In 2001 the Dutch graphic design group Experimental Jetset (EJ) produced a Beatles T-shirt. The idea was deceptively simple: replace the faces of the most recognisable band in the world with just their names. After all, everyone knows which band they belong to. The shirt sold surprisingly well. EJ would design two more, listing the Rolling Stones and Ramones. The real success lies not in the number of T-shirts sold, but what they spawned. People began sending them T-shirts in the same format: a plain shirt set in Helvetica type. An ampersand at the end of each line gave the impression the list was a piece of concrete poetry, as much as a pop-cultural tribute. Seventeen years later, the designers still receive band T-shirts with names they've never heard of.
"For us it's like a pop quiz," says Danny van den Dungen, one of the EJ design trio. "We have to look on the internet to [identify] who it is."
EJ are themselves "rockstars of graphic design", according to Cooper Hewitt museum senior curator of design Ellen Lupton. EJ's members – Marieke Stolk, Erwin Brinkers and van den Dungen – met in design school and have been together for 23 years. Van den Dungen self-deprecatingly describes the Beatles T-shirt as "like a one-hit wonder", but their work branding museums such as the Stedelijk in Amsterdam and the Whitney in New York prove otherwise. Their fans need no introduction. They recognise the group's signature riffs: Helvetica (almost always); pictures, almost none. In their stripped-back style, concepts are their powerchord.
Superstructure, a retrospective at RMIT Design Hub, demonstrates how EJ's ideas draw on a rich history of subcultural influences. The group designed the exhibition themselves. Visitors journey through their influences – the Dutch anarchist movement Provo, Russian Constructivism, punk rock and French Situationism – as if walking through an imaginary city's four quarters. An abstracted amalgam of "street furniture" – barricade/billboard/stadium hoarding – will display both EJ's work and its source material.
For a group with a controlled aesthetic, a strong streak of anarchism influences their work. "We're not known as an activist graphic design studio, we're more formalist," says van den Dungen. "But we still feel there is an important connection between our practice and themes like activism and the city."
For Marieke Stolk, Provo is also personal. Her parents were activists in the '60s movement (Provo translates roughly as "provocation"). The exhibition includes one particularly significant photo of a Provo march, with Stolk's mother holding a blank banner. "The authorities banned them from demonstrating," says Stolk. "So they did it anyway."
The Beatles T-shirt appears in this section of the "city". Like Provo's blank banner, it became the liberating template for others to project their own ideas onto, whether it be anarchism or subcultural fandom. (A similar idea can be seen in EJ's design for an all-purpose banner that simply says "No".)
But what also unites EJ's four movements is typography. The designers are distrustful of photography, seeing it as too seductive; instead type becomes the visual. It's abstracted and cropped. Letters are flipped and reversed, rinsed and repeated. Why Helvetica? "Because using just one font places more focus on the design idea," Stolk says.
Print matter is also visibly manipulated – punctured and splattered.
"It's important to make people aware that they are just looking at ink printed on paper, or light beams coming from a screen," says van den Dungen. "If you know it's made by people, it also means that it can be changed by people."
As educators and in-demand speakers, EJ place great importance on demystifying the process of design. The extensive "liner notes" on their website clarify the often obscure and tangential sources behind each project. That self-critical approach attracted them to RMIT and the NGV, where they will also speak during the art-book fair. Together with nine Melbourne-based graphic designers, EJ will produce a newspaper connecting the ideas in the exhibition with the local design community and its subcultures.
EJ's exhibition and ethos should strike a chord with recent Melbourne activism: from the ubiquitous same-sex marriage "yes" poster, to the #StopAdani projection on Flinders Street Station during White Night, to the backlash over the Apple logo as a backdrop to Fed Square.
Social media may be effective at harnessing activists, but EJ believes in taking it to the streets. Social media and search engines can cocoon, target and filter information "[but] a poster hanging on the street will appear the same to anyone looking at it, regardless of income", says van den Dungen. "The idea of the city being the most public place for communication is a message we think needs to be delivered."
Experimental Jetset: Superstructure, RMIT Design Hub, March 16–May 5, designhub.rmit.edu.au; The Future Lasts Only A Moment, NGV Melbourne Art Book Fair Symposium, March 15, 1.30pm.
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter