes an inclusive phenomenon made of all living matter, not merely a nativist or nationalist fantasy.

Haraway describes the difference between building nuclear families for bio-political means, and composting communities. The nuclear family is a capitalist construction where people are encouraged to form heteronormative couples for the production of offspring, so that the economy and the social order stays intact. Composting is a multispecies community where each newborn life is valued, and ‘kin making’ can happen without the necessity of having human children. She emphasizes that this actually means reproductive freedom instead of the coerced heteronormative reproduction in the fascist authoritarian family that Reich describes. A recurring problem in building societies is that many ‘planned’ societies, are imagined by a few at the top, which are to be implemented rigorously.


Contrary to fascist propaganda, vermin aren’t evil. Vermicomposting is worm-powered composting. Red worms are your multispecies partners in creating fertile soil from which life can grow. Modernist societies have intentionally ignored the value of millions of years of life, within existing culture, flora, and soil, for the purposes of simplicity and control, as James C. Scott shows in Seeing like a State (1998). A (com)post capitalist society means to work towards a world of freedom, equality, and without hierarchy, where all living entities, human and non-human are valued for now and for generations to come.


Debord, Guy, Society of the Spectacle, 1967.
Haraway, Donna J., Staying with the trouble, Duke University Press, 2016.
Reich, Wilhelm, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 1980.
Scott, James C., Seeing Like a State, Yale University Press, 1998.
Zerzan, John, Future Primitive and other essays, Autonomedia 1994.

Written for Phoenix magazine, Hungary, 2021.

Camping Kafka

Research and Identity, 2017

What is going on with campings in the Netherlands? According to the media, vacation parks that were once full of families on holiday have now deteriorated into ‘slums’ for the criminal and the wretched. When you actually visit a camping and talk to residents it becomes clear that it is bureaucracy and a shortage of affordable housing - not antisocial behaviour - that pushes people to the fringes of society.

Inspection of a trailer at Fort Oranje. Photo: Marcel van den Bergh, Hollandse Hoogte, 2014.

No country in the world has so many vacation parks per capita as the Netherlands. Campings - or vacation parks - were originally built for family holidays in the 1950s.1 When international flights became cheaper in the late 1990s the parks emptied out, attracting people who were in need of cheap housing. Since then many campings have permanent residents with nowhere else to go.

Postcard from Fort Oranje between 1970 and 1980. Source: BN De Stem.

Fort Oranje

The best known example is Fort Oranje, a camping in the south of the Netherlands. Once a popular holiday destination for families, it became the subject for the docutainment series ‘Fort Oranje: camping or slum’ broadcasted on SBS6 in 2017. It showed burned down trailers, people in extreme poverty, living in a place ridden with crime.

Fort Oranje is no exception, many of the ±1,500 campings in The Netherlands have similar problems. Artist Klaas Burger invited me to research the underlying causes why people end up on campings. During four months we visited over seven campings and spoke to residents, owners, politicians on the municipal and state level, social workers, and migrant worker organisations.

<i>Gedoogambtenaar</i>; a Dutch policeman who tolerates illegal activity.

Permitted Illegality

The first thing that we found is that permanent residency on campings is illegal, unless the municipality issues a special exception. In reality an estimated 10,000 people live on campings permanently. Camping owners allow permanent residency because they need the money, and local politicians tolerate it because they cannot provide affordable housing in urgent cases, like divorce or eviction. Most of the Netherlands has housing shortages and waiting times for social housing can be between five and twenty years. After Fort Oranje was closed many local governments stopped tolerating illegal residency and have evicted and fined those who live on campings illegally.

Since 2014 the national budget for homeless shelters has been cut. Even at shelters there is usually not enough space for people in urgent need. Social workers have actively sent people to campings who otherwise would end up sleeping on the streets. On campings we encountered people from all walks of life, an architect who lost clients, had to sell their house with debt, and ended up homeless; a psychologist whose husband passed away leaving the next of kin with bankruptcy. People with a small debt that becomes a big debt, end up being evicted from social housing. Strict rules of Dutch bureaucracy in combination with a housing shortage pushes people in precarious situations to places like campings. Which why the project is called Camping Kafka, after the writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924).

Top: Share of assets held by the top 1% of US population dramatically increased after Reagan came into power in 1980, bottom: wages flatlined after 1980 while productivity rose. Graphs from <i>A Brief History of Neoliberalism</i>, David Harvey, 2007.<sup>2</sup>

It’s Neoliberalism, Stupid!

Why are people in one of the richest countries in the world living in slum-like conditions? Why did the amount of people that are homeless or in debt increase while the economy has been growing? These are the results of Neoliberal policies which have been in place in the Netherlands since the 1990s.

Neoliberalism believes that less government interference and more free market will realize a better society. Spearheaded in the 1980s by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, they lowered taxes for the rich, froze wages, broke unions, and privatized public services like public transport, utilities, social housing, and healthcare. They believed more money for the rich would ‘trickle down’ and create jobs and better economic conditions for all, which is why neoliberals prefer to tax wages higher than dividends and profits. This has made investing in the stock market or real estate more profitable than earning a wage by working. This has created a wealthy class (the 1%) that is becoming richer and richer just because it already owns property or stock (assets), while a working class is struggling to make ends meet.2

The economic crisis of 2008 has accelerated neoliberal policies by the austerity measures that have further gutted the welfare state. Since 2008, we are faced with a growing inequality and many people who are living in precarious conditions, such as the camping. This is no Dutch phenomenon, in the United States about 10% of the population lives in trailer parks.3

Some of the emoji for Camping Kafka. From left to right: being broke, freelance worker, government official, homeless, migrant worker, single mother with kids. Design Ruben Pater.

Representation not Victimization

During our research the stories we heard from camping residents were incredibly valuable. We knew they could inform people and help create better policies. However I struggled finding a visual language to depict their situation. Usually visual communication for NGOs or left-wing politics uses photography to provoke compassion from the viewer. However the people we spoke to refused to be seen as victims, which would render their position as passive. Rather than using traditional ‘poverty porn’ imagery we decided on using emoji instead. Images that were accessible, empowering, and easy to use for various kinds of communication.

There was a practical problem. In the world of emoji, no one is broke, unemployed, in poverty, debt, or homeless. The most common emoji emphasize a neoliberal wordview of consumption and white collar jobs.4 This led me to create new emoji that depicted poverty, precariousness, debt, homelessness and migrant workers. The people we interviewed were all invited to give feedback on the designs during the process, to make sure representations did not include wrong assumptions or led to offensive imagery.

Drafts of the Dutch bureaucracy related to campings.

The Maze of State

During the research I started mapping the Dutch bureaucracy, especially the rules on receiving benefits, registration, housing, and homelessness. The Dutch state is neatly organized in comparison to other countries, which also means there is little room for error or exception.

The Dutch have a mandatory national registration system. Being registered at an address is necessary for receiving benefits, taxes, businesses, but also for getting a job, a mobile phone, or bank account. Since living on camping is illegal, you cannot register there. People stay unregistered — which is illegal and will be fined — and thus receive no benefits. Or they can register at a friend or family without actually living there — which is also illegal — which means their host will receive lower benefits for cohabitation. It is a very difficult position to escape from.

There is a growing group of people in precarious situations who struggle under the strict Dutch bureaucracy, which is intended to sustain a regular 9-5 workforce with steady contracts and good benefits. People in debt, flex workers, and migrant workers, have little to fall back on, and in combination with the lack of social housing, these groups are only a few steps away from ending up on the streets. We hope giving insight in the inner workings of the bureaucracy shows its bias towards certain groups.

Discussion at the Camping Kafka pavillion with the maze in the background, Graphic Matters, Breda, 2017. Photo: Mike Harris.

Sharing Perspectives

What is a designer’s role in such complex social issues? Before designing, the first step was simply organizing a series of talks between the different parties involved. During our research we realized the different groups (migrant workers, government officials, people in debt) never, or hardly ever, meet in real life, and mostly talk about the other instead of with the other. At Graphic Matters festival in Breda we set up a Camping Kafka pavillion where the people involved could meet.

These ‘test-cases’ took place around four topics; the tiny house movement, vulnerable groups, year-long recreation, and migrant work. Each topic invited different speakers with the idea that every person has unique knowledge from their personal experience. Putting people with contrasting opinions in the same space created a common understanding towards each person as an individual, not just as representative of a group. The goal was to come up with alternatives and share knowledge.

The Camping Kafka pavillion, Graphic Matters, Breda, 2017. Photo: Mike Harris.

Long Term Effects

Camping Kafka has been running for 1,5 years and is still a research in progress. We conciously did not create a massive PR campaign to attract attention to the issue, because campaigns are expensive and focused on short term attention. What happens to the people living on campings after the attention fades away? Instead the activities of Camping Kafka focus on a long term legacy that shares the knowledge of people living on campings to government officials of all different municipalities, by going around the country and talking to politicians we hope to influence local politics one step at a time.

The research into the maze of bureaucracy is currently being transformed in a web-based game designed by Yacinth Pos, which allows the user to experience the violence of strict bureaucracy in precarious situations. By using meticulously researched bureaucratic rules and personal stories from our interviews, which recreate the actual experience of reaching deadlock within society.

Klaas Burger (left) in discussion at the Camping Kafka pavillion, Graphic Matters, Breda, 2017. Photo: Mike Harris.

Learning Curve

A design process such as Camping Kafka that deals with complex social issues cannot assume to bring solutions or even yield immediate positive effects. This is sometimes claimed in social design or so-called ‘design thinking’, but underestimates the complexity of these social issues for which there are no shortcuts. Actual transformation takes time and energy, and designers can take responsibility by trying to understand and engage in long-term personal commitments with the people involved. As for Camping Kafka that means we are still searching and learning for ways to share knowledge about the causes of, and alternatives to, precarious living conditions. Kid playing on the Camping Kafka pavillion, Graphic Matters, Breda, 2017. Photo: Mike Harris.


1. Mieke Dings, Tussen Tent en Villa, NAi010 publishers, 2015.
2. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford University Press, 2007.
3. Paul Lewis, ‘Tiny Houses: salvation for the homeless or a dead end?’, The Guardian, 2017.
4. Keith A. Spencer, ‘The Neoliberal Politics of Emoji’,, 2017.

Further Reading

- Peter Ullenbroeck, ‘Fort Oranje is maar topje van de ijsberg’, AD, 2018.
- Jesse Frederik, ‘In Nederland kan een verkeersboete je leven ruïneren’, De Correspondent, 2017.
- Jesse Frederik, ‘Het absurde Nederlandse boetebeleid: 18.733 celstraffen voor onverzekerde auto’s (die in de garage staan)’, De Correspondent, 2017.
- Anne-Martijn van der Kaaden and Eppo König, ‘Pechmannen zijn de nieuwe daklozen’, NRC Handelsblad, 2017.
- De Monitor, ‘Handhaving op vakantieparken’, KRO-NRCV, 2018.
- Jeroen van Raalte, ‘Hoe woningnood de Poolse arbeidsmigrant veroordeelt tot het bungalowpark’, De Volkskrant, 2018.


Artistic lead and research: Klaas Burger, Academie voor beeldvorming
Design and research: Ruben Pater
Game design: Yacinth Pos
Installation Design: Ivo van den Thillart
Photography: Mike Harris
Communication: Monique van de Wijdeven
Web developer: Jaap-Joris Vens
Video registration: Aram Voermans
Supported by: Gemeente Breda, The Art of Impact, Graphic Matters, GGD West-Brabant, Provincie Noord-Brabant

Who Owns The City?

Political Campaign, 2018

The city of Amsterdam as Scrooge McDuck asking:‘Wanna buy realestate?’

The amount of tourists in Amsterdam has doubled from four to eight million between 2004 and 2017. While the tourism industry has benefited, the city’s inhabitants are faced with skyrocketing real estate prices. Many Amsterdammers are afraid their beloved city will suffer the same fate as Venice, a city that is so popular it has become uninhabitable. Who Owns The City? is a campaign to reclaim the city of Amsterdam for its citizens.

Left: poster by Ruben Pater. Right: I don’t eat monoculture, poster by Yuri Veerman.

In 2004 the municipality launched a campaign to change the image of Amsterdam, which was known for legalized marijuana and sex work, to a city known for innovation, creativity, and mercantilism. Advertising agency Kesselskramer created the campaign ‘I Amsterdam’ that was to communicate that the city is a place where everyone belongs. From now on the ‘I Amsterdam’ logo was to be placed on every poster and advertisement in the city.

I Amsterdam logo on the Museumplein in Amsterdam. Photo Flickr (Christian Lendl).

The Most Photographed Logo in the World

A physical ‘I Amsterdam’ logo measuring 2 by 23,5 meter was placed at the Museumplein (Museum square), a marketing monument to be photographed by tourists with the famous Rijksmuseum in the back. The object that cost €50,000 quickly turned into a symbol of Amsterdam tourism and became an example of its succesful campaign. The logo is estimated to be photographed 6,000 times a day, making it perhaps the most photographed logo in the world.

Left: ‘Where is our dear city?’ (after a quote by the former Major of Amsterdam), poster by Yuri Veerman. Right: ‘How can you live a sustainable life in a three day destination?’, text by Dirk Vis, poster by Ruben Pater.

Rise of the Real Estate Class

The ‘I Amsterdam’ campaign was so succesful that the amount of tourists grew to eight million in 2017, in a city of 850,000 people. At the same time the economic crisis of 2008 and its subsequent austerity measures had hit hard. Wages were frozen and the national budget for mental healthcare and homeless shelters was cut. The amount of homeless people grew between 2008 and 2014, and the number of people in debt has grown since 2008.

After the crisis the housing market stabilized and quickly started growing. Since 2014 the housing prices in Amsterdam have skyrocketed to an average of €409,000 per house in 2017, a 12% annual growth. The online platform Airbnb was allowed to operate in Amsterdam in 2013, which in turn led to higher real estate prices. In three years the amount of listings on Airbnb grew from zero to 25,721 in 2016.

Posters by Ruben Pater.

Amsterdam’s Unique Assets in High Demand

The real estate bubble has led many investers to buy property in Amsterdam, not because they wanted to live there, but for its 12% annual growth. The city of Amsterdam actively promotes real estate investment to foreign investers, and now a fourth of all real estate in Amsterdam is bought without a mortgage. On the I Amsterdam website the city talks about ‘Amsterdam’s Unique Assets in High Demand’ and ‘Investors who have been sleeping for some years now, are waking up to the opportunities’.

The less fortunate Amsterdammers who do not own property are the ones who pay the price. Real estate prices have driven up rents, forcing families to leave their city. Children born in Amsterdam are unlikely to stay in the city unless their parents own property. Social housing units are sold rapidly, and homeowners are renting out their flats via Airbnb for prices up to €300 or more a night, while each day a family is evicted from social housing in Amsterdam.

Printed posters by an unknown supporter.

How Can You Live in A Three-Day Destination?

The city elections of March 2018 led me to start a campaign and invite people to design posters to address the housing issue. Many Amsterdammers are discontent with the city becoming unaffordable and congested with tourism, which is why we created a website with 38 free downloadable posters so people could print them and put them in front of their windows or share them on social media.

This campaign speaks to many Amsterdammers, both homeowners and renters. The city council appears to have lost track of the needs of citizens through their focus on tourism, real estate development, and investers. Citizens want a city that is hospitable, safe, comfortable, and affordable — not just for the wealthy. Through this campaign we hope to unite and inspire the citizens in Amsterdam to reclaim the city.

Visit the website and download the posters


Visualisation of Airbnb in Amsterdam by Kor Dwarshuis
City of Amsterdam statistics
Hanneloes Pen, ‘Aantal dakloze gezinnen in Amsterdam neemt toe’, Het Parool, 2016.
Bart van Zoelen, ‘Langdurige armoede is toch weer toegenomen’, Het Parool, 2018.
Mirjam de Rijk, ‘Te duur om nog sociaal te zijn’, De Groene Amsterdammer, 2017.


Initative by Ruben Pater with Yuri Veerman. Posters by Niels Otterman, Ruben Pater, Bas Postma, Yuri Veerman, and Dirk Vis. Website by Kris Borgerink.


If you live in the Netherlands and want to support initiatives for social housing and more liveable cities, donate to, or contact these organizations:
Fair City Amsterdam
Bond Precaire Woonvormen

Too Young to Know
Too Old to Understand

Design Intervention, 2017

Readers are invited to draw a graph how intelligence and age are related. Booklet cover by Roman Gornitsky.

Stories of adults who complain about misbehaving youth are literally classic. Socrates said 2,500 years ago: ‘The children now have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders’1. Why this contempt for the youth? Is a fourteen year old really less responsible than someone who is 30? 50? or 70? Together with Roman Gornitsky I was invited to do a design intervention at a conference on youth and politics in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Youth communists movement <i>Komsomol</i> parade, Moscow, 1930s. Photo: Getty images.

Politicians have always used the youth to try to shape the future. Well-known examples are the Nazi Hitlerjugend, the young communists of the USSR Komsomol, and pro-Putin youth movements today like Nashi (2005) and Yunarmia (2015). ‘Fast Forward to Future’ is a conference that was held in St. Petersburg, Russia curated and organized by The Creative Association of Curators TOK in December 2017. The conference concluded the 4th season of TOK's ongoing project 'Critical Mass' which main focus was on the history of youth movements and the political influence on youth in Russia and Northern Europe.

Easter Monday parade by catholic girl movement <i>de Graal</i>, the Netherlands, 1931. Photo: Het geheugen van Nederland.

School’s Out

During most of history the youth simply had to work. When laws in the beginning of the 1900s forbade child labour and made education compulsory, the youth finally had some time for themselves. Pedagogists were afraid they would spend their free time dancing, going to the cinema, hanging around on the street, and most importantly, get acquinted with the other sex.2 Youth movements, like the Boyscouts (1910), were an effective way to suppress ‘immoral’ behavior and shape good mannered citizens.

Youth movements in the beginning of the 1900s often sprung from religious or political organisations, like the catholic girls movement in the Netherlands, de Graal (1928), or the young communists in the USSR, Komsomol (1918). Whether liberal, socialist, catholic, or communist, their activities usually consisted of games, singing, camping, parading, and learning about morality and their parent ideologies. After the Second World War youth movements were slowly replaced by subcultures started by the youth themselves.2

The Kids Are Alright

While new subcultures of young people caused uproar in 1960s Europe, organized youth movements in the USSR remained in place well after 1989. Today, youth clubs in Russia are still a popular way to help gifted kids succeed better in society and to help kids escape disadvantaged backgrounds. During a two week stay in St. Petersburg we researched youth movements and youth rights, and visited three of the 26 different youth clubs in Petrogradsky district.

News about militant youth movements like Nashi heavily influence the image of the Russian youth in the rest of the world. Working with Russian curators, and the collaboration with Russian designer Roman Gornitsky, helped me to understand cultural differences about education and youth in Russia.

Still from ’Lord of the Flies’, directed by Peter Brook, 1963.

Lord of the Flies

During our research we realized that restricting the behavior of youth comes from the fear of a ‘Lord of the Flies’ scenario. In this novel by William Golding from 1954, a group of young boys is stranded on an uninhabited island without adults. Their situation quickly deteriorates into chaos as they try to govern themselves. One of the messages is that the youth are not capable of moral judgement, and will cause violence and mayhem without supervision.

Graphic design has an important role in directing the behavior of youth. Everything from age-coins, cigarette warnings, and labels on videogames, websites, or movies has a graphic system that discriminates between ages. Upon close inspection these age limits are quite arbitrary.

