Nº 272

Documenta 14

Text: Carolin Blöink
Translation: Bronwen Saunders

Adam Szymczyk, formerly director of the Kunsthalle Basel, is artistic director of this year’s Documenta 14 (D 14). It was he who initiated the first two-pronged structure in the event’s history with the Greek capital Athens and Kassel as host cities of equal standing. Documenta 14 kicked off in Athens on 8 April 2017 and continues its programme in Kassel under the motto “Learning from Athens” since 10 June 2017. 

Szymczyk’s and his fifteen-strong team chose a visual identity for D 14 that is to evolve over time and in response to the progress of the project, which is why no fewer than four design studios were involved in its creation. Julia Born and Laurenz Brunner developed the website, while Mevis und Van Deursen produced the layout of the four special editions of South Magazine, launched in Athens in the run-up to the opening of D 14. We talked to the designers of Vier 5 and Ludovic Balland about the role they played in this process, and to the Stuttgart-based agency L2M3 about the concept behind their redesign of the Documenta archive undertaken in parallel to this year’s event.


L2M3 on the Documenta Archive




 “The logo consists of a new kind of ligature of the lower-case letters ‘d’ and ‘a’ – a self-contained glyph that has the shape of both letters and so combines the initials of the Documenta archive in a single, distinctive sign. In formal terms, it takes up the visual language of the early editions of the Documenta, which stood out on the account of their heavily geometrical typography, among other things. As a glyph, the logo is embedded in the house font that we developed especially for the Documenta archive.


Our approach to the design of this font rested on the principle of geometrically constructed letters with only minimal adjustments to the curves in the interests of optical equilibrium. The font’s most striking feature are the unusually long ascenders and descenders of certain letters, which can be read as paraphrasing the graphic language of the logos of Documenta 1 and 2.

The circular, almost closed curves, unchanging line widths, and horizontal and vertical line ends together make for a new kind of elegance, while at the same time maintaining the charm of 1950s and 1960s typography. While the unconventional angles and different widths of the upper-case letters lend the typeface its rhythm, the ascenders and descenders generate character, and alternative glyphs allow the display size to be typographically varied. Alongside the existing book version, a light and bold version are currently in planning, as well as their italic variants.


Ordering and preserving are the most important tasks of any archive. The materials they house are generally stored in stacked boxes, folders or drawers. Our design logic is likewise subject to two principles: ordering and layering. All the relevant information – titles, dates, and addresses – is arranged irrespective of format in a single block of information in the header. The areas and images are then layered in a stack from which the design principles for both print media and website are derived.”


Ludovic Balland on the Documenta 14



“Adam Szymczyk decided to ask four design studios to create a visual identity for D 14. I was able to design the reader, a little later the Public Paper, and, like all the other studios, a poster. 


The reader was especially tricky since it consists mainly of text. After an initial discussion, I realised that the editors, Quinn Latimer and Adam Szymczyk, in fact wanted something quite radical for the reader, namely a design without any images. The radicalism intrigued me, and so we began looking into the possibilities by which this very extensive book might be made more accessible. 700 pages of pure text are a real challenge. The focus of the design process was on mixing and matching different types of text: interviews, essays, literature, poetry, and history. The idea was to enable the reader to take a ‘stroll’ through the book. If books were buildings, then, from the architectural point of view, this book would definitely be a multi-purpose public building. Continuing the metaphor, our aim was to enable readers to linger in various rooms of the building. To create an independent narrative level, we installed a separate zone above each text as a space in which fragments of the text below could be highlighted. This zone was to function as does a vestibule. Its purpose was to guide the reader into the building, as it were – in other words into the book.


The other important design principle was that of the series; hence, our choice of one book per language. As objects, these three volumes had to be identical in thickness. The Greek text, however, is one and a half times the length of the English text, meaning that a 500-page layout in English would run to 750 pages in Greek, which naturally was out of the question. So, the next task was to find a way of keeping all three volumes identical in size, despite their different text lengths. We solved the problem by creating two different type areas for the two kinds of main text: essays and literature. These two type areas can grow in width or height, depending on how long the text is. In other words, they can expand both vertically and horizontally. This very simple layouting concept enabled us to treat all three languages the same so that we could end each page at exactly the same point without having to adapt the font size. In addition to the two different type areas for literature and essays, we also used two different fonts: the serif font Stanley for literature and poetry and the sans serif font Next for the essays. 


