Thinking about my approach to this short retrospective text about the heterogeneous career Dejan Dragosavac Ruta has had so far in visual communications design, I came to the conclusion that this time it would be best if I told the story from some kind of a generational perspective, no matter how unsuitable it might be for a critic who is supposed to be sober and objective. However, by articulating the relationship of younger colleagues with Ruta’s works, I will try to avoid the general points of reference that have started appearing lately in this regard. On the one hand, the reputation of being the unofficial designer of the local ‘independent’ or civil scene, that has followed Ruta for years, is very useful and serves its purpose, but on the other hand it somewhat contributes to the mystification of Ruta’s body of work in general, since his scope is much larger. Among younger colleagues who are similar to him in terms of their philosophy of life and affinities, the development of Ruta’s career is a sign that it is possible to have a long, good-quality career (and make a decent living from it at the same time), working on projects they feel close to, which they find progressive in value and important for their immediate environment and for the wider context in which they live and work.
Ruta’s first long-term job was as layout editor of Arkzin (first the fanzine of Croatia’s anti-war campaign, later converted into ‘political pop-megazine’) and designing other publications that emerged from that media platform (from 1994 to 2003), in collaboration with Dejan Kršić, Nedjeljko Špoljar and others. During the early 2000s, when the visual language of the independent cultural scene became somewhat standardized and obtained some identity elements of conventional branding, Arkzin’s ‘deconstructionist’ design still seemed natural, spontaneous and exciting. At the time, there were probably no publications at the newsstand that had an even remotely as innovative and bold layout as Arkzin had had several years before, featuring designer’s ‘immersion’ into the content, manipulation with words and images, with their meanings and symbolical connections in a way that actively corresponded with global trends at the time. Ruta keeps pointing out that such an approach to design was mostly a result of technological factors in the production process and the division of labour in the magazine, since the digitalization of tools for newspaper publishing provided the designers with access to a large quantity of typography previously unavailable, while the constant lack of photographs and illustrations forced them to play with the text typographically. It is a fact that Arkzin’s concept of visual communication, no matter how pretentions it seemed at times, was a phenomenon that kept Zagreb an equal participant in international design trends. Moreover, the texts published in the magazine at the time set very high standards that are still valid today, standing out for their literacy, imagination, activist bravery and analytical bluntness, all serving the mission of the uncompromising representation of human rights, civil liberties and participation of marginalized social groups in everyday political and cultural life. Even though they may have encountered this ‘megazine’ with a ten-year delay, reading Arkzin and interpreting the design by Ruta and Kršić was an important lesson to younger colleagues: a professional can and must provide a quality design and communication to any content, but the greatest pleasure comes from working with ideas you deeply believe in.
After Arkzin closed down, Ruta’s career started branching off into several different directions, so in the past ten years, it has become impossible to stroll through the centre of Zagreb without somehow tripping over Ruta’s design, evidence of the great intensity of his activities. For example, if you venture into Galerija vn to see an exhibition of some young artist, you will certainly get your hands on one of Ruta’s promotional leaflets. The folding of the leaflets and the treatment of content in them provides a notable dynamics to the largely static concept of exhibitions in this gallery, forcing the observer to think about the artist’s work in many more layers. Furthermore, if you head down Preradovićeva Street and peek into the yard where the Mama culture club is located, you will probably see one of Ruta’s posters for some lecture or programme being held there. These posters also deviate from the conventional method of communicating such content, motivating observers to get involved in the semantic game of decoding the meaning of the ‘wicked theory’ of civil activism, so they can prepare for what they are about to see and hear merely by walking past the venue. The social engagement of Mama is closely linked with Libra Libera, nominally a literary magazine with a very free concept, systematically designed by – who else but Ruta? Through his easy-to-read and accessible page layout, always refreshed by nice typographical details and contributions by his illustrator colleagues, you could find out much about various borderline yet important topics, from cyber technology and issues of free software, bioethics, environmental and arts activism, the art of performance, all the way to contemporary avant-garde literature inspired by mass culture and so on. One step away from Libra Libera lie the activities of Kontejner, a bureau of contemporary art praxis, with its festivals like Extravagant Bodies, Touch Me and Device_Art, whose visual identity in publications, promo material and all other things are signed by Ruta, of course. In analysing his work for Kontejner, you can see how systematic and continuous visual identity design is a complex and troublesome task. Ruta’s ability to harmonize versatile content and visual elements into a recognizable cultural entity is held in high esteem.
It would be a somewhat thankless task to list all the interesting projects that Dejan Dragosavac Ruta has worked on during his 20-year career, but it is important to point out that almost all of them left a significant trace on the cultural map of Zagreb and Croatia, in the sense of pluralism in the philosophy of life, heterogeneous cultural references and notable enrichment of the specific culture of visual communications. Moreover, it has been proved in several examples that the projects rising out of the independent cultural scene, free from any significant influence of state institutions, proved to be the better part of what was happening in local culture in general. It is therefore not always appropriate to place Ruta’s work exclusively in that niche, not only because he has collaborated over the years with numerous clients who had nothing to do with independent culture (for example, he redesigned Glas Koncila together with Nikola Đurek, but that is a topic that requires a comprehensive essay on its own), but primarily because the initiatives he participated in were not meant to stay in their niche, but were intended for all those interested, regardless of their differences. This is something you cannot say very often for ‘official’, institutional culture. In other words, Ruta is definitely a force on the domestic cultural scene, and it goes without saying that he has always remained original and independent.