In some parts of Germany the legal drinking age is 14, while in the U.S. it is 21. Film ratings in the U.S. give an ‘R’ rating (accompanying adult for children under 17) to movies with nudity or cursing while some violent movies receive a PG-13 rating (accompanying adult for children under 13). Examples of PG-13 rated movies with plenty of violence are ‘Jaws’ (1975), ’Die Hard’ (1988), and ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008). The romantic comedy ‘G.B.F.’ (2014) was rated R for depicting gay romance, while it contained no nudity and no strong language.3

Examples of graphic age restriction systems.

I Can Fight in a War but I Cannot Vote

The argument most commonly used for the restriction of youth rights is to protect them against things their bodies and brains are not capable of coping with. Whether it is violence, sexuality, alcohol, imprisonment, or legal representation.

Of course society needs to protect young people, but why are age restrictions different per country? After all, body growth is pretty similar everywhere around the world. We started to collect data on age limits per country and the differences were astounding.

In many countries the legal age to be married with parental consent is 16, but being able to watch nudity or sexual content on TV is restricted at 18 or even 21. In Saudi Arabia and some states in the U.S. there is no minimum age limit for marriage and child marriages are perfectly legal. In the U.K. you can join the military at 16, but not vote until you are 18. In the U.S. you can fight in a war at 18, but you cannot drink alcohol until you are 21. In the Netherlands you can be elected to the highest office at 18, while in Russia you have to be at least 35, and in China 45 years old. In India, Saudi Arabia and some states in the U.S. you will be trialled as an adult as young as age 7.4 Some of these age limits have little to do with physical growth of children and even violate the convention on the rights of the child (United Nations, 1990).5

Conference booklet, mimeographed in red, A6 format. Each page represents an age from 6 to 35, with corresponding legal abilities. Design Roman Gornitsky and Ruben Pater.

Design Intervention

The conference ‘Fast Forward to the Future’ discussed youth movements and alternative ways for emancipatory youth programmes. First we made an A6 booklet for each visitor which could be used to take notes during the conference. Each page represented one year between 6-35 and listed the rights attained on that age in different countries. The green cover was a reference to a popular Russian notebook (Тетрадь) used by school children.

The second part consisted of a short performance, where we printed age stickers and invited visitors to place stickers on wall infographics that were about youth rights and responsibilities. By inviting everyone to share their ideas on youth rights, we wanted to imagine a different approach to age restrictions. Red round stickers were for ages under 18, and the blue stickers for ages over 18.

Our design intervention was a reminder that as adults, we pose many legal restrictions on youth which perhaps should be revisited before we further intervene in the lives of young people. We argue that young people under 18 should be able to have a say in the policies that restrict their rights, especially since older people tend to be more conservative. We believe different ways of organizing youth rights in collaboration with young people themselves can be imagined.

More photos of the conference on the event Facebook page. Performance during the conference at Rosa’s House of Culture, St. Petersburg. Photos: Ruben Pater.

Conference website


1. William L. Patty and Louise S. Johnson, Personality and Adjustment, p. 277, 1953.
2. Nelleke Bakker, Jan Noordman, Marjoke Rietveld-van Wingerden, Vijf eeuwen opvoeden in Nederland: idee en praktijk, 1500-2000, Koninklijke van Gorcum B.V., 2010.
3. Chris Klimek, ‘The ongoing failure of the PG-13 rating’, The, 2014.
4. Youth Policy Labs
5. UN Convention on the Rights of the Child


Concept and design by Roman Gornitsky and Ruben Pater, December 2017.
Panama typeface by Roman Gornitsky, Temporary State.
Mimeograph printing in St.Petersburg, Russia.
Made for TOK Creative Association of Curators, St.Petersburg, Anna Bitkina and Maria Veits.

Facts Against Fear

Political Campaign, 2017

In March 2017, the Netherlands was suddenly the center of the world’s attention. The right-wing populist PVV (Party for Freedom) party was leading the polls in the election with proposals to close all Mosques, stop refugees and Muslim immigrants from entering the country, forbid the Quran, and leave the EU. Its popularity inspired larger moderate parties to copy its rhetoric, making anti-Islam and anti-refugee sentiments more accepted. As a concerned citizen I wanted to take action against this fearmongering.

Armed police at Amsterdam central station after the attacks in Brussels in 2016. Photo: ANP

The Netherlands is one of the safest, happiest, and richest countries in the world. Unemployment is one of the lowest in Europe. Crime has been dropping for the last eleven years, and the number of murders is among the lowest in Europe. The Dutch are also very socially active, they do more voluntary work than any other country in Europe, and according to the UN the Netherlands is the best country to raise your kid in the world. So what are the Dutch suddenly so afraid of?

To find out I teamed up with Stephan Okhuijsen, a data-analist who publishes graphs on his platform Datagraver. I read the election programmes of the political parties, collected quotes by politicians, and organized them by theme. The most discussed themes this election were terrorism, security, immigration, refugees, Islam, pensions, and healthcare. Stephan took graphs and data sets that he collected over the years, and we looked for recent statistics on the themes. From all the material we collected, it showed many statements by politicians were either exaggerated or false.

Translation: Islamification of the Netherlands? The percentage of Muslims in the Netherlands is barely growing. Share Dutch population of active members of Islam in the Netherlands.

Fear of Muslims

‘Is Islam a threat to Dutch society?’ was actually a question during two political debates on Dutch television. Asking the same about Christianity or Judaism would be unfathomable. This normalisation of xenophobia was only possible through the strong anti-Islam rhetoric from the PVV party which had introduced the word ‘islamification’ in the Dutch political language. Their election programme said: ‘Millions of Dutch are fed up with the islamification of our country’. VNL, a new right-wing populist party said in their programme: ‘The largest problem is the mass-immigration, the tidal wave of islamification’. We understood the use of the term ‘islamification’ is problematic in itself, but since it was such a big topic during the elections, we felt we had to address it.

Translation: Islamification of the Netherlands? The percentage of Muslims in the Netherlands is lower than people think. The percentage of Muslims people think there are (19%) vs. the actual percentage of Muslims (5%)

We looked into CBS data on religion in the Netherlands. It showed that the number of Muslims was 4.5% in 2010, and had barely grown in five years to 4.9%. In comparison, during the same five years the number of Dutch that classified as non-religious rose with 4%. There was a discrepancy between the imagined rise of Islam in the Netherlands and the reality. A European-wide poll from IPSOS showed that the Dutch estimated the number of Muslims in their country at 19%, while it was in fact 4.9%. It was clear that this so-called rise of Islam in the Netherlands was not based on any facts.

Translation: The world is unsafe? There are less terrorist attacks in Europe than there were in the ’80s and ’90. Number of terrorist attacks in Western Europe 1970-2015.

Fear of Terrorism

Terrorism was a big topic during the election. Recent attacks in Europe such as Brussels in 2016 and Paris in 2015 let many Dutch to believe an attack in the Netherlands was imminent. Parties on both the political left and right proposed strong security measures and invested both in military and police. The government had proposed a new law for dragnet internet surveillance. Two parties proposed to reinstate the military draft, making military service mandatory. People’s fear of terrorism should be taken seriously, but we were wondering if these strong measures were proportionate to the actual dangers.

Translation: The world is unsafe? The chance you will die from violence is extremely small. Causes of death in the Netherlands 2000-2015.

At Datagraver, Stephan had made a graph with all the terrorist attacks in Western Europe since 1970. It showed that the number of attacks in 1970-1990 was much higher than it is now, with groups like the IRA, PLO, RAF and ETA which were highly active in Europe. The number of terrorist attacks had increased since 2004 compared to 2000, but it was nowhere as high as during the 1980s. We also looked at Max Roser’s graph on battle deaths from Our World in Data. It clearly shows the world is a much safer place than it was ever before in the twentieth century. A third graph showed the causes of deaths in the Nederlands between 2000 and 2015 using CBS data. The percentage of deaths by terrorism was 0.0004%, and deaths by murder or manslaughter was 0,1%. Compared to deaths by accidents (2%), suicide (1.2%), or traffic deaths (0.6%) the chances of dying from violence are extremely small.

Translation: The world is unsafe? Number of deaths by war and conflicts is lower than it has ever been. Number of deaths by wars and conflicts 1946-2013.

The risks of terrorism are difficult to quantify since it concerns possible threats. An attack might happen tomorrow and change the risks. But even if you consider an attack in the Netherlands such as the one in Paris or Brussels will happen, terrorism poses an extremely small risk for our safety, compared to traffic accidents, falling down stairs, or drowning. Learning to swim and safer traffic regulations will be much more effective than anti-terrorism measures. Nonetheless the threat of terrorism has led European governments to militarize public space with soldiers patrolling the streets. Many European politicians propose stronger safety measures and privacy-invading eavesdropping measures. Given the small risk that terrorism poses to our well-being, it begs the question whether these measures are not needlessly disproportionate.

Twitter user sharing a tweet.


A month before the election, the website titled Stemmingmakerij went live. It is a Dutch saying meaning ‘fearmongering’ or ‘ballyhoo’. The word stemming means voting or mood. Stemmingmakerij was an independent political campaign which we completely funded ourselves, without ties to any political party. Stephan and myself worked hard to produce 25 graphs in a few weeks, each with different facts on the main election themes. Each graph reacted on a statement from a politician or a political party. As a data-analist, Stephan’s expertise helped to make sure our data came from recent and reliable sources. The majority of data was taken from the CBS (Statistics Netherlands), others from the UN, the World Bank, Global Terrorism Database, PRIO Battle Deaths dataset, and the Institute for Economics and Peace.

The website featured all 25 graphs, accompanied by a longer statement about where we found the data, what choices were made, and links to the actual data-sets for transparancy. Each graph could be easily shared on Facebook, Twitter, or by E-mail. We produced all graphs under a Creative Commons license so they could be shared for free.

Facebook user using the graph on the Facebook page of the PVV leader.

Infographic design

All graphs were made in reconizable formats that were easy to read for a wide audience. We used the most ‘boring’ formats; lists, bar charts, and pie charts. The blue/purple colour was chosen because it had no political party affiliation. Typography was kept simple in a narrow sans-serif set in large sizes so all information could be read on smart phones. Titles were set in Pressuru, a typeface by Roman Gornitsky that is related to the ultimate meme typeface: the Impact. The design concept was that the graphs should look recognizable, but not too designed, not too high-brow or too low-brow, so a wide audience from all political sides could potentially share it.

Overview of statistics of the campaign during the month to the election. Big television debates mark spikes in visitors and views.

During one month, the website received 100.000 page views, our tweets were viewed almost 500.000 times, facebook posts were viewed 167.000 times, and we had more than 30 mentions in news articles. The PVV did not end up winning the election, but the populist right did win seven seats in parliament, while the left lost 20 seats. What is more frightening is moderate parties had taken over a watered-down version of right-wing populist ideas, calling it ‘the good kind of populism’. Whether Stemmingmakerij made a difference during the election is impossible to say, but for us it was important to have another voice out there against fact-free politics.

Made with Stephan Okhuijsen from Datagraver

Maas Paradox

Exhibition, 2016

Water is both a curse and a blessing. We are dependent on it: we must drink it, it is essential for farming, but it also causes floods. Maas Paradox is an exhibition in which designers, artists, and residents consider the impact of climate change on the lives of people in the Meuse region.

Flood of the Meuse in Grubbenvorst, 1926. Photo E. Bergs

The Meuse (Maas in Dutch) flows through five countries, along the residential areas of nine million people, where three different languages and twenty-two dialects are spoken. The river brings great prosperity but also causes floods and droughts. Large portions of the Meuse valley are particularly at risk. For centuries, people in the Meuse region have lived with the threat of flooding, developing all kinds of self-sufficiency. Maas Paradox surveys these experiences and seeks possible answers to the question of whether and how climate change will alter life on the banks of the Meuse. Together with Han Dijk, urban planner at Posad spatial strategies, I was invited by Saskia van Stein, director of Bureau Europa in Maastricht, to be the curator and designer of Maas Paradox.

Map of the Meuse basin. The Meuse rises on the Langres Plateau in France and flows towards the Dutch delta into the North Sea. Design Ruben Pater

Floating villas in drowning cities

Many exhibitions discuss climate change in a global context, but scrutinizing its local effects are far more difficult. The city of Maastricht lies in the utmost southern part of the Netherlands, bordering on Germany and Belgium. Its hilly landscape is very different from the flat western part, where the majority of the Dutch live and the national government is housed. To ensure that the message of the exhibition would resonate with local inhabitants, the exhibition was based on research of the local effects of climate change.

As curators we wanted to use the exhibition about the Meuse region to expand the knowledge for design and architecture about climate change to informal solutions by regular citizens. Often enough, plans by designers and architects for climate change mitigation or adaptation are luxury solutions such as floating villas or high-tech devices that cater to the survival needs of the richest 1%. This exhibition acknowledges that the effects of climate change will be felt by citizens, and we should approach this as collective rather than individual forms of adaptation. This is why we invited artist Klaas Burger to conduct interviews with people living in flood-prone areas about their experiences.

<i>Maas Paradox</i> exhibition with the pavilion by Monadnock in the center. Photo: Johannes Schwartz.


During three months, Untold Stories and the urban planners and architects from Posad, with help of the University of Maastricht premium programme conducted research. The region’s climate, history, and hydrography was explored through three paradoxes: scarcity and abundance, border and connection, and source and drain. During the process, the research was shared with artists who were commissioned to create new works for the exhibition.

The research resulted in a detailed 16 meter long map of the Meuse basin on the wall of the museum, with marked flood-prone areas, industrial areas and nuclear power plants, drinking water intake areas, and sewage plants. The map, made by Posad, also functioned as an exhibition guide, and was distributed for free in a foldable version.

The local impact of each paradox was further explained in wall texts and in the museum guide. We looked into the local effects of pollution, flood, drought, biodiversity, water quality, water temperature, and drinking water. To distill all this information for a larger audience, the main conclusions of the research were summarized into one large infographic with facts about the impact of climate change on the region.

Inside the video pavilion by Monadnock. Left: <i>Deep Weather</i> by Ursula Biemann, right: <i>Sloot</i> by Koos Buist. Photo: Johannes Schwartz.

Source and drain

The Meuse rises on the Langres Plateau in France, subsequently dropping four hundred meters over a distance of 935 km. This natural flow makes the Meuse and its connecting rivers prone to pollution. Only 2.5% of the water in the world is fresh water, making humans very dependent on the fresh water supplies of rivers like the Meuse. The region relies on the river for drinking water and agricultural irrigation. Industries need river water for cooling power plants and transporting materials. A lot of heavy industry operated along the Meuse during the twentieth century. Today, two nuclear power stations are on the river’s banks, and everything released into the river follows its flow downstream.

We invited artists that work with river ecology and its pollution. Koos Buist is a Dutch artist who made a film of the life inside a ditch using a camera on a stick. His movie Sloot (2006) gives the viewer a peek through a muddy clouded water and reveals the abundancy of life on a micro biological level. Foekje Fleur van Duin is a designer who collects trash along the banks of the Meuse. She uses these empty plastic bottles take make molds for porcelain vases, transforming people’s trash into design objects. Bottle Vases emphasises the pollution of plastic packaging material along the Meuse.

Unknown Fields Division from the U.K. takes pollution and water in a global perspective, and by taking polluted soil from a Chinese Rare Earth Minerals mine and transporting it back to the U.K. through international shipping. The film takes the viewer through the networks of global logistics of the polluted industries that make our everyday products. Rare Earthenware (2014) uses the amount of toxic waste used to make a smartphone, a battery, and a laptop, and makes ceramics out of the toxic soil.

The history of water management as design is explored by LOLA lanscape architects. They used their extensive knowledge on Dutch water design from their book Dutch Dikes (2014) to create a narrative on the history of dikes as a method of design. From the earliest dikes built by monks using simple hand tools, to the massive high-tech flood fortifications that are currently in use.

<i>Maas Paradox</i> exhibition with the map and infographic. The seats are listening stations for the interviews conducted with residents by Klaas Burger. Photo: Johannes Schwartz. Infographic wall. Photo: Johannes Schwartz.

Scarcity and abundance

Our dependence on water gives rise to scarcity and abundance. Examples of scarcity are drought and the lack of freshwater occurring in the world’s warmer regions. Examples of abundance are increasing rainfall, cumulative flood risks, and rising sea levels. Global inequality highlights the paradox of scarcity and abundance. Poorer countries will be less capable of protecting themselves against climate change, and its effects will hit the poorest half of the world’s population hardest, leading to rising tensions resulting from immigration. The Western world’s present-day abundance allows us to buy and own more goods than we can ecologically handle.

Henriëtte Waal is a designer who researched the history of an Belgian mining town with Mien Blééch (2015). While there is an abundance of high-quality drinking in this Belgian part of the Meuse region, the local residents drink bottled water. Bottled water is not only 1000 times more expensive than tap water, its production also produces 500 times more CO2 emissions. To promote the drinking of tap water in the area she designed new water bottles. Its design is based on the canteens the miners used, and are produced using hydroforming technology.

Ursula Biemann exposes the unequal relation between fossil fuel use in the Global North and its effects in the Global South. Her film Deep weather (2013) is set in the Canadian tar sands where Shell oil has transformed boreal forests into a massive open strip mine, and juxtaposes the images to scenes on the coast of Bangladesh where flood threats are countered with thousands of sandbags manually carried to stop the water. Designer and artist Jorge Bakker approaches the speculative social aspects of cohabitation in his work In Search of Habitat (2012). A series of works on buoyancy and living environments as scale models in times of flooding.

<i>Maas Paradox</i> exhibition, hallway of Bureau Europa. Photo: Johannes Schwartz.

Border and connection

The Meuse became a national boundary after the 1839 Belgian Revolution. Historically, many rivers are also borders, and river crossings are strategically important. Rivers, therefore, had fortifications along them, and some still exist on the Meuse such as the Eben-Emael Fort south of Maastricht. Since the 1995 Schengen agreement, the EU allows free mobility of persons and goods, and national borders are no longer actively patrolled. The recent reintroduction of guarding some EU borders is due to the influx of refugees. Some even want border fences within the EU. What effects could this have if the Meuse becomes a guarded border?

In The Meuse region many different nationalities and languages live side by side. Its transnational identity supercedes the link with the capitals in Amsterdam and Brussels, which are literally and culturally far removed. How do these differences create new forms of cohabitation and culture?

Roderik Rotting was commissioned to film the life along one of the Meuse’s branches. He found the population of this former mining country had been slowly shrinking, and was now trying to revive itself as a tourist attraction. In Tributary 28 (2016) he follows residents and tourists along the beautiful landscapes around the river, while cars and motorbikes pass at loud volume. The paradox of this artificial landscape is not lost on the viewer. Polder Cup is a film from 2010 by artist Maider López in which she organized a football championship in a Dutch polder landscape. The football field was intersected by waterways, as polders are, so players and audience had to find ways to adapt to the landscape.

<i>In Search of Habitat</i> by Jorge Bakker. Photo: Johannes Schwartz. Water bottles by Henriëtte Waal and silkscreened prints with coal by Jenny Stieglitz. Photo: Johannes Schwartz.

Exhibition design

The main space featured a pavilion especially designed by architecture studio Monadnock. The pavilion showed four video works, but also functioned as a centerpiece of the show. The structure reminds the visitor of the traditional timber framing architecture of the Meuse region. It is built slightly slanted as if afloat or frozen at the point of submerging. The angles make the seating for the video works slanted, creating a sense of vertigo for the viewers. This psychological state of confusion is mirrored in the exhibition colours, a low-contrast of bright blue and red, as in psychedelic or optical art. In this case the water is not represented in blue but in red. All references to water on the map and posters are made red.