We also decided to allow a whole page for the introductory zone above each text – the pages with fragments of the text alongside were intended to provide a kind of window onto the courtyard. They were layouted individually since, like concrete poetry, their shape was felt to be just as important as their content. These words in space – rather like speech – also serve as short breaks in the flow of text that not only lend the book rhythm, but at the same time make the act of reading it a much more vital experience.


Fortunately, in the end it was decided that there were to be visuals after all. These we positioned between the individual texts, irrespective of the chapter, but in such a way that they would reference the texts immediately before and after them. The images were positioned on the page independently so that they would always bled off at the bottom and either to the left or in the gutter. Owing to the transparency of the paper and the layout of the visuals, they look as if taken straight out of an archive. The sides were intended not to frame the images but to study them – especially in combination with adjacent images. This gives rise to little stories – some of them intentional, others unexpected.

The book as an object has the appearance of a prototype. It is simple and economical in terms of both material and design. I deliberately chose to forego all forms of protection – lamination, dust cover or sleeve –, and refinement. Its unfinished character makes the book look archaic, like a lump of raw material from a large building site.


Another Documenta 14 publication is the fortnightly newspaper with what’s on listings for both Athens and Kassel. This newspaper, called Public Paper, is produced in Nordic full format, meaning 400 by 570 millimetres, and unlike the reader contains all three languages – German, Greek, and English – in a single publication. It is divided into an editorial on page one with two city maps of Athens and Kassel on which all the exhibition and event venues are marked. This is followed by a page of general information.

The design of page one is varied from issue to issue, depending on the content, with a different typographic solution each time. The three languages are arranged organically and not necessarily side by side. Readers therefore, have to actively seek for their own language. The idea of an unconventional handling of the visual arrangement of the three languages reflects the general approach taken by D 14, which resists categorisation and instead tries to involve its readers as much as possible. The title on the cover is set independently of the rest of the text. Its purpose is to activate the whole of the front page, conveying at least something of its content – almost like visuals, posters or a manifesto. 


The calendar of events functions very much like an agenda. Due to the complexity and heterogeneity of the activities that D 14 is offering, we opted for a listing by location as our main structure. But a listing by day is also provided in the footnotes with numbers at the bottom of the page. Readers can therefore approach the content via two different structures or methods: venue or day of the week. To be able to typeset such vast quantities of information within just two days, I developed a script that extracts the content from a table and formats it in the correct layout.”


The Public Paper is available for free in both cities and at all exhibition venues.


Vier5 About Documenta 14



“We’ve been working on the D 14 project for over two years, our focus being on the show in Athens. We began by first defining some parameters within which we would work. The first logo with the name Documenta and the number 14 was in fact based on an anti-Documenta graffiti that we spotted in Athens. In the course of our work, it seemed to us that it would be interesting to find out whether the Documenta could be communicated solely on the basis of this one number and without the ‘d’ that had hitherto preceded it. This was our rather ‘cryptic’ way of trying to visually anchor the show in the Athens cityscape. Admitting several possible interpretations was important to us. Unlike in Kassel, where the connection to Documenta is soon spotted, Athens, as a new venue, offers plenty of scope for individual interpretations. It is revealing itself more slowly, but because of that all the more intensively, or so it seems to us. Once the other studios also began using the number 14 in isolation on their posters, we returned to a logo-free visualisation of the name Documenta that references the font of the document concerned. The overall look thus evolved from an open, free design system to a rather cumbersome, strict, and closed principle, and in this respect, documents our own interpretation of how the exhibition and its circumstances have evolved over time.”

Find these articles in

Nº 272. Pattern
Jul/Aug 2017

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