An Exhibition of Unrealized Designs Documents the Year That Could Have Been

Parallel-Parallel, an exhibition and website from Dorothee Dähler and Yeliz Secerli.

For many designers working in the cultural sector, the losses were especially stark in the first months of lockdown. Cachin, who specializes in print design for arts and culture clients, saw her work evaporate instantaneously. Fortunate to be able to cover her housing and other basic needs, Cachin could use the unprecedented free time for exploring off the computer—drawing, sewing, and playing with other modes of image making. “I was creative again,” she says, echoing many who welcomed the respite from efficient, output-oriented work as a chance to return to slower crafts. (By July, Cachin was fielding new and unexpected commissions, and she has since been busier than ever.)
After the relative quiet of spring and summer, some contributors who had lost work found it bouncing back, likely buoyed by emergency relief programs for arts and culture organizations, which have varied in scope and success from country to country. Parallel-Parallel contributor Julia Luckmann, who graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2020, struggled to find employment in the summer’s bleak job market but by the fall found steady work with London-based design studio Regular Practice. 

A screenshot of a website displaying a poster that is mirrored on either side of the page. A bright blue drop down provides text information on the top half of the site.
Parallel-Parallel web design.

Conceived by Dähler and Secerli and programmed by Quentin Creuzet, the site’s design is, according to Dähler, “a blunt interpretation of the name.” Text and image are duplicated in identical side-by-side columns, and even the cursor is doubled, physically locating the user “in both places at the same time.” Dähler and Secerli have long been fascinated by graphic design’s ability to engage “potential realities,” citing interest in designer Jon Sueda’s 2014 exhibition All Possible Futures, which considered both finished and unrealized experiments in speculative design. While Parallel-Parallel’s gallery is dedicated to contributors’ own words and images, Dähler and Secerli explore their interest in speculative futures through a separate tab of curated texts, ranging from a Q&A on parallel universes with quantum physicist Fred Alan Wolf to artist Ryan Gander’s musings on Back to the Future, multiverses, and “double-fronted playing cards.”
Parallel-Parallel remains open to any format, but posters dominate the platform—as messengers of dates and times, Secerli notes, poster commissions are especially vulnerable to cancellations. Pre-pandemic, the turnover of poster campaigns formed a steady rhythm in the urban landscape, and walking through Zurich in lockdown, Dähler became hyper aware of posters sitting stagnant. “It made me realize how important they are, at least to me, for the city to feel alive,” she says. In Amsterdam, Ines Cox’s posters for the Stedelijk’s Nam June Paik exhibition lingered in the streets long after the museum shuttered its doors. “With no other campaign in line to replace this one, the sun has been doing some editing by making the bright colors more pale every day,” Cox writes in her Parallel-Parallel entry, the fading prints a constant reminder of a world on pause. To Erwin Brinkers, Danny van den Dungen, and Marieke Stolk of Amsterdam’s Experimental Jetset, the collision of “utopian” posters with COVID warning signs illustrated “two different models of what graphic design can be”—a means of “envisioning better futures” or of addressing the “urgency and dystopia of the present.”
Similarly insulated from the worst effects of the pandemic, other Parallel-Parallel contributors used the months of lockdown to develop long-standing personal projects. Our Polite Society and Seoul-based studio Shin Shin both took advantage of the down time to develop new publishing arms; in fact, Shin Shin’s Parallel-Parallel contribution—an unproduced publication for the studio’s installation at Seoul’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art—became one of the first titles published by its imprint Hwawon.