The walls are covered with a map of the Meuse region on one side, and a large infographic with research done on the local effects of climate change on the other side. All information was both in Dutch and English. Scattered in the space are six seating objects where interviews can be heard with residents of the region conducted by artist Klaas Burger. The three smaller rooms in the museum each represent one paradox by one or more works. All the works in the exhibition relate to specific local effects and contexts of the Meuse region, except the works in the pavilion. To extrapolate the local circumstances to the global contexts of climate change, the four video works deal with the pollution of global capitalist production, risk of flooding in the Netherlands compared to the conditions in the Global South, the life in water at a microbiological level, and new forms of collectivity in a changing landscape.

Projection installation by LOLA landscape architects <i>The Dyke as Dutch Design</i>. Photo: Johannes Schwartz.

Maas Paradox was on view at Bureau Europa from November 5, 2016 to January 22, 2017.

Printed matter for the exhibition, poster and flyer printed on waterproof paper. Design Ruben Pater. Exhibition guide printed on waterproof paper. Map by Posad. Design Ruben Pater.


Curated and designed by Han Dijk and Ruben Pater at the invitation of Saskia van Stein, director of Bureau Europa.

Research by Posad spatial strategies, Untold Stories, and students of the University of Maastricht Premium programme.

Featuring work by Jorge Bakker, Ursula Biemann, Koost Buist, Klaas Burger, Foekje Fleur van Duin, Monadnock LOLA landscape architects, Maider López, Posad spatial strategies, Roderik Rotting, Unknown Fields Division, Untold Stories, Henriëtte Waal with Jenny Stieglitz.

Thanks to Saskia van Stein, Stefan Meuleman, Ilona van Brekel, Joyce Larue, Jason Coburn, Agnes Cornelissen, and all the Bureau Europa staff.

More photos and information on the Bureau Europa website.

The Politics of Design

Book, 2016

Dymaxion world map by Buckminster Fuller, 1943. Image by Ruben Pater.

You are privileged. Just reading this sentence makes you part of the 85% of the world population that is literate, the 20% that understands English, and the 40% that has access to the internet. Visual communication is not an even playing field, but is dominated by the urban regions, primarily in the Northern hemisphere. The design of visual communication is shaped by the designers’ cultural and political bias. Designers themselves are often unaware of this. The Politics of Design is a book that shows the cultural and political bias of visual communication using visual examples.

When most of us think of the word politics, we think of the daily political practice; elected leaders, voting, parliaments, political parties, etc. But politics are in effect principles of power and status that function outside of this sphere as well. They are present in everything we do, think, in the way we talk, the way we dress, and the way we design. The political system in which the designer works and lives cannot be disconnected from the design she/he creates. A political ideology is continuously being produced and communicated through design. Acknowledging this can give designers more agency in their practice to “either serve or subvert the status quo”, as Tony Fry said.

Image from: Dreyfuss, Henry. The Measure of Man. Whitney Library of Design, 1959. Copyright 1993 Henry Dreyfuss Associates.

Military Bodies

A very clear example of how design becomes political is through standards. In 1959 the U.S. designer Henry Dreyfuss published The Measure of Man, a seminal book which is still being taught at design schools. Dreyfuss had the insight that designers should use the measurements of the human body to create more human-centred design. This helped push design and architecture forward but also created a false sense of truth. The measurements of the men in Dreyfuss’ book are based on data from the U.S. military. They represent bodies of a specific type, age, and height which is anything but universal. The binary gender division (male/female) establishes a very conservative idea of gender, unlike the way that gender is perceived in society. For instance in 2014, Facebook introduced 58 choices in gender identity for its users.

ISO 7001. Pictograms designed for the U.S. Department of Transportation, 1974. Design: Roger Cook and Don Shanosky.

A well-known example of standards in visual communication are the pictograms used for signing. These pictograms were designed in 1974 for the U.S. Department of Transportation, and later adopted by the international organisation of standards as ISO 7001. They are used worldwide and are so ubiquitous we might not notice its cultural and political bias. The male icon is used for both a male and a person (m/f), while the female icon is only used to signify the female gender. The pictogram for ticket counter is a women selling a ticket to a man. The pictogram for restaurant is a knife and fork, which are Western eating utensils. The pictogram for parking uses the letter ‘P’ of the Latin alphabet for the English word ‘Parking’. The ISO 7001 system of pictograms is not neutral or universal, but in fact communicates Western values and outdated ideas of gender.

Various skin-coloured objects.

Fake Diversity

Many of the objects in this image are so ‘normal’ that we do not even realise they are biased until we see them together. Band-Aids for darker skin colours have only been available since 1998. The way race is perceived in society is shaped by designers, not just in products, but also in visual communication.

Screenshots from the websites of Northrop Grumman, 2015, Central Ohio Diversity Consortium, 2015 (site now offline), CNFDI, 2015.

In recent decades, the world of corporate communication has been focusing heavily on diversity. Every major company now has a diversity program that emphasises the value of a multi-ethnic and gender-equal workforce. On the website of the U.S. company Northrop Grumman we find a diversity page with a photo of an ethnically diverse group of employees. It all looks a little too perfect, and when we reverse search the image we find the same image is used at the Central Ohio Diversity Consortium and the French private education office CNFDI. Using stock photos is standard practice in corporate communication, but it can backfire and have the opposite effect when communicating diversity. Generic images of an idealised workforce obscures the fact that actual diversity in the workforce is still far behind (in 2015 only 4 of the Fortune 500 companies had a black CEO, and only 24 were women).

Mercator projection, drawn in 1569 by Gerardus Mercator. Still used by Google maps, Apple maps, and Bing maps.

Maps and Legends

Politics and design are wed together in the world of map-making. Maps have always been a method of exercising control over territory and its peoples and resources. During colonial times, mapping an area was sometimes enough to consider it ‘conquered’. World maps have a complicated history. A two-dimensional map of the world is always flawed, since it always distorts somewhat by projecting a sphere on to a flat plane, the so-called projection. The best known world map is the Mercator projection, a map from 1569 made for early colonial seafaring by European countries. It is the best known world map and it is still used by Google maps, Apple maps, and Bing maps. Mercator has been criticised for being scientifically wrong and colonialist because it places Europe at its centre, and makes the ‘colonised’ continents Africa, Australia, and South-America, look too small in comparison. This is a consequence of its optimization for compass directions. This distorts the southern hemisphere enormously. If you look at the Mercator map keep in mind that Australia is in fact 2,5 times larger than Greenland.

Gall-Peters projection, first drawn by James Gall in 1855, and in 1973 by Arno Peters.

German filmmaker Arno Peters criticised the Mercator in 1973 for being colonialist and proposed an alternative (Western) world map that showed an equal size comparison. The map is now known as the Gall-Peters map and is officially used by the United Nations and British schools. For those used to the Mercator map it might look very strange, even distorted. In fact this map is a very politically correct map when it comes to size comparison, because each square is the same size on this map.

Micronesian Stick chart, Marshall Islands. Image: national Geographic Society, photograph by Walter Meayers Edwards.

Maps can have many forms, and designers should not automatically assume it is two-dimensional. The first known map is around 14,000 years ago and was scribed onto rocks. Some of the most ingenious maps ever made are the stick charts made in the Marshall Islands, an island country in the Pacific. The shells represent the islands and the sticks represent the waves and currents. The Marshallese were the first to ever map ocean swells, and these maps were memorized beforehand to navigate the ocean.

Left image: ‘Caligula’ (37-41 CE), marble, h: 28 cm, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark. Right Image: ‘Caligula’ (reconstruction), 37-41 CE (2011), marble. h: 28 cm, Archäologischen Institut der Universität Göttingen and Stiftung Archäologie, Munich.

History? Whose History?

Being critical of our own cultural and political bias also means questioning the historic foundation of design. In Western art history the iconic archetypical sculpture is the classic marble Greek and Roman sculpture. In 2007 scientists used X-rays and UV light to prove that these sculptures were actually brightly painted. Just as any other history, the history of Western art and design is not free of assumptions, exclusion, and ethnocentrism. Continuously questioning the history of art and design can make way for those cultures and communities that have been misrepresented or underrepresented in the past.

Diego Rivera, Murals at Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (1929-1935). Image: Flickr.

An example of a more inclusive communication of history can be found in Mexico city. After the Mexican civil war in 1920, a new government was elected that strived for a more egalitarian society. Years of dictatorship had ignored the thousands of years of indigenous history. The population, of which two-thirds was illiterate, was largely unaware of the country’s history. Artist Diego Rivera was commissioned to paint the history of Mexico in a series of murals in the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City. By using murals as a form of public education, Mexico’s history became accessible to all citizens.

<i>The Politics of Design</i> book. Image: Ruben Pater.

These are some of the many examples in the book The Politics of Design, which is organised according to the formal elements of graphic design: language and typography, colour and contrast, symbols and icons, image and photography, and information graphics. The collection of examples in this book is only the beginning, and on the book’s website more examples and reader suggestions will be added. The Politics of Design is by no means the first book that acknowledges that all design is political, but this debate has been taking place primarily in academia and not in design schools. If we look at visual communication today, we see that ethnocentrism, sexism, and racism is far from eradicated. This is a clear sign that we should keep addressing these issues among designers and communication specialists. Hopefully this book can contribute to the long-term integration of critical thinking from cultural studies, anthropology, sociology, and communication studies into the curriculum of design schools.
Order the English language version at BIS publishers, or at your local bookstore.

You can find the Portuguese translation at UBU Editora and the Traditional Chinese version at WOW Lavie.


Adult and Youth literacy, UNESCO Institute of Statistics Factsheet, September 2015.
Herman, Jillian, ‘Soon, Not Even 1 Percent Of Fortune 500 Companies Will Have Black CEOs’, Huffington Post, February 2, 2015.
Chen, Shaohua, and Martin Ravallion. National and International Poverty Lines. Washington: World Bank Development Research group August 2008. 11.
Crystal, David. ‘Why English? The Historical Context’, English as a Global Language, 69. 2nd Ed. Vol. 2. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Dyer, Richard. White. Routledge, 1997.
Finney, Ben. ‘Nautical Cartography and Traditional Navigation in Oceania’. In: The History of Cartography. Vol. 2, Book 3. University of Chicago Press, 1998. 443-444.
Fry, Tony. ‘Book review: The Archeworks Papers’, Design Issues: Volume 23, Number 3, MIT Press, 2007. 88.
Internet Users (per 100 People). The World Bank.
McCormick, Kate. ‘The Evolution of Workplace Diversity,’ State Bar of Texas, 2007.
Malo, Sebastien. ‘The Story of the Black Band-Aid’, The Atlantic, June 6, 2013.
Trueheart, Charles. ‘Sign Language: At Their Best, Pictograms Tell Us Clearly Where to Go and What to Do; At Their Worst, Things Can Get Interesting.’ American Scholar 77, no. 1 (2008): 18.
Turnbull, David, and Helen Watson. Maps Are Territories: Science Is an Atlas. University of Chicago Press, 1993. 6.

The Refugee Crisis as a Design Problem

Article, 2016

We are facing a humanitarian crisis. There are 60 million displaced persons in the world,1 and every ten minutes a stateless child is born.2 Millions of people that have no access to water, food, housing, work, education, and are caught in legal limbo. This refugee crisis has inspired many designers to do projects about refugees, the most recent of which is the What design can do (WDCD) Refugee Challenge. Designers that address such complex issues as the refugee crisis have to be aware of their responsibilities, since approaching the refugee crisis as a design problem without the proper context can be problematic, even harmful. I want to examine the role of designers in the refugee crisis using the WDCD Refugee Challenge as an example.

‘The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.’- Teju Cole3

What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge website screenshot.

Launched on February 19, the Netherlands-based WDCD Refugee Challenge invites designers, creative thinkers and problem solvers to come up with ‘bold ideas’ to help refugees. Proposals should be submitted before May 1, 2016, with a one minute movie to pitch the idea. The five finalists will be announced at the WDCD conference in Amsterdam on July 1, 2016, and all five receive a 10,000 euro reward to realise their ideas.4

The WDCD Refugee Challenge should be praised for taking the initiative to create a platform for designers that address the refugee crisis. The involvement of the UNHCR as a partner shows the WDCD’s ambition that its outcomes could structurally improve the situation of refugees. However, the way the WDCD Refugee Challenge is communicated leaves a lot to be desired. This is important because it already sets the scene for the kind of solutions that will be submitted. I want to lay bare some of the blind spots in the design question that WDCD Refugee Challenge has proposed, and examine how designers could assume their responsibilities in addressing such a crisis.

What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge design brief page 13, 2016.

The Designer as a Game-changer

Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant compared the WDCD Refugee Challenge to Dragons’ Den, a reality television show from the BBC where contestants pitch their ideas to investors.5 During the WDCD Refugee Challenge five finalist will be chosen, all of whom will receive a 10,000 euro reward. They will go into an ‘accelerator’ in which they create a working prototype and a business plan. After a project pitch one of the five designs will be announced as the winner by the end of 2016.

The WDCD Refugee Challenge says the refugee crisis is: ‘A global challenge too big for governments and NGO’s alone’. Design as the ultimate problem-solving discipline coincides with the narrative of the neoliberal European policies. In recent decades, governments have cut spending on welfare, education, and foreign aid, advocating that free market—including design— can provide a better alternative. The ruling VVD party is implementing neoliberal policies in the Netherlands, and has recently proposed to close the Dutch borders for refugees completely.6

First of all, it is absurd to suggest that design can come up with solutions for a crisis that is political and socio-economic at heart. European countries have been intervening in Middle East politics way before the Englishman Sykes and the Frenchmen Picot carved out most of the regions’ borders in 1916. More recently, the Dutch military was part of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the war in Afghanistan between 2006-2010. At this moment, Dutch F-16’s are bombing Syria and Iraq.7

Another contributing factor to the refugee crisis is the situation of poverty and joblessness in the Global South. Income inequality has only grown with IMF policies, trade barriers, and EU subsidies, which have blocked the Global South from equal access to the world economy. As long as these economic barriers are in place, we will see more and more people from the Global South seeking a better life in Europe.

By ignoring the history of the refugee crisis and the political reality of diplomacy and military interventions in the Middle East in the briefing, the WDCD Refugee Challenge keeps the root of the problem out of sight. Designers can not successfully intervene in the refugee crisis if the political and military interventions are not taken into account. This should be part of the briefing and the debate surrounding the WDCD Refugee Challenge so that designers understand their agency or lack thereof.

Second, by emphasising the problem-solving capabilities of design, the WDCD Refugee Challenge supports the narrative that the free market is much better at solving the world’s crisis than governments are. Design may be able to come up with clever products or enlightening ideas, but only governments and NGOs can provide refugees with the resources, infrastructure, and laws that are needed in the long run. The WDCD Refugee Challenges’ good intentions could backfire if designs are used as an incentive for governments to cut their spending on supporting refugees altogether. Therefore the WDCD Refugee Challenge should inform designers about the responsibilities of governments and NGOs, and find out how and if designers can effectively intervene.

EUROSUR Spanish national coordination centre. Image: European Parliament News.

Designing From The Bunker

The first WDCD Refugee Challenge is to design a shelter. By shelter the brief means the temporary housing facilities where refugees stay until their request for asylum is accepted or rejected. Designing temporary housing as a challenge stands in stark contrast to the permanent reality of refugees staying in asylum centres, refugee camps, and shelters. The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is twenty years old, and many refugee camps in Palestine have been there since 1948. Generations of people living in temporary conditions is not temporary, but a structural lack of proper infrastructure, housing, and education or job opportunities. In the Netherlands, Yoonis Osman Nuur from the refugee collective We Are Here explains how he has been in temporary shelter in the Netherlands for ten years, and others in the group for twelve or thirteen years. All this time unable to work or go to school.9

No matter how well-designed a shelter is, refugees would rather live in a house and use the same infrastructure and opportunities as everyone else. The brief reduces the design question to the formal qualities of the shelter, its interior, its architecture, etc. Why call it a shelter and not a house? Why don’t we think of ways to offer refugees the same houses, the same jobs, the same schools as everyone else? Designing temporary shelters is exactly how right-wing politicians want to discourage refugees from coming to Europe. To quote VVD party member Halbe Zijlstra, ‘We should make the conditions for refugees as austere as possible, to discourage others from traveling to the Netherlands. He imagines container-like housing with minimal available services.10

A Syrian refugee has her eyes scanned to pay for groceries at King Abdullah Park refugee camp in northern Jordan. Photo: World Food Program/Mohammad Batah

Mark Duffield, from the Global Insecurities Centre at the University of Bristol, has written about the underlying conditions of the architecture that Halbe Zijlstra, and WDCD refer to. In Environmental Terror: Uncertainty, Resilience and the Bunker11 he follows Agamben’s Homo Sacer, ‘if neoliberalism has a spatial form, it is reflected in the complimentarily between the “bunker” and the “camp”’. What he calls the growing bunkerisation of the Global North is the larger physical and digital divide between the Global South and the Global North. We can find the bunker in its physical form of the construction of gated communities, fortified UN compounds, and the deadly border walls between the EU in Mellila (Morocco) and Evros (Greece). But also in the barriers that are increasingly digital and invisible: biometric passports, VISAs, fingerprinting databases, network access, paywalls, trade barriers, and immigration policies.

In the Global South, the architectural archetype is the tent, the temporary housing structures like tent camps, asylum centres, slums, and extra-judicial confinement. While the inhabitants of the Global North can travel freely, with unlimited access to resources, networks and travel destinations, people of the Global South are trapped in legal limbo, surrounded by gates, fences, without visas or passports, unable to cross frontiers. The proliferation of network technologies has allowed a permanent ‘remote control’ scenario to arise, and the bunker is increasingly becoming a control centre. With military drones, conflicts are fought from a distance. At the same time the UNHCR is using biometric identification to register refugees, and UN Food programme has refugees paying for food using iris scan technology in refugee camps.12 This analogy of the bunker and the tent is not just an abstraction of the world’s inequality, it is also to show that this divide is very much designed.

Designers should be aware their work does not end up being used to legitimise a state of permanent temporary living, deliberately created to prevent refugees from coming to Europe. They could instead imagine political or practical solutions that allow refugees the same rights as everyone else, so they have access to the same houses, education, services, and rights as we do. Otherwise designers are affirming the horrible reality of a growing global underclass of the stateless permanently living in shelters, not houses.

Dutch Military Police at work for FRONTEX in Spain. Image: Ministerie van Defensie.

Designing Violence

The WDCD refugee challenge frames the refugee crisis as a design challenge. But the refugee crisis is already very much designed. Designers have played an active role in designing the digital and physical borders to make sure refugees are prevented from entering Europe. Since 2004, the EU has invested heavily in fortifying its borders. The European border patrol Frontex has already spent 670 million since 2004, as the researchers from the Migrant files have shown.13 Since then new border fences have been built and equipped with smart surveillance technology. The latest border control systems of the EU are becoming digital and invisible. The OPARUS program that is being developed uses military drones, satellites, and smart surveillance technology to create a virtual net around Europe. Dutch tech companies are designing biometric software and digital ‘sniff’ technology that can locate refugees even before they reach border crossings.

The militarised borders of Europe are designed to remove violence out of sight of the European citizen. Many Frontex operations are done at sea, invisible from the European mainland. The thousands of people that drown trying to cross the Mediterranean are not only the blame of human traffickers, as Forensic Architecture has convincingly shown in their project ‘Left-to-Die Boat’.14 NATO ships that were in close to a sinking boat full of refugees, did nothing and let the passengers drown. If Europe designs highly militarised borders, it cannot deny the responsibilities of casualties and fatalities that occur.

Inside Europe, a network of prison-like structures is set up. Much of this infrastructure is deliberately invisible. Asylum centres are usually built in remote places, out of sight from most Europeans. Deportation of refugees in the U.K. is done through a network of detention centres, closed courts, and airlines. Taking photographs of these spaces is illegal. Artist James Bridle interviewed people to create images of these invisible spaces in his work ‘Seamless Transitions’ from 2015, in other to visualise this hidden violence.15

Europe is already spending so much effort to design systems and campaigns to keep refugees out in the first place, so why is this not part of the WDCD Refugee challenge? For instance, designers can help to lay bare these invisible systems of violence on Europe’s borders and find out how refugees can circumvent them.

The Principal Spaces of Detention. Image: Migreurop (2011)

Designing Exclusion

On the website of the WDCD Refugee Challenge an image of refugees is shown standing in line, covered with blankets, aided by UNHCR workers. The tagline says, ‘Here’s your chance to make a difference’. The headline is not directed at refugees, but at designers, so they will join the design challenge. By using this kind of imagery, the WDCD Refugee Challenge puts designers in opposition to the refugee. The refugee is presented as helpless, with problems for which the designer offers her/his help. The notion that a refugee is perhaps also a designer is not fathomable here.

This image stands in stark reality to the photographs a student of mine showed me, who works on a project with refugees, that a Syrian refugee had made with his cell phone during his trip. Group photos of young men posing cheerfully at landmarks in different places in Europe, no blankets, no sad faces. Those images would never be used on the WDCD website, because they do not fit the intended narrative. Refugees are depicted as victims to raise feelings of empathy with the designer, who is considered to be outside the group of refugees. ‘Participating in this contest will make you feel good!’ says WDCD elsewhere on their website.

The brief states that refugees themselves are encouraged to participate, which would only make sense. After all who can better research, assess, and come up with solutions, than the very people whom it concerns? But in its communication the refugees are placed in opposition to the designer, and how refugees themselves are involved in the process is rather vague: ‘The WDCD Refugee Challenge will foster collaboration with refugees.’

The same emphasis on difference is used by anti-immigration parties to show that refugees are different in culture, religion and background, in opposition to ‘Europeans’ and ‘European values’ (whatever is meant by that). Is a refugee who lives in Europe for ten years still a refugee? In framing the refugee crisis as a design challenge it is especially important to be specific who it is meant for. Creating images and texts to represent either refugees or designers should be done carefully, in order not to reaffirm the stereotypes which have led to so much of the polarised debate which they mention in the brief.

Screenshot from the website of the What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge.


First of all, the WDCD Refugee Challenge deserves credit that it raises awareness among professional designers and the public that this humanitarian crisis should be addressed. When it concerns the lives of so many in a humanitarian crisis of this scale, we should be careful in how we frame a crisis and represent the lives of others. The WDCD Refugee Challenge fails to acknowledge its own political position as an actor in the refugee crisis, and does not address the responsibilities of designers themselves. If designers want to play an active role in global crises they have to understand the history of design and how design is complicit to many of the problems we face today. The design discipline will not be taken seriously if we do not address the political structures in which design is practiced and actively shape the world.

I would wholeheartedly invite designers (and everyone else for that matter) to imagine ways to improve the life of refugees. But the refugee crisis has to be understood in its totality, and cannot be seen as an isolated design issue. A shelter is not just a shelter, a campaign is not just a campaign, they relate to larger political ideologies and sentiments. If we do not take the impact that design has on the world seriously, design for good can do more harm than good.

The way the WDCD Refugee Challenge is now framed and communicated, its results are likely to be limited to incidental interventions, because the true nature of the crisis is not addressed. My advice to the WDCD Refugee Challenge is to become less focused on problem-solving and more focused on understanding what the problems are, in order to reflect if and how the refugee crisis should be addressed as a design problem.

These are precarious issues with uncertain outcomes. Maybe design can offer solutions, maybe not. The real challenge would be to create a platform where such complexities and contradictions are not ignored, but embraced, and become part of a larger discussion about what design really can do.

Diagram about social design by Victor Papanek. Image from: Victor Papanek, <i>Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change</i> (London: Thames and Hudson, 2011)

A shortened version of this article was published on Dezeen, on 21 April 2016. Thanks to Nick Axel for being a critical reader and advisor, and Marcus Fairs and Anna Winston from Dezeen for publishing and shortening the article.


3. Tweet by Teju Cole on March 12, 2012.
5. (Dutch) 6. (Dutch)
8. (Dutch)
10. (Dutch)
11. Duffield, Mark. Environmental Terror: Uncertainty, Resilience and the Bunker. University of Bristol, 2011.

Puzzled by Espionage

Puzzles, 2014

Puzzle portrait of Edward Snowden. Image: Ruben Pater

In May of 2013, the eyes of the world were opened to the electronic mass surveillance which is being carried out by the US, the UK, and their allies. Through the efforts of former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and filmmaker Laura Poitras, it became known that everyone with a cell phone or a laptop is a target of electronic surveillance. The complexity of the surveillance technologies make it difficult to understand their impact. I wanted to inform people through a series of puzzles about espionage and electronic surveillance tactics.

Puzzle about the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program. Which nine internet companies which are involved in PRISM can be found in this puzzle? Design: Ruben Pater.

A few decades ago the eavesdropping by governments was limited to tapping telephones, opening snail mail, and intercepting radio traffic. The worldwide adoption of internet and cell phones has created tremendous opportunities for signals intelligence gathering. Government intelligence agencies like the NSA (US) and GCHQ (UK), who are in charge of spying on foreign communication in the interest of national security, have begun to collect bulk digital communication from both citizens and military, both domestic and abroad.

Mentioned in Liber Medicinalis, Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, 192-235 AD.


The immense power of electronic surveillance is reflected in the names of the NSA’s operations. Having the world’s secrets at your disposal has led to names like: Darkthunder, Mystic, Godsurge, Halluxwater, Mjolnir, Olympusfire, and Waterwitch. The history of secret writing has always been associated with the occult and the religious. Names of gods and holy places were encrypted to protect their sanctity. In Roman times an amulet with the triangular typography of the incantation ‘Abracadabra’ was worn in an amulet to ward off disease and misfortune. The phrase is from Aramaic and means “I create as I speak”. In Iran, ‘Abjad’ diagrams used religious numerology. Indian mathematics (400-1200 AD) used geometry for religious and magic Vedic rituals.

Indian geometry in Vedic altars. 400-1200 AD.


Throughout history, encryption has been used to communicate state and military secrets. Julius Caesar used encryption to protect military messages, with a system which we now call the Caesar cipher. Herodotus mentions the Greek Histiaeus who shaved the head of his most trusted slave and tattooed a message on it. As soon as the hair had grown back, the slave was sent to deliver the message. The Spartans used a scytale, a strip of parchment with a message on it. Only those who possessed a stick of the right diameter could read the message by winding the parchment around the stick.

In the 1700s city states and countries in Europe were in a constant state of rivalry. Secret codes were used for diplomatic communication, and each tried desperately to decipher each other’s messages. Diplomatic mail was read and deciphered in secret rooms called ‘black chambers’. The Geheime Kabinets-Kanzlei of Vienna was supposedly the best in Europe. Diplomatic letters that arrived at 7 a.m. were opened, copied, resealed with forged seals, and returned to the post office at 9:30 a.m.

Coded message from Prince Maurice to Lord Digby, England 1645. Image: National Archives, London.


Cryptography is the process of communicating in, or deciphering, secret writings. In cryptography the original message is called ‘plaintext’ and it is encrypted into unreadable text called ‘ciphertext’. For example the Caesar cipher is a simple substitution cipher that shifts the alphabet, so for example A=B, R=S and Z=A, etc. The plaintext ‘SECRET’ becomes ciphertext ‘TFDSFU’. In order to read the message the recipient has to know the key. This code is easy to break, but the more variables you add, the more difficult it becomes. Modern ciphers use large prime numbers to withstand decryption by powerful computers.

The form of cryptography that hides messages is called steganography. In ancient Greece, Herodotus mentions inscribing a message in wood, covering it with wax, and inscribing the wax with an innocent message. Invisible inks and microdots are both examples of steganography which were used during World War II. Digital steganography can be done by adding a message to the source code of images, songs, or videos, and uploading them, hiding them in plain sight. Another form of digital steganography was used by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Recovered laptops showed that the Taliban masked their e-mails as spam so they would not be searched by surveillance filters.

Eight machine reading programmes run by DARPA are hidden in these CAPTCHAs. Design: Ruben Pater.


The possibilities of electronic surveillance has led intelligence agencies to try all possible methods. Cell phone providers and internet companies are pressured to give their data to intelligence agencies, or to give secret access into their software. Intelligence agencies design special programs that use vulnerabilities in operating systems and browsers (called zero days) to intercept e-mails, chats, and voice IP calls. Undersea communication cables that connect continents to the internet are directly tapped into. The NSA even developed tiny spy hardware, which is secretly installed into intercepted laptops and cell phones that people had ordered online.

Both the NSA and the GCHQ deny that they spy on their own citizens, while Edward Snowden’s documents have proved otherwise. The documents also showed that these agencies spy on their allies as well as their adversaries. Courts have ruled since then that both agencies were guilty of illegally collecting phone records and bulk internet communication. In addition, software companies have stepped up and promised to use encryption for communication platforms, so government agencies can no longer read them.

Twelve spy puzzles. Design: Ruben Pater


The leaks by Edward Snowden and the history of cryptography formed the basis for a series of ‘Spy Puzzles’. Dutch newspaper NRC Next published one puzzle every week starting February 2014. Every Tuesday, Dutch readers could find a new spy puzzle in their newspaper and try their puzzling skills, while learning something about the impact of electronic surveillance. One year later I had made more than 52 puzzles with different topics such as satellite surveillance, man-in-the-middle attacks, Russian electronic surveillance, and face recognition.

Support a more secure internet by using PGP e-mail encryption, the Tor browser, or support your local digital rights activists Electronic Frontier Foundation (US), EDRi (EU), and Bits of Freedom (NL).

The collected puzzles were translated into English and German and exhibited at the Science Gallery in Dublin (IR), June to November 2015, MOTI in Breda (NL), September 2015 to March 2016, and the ZKM in Karlsruhe (DE), October 2015 to May 2016. Thanks to NRC Next for the cooperation, and Vincent Meertens for making three of the puzzles.


Appelbaum, Jacob, Judith Hirchert and Christian Stöcker. “Shopping for Spy Gear: Catalog Advertises NSA Toolbox”. Der Spiegel, December 29, 2013.
Boycott, Owen. “UK-US surveillance regime was unlawful ‘for seven years’”. The Guardian, February 6, 2015.
Joseph, George Gherveghese. “Geometry of Vedic Altars.” Nexus: Architecture and Mathematics, 1996. 97-113.
Kahn, David. The Codebreakers, the story of secret writing. The Macmillan company, 1973.
Nakashima, Ellen. “NSA program on phone records is illegal, court rules”. The Washington Post, May 7, 2015.
Newman, Lily Hay. “Terrorists Made Their Emails Seem Like Spam to Hide From Intelligence Agencies”. Slate Magazine. January 15, 2015.

A Study into 21st Century Drone Acoustics

LP and Performance, 2015

MQ-1 Predator drone engine. Rotax 914F four-cilinder piston engine. Image: Rotax Service Military drones fly at high altitudes and are often invisible to the human eye, it is only the sound of their propellers that reveals their existence. A sound that permeates everything, a frightening buzzing that seems to never stop. Those living under drones experience tremendous stress and anxiety from the sounds of drones. Together with composer Gonçalo F. Cardoso I investigated the sound of drones and how they have become a form of sonic violence.

RQ-4 Global Hawk engine. Rolls-Royce AE3007H turbofan engine. Image: Rolls Royce

The word drone comes from old English and is both the name for the male honeybee and the sound it produces. This buzzing sound or ‘drone’ is similar to engine noise, and it has become a synonym for unmanned aircraft. The border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan is where the sounds of military drones have been heard frequently. Drones are called bangana (بنګنه) for their eerie sound, which is Pashto for buzzing wasp. “They look at the sky to see if there are drones. The drones make such a noise that everyone is scared.” said an inhabitant of the region in the Stanford/NYU study ‘Living under drones’. The study has documented people’s experiences and reported cases of post traumatic stress syndrome as a result of the drone sounds.

Journalist David Rohde was held captive by the Taliban and describes what it is like living under drones. “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.” Over the city of Gaza the Israeli drones are nicknamed zanana (زنانة), which is a slang word for nagging wife, a word of which the sound imitates the propeller sound. Circling zananat are not just terrorising people with their buzzing, but also disrupt TV reception, invading Palestinian televisions.

An Israeli Heron TP drone with the text ‘Control button to increase the level of annoyance in Gaza’. Meme source:

Chainsaws and snowmobiles

The sound that a drone produces depends on its size. Small commercial drones produce a high-pitched buzzing with their electric motors, usually four or eight. Smaller military drones are launched by hand or with a catapult, and are equipped with larger electric motors or small piston engines. The ScanEagle, a military surveillance drone used in more than twelve countries, has a two-stroke engine not unlike those used in a chainsaw or a weed trimmer.

The Predator drone has the same four-stroke engine as a snowmobile. The Reaper drone is larger and has a turboprop engine like you would see in a small aircraft. The next generation of drones are equipped with jet engines, like the long range surveillance drone Global Hawk which can stay in the air for 34 hours. They are the largest types of drones and use engines like commercial aircraft or military jets, like the X-47B stealth drone which uses the same engine as the F-16. For the audio project ‘A Study Into 21st Century Drone Acoustics’ seventeen sounds of drones are collected, from small consumer drones to large long-range military drones. All are collected from online sources.

Death Metal

Sonic violence is not a new phenomenon. In ‘Sonic Warfare’, author Steve Goodman calls it ‘virtualized fear: ‘fear induced purely by sound effects, or at least the undecidability between an actual’ or ‘sonic attack’. In World War II the German Luftwaffe mounted sirens on the Ju-87 B-1 ‘stuka’ dive bomber. The horrifying, screeching sound was played during dive-bombing to strike the population with fear before the bombs would fall.

In 2005 the Israeli military used various methods of sonic warfare against the Palestinian population. ‘Sound bombs’ were deployed at night over Gaza; low-flying jets that break the sound barrier. Witnesses compared it to a large explosion, causing nose-bleeds, broken windows, and anxiety attacks. The Israeli army used special sonic weapons like the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) as well. This ‘sound cannon’ was employed by city police against Occupy protesters in New York and recently in Ferguson, Missouri. Mounted on vehicles, it blasts a painfully loud siren in the direction it is pointed.

Music has been used as a weapon of torture at Guantánamo Bay prison. Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’ was played at extremely loud volume for hours on end, something that singer James Hetfield only applauded. He said “If the Iraqis aren't used to freedom, then I'm glad to be part of their exposure”. Using loud music in between interrogation sessions, it would take four days to ‘break’ someone, according to an interrogator.

LRAD sound cannon used against protesters during the G20 summit in Pittsburgh in 2009. Photo: Michael Henniger for the Post-Gazette.

Halo Hellfire

While the buzzing of drones is striking fear and terror, the drone operators are thousands of miles away without any audio feedback. Even the video feed is out of sync. Images taken with an infrared camera attached to the drone are transmitted by satellite with a two-to-five-second time lapse. Drone operators need to be immersed in sensory input for so-called situational awareness. Like playing a video game, their input is limited to a mediated representation. But gamers use surround sound speakers. Drone operators on the other hand, are less immersed. Their video feed is silent, abstracted, dehumanized. The absence of the sounds of war stands in stark contrast to the terror of the engine sounds over areas of conflict. The asymmetry of sound emphasizes how conflicts are increasingly fought far away, remotely controlled.

Side A of ‘A Study Into 21st Century Drone Acoustics’ carries the sounds of 17 drone types. Side B is a composition by Gonçalo F. Cardoso which delves into the acoustics of drones. His 23 minute soundscape is made with field recordings and ends with the song ‘Yalalela’ by Malinese singer Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud. Her music comes from Azawad, a region where U.S. and European drones are currently deployed. The song is about love and nostalgia of the Tuareg, who seek an independent state.

On the nightly news, we can see the gaze of the aggressor when drone video feeds are shown. The people that are being watched are often not being heard. By sharing a song on the record, we hope to give a voice to those living under drones. Hopefully their voices will be amplified though music.

A Study into 21<sup>st</sup> Century Drone Acoustics. Gonçalo F. Cardoso and Ruben Pater, 2015

The LP is for sale at Discrepant records. The drone sounds can be downloaded for free on Soundcloud.

Concept by Gonçalo F. Cardoso & Ruben Pater. B side composition written and composed by Gonçalo F. Cardoso / Mastered & Cut by Rashad Becker at D&M, Berlin / Sleeve by Ruben Pater / Voice by Emmet O’Donnell / Song by Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud courtesy of Sahel Sounds


Cavallaro, James, Stephan Sonnenberg, and Sarah Knuckey. Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan. Stanford Law School; New York: NYU School of Law, Global Justice Clinic, 2012.
Goodman, Steve. Sonic Warfare. London: MIT Press, 2010.
Gregory, Derek. “Drone Geographies,” Radical Philosophy 183, Jan/Feb 2014.
Hass, Amira. “In Gaza, a Hamas informer and a UAV have just one name,” Haaretz, July 28, 2015.
Hussain, Nasser. “The Sound of Terror: Phenomenology of a Drone Strike,” Boston Review, October 16, 2013.
James, Robin. “Drones, Sound, and Super-Panoptic Surveillance,” The Society Pages, University of Minnesota, October 26, 2013.
Smith, Clive Stafford. “Welcome to ‘the disco’”. The Guardian, June 18, 2008.
Sorcher, Sara. “In Pakistan, Drones Have Made Their Way Into Love Poems,” National Journal, May 12, 2014.
Wilson, Kevin A. “UAVs Graduate Beyond Lawnmower Engines,” Popular Mechanics, June 8, 2010.

Drone Survival Guide

Foldable Poster, 2013

Overhead bird silhouette ID card from Cornell Ornithology Lab. Our first ancestors could tell a lot from looking at the sky. Spotting and recognizing birds provided crucial information about the weather, where to find food, and what predators were near. In the twenty-first century urban landscape, knowledge of the natural environment has been replaced by our knowledge of technology. Most of us can’t tell the difference between the call of a osprey and a hawk, but everyone can tell the difference between a Nokia ringtone and an iPhone ringtone. Technology has become our natural habitat.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) will become ubiquitous in the new habitat. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that in 2030, 30,000 commercial and government drones could be flying in U.S. skies. The military seems to anticipate this changing relation with nature and technology in naming its drones: global hawk, heron, killer bee, mantis, predator, reaper, raven, sentinel, scan eagle, etc. Electronic birds hovering in the air, circling over warzones until they spot their prey and attack. Crashed MQ-1 Predator drone. Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Air Force.

Loss of Link

It is important that we learn to identify drones by sight and by ear, and adapt to this changing environment. A drone is remotely controlled by its pilot via satellite link. When the link with the pilot is lost, a drone can behave erratically and become a danger to friend or foe. In 2008 an Irish peacekeeping drone over Chad lost its link with the pilot, and it automatically set course for its homebase in Ireland. Since it had not been reprogrammed for its base in Africa, it crashed somewhere in the Sahara after running out of fuel without ever making it home.

Instructions decal on MQ-1 Predator drones to return the drone in case of crash. Image: U.S. Air Force.

A more serious case of a ‘drone gone rogue’ happened in 2009 when a fully armed U.S. military drone was flying westbound over Afghanistan and lost the link with the pilot. The U.S. Air Force was forced to shoot it down in order to prevent the drone from flying into Iranian airspace and unknowingly unleashing a possible conflict. The satellite link from the drone to the pilot is its lifeline. The detachment of body and soul means a crashed drone is just a wreck. Pilots that crash are mourned and remembered as heroes. When a drone crashes, the pilot can just switch to another drone, a new body.