As Parallel-Parallel enters its second year, Dähler and Secerli have no plans of slowing down. Treating the platform as a living document, they continue to grow the archive as word of mouth spreads. Moving forward, Secerli tells me, they hope to disrupt the collection’s Western European bias and represent more voices. They also have plans to take the gallery offline: with the goal of eventually mounting an exhibition, they’ve begun collecting physical copies of produced work and considering modes of displaying unrealized projects. Let’s just hope they wait to design the exhibition posters.
“We had the first lockdown on the 13th of March, and I think I sent both posters to print on the 11th,” Zurich-based independent designer Dorothee Dähler says, recalling last spring’s shutdown. Hoping to save her designs for Lucerne’s Museum of History and for an exhibition space in the neighboring village of Emmen, Dähler created stickers listing later opening dates, and her revised posters were installed around town. “We thought it was going to be two weeks,” she remembers with disbelief. A week and a half later, New York City also went dark, leaving the Jewish Museum’s design director Yeliz Secerli with her own stack of exhibition posters hot off the press. As lockdown projections came and went and the pandemic raged on, Dähler and Secerli—friends from their days as graduate students at Werkplaats Typografie—got to talking…what other work was going unseen? 

While government funding has enabled some European cultural institutions and venues to weather the storm and carry on printing, many Parallel-Parallel contributors have struggled to get their work from pixels to print. Jens Schildt and Matthias Kreutzer of Our Polite Society had been designing exhibition posters for Amsterdam’s Plan B Projects for four years when the pandemic hit, sending their design for artist Dan Walwin’s June 2020 exhibition Birsong — Mainframe into social-media purgatory. Schildt and Kreutzer’s black-and-white typographic posters typically line a wall in the project space, forming a much-needed archive for Plan B’s programming, which, Kreutzer notes, is otherwise so minimally documented that it “might as well not exist.” The “event of the printed poster” becomes a crucial record: “print is something that lasts, something that gets stuck in the cracks,” Kreutzer says, reflecting on the comparatively short lifespans of ever-changing web technologies. Our Polite Society’s design was retroactively printed in August, but other Parallel-Parallel contributors have seen their print designs retooled as digital campaigns or PDF publications, if not cancelled outright.
As 2020 wore on, the rollercoaster of reopenings and lockdowns kept these models in constant flux. Printing event dates meant rolling the dice, but Fribourg-based designer Anna Haas thought she had rigged the game with a risk-proof solution for Palace St. Gallen’s November concert lineup: divisible into four mini posters, Haas’s A2 design could be cut down and used for whichever shows made it to the stage. “It horribly failed,” Haas tells me, laughing at her luck when all four shows were called off. The impossibility of planning drove the Swiss music venue Rocking Chair (RKC) to approach posters as more than event announcements. Working with designer Giliane Cachin, RKC opted to use its print runs to offer words of hope, creating buzzy orange and green posters with lyrics of Jean Villard Gilles’s “Le Bonheur” [Happiness].
While Dähler and Secerli purposefully made the parameters open, the majority of entries represent commissioned works in the hard-hit cultural sector. The contributors lineup reads as something of a who’s who of contemporary European design, but Dähler stresses that “the idea is not to collect ‘good’ graphic design”; rather, the platform aims to foster solidarity within the design community. As the site turns one, it continues to grow, documenting the year’s starts and stops, hopes and disappointments, and indexing the state of cultural-sector design work throughout the turbulence.  

Conversations with friends, colleagues, and former teachers quickly unearthed more designs: posters for a culinary pop-up in Paris, a DJ set at Strelka Bar in Moscow, an improvisational jazz festival in Berlin, an experimental type workshop in Cairo. Some had been printed and some, as Dähler puts it, got “stuck in [designers’] computers.” On April 25, 2020, Dähler and Secerli announced the launch of Parallel-Parallel, an online gallery for these works, which now felt like artifacts of a parallel universe—a world of theater festivals, cinema screenings, and what-does-six-feet-apart-mean underground music shows. Wanting to expand beyond their own networks, the duo opened the door for graphic designers to submit commissioned or self-initiated works that “a) have been postponed indefinitely, b) will never be realized or published, c) were published for an event that will never take place because of this damn virus.”
The ripple effects of cancellations, closures, and format changes are implicit in Parallel-Parallel’s archive. A single unprinted concert poster, for example, becomes evidence not only of its designer’s labor but also of a wider ecosystem of printers, paper manufacturers, ink producers, and color separators losing work (not to mention the event’s musicians, sound and lighting teams, ushers, vendors, and so on, in an almost endless chain reaction).