Smile recognition, Photo: Nikon.

Surveillance in Full-HD

“They don’t get hungry. They are not afraid. They don’t forget their orders. They don’t care if the guy next to them has been shot. Will they do a better job than humans? Yes.”, explains a Pentagon official in ‘Wired for War’. Drones can fly up to 33 hour missions while pilots cannot fly longer than 10 hours. A new crew simply takes over while the drone stays in flight. Drones on solar energy are being developed to be in a permanent state of flight. Their endurance, together with their sensor technology makes drones the perfect surveillance weapons. They carry high definition digital cameras, infrared cameras, and they can be fitted with a Gorgon Stare sensor.

Gorgon Stare technology. Image: Airforce Times

Named affectionately after the Greek myth about three sisters whose gaze could turn someone into stone, the Gorgon Stare gives us a peek into the future of surveillance. Its 1.8 billion pixel camera can cover an area of 16 km², enough to identify individuals within the area of a small city. Its cameras can follow twelve different targets at the same time. Surveillance’s wet dream, but also an analysts’ nightmare. The Pentagon said drones took so much video footage in 2009 alone it would take someone 24 years to watch it all. How can one analyse this amount of video? The answer is again, technology.

The research institute for the U.S. military, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is currently working on visually intelligent software that can analyse video footage, and identify suspect behaviour, or identify suspects using face recognition. From hours of video, software can pick out the terrorist, the car thief, or the misbehaving citizen amongst a group of people. But can software tell the difference between a kid is building a sandcastle or burrowing a home-made explosive? When drones are increasingly used domestically, we may find ourselves in a state of permanent surveillance where algorithms end up deciding who is a target and who is not.

<i>Friedrich der Große als Perseus</i>, Christian Bernhard Rode, 1789.

Mirror Image

How does one resist such invasive technology? During a BBC report in 2011, a soldier of the U.S. military explains how a group of Taliban fighters couldn’t be seen at night with infrared cameras because they used space blankets. The Taliban found space blankets as an effective way to hide body heat, making someone invisible for infrared cameras. Developed by the U.S. space agency NASA in 1964, space blankets are thin sheets of mylar with a metallic reflective agent. Originally designed to insulate satellites, space blankets turned out to be a great way to keep body heat inside, or hide body heat. Using cheap materials to counter expensive military sensors is exemplary for the tactics used in asymmetric warfare. In this case both were developed by the same space and defence industry. The mirrored material of the space blanket reminds us that any surveillance, no matter how advanced, is eventually people watching other people, and no matter how expensive and advanced technologies are, they do not win wars alone. We find the tactic of the mirror as a weapon in the Greek myth of the Gorgon sisters, name giver to the Gorgon Stare surveillance technology. The Greek hero Perseus could only defeat the deadly stare of the Gorgon sisters by using a mirror to deflect their gaze.

Space blanket Hiding from heat-sensitive drone sensors using a space blanket, Drone Survival Guide. Design: Ruben Pater, 2013.

Permanent State of Conflict

Drones have proved very successful for the military. The ability to wage war with very little casualties (at least on the side of the drones) has dramatically expanded the military drone programmes around the world. On the African continent alone, the U.S. flies drones from nine known bases. Given the radius of a Reaper drone, the U.S. can reach almost all corners of the continent. With the ability to fly almost everywhere, as long as the host country gives permission, drones are adopting the role of a global police force, able to strike anywhere, at anytime. This is shifting the notion of war as a temporary state towards a permanent one. U.S. drones have attacked in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Mali, all without declaring war. The question is not just how this real-time ubiquitous surveillance will influence people’s behaviour. Sooner or later other countries will also want to take out unwanted targets anywhere if they please. Already more than 87 nations have military drones, of which 26 have larger drones equivalent to the MQ-1 Predator. For instance, Russia has been critical about the U.S. drone programme, but is also busy developing an $8 billion drone program. Countries who support the U.S. drone program are creating a precedent for global military intervention.

Drone Survival Guide. Design: Ruben Pater, 2013.

Drone Survival Guide

In 2012 I created a document that shows the silhouettes of the 27 best known military drones, all to scale, and lists the countries that use them. It also lists a series of countermeasures to avoid detection by the drones’ sensors, and how to disrupt them. Designed as a folded document, it can be carried around at all times. Printed on metallic coated paper, the front side can be used to reflect sunlight and blind the drones’ camera, one of the countermeasures listed. The document can be downloaded, printed and distributed by anyone for free. Originally published in English and Pashto, people are invited to create new translations of the countermeasures, which are posted online. Currently 32 languages are available. The Drone Survival Guide is not useful for survival, for anti-drone warfare, nor is it an act of propaganda. It is made with the sole purpose of sharing information about a phenomenon that is quickly changing warfare, and which many do not yet fully comprehend. The Drone Survival Guide is a citizen initiative, self-funded and made with public information, to balance the information provided by actors with a political or commercial agenda.

Download a free PDF or order via Paypal at:

Printing by drukkerij SSP and Kees Maas zeefdruk.
Pashto translation by Hamida Babak. Using the Drone Survival Guide to blind the viewer, 2014.

Winner of an Excellence award at the Japan Media Arts Festival 2015.


Bumiller, Elisabeth, and Tom Shanker. ‘War Evolves With Drones, Some Tiny as Bugs’, New York Times. June 19, 2011.
Department of Defense. ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Roadmap: 2002-2027’, Office of the Secretary of Defense. December 2002.
Dobbing, Mary, Amy Hailwood and Chris Cole. ‘Convenient Killing: Armed Drones and the ‘Playstation’ Mentality.’ London, The Fellowship of Reconciliation, 2010.
Easterling, Keller. ‘An Internet of Things’. E-flux Journal #31. January, 2012.
Singer, P.W. ‘Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century’. Penguin, 2009.
Finn, Peter. ‘Domestic use of aerial drones by law enforcement likely to prompt privacy debate’. The Washington Post. January 23, 2011.
Koring, Paul. ‘In the Arctic, drones could close the gap’. The Globe and Mail. July 9, 2012.
Lake, Eli. ‘Drone footage overwhelms analysts’. The Washington Times. November 9, 2010.
Linebaugh, Heather. ‘I worked on the US drone program. The public should know what really goes on’ The Guardian. December 29, 2013.
Manaugh, Geoff. ‘Drone Landscapes, Intelligent Geotextiles, Geographic Countermeasures’, BLDGBLOG. January 2012.
Nakashima, Ellen, and Craig Whitlock. ‘With Air Force’s Gorgon Drone ‘we can see everything’. The Washington Post. January 2, 2011.
Rattner, Ehud. ‘DARPA’s New High Resolution Camera’. The Future of Things. October 20, 2009.
Tietz, Jeff. ‘A Day in the Life of a Drone Pilot’. True Slant. April 16, 2009.
Turse, Nick. ‘Mapping America’s Shadowy Drone Wars’, TomsDispatch October 16, 2011.
Greenwald, Glenn. ‘NPR’s domestic drone commercial’. Salon. December 6, 2011.

A History of Design Ideology for the Future

Book design, 2016

Cover design and book edge of <i>The Responsible Object</i>, Valiz 2016.

Social and sustainable design is gaining momentum. Designers are developing ways of production that are less harmful or use waste materials more effectively. The ideas of social and sustainable design are not new. Design history is full of examples that can be very useful for today’s questions. Theorist and designer Marjanne van Helvert collected ideas from the history of social and sustainable design in The Responsible Object: A History of Design Ideology for the Future.

The eleven chapters in the book are written by different authors, and treat topics like William Morris, the Bauhaus and its Russian counterpart VKhUTEMAS, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, Utility design from the U.K., Buckminster Fuller, Victor Papanek, the Italian avant-garde, queer design, Fab Labs and DIY culture in Brazil, and speculative design. To give insight into what the book has to offer, I will shortly introduce the chapter by Elizabeth Carolyn Miller on William Morris and his Kelmscott Press.

William Morris (1834-1896) was a designer from the U.K., as wel as a socialist, an activist, and author. In response to the exploitation of labor in the 19th century, he practiced design with socialist ideals. His Kelmscott Press produced high quality books and magazines which were made to last, in response to the wasteful abundance of print production of that time. Workers at the press were unionized and were paid good wages. His printing press is an example of responsible design but this made production very expensive, and the books became luxury items to his own disappointment. A paradox still encountered today by designers who are looking for sustainable production methods.

Medieval manuscript


The Responsible Object is a book about design without images, so the book design needed to accommodate a good reading experience, and easy navigation. The book has an important additional function as a reference document, with many notes and references to other books and authors.

The layout was inspired by manuscripts from Medieval Europe. These handdrawn texts had wide margins where other authors would comment or write notes. Over time this resulted in a dialogue between authors in the margins of the page. This layout allowed readers to use the book to add notes and comments much like the Medieval manuscripts. For easy reading and contrast with the large margins, the type was set at 14 points. With the author and publisher it was decided small images and book covers of cited works were added to the margin. Images were added not for aesthetic reasons but as academic references.

Spread from the VKhUTEMAS chapter, with related images and citations in the margins. Enlarge image for details.

Although the book is an historical overview, it is not an objective record of design history. The author stresses the urgency of changing the design profession into a less polluting and exploitative discipline. This book is a radical call to action that takes its inspiration from the past. I decided to add a second layer to facilitate this message. The text accomodates many excellent quotes from designers from the past who were passionate about changing design for the better, like Victor Papanek, William Morris, Walter Gropius, and others. I collected the most powerful quotes from the book to function as they were from protest signs or a manifesto. These quotes were typeset in a custom typeface in all capitals, and spread evenly across the book, breaking up chapters randomly. Typeset on a spread in horizontal orientation, the reader has to turn the page to read the quote, breaking act of reading. Since every quote was in the same typeface, and had no credit on the page (credits were placed on the back), the messages are meant to have impact beyond the author and the era they originated from. The quotes functioned as a series of posters within the book.

Quote by Victor Papanek & James Hennessey, set in custom designed typeface. Spread from the queer-feminist desig chapter, with notes and citations in the margins. Enlarge image for details.


The text is typeset in Founders Grotesk text and regular, designed by Kris Sowersby and published by Klim foundry in 2013. As Klim explains on its blog, Founders Grotesk was inspired by the specimen of Grotesque by Miller & Richard from 1912, and influenced by designs such as Breite grotesk (1909) and Doric (1919). Founders Grotesk is wider and is less rigid than later sans-serifs such as Helvetica (Max Miedinger, 1957) or Akkurat (Laurenz Brunner, 2004). The first sans-serifs that were designed in the early 1900s had a radical impact since the vast majority of communication was designed using serifs. Early grotesk designs helped spawn the modernist design era, and they can be found on the Bauhaus books and magazines. Since this book revolves around different ideas around modernist design in Western Europe, it seemed fitting to choose a sans-serif based on that early radical period of modernist type design.

Different widths of quote typeface.

For the quotes I created a new display typeface. Its design is based on stencil typefaces used in architectural drawings in the 1950s and 1960s. The angular style and letter construction have the futuristic feel to it, which seemed appropriate since the book’s content talks about ideas of utopia (and failed utopias) from the past. The quotes talk about different forms of utopias and dystopias without referring to a specific time or place. Since each quote has a different length and emphasis, I manually broadened or narrowed the typeface to accommodate the quote. Much like the letters on protest signs are made to fit the space and message, rather than follow a type design grid.

Quote by Walter Gropius, set in custom designed typeface.

Paper and colour

All typography was printed in an off-black spot colour on Munken print white. The initial idea was that the quotes could be torn out of the book. However a limited production budget could not allow a different paper type for the quotes, so an extra orange spot colour was used. The colour was chosen to go against cliché references to sustainability like grey, brown, and green. The book was perfect bound with cold glue, so it opens easy and reads comfortably.

The Responsible Object is highly recommended for designers, writers, and critics who are interested in social and sustainable design. The book can be acquired in art and design bookstores around the world and online. Commissioned by Valiz publishers. The design was selected as one of the Best Dutch Book Designs of 2016.

Marjanne van Helvert (ed.), The Responsible Object, Valiz 2016.

First page of the index. Enlarge image for details.

Behind the Blue Screen
پشت صفحه‌ی آبی

Video series, 2014

The amount of news that reaches us every day is massive. Tweets, video footage, photos, and reports pour in from the far corners of the world. At the same time there are countries from which, we in the West, do not hear a many stories at all. Countries like Iran, where the state censors journalism, and only a few Western correspondents are allowed. Director Jaap van Heusden and I wanted to explore new ways of digital storytelling.

Countries with high levels of censorship on the World Press Freedom index, Reporters Without Borders, 2013.

Reporters without Borders creates a World Press Freedom Index each year, with countries rated by press censorship, jailed journalists, and internet monitoring. All the way at the bottom you find countries like North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and Iran. As a journalist it is difficult or even impossible to your job here, and this becomes apparent by the limited amount of stories we hear from these countries.

Dutch newspaper treated by Iranian censor. From Censorship Daily, Jan-Dirk van der Burg, 2012.

Censorship Daily

One of these countries is Iran. In 2012 there were only three Western correspondents allowed in Iran, a country of 80 million people. They were not allowed to travel outside Teheran without permission, and could not report on demonstrations. When Reuters did a report about women’s martial arts, they were banned from Iran for a year. The last BBC correspondent left in 2009, and Iranians that worked with the BBC were jailed. Thomas Erdbrink is one of the last correspondents, reporting for the New York Times and the Dutch NRC Handelsblad. He received his Dutch newspapers with blue tape meticulously applied by the Iranian censor to cover any nudity. In 2012, photographer Jan-Dirk van der Burg made a book called ‘Censorship Daily’ with facsimiles of the newspaper clippings. Inspired by their work, we adopted the blue tape as a method to circumvent censorship.

Teheran streets during our trip in December 2014. Photo: Ruben Pater

Forced Marriage

Our project started during a masterclass of the the Dutch Cultural Media Fund. At this masterclass two people from different disciplines are brought together to develop a new media project. This is how I came to work with director Jaap van Heusden, who is a renowned film director and screenwriter. A mutual interested appeared to be countries that are underrepresented in the daily news cycle, and the use of methods like citizen journalism. Because we had some connections with Iranians we decided to focus on stories from Iran. They told us stories about everyday life in Iran we had not heard before. In addition Iran also is highly educated and has the second highest internet connectivity of the Middle East. We wanted to record personal stories from Iran as video selfies, which we would collect, translate, and publish in the Netherlands.

Digital Traffic Jam

We decided to use mobile devices to record the video stories. However using the internet to transfer the stories turned out to be not that easy. Internet traffic is monitored in Iran, and by sending the files digitally we would not know who could see it, and with what consequences. We did not have any political objectives, but we did not want to take any chances either. It is well known that the Iranian Cyber Police is well equipped and highly effective, and several free press NGOs have told us they work in almost many countries except Iran, precisely for this reason. Since our project was about storytelling, we did not want to use encryption or anonymous browsers, but a more social way of sharing the stories.

Wireframe still from ‘Scramble Suit’, Kyle McDonald, 2011.


Disappointed with the limitations of digital data transport, we turned to analogue transportation. Before digital networks, information was transported between two computers by simply using a floppy disk. This method of carrying digital information in an analogue way is called a ‘sneakernet’. Used in Burma in 2000 to smuggle data out of the country, it has been used for secure transportation of data. We chose to transport the data through sneaker net We knew people that travelled between the west and Iran, and we could use mobile devices to bring the stories back. All we had to do was to create an application capable of recording our stories with a relative safety.

‘Body and Soul’, John Baldessari, 1989.

Art as activism

Our recording application needed to have some safety features to make sure stories could be recorded with a minimal risk of identification. First we would delete all the metadata from the footage, and secondly, we let the app generate a mask for each person telling a story. Face recognition technologies today are advanced, and the most sophisticated ones are used by governments for security purposes. We wanted to use the same technology for protection. A developer helped us to design a mask that would automatically cover the storytellers face. The mask needed to have the facial features, so the emotions of the storyteller would be preserved.

News anchor in front of a blue screen.

The color and design of the mask was inspired by the blue tape of the censor, the rest of the image was made black and white. The blue screen also referred to news organizations who cannot work in countries like Iran and use a blue screen to record news from abroad. The image of the videos reminded us of the works of conceptual artist John Baldessari, who often blocked out people’s faces in his works. This artistic angle was on purpose. Journalistic projects in Iran are risky, however if it is an art project, the government is much less likely to see it as a threat. Art in this case is used to mask a broader application of the stories.

The Video Series

After about six months we had collected more than 30 stories, and six months later more than 70. Some stories were just too long, or just not relevant for a Dutch audience. Eventually we selected about one in every six stories for publication on the Dutch website ‘De Correspondent’, our publisher. De Correspondent (the correspondent) is an online journalism platform focused on background stories and investigative reporting. They had started in 2013, and seemed like a perfect fit for our project.

Stories from Iran

In October 2014 we published the first three stories, and again in November a second series of three stories. We were pleasantly surprised the quality of stories we received, which dramatically changed our perception of the country, and hopefully of other viewers as well. Stories about young men trying to get out of the military service, stories about dealing with strict religious laws, but mostly human interest stories about the daily troubles and passions of people.

We premiered the videos during a special evening ‘Storytelling in Iran’ in Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam, organized with De Correspondent. Moderated by journalist Bahram Sadeghi we invited a political scientist, a storyteller, a journalist, and a reader to share their stories about Iran. The public was involved to ask questions and share their experiences about stories from Iran.

Presenter Bahram Sadeghi in the Zwijger. Photo: Janus van den Eijnden

Although this project started as an investigation into journalism, we do not consider our project to be journalistic per se. It is an ongoing attempt to find stories which are otherwise unheard. We are avid fans of print and TV journalism and the work that journalists do is more valuable then ever. Unfortunately due to cutbacks, investigative journalism is becoming more difficult, and we need to develop different methods of journalism as well. The stories we bring are human interest stories that can help us counter the stereotypes that are widespread in the media.

Questions from the audience in the Zwijger. Photo: Janus van den Eijnden

Read the article about the project and watch the videos here.

Official Selection South by Southwest festival 2015, Austin Texas.
Nominated for a Dutch Directors Guild Award, 2015.
Selection for the Dutch Film Festival, 2015.

Made with Jaap van Heusden. Production Jos de Putter. Deputy editor-in-chief Karel Smouter. Funded by the Dutch Cultural Media Fund and the Creative Industries Fund NL.

The Double Standards of Maritime Trade


Somali pirates on the deck of the seajacked ship Zen Hua 4, 2008. Image: Reuters

The world is waging war against the pirates of Somalia. Hundreds of warships are patrolling the waters around Somalia to secure the maritime trade. When you realize 90% of the world's goods are transported over sea, imagine the threat piracy poses to the supply chain of the global economy. In Double Standards we see a different side to the stories about piracy: the seajacked ships and the companies behind them.

April 2010, Dutch marines board the German vessel MV Taipan, after it was seajacked by Somali pirates. Image: AFP

Piracy in Somalia started when warlords ousted dictator Siad Barre after a 22-year rule. The absence of a functioning government brought foreign fishing vessels to Somali waters to illegally empty its fishing grounds. Somali warlords struck deals with European companies to dump chemical waste in Somali waters. The evidence surfaced after the 2004 tsunami when dozens of containers with toxic waste washed up on the Somali shores, causing immense health problems for the local fishing communities. The fishermen took up weapons and started defending their fishing grounds against illegal fishing and waste dumping by foreign vessels. Skirmishes led to seajackings, which turned out to be a much more lucrative trade than fishing. Soon the self-proclaimed ‘civil coast guards’ became a professional criminal enterprise. Piracy went to become a million dollar industry with investors from Dubai with pirates using satellite phones and GPS devices.

How do you seajack an oil tanker?

When pirates spot a target, small pirate boats (skiffs) set out with RPG-launchers and machine guns to the vessel, shooting and threatening until the ships stops and is ready for boarding. When a ship is captured it is taken to the Somali coast and held until the ship owner pays a ransom for the ship and crew. Ransom money can run up to $4 million or more, depending on cargo. If you consider the cargo of a full oil tanker is worth $200 million, a $4 million ransom for crew and ship doesn’t seem that unreasonable. In 2008, there were 111 attacks of which 42 were successful seajackings. When you consider 22,000 merchant vessels pass the coast of Somalia every year, the amount of seajacked ships is small but its earnings high. In the peak year 2010, pirates earned $238 million in ransom money.

New flag designs for nine of the seajacked ships.

There is no such thing as free shipping

We should not underestimate the importance of maritime trade, which accounts for 90% of all international trade. Annual turnover of the industry is an estimated $8 trillion. The Dutch depend heavily on maritime trade with Rotterdam as Europe's largest port, and with Dutch companies like Shell oil there are significant offshore interests. When Somali pirates started to pose a threat to the shipping industry, the Dutch government sent warships with drones and helicopters, and stationed marines on Dutch commercial ships. Not just the Dutch, almost every country in the world has sent their navy to Somalia to protect maritime trade. Annually the world spends $2 billion to fight piracy, which is twice the amount as was spent on aid to fight the famine that hit Somalia and the horn of Africa in 2010.

Left: Somali pirate 2010. Right: Dutch pirate Willem II van der Marck Lumey, leader of the Sea Beggars (1542-1578)

Qua Patet Orbis*

In the Netherlands, the use of military force in Somalia to protect maritime trade is widely supported by politicians, while military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq led to strong debates. With the stories of a Dutch navy fighting pirates, a nationalist sentiment reemerged of the 17th century golden age when the Dutch were the most powerful seafaring nation. The Dutch were heavily involved in piracy as well at the time. The Watergeuzen (water beggars) were rebels who attacked and plundered Spanish ships. These Dutch rebels were essentially pirates that ultimately helped to drive out the Spanish occupants and established Dutch independence. During colonial times, the Dutch used licensed pirates called privateers. These ‘legal pirates’ were given government licenses to attack and capture enemy ships. Navy operations in Somalia today resonate well with the Dutch in the narrative of the reemergence of a global maritime power. The reality of the conflict is a much more complex situation with a global south that supplies labor and raw materials, but does not share in the wealth created by it.

Double Standards publication. Printed on newspaper stock and hand-bound with flag rings. Design: Ruben Pater.

Flags of Convenience

The maritime industry is a very competitive business. Consumers are looking for the lowest prices, and shipping transport is still the cheapest way to move cargo. By using a system called ‘flags of convenience’ the shipowners have found ways to cut corners and stay profitable. In reality the vast majority of commercial ships do not use the owner’s nationality but buy a ‘cheap flag’ from another country. This allows the ship owner to pay little or no taxes, dodge environmental regulations, and pay the crew a slave wage. For example the largest maritime fleets in the world are Panama and Liberia, although you will not find those vessels in their harbors. Ships can change nationality overnight with little paperwork. This allows shipowners to be anonymous and difficult to prosecute in civil and criminal actions.

For example, in 1999 the tanker MV Erika ran into a heavy storm, and spilled thousands of tons of oil off the coast of France, causing a major environmental disaster. The ship sailed under a Maltese flag, the oil belonged to the French company Total, the crew was Indian, the ship was operated by a shipping company registered in the Bahamas, and it was owned by two Italian companies. Through this administrative maze it was difficult to establish responsibility.

Double Standards publication, spreads.

Double Standards

The research for this project focused on international ocean-faring vessels that were ‘seajacked’ by Somali pirates between 2010 and 2012, based on the data of the International Maritime Bureau. The intent was to investigate each ship’s owner, nationality, cargo, and history to establish the nature of the maritime activity in relation to the acts of piracy. During the three years, 59 ships were seajacked of which only four used the actual ship owner’s. In many cases ship owners were based in tax havens like the Bahamas, and different shell companies set up for each vessel. The largest group of vessels was flagged in Panama and Liberia, and many were flagged in obscure small island states like the Marshall Islands, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. While researching the ships and their owner companies, I encountered stories of fraud, illegal fishing, arms trade, and terrorism. Several ships directly violated UN sanctions. But by far the most common activity was tax dodging and maltreatment of the ships’s crews. While many shipping tycoons are living a life of luxury and excess, it is the ship’s crew that suffers most in the piracy conflict, with some crews being held hostage for many years. The research resulted in a publication and installation with the ship’s flags.

‘Unmapping the World’. Lisbon, Portugal, 2013. Photo: exhibition team.

Violent acts like piracy cannot be justified. Crew members have been tortured and died at the hands of the pirates. But it is absurd to think the complex problems that face one of the poorest countries in the world, can be solved by sending warships and soldiers. We should be aware which 'national economic interests' are secured by military intervention in Somalia. Illegality and fraudulent behaviour has infected the maritime industry with its flags of convenience, exploiting human labor, and dismissing environmental regulations for financial gain. This project clearly shows the moral voids this system has allowed to exist. Our need for cheap goods transported across continents appears more important than an ethically responsible maritime economy. The international community (EU, NATO, UN) not only justifies this behavior, but enforces it using military power.

‘International Poster and Design festival’. Chaumont, France, 2013.‘Who you gonna call’, Sandberg Institute graduation exhibition, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2012.

Made as a graduation project at Sandberg institute master of graphic design, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Printing by Newspaperclub, Glasgow, United Kingdom. Binding by Binderij Hennink, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Download the full publication and access more data on the project website.

* Qua Patet Orbis is the motto of the Netherlands Marine Corps, which translates to ‘As far as the world extends’.


Bahadur, Jay. ‘Somali pirate: ”We're not murderers...we just attack ships”’. The Guardian. May 24, 2011
Eijsvogel, Juurd. ‘Europa gaat Somalische piraten op land aanvallen’, NRC Handelsblad. April 5, 2012.
George, Rose. ‘Flying the Flag, Fleeing the State’, The New York Times. April 24, 2011.
Muna Ali and Zahra Murad. ‘Unravelling Narratives of Piracy: Discourses of Somali Pirates’, Darkmatter. December 20, 2009.
‘Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships Annual Report 2010’, ICC International Maritime Bureau. January 2011.
‘Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships Annual Report 2011’, ICC International Maritime Bureau. January 2012.
‘Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships Annual Report 2012’, ICC International Maritime Bureau. April 2012.
Rickett, Oscar. ‘Undercover bij Oliedorstige Somalische Piraten’, VICE Magazine. October 27, 2011.
Tharoor, Ishaan. ‘How Somalia's Fishermen Became Pirates’, Time Magazine. April 18, 2009.
‘Toxic Dumping: Pirate Excuse or Ongoing Abuse?’. Somalia Report. April 8, 2011.
Wetsels, Hans and Peter Kruit. ‘Een prima dumpplek. Nederlandse missie in de Somalische Zee’. De Groene Amsterdammer. December 3, 2014.

Mom, am I Barbarian?

Identity design, 2013

Biennial map. Design: Ruben Pater.

Right after the Gezi park protests, the 13th biennial took place, discussing the exact same issues that ignited the protests in the first place. When the Turkish cities turned into teargassed battlefields where police and protesters clashed, I was working at Lava in Amsterdam on the visual concept for the biennial. This article looks back on the design process and the events surrounding it.

Sketch about the spatial hierarchy and urban transformation. Design: Ruben Pater.

In december 2012, curator Fulya Erdemci announced her ideas for the 13th Istanbul biennial. This biennial would use the public domain as a political forum to address the massive urban transformations in Istanbul. Old city centre neighborhoods like Tarlabaşı were being torn down and inhabitants forced out to make way for expensive condominiums and hotels. Parks and public spaces where replaced by shopping malls, and two new satellite cities were planned to be built on the outskirts of the city.

The title Mom, am I barbarian? (from a poem by Lale Müldür) was meant to kickstart a new debate, with the role of the ‘barbarian’ as a mode of resistance in a political debate where gentrification is promoted as a victory of civilization over barbarity.

Design interns Lisa and Marina working on sketches.

Waiting for the Barbarians

The term barbarian is derived from the Greek word barbaros. It is an onomatopoeia of babbling, and meant someone who was not Greek. Today we use the word barbarian synonymous with uncivilized, but literally it means anyone speaking an unknown language. Even today ‘civilized’ states wage wars on ‘barbarians’ (e.g. terrorists, extremists, immigrants, etc.) in defense of civilization. As in the 1980 novel by J.M. Coetzee Waiting for the Barbarians, the ‘civilized’ often end up resorting to barbaric methods themselves. President George W. Bush famously said after the 9-11 attacks: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”.

Left: A chinese whisper sketch, inviting twelve people to copy the previous title. Right: Typography reference, logo of TOKI, the Turkish housing Ministry.

Barbarism Begins at Home

I started in September of 2012 on a visual concept for the biennial with the help of Lava interns Marina Gärtner and Lisa van Kleef. The design concept needed to reflect the strong statement of this biennial, and guide the viewer towards its message. We decided to use the relation of the civilized and the barbarian as an oppositional force.

Biennial poster. Design: Ruben Pater.

Since items had to be in Turkish and English, this bilingualism was the starting point to create relations of power, and it also referred to the origin of the word ‘barbarian’. Lava interns Marina and Lisa helped me by writing each in one language, Turkish or English. By writing one language first, the text would occupy space on each sheet of paper, forcing the other to use the remaining space. Switching between formal (typeset) and informal writing (handwritten) each language in each item, would be the starting point, then drawing lines between the two, mapping this hierarchy, but also referring back to walls, streets, and architectural structures.

Posters for the biennial public programme. Design: Ruben Pater. Poster for the film programme. Design: Ruben Pater.


Five months after the concept of the biennial was presented, a group of people gathered in Gezi park in Istanbul to protest the demolition of the park. The government wanted to replace one of the few parks in Istanbul’s centre with a shopping mall modelled after Ottoman military barracks. This act is exemplary for the ideology of Erdoğan's AKP, a mix of imperialism and neoliberalism (so-called Neo-Ottomanism) with complete disregard for the secular freedoms that are fundamental to the Turkish republic. Taksim square and Gezi park have great symbolic value for Turkish secularism, as it is a symbolic place for freedom of expression. That is why, when the police violently evicted the protesters from Gezi park, the protest quickly grew into a massive revolt with an estimated 3,5 million protesters nationwide.

Taksim square, Istanbul, June 2013. Photo: Bulent Kilic for Agence France-Presse.


When the riots spread across the country the biennial issued a statement of support to the protesters and called for an end to police violence. However, there was also criticism. The biennial’s main sponsor Koç Holding builds tanks for the Turkish army. Some artists in the Gezi protests called for cancellation of the biennial, and demanded the topic of urban transformation should be handled by the Gezi park movement. Signs and internet memes popped up that made played on the biennial title and the design.

Gezi park banner with a word play on the biennial title: ‘Mom, am I human?‘ Photograph: occupygezi tumblr

Conflict and Consensus

Following the events in Gezi park, curator Fulya Erdemci decided that the biennial would go on, but it would be free of charge, and all interventions in public space would be cancelled so they would not interfere with the Gezi movement. For some artists this felt like a retreat into the white cube, like artist Ahmet Ögüt who suggested an anonymous biennial, with interventions everywhere in the city by unknown artists.

Antrepo, the main biennial location. Photo: Ruben Pater.

Because of the shift in the biennial concept, the curator asked the design concept to change because it originated in public space and the urban transformation, and it was important to show signs that the biennial was listening to criticism and changing its position. The biennial asked the public programme design would now become the overall identity.

Posters in Cihangir. Photo: Ruben Pater.

Watching Riots from the Ivory Tower

In July of 2014, I spent three months in Istanbul designing posters, publications and signage. There was no biennial opening, but the artists, staff members and VIP's were invited for drinks on a hotel rooftop. By then, riots in Istanbul had started to flare up again, and on the day of the unofficial opening, the city was filled with teargas and riot police. When me and Hans Wolbers, director of Lava, finally made it to the hotel rooftop through the teargas, we encountered a scene of artists, staff members, and VIP's, watching the riots from the safe elevation of the hotel rooftop while enjoying free drinks. I could not have imagined a better metaphor for the problems this biennial faced.

During its two month opening the biennial turned out to be a succes with a record of 337,429 visitors, three times more than the previous edition, despite all the discussion and negative sentiment. It featured artworks of great quality like the performance by Héctor Zamora, and works by Angelica Mesiti, Bertille Bak, Cinthia Marcelle, Halil Altındere, Hito Steyerl, José Antonio Vega Macotela, Mika Rottenberg, and Nicholas Mangan.

T-shirt design. <i>Barbar</i> is Turkish for barbarian. Design: Ruben Pater.

Barbaric Speech Confusion

This biennial shows how things become problematic when sponsor and marketing goals start interfering with artistic and political ideas. As a designer, cultural differences turned out to become more of an issue as the discussion around the biennial increased. Although I worked together with Turkish designer Özge Güven, not speaking Turkish prevented me to understand the complex relationship between the Istanbul art world and this biennial. The design of the biennial could have been much more effective, if rooted in the social and collective struggles that were going on.

Made at Lava. Thanks to Fulya Erdemci, all biennial staff, and the Lava design interns for their hard work.

Visit the biennial website
Lava biennial work

Winner of a Gold Award at the European Design Awards 2014

Design Interns

Andreea Marciuc (RO)
Bruno Landowski (FR)
Lisa van Kleef (NL)
Marina Gärtner (DE)
Özge Güven (TR)


Erdemci, Fulya. ‘13th Istanbul Biennial Conceptual Framework’, 2012.
Erdemci, Fulya. ‘Mom, am I barbarian?’, Curator text, 2013.
Ögüt, Ahmet. ‘Another World Is Possible - What about an Anonymous Istanbul Biennial?’ Art Leaks, 2013.

A Hyperreal Artistic Spectacle

Exhibition, 2014

In the summer of 2014, Selby Gildemacher, Anja Groten, and myself were invited to curate the last week of a 10 week festival about ‘Lightness’ in Mediamatic. As we would be the grand finale of this series of exhibitions we wanted to create a spectacular event where people could enjoy art through entertaining attractions. ‘Pret Park’ (amusement park) is an art exhibition filled with superficial experiences as a method to talk about the value of sensationalism and entertainment in the cultural sector.

Marcel Wanders climbing the Stedelijk Museum as a ‘design-King Kong’. Image: Eigen huis & Interieur.

On February 1, 2014 the solo exhibition of designer Marcel Wanders opened in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. An unexpected move, since the Stedelijk is known for exhibitions by cutting-edge artists like Mike Kelley, Steve McQueen, and Aernout Mik. Although Marcel Wanders is well-known and commercially successful, he is not considered relevant in the design world by most standards. When the magazine Vrij Nederland reported that same year that Wanders had donated €500.000 to the Stedelijk museum, both parties denied any relation between the donation and the exhibition. Above all, this exhibition in the Stedelijk is exemplary for the flirtatious behaviour of high brow art institutions with celebrities to boost visitor numbers.

Map of Pret Park. Design: Ruben Pater.

outrageous spectacles

The art world has a complex relationship with the spectacle. On the one hand there is a rise in blockbuster exhibitions, celebrity artists, and luxurious art fairs. On the other hand there is a lot of criticism about the influence of the entertainment industry and commerce in the art world. The Turbine Hall at the Tate modern is meant to display large spectacular works by artists like Anish Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson, and Ai Weiwei. Works sponsored by Unilever, created to overwhelm us with awe. The public wants to see spectacle, and expects no less of an art exhibition.

The Dutch government encourages spectacle through its new arts funding policy. Minister of Culture Bussemaker has argued that publicity reach and visitor numbers should play a larger role in public funding of art. This is the next step in quantifying the experience of art. An artistic vision is no longer enough to apply for funding. There needs to be hard evidence that visitors will line up to see this exhibition.

Pret Park exhibition. Photo: Ruben Pater.

diabolical amusement

Pret Park loves spectacle for all the right reasons, but it is critical as well. If art is forced to adapt to the ‘attention economy’, how can we expect to preserve its transformative and critical role? Pret Park created a space for artists and the public to investigate the concept of ‘lightness‘, the spectacle, and its possibilities.

There is no spectacle without the spectator. We asked the participating artists to turn Pret Park into a hyperreal landscape in which visitors get scared, amazed, lost, energized, disappointed, moved, curious and confused. Thirteen artists were involved to help create an amazing event, and many artworks were especially made for the exhibition.

Left: ‘Blindfold Rollercoaster‘, Frank Koolen, 2014. Right: ‘Pure Functions Drink Bar’, Hannes Bernard, 2014. Photos: Ruben Pater. ‘Mascot Lab’, Tessel Brühl and Jaroslav Toussaint, 2014. Photo: Ruben Pater.

unimaginable attractions

Yasser Ballemans (NL) showed his interactive sculpture ‘Wave’. Hannes Bernard (ZA) created three especially brewed refreshing energy drinks to enhance the Pret Park experience. Tessel Brühl (NL) and Jaroslav Toussaint (DE) created a special mascot during the week, Helmut Dick (DE) created a new sculpture titled ‘Order of the Angles’, and Frank Koolen (NL) performed a blindfold rollercoaster. Roel Nabuurs & Willem van Amerom (NL) brought their Insectenbar with snacks of horror, Stefan Schäfer (DE) built a selfie house of horror, Christoph Scherbaum (DE) showed his work ‘Juke Closet’, and Maartje Smits (NL) made a work about playful captivity. Vladimir Turner (CZ) showed his movie ‘Merry-go-round’ and created a terrorist photo opportunity. Yuri Veerman (NL) invited people to use his stardust machine, exchanging hard earned currency for spectacular destruction.

seductive playgrounds

Designed by Anja Groten, the floorplan offered three routes through the Pret Park, the Hyper-reality route, the Nerve-wracking route, and the Hyper-active route. Using the amusement park as a conceptual form, the routes and the space offered none of the physical elements of an amusement park (rollercoasters, large constructions, shops, wheels of fortune, rows of people) but rather its experiences and emotions printed on large banners hanging over the exhibition, and as hidden experiences at each interactive artwork.

Pret Park debate.

explosive hair-raising visions

During the exhibition we wanted to facilitate public participation and discussion, so we created a series of events. There were artist talks by Vladimir Turner and Helmut Dick, a selfie extension workshop by Stefan Schäfer and Selby Gildemacher, a mascotte workshop by Tessel Brühl and Jaroslav Toussaint, and a sound performance by Christoph Scherbaum followed by a screening of ‘Punishment Park’ (1971) by Jeffrey Babcock with snacks of horror by the Insectenbar. A debate was organized about the role of the spectacle in the art world and moderated by Annelys de Vet. We invited artists, curators, designers and directors to join the discussion and share their view on the artistic spectacle.

More photos on the Mediamatic page.

Curated and designed by Selby Gildemacher, Anja Groten, and Ruben Pater. Printing by the Stencilzolder, Amsterdam. Thanks to all the participating artists, Jurgen Bey, Annelys de Vet, and all the debate participants.
Funded by Mediamatic, Amsterdam.


Kan, Leslie. ‘Spectacle’, Theories of Media Glossary, University of Chicago, 2004.
Leclaire, Annemiek. ‘Portret: Marcel Wanders’. Vrij Nederland, 2013.
Kemmer, Claudia and Daan van Lent. ‘Bussemaker is te streng bij cultuursubsidies’. NRC Handelsblad, 2014

A Taste of Dutch Colonialism

Book design, 2011

Negro Kiss, close-up. ‘Dutch Sweets’, Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater, 2011.</i>

In the Netherlands it is perfectly normal to eat a ‘jew cookie’, a ‘negro kiss’ or a ‘moor’s head’. Some of these Dutch sweets are centuries old and considered part of Dutch heritage, despite their offensive names. Some of them have been renamed recently, but the stories behind them go back as far as the 1600s. Leon Dijkstra and I decided to collect information about the names and stories behind these ‘racist’ Dutch sweets.

‘Cocos palm plantation in the Dutch East Indies’, anonymous, ca. 1895 - ca. 1915. Image: Rijksmuseum.


The history of Dutch cookies begins in 1602 with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) as the first Dutch colonial charter company. The VOC was set up especially by the States General of the Netherlands in order to profit from the Malukan spice trade. The Maluku islands is an archipelago in the east of present-day Indonesia. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, and Arabs fought intensely over possession of the islands, which were valuable for its spices like nutmeg, cloves, and mace.

In 1605 the Dutch joined forces with the Islamic Hitu population and conquered the islands. The Hitu rewarded the Dutch sole rights to purchase their valuable spices. The VOC enjoyed huge profits from its spice monopoly through most of the 17th century, and by 1669, the VOC was the richest private company the world had ever seen. The earning from the spice trade helped spawn a cultural golden age in Holland with painters like Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, and Jacob van Ruysdael.

Map of the Maluku Islands by Pieter van der Aa, 1707.


Half a world away from the Maluku Islands, it was Amsterdam that became the centre of the spice distribution. All the spices were stored and traded here, making exotic spices like nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon abundant in the city. Bakers used these exotic spices to make different variations of cookies like speculaas, a type of spiced shortcrust biscuit that contained cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom, and white pepper, and peperkoek (Dutch ginger bread) made with pepper, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, succade and nutmeg. In 17th century Amsterdam, speculaas and peperkoek were popular at the annual children's holiday Sinterklaas on December 5. Because of their large appetite for cookies, inhabitants of Amsterdam were nicknamed ‘cookie eaters’. Even the English word ‘cookie’ comes from the Dutch word koek.

<i>Sinterklaas</i>, on December 5 in the 1600’s. A basket of spiced cookies can be seen in the bottom left. Steen, Jan Havicksz. ‘Het Sint-Nicolaasfeest’, 1665 - 1668. Image: Rijksmuseum.


In 1949 the Dutch reluctantly gave up their East Indian colonies after pressure by the international community, and Indonesia was finally independent. The Maluku however, were denied autonomy from Indonesia and many fled to the Netherlands. After 200 years of plantations, slave trade, and huge profits, the days of Dutch colonialism came to a halt, but the influence of the spice trade and colonialism remained. During the 1950s, racial and cultural sensitivity was hardly a topic. The Dutch sweets still had their offensive names: 'Negro kiss’, ‘Moor’s head’, ‘Old hags’ cake’, ‘Jew Cookie’, ‘Jew fat’, and ‘Bastard Sugar’. Although the names were not necessarily derived from racial slurs, the fact that few found them offensive, reveals how colonial history influenced a lack of cultural and racial understanding.

Jew Cookie. ‘Dutch Sweets’, Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater, 2011.


Amongst the 10 Dutch Sweets in the booklet, the ‘Negro Kiss’ is the most infamous example of offensively named candy. A kind of marshmallow dipped in chocolate, the Negro Kiss’ originated in Denmark 200 years ago as Negerkys and spread throughout Europe as Negerzoen (Holland), Negerküss or Mohrenkopf (Germany), Negerinnetetten (Belgium) and Neekerinsuukot (Finland). In almost all European countries, the name was changed to ‘Chocolate Kiss’ by the 1980’s, but in Holland it didn’t happen until 2005 after a complaint by the Stichting Eer en Herstel Betalingen Slachtoffers van Slavernij (Foundation for Honor and Restoration for Victims of Slavery). Today, only in the German-speaking part of Switzerland the name ‘Negro Kiss’ is still in use.

Old Hags’ Cake, close-up. ‘Dutch Sweets’, Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater, 2011.

The colonial era is a dark chapter of Dutch history but its influence cannot be disconnected from Dutch society today. Tourist flock by the millions to see the beauty of Amsterdam’s canal streets and the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer, which could not exist without the colonial profits of the VOC. They bring home Stroopwafels (Syrup waffles), Peperkoek, or Speculaas to enjoy some of the spiced cookies the Dutch are known for. There is still a strong link with Holland and the Maluku islands. Many Maluku have immigrated to Holland after Indonesia’s independence, and the Maluku government in exile (Republik Maluku Selatan) is still based in the Netherlands today.

Negro Kiss. ‘Dutch Sweets’, Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater, 2011.


In the last decade many of the offensive names of these sweets have been changed, although there has been strong opposition. This is the reason why some sweets like the ‘Jew Cookie’ and the ‘Moor's Head’ have yet to be renamed. In recent years the debate has divided the country even more: the children's holiday Sinterklaas, where people dress up in blackface as zwarte pieten alongside a white saint called Sinterklaas. Activist and artist Quincy Gario has been at the forefront of the peaceful civil movement to rid the Netherlands of these racist traditions that are still being celebrated today. Although the first steps have been taken to end the blackface traditions, the fact that Gario is continuously threatened for his work says a lot about the inability of the Dutch to confront their colonial history.

‘Dutch Sweets’, Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater, 2011.

Dutch Sweets is designed, collected and written by Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater.
Mimeographed by the Stencilzolder, Amsterdam in blue and red. For sale for €9 (NL) or €16 (World) at Motto bookstore.


Van Boven, M. W. ‘Towards A New Age of Partnership (TANAP): An Ambitious World Heritage Project (UNESCO Memory of the World – reg.form, 2002)’. VOC Archives Appendix 2, p.14.
de Smet, Tom. ‘Koek aan de gracht’, Biscuitworld, 2007.

The Fall-out of the Glitterati

Poster/booklet, 2011

Exhibition poster, silkscreen gold and black, Ruben Pater, 2011.

It was less than an hour after the earthquake, when the first waves hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. The 14 meter high waves overwhelmed the 10 meter seawall, and flooded the generators causing the cooling systems to fail. It was the first act of the largest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1989. Less than three months later, a group of graphic designers organized an exhibition inside a former nuclear shelter in Amsterdam.

Office worker hiding under the desk during a nuclear attack,‘Wenken’ publication, Jurriaan Schrofer, 1961

Weeks earlier, I had found an old publication from the cold war era in abandoned apartments nearby. De wenken (Warnings) was a small booklet designed by Jurriaan Schrofer in 1961 for the Dutch government to prepare citizens for a nuclear attack. The publication gave ridiculous instructions like hiding under desks during a nuclear attack. Writer Harry Mulisch immediately wrote a parody, further ridiculing the already unpopular Bescherming Bevolking (population protection) institute responsible for national preparation in case of an attack.

Fast forward to 2011, at a former nuclear shelter in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam. The Vondelbunker was part of a nationwide construction program of fall-out shelters. Contrary to common belief, fall-out shelters do not protect people from a nuclear attack, but are designed to keep people alive during the nuclear fall-out afterwards. At this fall-out shelter the exhibition would be held.

Left: Original anti-nuclear power protest logo by Anne Lund, 1975<br>Right: Button designs for the exhibition, 2011

Smiling Sun

When I was invited to design promotional materials for the event, I immediately thought about the recent discussion about nuclear power after the Fukushima incident. The show was titled ‘The Future is So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades’, after a popular song from 1986 by Timbuk3. The chosen song speaks about a nuclear scientist hoping to make big money through his studies. Set in a former nuclear shelter, titled after a 1980s nuclear protest song, it was clear nuclear energy had to be part of the exhibition’s promotional design.

The first image that comes to mind about nuclear energy is the ‘smiling sun’ icon from the 1970s protests. Used in many countries, the logo was first designed in Denmark for the Organisationen til Oplysning om Atomkraft by designer Anne Lund. A red image of smiling sun was accompanied with the text Atoomenergie? nee bedankt (Atomic energy? no thanks). It has become one of those graphic icons that are very powerful and still used today for protests against nuclear energy. I adopted this famous smiling sun, but I gave it a new look for this exhibition.

Page from the invitation booklet. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

Clouds of Glitter

Despite all the references to end of the world scenarios and nuclear distaster, the designers are a talented and joyful bunch, and a graduation show is always exciting. So I decided to interpret the event as a glitter fallout. Besides its obvious use in celebrations, glitter has become a LGBT protest meme with the ‘glitter bomb’, where glitter is thrown at politicians that speak out against gay rights. Using glitter as a weapon for protest is a brilliant tactic, and it relates to the work of the designers in the exhibition whose projects are politically related.

U.S. Republican Rick Santorum glitter bombed by activists in 2012. Photo: AP.

The poster design featured particle typography hidden in dark clouds, with a layer of gold glitter on each silkscreened poster. The main image re-establishes the idea of nuclear fall-out, as a glamorous apocalyptic explosion of festivities, using glitter as material. The sensation of hazardous stardust of graduating talents unleashed on the world.

Commissioned by the Sandberg institute. Printing by drukkerij SSP and Kees Maas at the Rietveld Academy.

Poster detail with glitter particles. Ruben Pater, 2011.


VPRO, NPO Geschiedenis (Dutch only)

Delta Deluge

Posters, 2010

Map of the 74% of the Netherlands that is above sea level. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Over half of the world population lives in delta and coastal communities, and the Netherlands is a prime example. Waterways provides irrigation for agriculture and attracts tourism. The downside is evident. Flooding can cause human casualties and huge economic damages. With climate change we will see more and heavier floods in the world’s deltas, and we should acknowledge the precarity of these fertile but overpopulated areas. This project is a research into the future of the Dutch delta as it is threatened by rising sea levels.

The Dutch are known for living on land formerly known as sea. As early as the 11th century, coastal areas were reclaimed from the sea by embankments. Large European rivers like the Meuse and the Rhine flow into the Dutch delta and these rivers often flooded. Living in the Netherlands was living with floods, whether is was the sea breaching dunes or the flooding of lands surrounding the rivers. To protect their reclaimed land the Dutch built dikes along rivers and large fortified dunes on the west coast. Today 26% of the Netherlands is below sea level, which also happens to be the economic centre. Nine million people live in this western part of the country and it is here were half of the Dutch GDP is created. Floods continue to pose a serious risk for the Dutch and their economic prosperity.

Weather signature of the 1953 flood. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Temperature’s rising

There has been a slow growing of awareness about the effects of climate change since the 1970s. The international community took the first steps in 1992 with the Kyoto Protocol to globally reduce greenhouse gasses. Unfortunately the world’s largest polluters; China, India, and The United States refused to take part in it, rendering it worthless from the start. Denying climate change is not uncommon amongst politicians. U.S. President George W. Bush said uncertainties in climate science were too great to demand direct action, and his administration put political pressure on scientists to understate global warming and downplay its effects.

Left: Flood warning. Right: Polder politics, the Delta commission. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the sense of urgency of climate change became more widespread with the movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ (2006) by Al Gore, and the fourth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007. For the first time the IPCC report clearly stated that climate change was man-made with a 90% certainty. The report warned that if no immediate action would be taken, temperatures could rise with 4.8°C by 2100, with catastrophic effects.

Left: The largest Delta cities. Right: Decline of global rice production and population growth. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Climate hype

The Dutch were in the spotlights when the IPCC listed them as one of the ten countries that would be first affected by the rising sea levels. Until then, the risk of flooding had been a neglected topic in the Netherlands. Now the Dutch government had gotten the message and installed a special commission called the Deltacommissie (delta commission) to prepared a Deltawet (delta law) that would prepare the Dutch for future scenarios. Current flood fortification standards had fallen behind, and it was calculated that a breach in the North sea barrier, however unlikely, would cause an estimated 400.000 deaths and cause 400 billion euro in damages.

In 2010 the political tide changed. The libertarian VVD became the largest party, a party that did not acknowledge climate change was man-made. They formed a government with the right-wing PVV who publicly said: “Stop spending money on a unproven climate hype”. Journalist Marcel Crok wrote a popular climate-denying bestseller in 2010: Staat van het klimaat (State of the Climate) in which he called the IPCC report ‘biased’. Although 97% of scientists agreed global warming was man-made, the Dutch were persuaded otherwise. A third of the Dutch did not believe climate change was caused by human activity. Under this government it is not surprising no action was taken to inform citizens about rising sea levels. The relation of the Dutch with water was actively promoted as ‘joyful’, with commercials showing happy swimming children with a styrofoam map of Holland.

IPCC scenario’s for global warming. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Dutch Delta Technology

"God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.” is a famous saying Dutch engineers like to use in their presentations when they go around the world to sell ‘Dutch Delta Technology’. Centuries of experience have given the Dutch tremendous advantage in knowledge about water management. Dutch engineers are deployed around the world and considered highly skilled in offshore activities, dredging, and water management. If your export product is delta technology, rising sea levels offer a growing market. Dutch engineers are working in flood prone cities like Jakarta, in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, and New York City after hurricane Sandy. As a sinking country, the Dutch are better in selling their climate expertise abroad than in informing its own citizens about the risks at home.

Climate refugees and global borders. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Delta Cities

Worldwide 634 million people live in delta megacities like Tokyo, New York, Mumbai, Shanghai, Jakarta, and Dhaka. Western countries like the Netherlands, the U.K. and the U.S. have the funds to build expensive flood defenses and invest in urban planning, but not the megacities in Southeast Asia whose densely populated informal settlements make them much more vunerable to floods.

Another perspective is the food crisis. Due to draught and rising sea levels, food production is projected to drop the coming 50 years, while the world population is expected to grow to 14 billion by 2100. Most of the world’s rice is grown in Southeast Asia, and rising sea levels means more saltwater and less place to grow food. At the same time flora and fauna is projected to drop by 20-40% worldwide. This confluence of events challenges us to take collective action in the next 50 years.

”It is fair to say that modernization has not prepared us especially well to the impact of the ecological crisis. Instead of preparing themselves, they entirely forgot they would have to equip themselves emotionally, institutionally, and legally for the tasks of a politics of nature.” - Bruno Latour


Bruijn, Jan Anthonie and Meiny Prins. Orde op zaken. Verkiezingsprogramma VVD, 2010.
Latour, Bruno. “Politics of nature: East and West perspectives”, Ethics & Global Politics, 2011.
Pachauri, R.K. and Reisinger, A. (Eds.). Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007.

Are you Prepared for Flooding?

Manual, 2011

First Dutch Flood manual. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

Floods are the most common of all natural disasters. They cause more damage than all other natural disasters combined. In the Netherlands large parts of the country are below sea level, which makes the country very vulnerable to flooding. Global warming has caused sea levels to rise, and sooner or later the Netherlands will flood again. This flood protection manual provides practical information to prepare you and your family against a flood. So you will be better prepared for future scenarios.

How the water has changed the Netherlands throughout history. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

In 2005 hurricane Katrina caused a major flooding in New Orleans. The disaster took the lives of 1,833 people and caused a property damage of $108 billion. If such a flood would happen in the Netherlands, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, its effects would be much more devastating. Despite this high risk, 80% of the Dutch do not worry about the risks of flooding. This manual was founded in an earlier research about the relation the Dutch have with water and climate change.

Dutch flag evolution in times of climate change. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

Water is your friend

Until recently, the Dutch government did not actively inform its citizens about the risks of flooding. Campaigns were launched presenting water ’as a friend’, to be enjoyed for recreational purposes like water sports. While countries like the U.K., Japan, and the U.S. provide detailed online information and free leaflets about how to prepare for flooding, in the Netherlands there was no such information available. In his dissertation ‘Flood Preparedness’ from 2010, Teun Terpstra from Twente University describes the lack of communication about flood risk by the Dutch government, and why general disaster preparation campaigns do not work. In order for citizens to take action, disaster risk communication needs a sense of urgency.

Flood instructions, First Dutch Flood manual. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

First Flood Manual

Since the Dutch government was not informing citizens, I decided to create the first Dutch flood manual. The manual contains basic flood preparedness information taken from official flood warning documents in the U.K., and local Dutch sources. Besides a chapter about flood preparedness and what to do during a flood, the manual also includes a speculative chapter about a world where the land is permanently flooded. A new infrastructure is proposed, where the ‘country formerly known as the Netherlands’ becomes a giant windmill park with advertising billboards, so money can still be made from tourism and water sports.

Life after the Flood, First Dutch flood manual. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

Survival is a False Idol

Having a flood manual at home does not protect you from a flood, nor does the Drone Survival Guide save you from drone attacks. Survival as a narrative is often used to distract attention from the root causes of these dangers. Instructing citizens how to survive a flooding is cheaper than stopping rising sea levels by cutting down CO2 emissions and slowing down economic growth. This shifts the responsibility of global collective problems to the individual. If you are not prepared for a flood, you are to blame when you drown, and not industries and governments that keep polluting and let sea levels rise. By using the survival narrative I try to use this same sense of urgency to talk about the underlying environmental and socio-economic problems. The flood manual is a strategy to have people discuss climate change and how this will affect our way of life if we do not act today, and in Holland flooding is the most urgent way to do this.

Flood Desk Enkhuizen, Zuiderzeemuseum, Enkhuizen. Ruben Pater, 2012.

A New Collectivity

Neoliberalism has shifted responsiblity from the state to the individual by privatizing critical infrastructure and cutting public services. While the dangers of global issues like climate change and income inequality are growing, governments no longer accept responsibility for collective well-being, but instead emphasize the power of the citizens’ own agency. A narrative is presented that if only citizens buy more energy-saving lights and water saving shower heads, climate change can be averted. One factory uses same the amount of energy of a large city, and unless governments cap emissions to a sustainable level and promote green energy on a large scale, the effects of climate change cannot be solved by using energy saving lightbulbs alone. The complex global issues of our time demand a new kind of collective responsibility that supersedes the actions of individuals or even countries.

Flood Desk. Zuiderzeemuseum, Enkhuizen. Ruben Pater, 2012.

After the Flood

Between the IJsselmeer and the lowlands of Noord-Holland lies the old fishing town of Enkhuizen. This area has been threatened by floods, and this is where the Zuiderzeemuseum asked me to create an installation as part of an exhibition about water. I chose to transform a building into a flood information desk. The location of a fictional government agency that informs citizens about flooding. However the flood information desk would be abandoned due to flood risk, and a voice-over instructed visitors to wait for instructions. Everyone knows the feeling of powerlessness when a government institution is unavailable, and this was a way of addressing how governments retreats from the public domain and shifts responsibility to citizens with devastating consequences.

Visit the project website if you wish to order a manual or to find out more about the project. Dutch only.


Terpstra, Teun. ‘Flood Preparedness’. University of Twente, January 15, 2010.
‘What to do before, during and after a flood’, Environment Agency, November 2010.

The Excess
of Success

Event/identity design, 2011

Amsterdam Zuidas. Photo: Paul Abspoel.

In Amsterdam’s financial district Zuidas, property prices are the highest in the Netherlands, and still office spaces remain vacant. This project is a way of using this space to satisfy a common need. Surplus is a bar which pops-up in empty office spaces at the Zuidas using discarded materials, objects and foods from neighboring businesses. This way excess materials can be reused to create a space for social interaction and meeting other Zuidas inhabitants and workers from all layers of society.

“From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly everything is possible again.”
- Mark Fisher, ‘Capitalism Realism’, 2009.

The appendix

The Zuidas (South Axis) is a financial district in the south of Amsterdam which has been under development since 1998. The place was never particularly pretty or liveable, but it is strategically placed next to the A10 freeway, close to Schiphol airport, and has a train station where international trains depart. The city chose this connected wasteland to become the ‘La Defènse’ or ‘Canary Wharf’ of Amsterdam.

Architect Rem Koolhaas mentions the importance of the Southeast area in his plan for the IJ embankments back in 1991. Since the centre of Amsterdam cannot grow, new centres like the Southeast need to be explored: “It’s relatively simple to let these areas thrive; because `freedom is the decisive factor of these spontaneous developments, freedom in connections especially’. It has been said that these developments are also in the interest of the city. But this could be a dangerous paradox: the centre would become the appendix of the appendix”.

Casters silkscreen printed with left-over inks as invitations to the Surplus opening. Printed at the Rietveld silkscreen workshop with Kees Maas.

Limits of Growth

By 2006 the economy was booming and the Zuidas was growing quickly. All the big banks and law firms wanted a piece of it, commissioning architects like Norman Foster, Rafael Viñoly, UN studio, and Toyo Ito to build their new offices here. The Zuidas was making money fast and pushed forward in 2007 with an expensive plan in to move the freeway and train lines underground, thus creating a connecting ground surface for more real estate. The final step would turn the Zuidas into a secondary city centre.

As fast as the buildings rose from the ground, the construction stopped when the financial crisis hit in 2008. Banks that had just finished their new headquarters had to be bailed out by taxpayers. By 2010 many offices were vacant, 14% of all office spaces in total. Since the Zuidas is mostly made up of offices, the district is completely deserted after business hours and on weekends. In this scenario I was asked together with other students of the Sandberg Institute Design Department and VU University to come up with ideas to increase liveability in the Zuidas.

Found materials at AKZO headquarters on the Zuidas.

Wasteland Zuidas

The Zuidas is an highly valued area. With every square meter counting, there was no incentive for architects and urban planners to add parks, playgrounds, or open water. The consequence is that unless you work at a big firm or you live in an expensive condominium, there is no reason for you to be there.

Many students that participated found the premise of the project questionable. Designing liveability in a district that only the most wealthy can afford to live or work in, is a rather paradoxal question in times of crisis. Therefore many of us started to investigate the fabric and structure of the area instead.

Map of the Zuidas with all vacant office spaces highlighted.

Free Zuidas

When I obtained a map with all the vacant offices on the ground floor, the empty overpriced office spaces were exposed as scattered physical voids of the value that had vanished after the financial meltdown. Like laid-off office workers, these were valuable assets that had been rendered obsolete by the market. My plan was to collect the materials, and spaces to organize a pop-up bar with. This bar would try to do what squatters had done for decades: create a cheap space for people of all incomes and backgrounds.

White Housing Plan, Provo, 1966. Text: Auke Boersma.


Amsterdam has a history of putting abandoned real estate to good use. In 1964 there was a massive housing shortage while entire city blocks were abandoned. Students saw the opportunity and started squatting empty buildings. In 1966 the artist and activist movement Provo started the ‘White housing plan’. The doors of empty building were painted white, encouraging people to squat them.

Since the 1960s squatting has been central to the cultural scene in Amsterdam. Today many of the most popular bars, music venues, galleries, and debate centres started as squats. Unfortunately since 2010 squatting has been made illegal in Holland and many collectively run cinema's, bars and other venues were forced to close. In that light, the question of ‘designing liveability’ stands in stark contrast to a city that forcefully closes down spaces for social and public gathering.


Someone who thought hard about the voids in the capitalist system was Karl Marx. Central to his critique of the capitalist economy is the surplus value created by workers. Ideally the product is sold for a price that is the value of the labor plus its needed materials. In the capitalist economy it is more profitable to pay workers a low wage and sell the product for a higher price. Therefore the worker creates more value than he/she receives in wages, which is the surplus value. This difference between material value and market value is similar to the housing bubble that led to the economic crisis of 2008. Value is created through speculation without any relation to the material value. When the market drops, value is lost and people lose their jobs, office spaces become vacant, etc. That is why the bar is named ‘Surplus’. It is a way to use this lost value and bring it back to the Zuidas in a physical form.

To find the materials for the Surplus bar, I went by the offices in the Zuidas. It was easier than I expected to find materials for the inventory. For large offices, efficiency in office supplies is not a priority. Rather than repairing something, they just order new supplies. The first company I went to had a large storage with four good as new office chairs that had been replaced by new ones. After visiting three offices I had collected seven office chairs, one desk, one drawer, two kitchen carts, a golfclub, a broken fridge and twelve letter trays. More than enough to set up my office-inspired squat bar.

Surplus trash cycle.

Trash Flow

Going around the Zuidas and visiting garbage disposal areas gave me some insights into how this ‘trash flow’ is handled. For instance, have you ever seen trash at a corporate headquarters? Trash remains hidden, kept out of sight in garbage disposal spaces within buildings to keep a clean architectural image. Only the garbage truck that picks up the containers every week is a sign of waste disposal. I found tons of cables, computers and screens which would all be incinerated, but which I was not allowed to use for legal reasons. The danger of sensitive company information falling into the hands of others was more important than reusing perfectly good computers and screens. Wasting resources for the sake of corporate accountability.

Finding surplus foods turned out to be more challenging. Supermarkets throw away loads of food, but do not give it away by policy. Restaurants I visited said they rarely had leftovers. Then I found a sushi restaurant, who said they had to throw out a lot of sushi each day which was still perfectly edible. On the day of the opening they had two trays full of Surplus sushi for us.

Surplus bar

Surplus Opening

On March 1, 2011 the Surplus bar was opened as part of the exhibition in the Kunstkapel on the Zuidas. Every item I had collected was used in some way. Advertising material became tables, letter trays were used to serve cookies and snacks, the food warmer trolley as dj table. Each item had a sticker saying which Zuidas business it was from. A former Zuidas worker was hired as bartender, and drinks and glassware were supplied by the Kunstkapel. After the bar closed, the items were not thrown away but auctioned off for prices starting at €1. Proceeds were used to cover the project costs.

This pilot of the Surplus bar was an experiment to show how value is created and lost in our current economic system. I set up a recycle loop to use all the materials and food that is being thrown away every day, and bring those together with laid-off workers and empty office spaces. Businesses on the Zuidas were invited, especially those who supplied materials, but none showed up. It would have been a great way to start a dialogue about what value means in the most expensive area of the Netherlands.

Surplus bar opening

Materials supplied by ABN AMRO, AKZO Nobel, WTC. Sushi supplied by Sushi Time WTC.


Fisher, Mark. Capitalism Realism, 2009.
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1887.

Driving the News in
East Africa

Identity design, 2011

Dala Dala in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. Photo: Ruben Pater.

Collective taxis are an indispensable means of transportation in many places around the world. For many it is the only way to get around the city. Their names are different per country: Bush Taxi, Collectivo, Dolmuş, Marshrutka, Jeepney, Dala Dala, Matatu, and many more. In Tanzania, a Dutch entrepeneur had the idea to make a talkshow inside a minibus, and I was involved in the identity design.

Minibus Taxi Park, Kampala, Uganda. Image:

Shared taxis are a form of regulated informal transport, fulfilling the needs in countries that lack a state funded public transport system. In East Africa the routes are based on commuter routes, and it is highly efficient. There are set routes, but stops are flexible. Taking minibuses can be frustrating since they leave only when the bus is full, which can take a long time if you’re unlucky.

Minibuzz identity. Ruben Pater, Lava design.

Dala Dala

In June 2010 the television talkshow ‘Dala Dala’ was launched in Tanzania. Every weekday the show is recorded inside a minibus during the morning rush hour in the capital Dar-Es-Salaam. Passengers get on the minibus and are invited on camera to discuss timely topics like corruption, elections, sexual health, and gender equality. Minibuses (called Dala Dala in Tanzania) are primarily used by the middle- and lower classes, which allows them to share their opinions on television, a medium which is in Tanzania is dominated by wealthy males. The program is a success, and it is viewed by 3.5 million viewers every day.

Vinyl sticker application for Kenya design. Photo: Made in Africa.

Bright Lights, Big City

In 2011 I arrived in the capital of Tanzania, Dar-Es-Salaam, the fastest growing city in Africa. I went to work in the office of Dala Dala on the new identity for the programme. In my trips around this huge city of 4 million people I saw many Dala Dala driving around, all painted in bright colors, often with depictions of religion or rockstars. Many Dala Dala operators try to attract customers by playing loud music, adding fluorescent lights, and paint elaborate artworks on the sides. Since our minibus also had to stand out in a bustling rush hour traffic with thousands of brightly colored others, we decided to go for a very simple and minimal design.

Dazzle Branding

In each country in East Africa, the minibus has a different name. Matatu in Kenya, Dala Dala in Tanzania, and Taxi in Uganda. We decided to use these names in combination with each nation’s flag colors to create a dizzying pattern on the bus, much like television glitches. A typographic design to stand out amongst the usual minibus traffic on the streets of Nairobi and Dar-Es-Salaam. Also the design could be easily and cheaply adapted for any country and any name, and still keep a sense of recognizability in each country.

Minibuzz in Uganda. Photo: Minibuzz Facebook.

Modernist Hubris

Almost a year after the design was implemented, we received news that the design was not popular both in Tanzania and Uganda. The modernist typographic design was seen as strange, ugly and uninviting. The design was never tested with the audience before implementing it. The bus was painted over a year later with another design, depicting people sitting in the bus. The name was changed from different local names to a global brand called ‘Minibuzz’.

Looking back I was more focused on creating an original design that ‘stood out’ in a street environment, than making something that was socially aware. In retrospect a classic case of modernist design hubris, stemming from a Dutch design tradition, creating designs that might be conceptually strong, but sometimes neglect local and social contexts.

Minibuzz in Uganda. Photo: Minibuzz Facebook.

Made at Lava design.
More information on Made in Africa TV here.


Neuwirth, Robert. ‘Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy’, October 2012.
Packer, George. ‘The Megacity Decoding the chaos of Lagos’, The New Yorker, November 13, 2006.
Kassa, Ferdaku. ‘Informal transport and its effects in the developing world - a case study of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’ Journal of Transport Literature, April 2014.

Borders of the World Notebooks

Notebooks, 2011

The world knows many fortified borders, many of which are heavily guarded. Some divide nations at war like North and South Korea. Some divide the rich and the poor like the borders between Spain and Morocco. When we look closer at these walls of the world, the fences create distinctive patterns, designed and constructed to withstand forces of migration. Each fence has its own unique metal signature. I used these patterns to create a series of journals called ‘Borders of the World Notebooks’.

Fence at New Mexico Santa Teresa port of Entry. Photo courtesy of US Customs and Borders Protection.

Many of today’s borders were drawn by nineteenth and twentieth century colonial powers. The location of these borders the result of arbitrary decisions far away in Europe. In 1916 the Englishman Mark Sykes and the Frenchman François Georges-Picot held a secret meeting to divide the Ottoman empire, into what is now the Middle East. Famously Sykes said ”I should like to draw a line from the e in Acre to the last k in Kirkuk.’ This straight line still marks the border between Syria, Jordan, and Iraq today.

Borders of the World Notebooks. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

New Frontiers

While digital and financial traffic is free to cross borders, the physical borders between countries are becoming more and more fortified. 75% of all border fortifications between countries have been built in the last thirteen years and 20-35 new border fences have been built since 2000. Since September 11, many countries have used the threat of terrorism as an excuse to construct border walls that are actually meant to stop immigration. In 2001 India started to built a 4,100 km fence on its border with Bangladesh. In 2006 the border between Mexico and the United States was heavily fortified, and between 2000 and 2003 a wall was erected on the West Bank between Israel and Palestine. Six of these borders are used for the Borders of the World Notebooks.

South Korean soldiers patrol the barbed-wire fence at the demilitarized zone. Photo: AP Photo/Korea Pool.

Korean Wildlife

The border between North and South Korea is one of the most heavily guarded in the world. Skirmishes on the border between both sides still occur regularly. The border is a four kilometer wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) which has divided the two countries since 1953. Uninhabited for over 50 years, the DMZ has become a nature reserve where black bears, leopards, and some say Siberian tigers roam freely. The fence depicted on the notebook is the South Korean side. Little is known about the fence on the North Korean side, but it claims there are six layers of border fortifications, of which two are electric fences.

Storming of the Spanish enclave Melilla by thousands of immigrants in 2005. Photo: Melilla Hoy.

At the Gates of Europe

Spanish enclaves Melilla and Ceuta are the only land borders between Africa and the European Union. In 1999 the Spanish government rebuilt the barrier at Melilla into a six meter high double tier fence to stop immigrants trying to enter Europe. Guarded by cameras, motion detectors, noise detectors, and helicopters, the fence at Melilla is the most fortified border in Europe. Thousands of immigrants still try to cross the fence every year, and in 2005 a large group of immigrants climbed the fences in several waves. A razor wire layer was removed in 2007 after it led to mass protests.

On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Greek government built a fence to stop immigrants from entering the E.U. via Turkey. The Evros fence was completed in 2012 and is four meters high with watch towers, foot patrols and thermal cameras. The E.U. did not support the erection of the fence, because it would not be effective enough, and the Greeks ended up paying for it themselves. Since the erection of the fence, immigration through the Greek-Turkish border has declined drastically.

Notebook for the Melilla fence. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

Wall of Death

Borders fences make many casualties. At least one migrant dies every day at the U.S.-Mexico border. On the Mediterranean over 3,000 migrants died between 1997 and 2000, most of them while attempting to cross the Straits of Gibraltar. One of the deadliest border fences in the world is between India and Bangladesh, which locals call the ‘Wall of Death’. Between 2001 and 2011 nearly 1,000 Bangladeshis were killed by the India Border Security Forces (BSF). The BSF has a ‘shoot on sight’ policy for this who cross the border illegally. In Bangladesh smuggling is the second largest industry, so crossing the border is for many a necessary risk. More than 3,326 of the planned 4,100 kilometer of fence is finished, making it currently the longest border fence in the world.

An India Border Security Force soldier and a dead Bangladeshi at the border fence,2009. Photo: unknown.

Digital Borders

The borders of the future are digital. Many border crossings already use face detection and recognition software, and since 2006 biometric passports have become a standard. The E.U. is working on a digital border system called OPARUS that combines satellites, drone surveillance, biometric information, and sensors to stop migrants before even entering Europe. This digital border will be enforced outside of the actual borders in countries like Morocco, Turkey, Mauritania, and Tunisia.

Border patrol will happen more and more in command centres far away from the actual borders, and border police will be replaced by autonomous weapons systems. The U.S. currently deploys the same Predator drones on the border with Mexico as are used in warzones. Autonomous machine guns are currently in use on the borders of Israel and South Korea. These ‘robo-snipers’ have long range electro-optical sensors that can locate and destroy targets autonomously.

Notebook of the Greece-Turkey fence. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

While borders are increasingly digital, the construction of new border fences is still on the rise. Global inequality and climate change will increase the migration between the global South and the global North. We should be critical of the rhetoric behind building higher fences if the socio-economic problems that cause migration are not being addressed.

Automated machinegun at the West Bank border wall, Israel. Photo: Sentry Tech

For more information and to buy one of the six notebooks you can visit the project website.

Mimeographed by the Stencilzolder, Amsterdam.


Dunn, Timothy and Joseph Nevins. ‘Barricading the Border’ Counterpunch, November 14-16, 2008.
Humphrey, Michael. ‘Migrants, Workers and Refugees’. Middle East Report. March-April 1993.
Naik, Vipul. ‘How Did We Get Here? Chinese Exclusion Act — Implementation (1882-1910)’ Open Borders, January 29, 2015.
Osman, Tarek. ‘Why border lines drawn with a ruler in WW1 still rock the Middle East’, BBC News, December 14, 2013.
Pécoud, Antoine and Paul de Guchteneire. ‘International Migration, Border Controls and Human Rights: Assessing the Relevance of a Right to Mobility’, Journal of Borderlands Studies. Spring 2006.
Wittenberg, Dick. ‘De terugkeer van de Muur’. De Correspondent, September 30, 2013.

Corporate Nationality

Type specimen/booklet, 2010

The role of government is changing. European social democracies have traded in the welfare state for a more neoliberal agenda. To communicate the farewell of the welfare state and the implementation of austerity measures, governments have turned to marketing. In the Netherlands this led to the development of a new visual identity of the state in 2008. This project investigates the rebranding and its implications.

Design: Fictional identity manual. Ruben Pater, 2010.

In the beginning of the 2000s the arrival of populist politician Pim Fortuyn led to a shift in the political landscape. His popularity gave rise to a populist constituency and conservative populist parties like the PVV (Party for Freedom) with its leader Geert Wilders. This changed constituency has brought parties both from the left and the right to embrace a more populist sentiment in their political programmes.

Top: Old logo’s of the Ministry of Culture, and the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment. Bottom: The same logo’s in the new state identity.

One Nation, One Logo

In this political environment the government ordered the development of a new identity in 2007. Since the 1970s each ministry had commissioned its own identity design. The government chose not to have a unified branding strategy, but rather allow a pluriformity of identity which was highly stimulating for the Dutch graphic design industry. Individual ministry officials commissioned identity designs that would not have been possible in the larger context of nation branding. The purpose of the new identity was not just to create a homogeneous state image, but also to save expenses by centralizing the government visual communication.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the rebranded press backdrop.

Between Rules and Freedom

The design competition was won by Studio Dumbar, who proposed the national coat of arms in a slightly updated version. The national coat of arms is from 1815 when state symbols had to show force and convey military superiority. Some countries still use the national coat of arms as a state logo, but in the Netherlands this visual language is only used for institutions like the military, the police, and the Dutch royal family. By introducing this symbol as a state logo it changed the image of the state into a stronger and stricter agent. The ‘shield’ logo can be viewed as a representation of the 2010 cabinet policies which focussed heavily on security, stricter immigration laws, and more privacy-invading surveillance measures.

Type specimen of the new state typeface, with slogans from the last cabinets. Design: Ruben Pater.

Corporate Patriotism

The blue colour and the formal typography gave the new state logo a corporate aesthetic. This resonates with a growing tendency of governments treating citizens like clients, describing their services as ‘products’. Branding guru Wally Olins calls this phenomenon ‘corporate patriotism’. This changing role of government is also illustrated by the Dutch Prime Minister. Historically Dutch Prime Ministers began their careers in more public roles like scientists, law professors, union leaders, or government officials. In 2010, Mark Rutte was the first to go from a manager at Dutch multinational Unilever straight to becoming Prime Minister.

Publication with AKZO Nobel logo and slogan. Design: Ruben Pater.

The Fluid State

In the Netherlands relations between multinationals and government are becoming more and more intertwined. Politicians are drafted from the ranks of Dutch multinationals like Shell and Unilever, or end up joining their ranks after their time in office. Former Minister of Transport Camiel Eurlings became CEO of KLM, former Minister of Finance Wouter Bos worked at Shell before he went into office, and afterwards went to work for KPMG. Former Minister of Finance Gerrit Zalm is now CEO of ABN AMRO bank. As switching between government and multinationals has become more and more accepted, we should ask ourselves if, and how politicians can still curb corporate interests.

Progressive branding

In this project I expanded the government identity to be a more inclusive system. Multinationals and the state already form partnerships on trade missions where foreign policy, culture, and trade agreements go together like milk and cookies. Dutch brands like KLM, Unilever, Shell, Heineken, and Philips deliver the soft power that enforce the Dutch national brand at home and abroad. Even the slogans of multinationals and the state are crafted from the same marketing language, and becoming interchangeable. With this expansion the identity allows for a more flexible and transparent communication for the future government.


Ham, Peter van. ‘Place Branding: the State of the Art’, The Netherlands Institute of International Relations “Clingendael”, 2008.
Olins, Wally. ‘Branding the Nation - the Historical context’. The Journal of Brand Management, April 2002.