Interview / Design Words
July 2010

Interview / Graphic Design Words

Graphic Design Worlds’ was a group exhibition that took place between January 26 and March 27, 2011, at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan. On the occasion of this exhibition, a book was published by Electa – the title of this catalogue was ‘Graphic Design Words’, and it featured interviews with all the participating designers, including us.

Now, before we get to the interview, first a short note about interviews in general, and more specifically ‘our’ interviews: we do think that they date really, really fast. Not that we change our opinions so lightly – as a matter of fact, our opinions are quite stable, or so we like to believe. But the ways in which we try to formulate these opinions might change quite often. We constantly need new and better words to formulate our views – it’s almost as if all these words are in orbit, circling around something that remains impossible to fully articulate, at least for us. So although our underlying views have remained pretty much the same throughout the years, our words are always changing, to the point where they sometimes even seem to contradict each other. That’s why it’s usually quite painful to re-read old interviews, or old texts in general – we seldom agree with what we said.
So why do we publish these old texts and interviews, when we know they don’t necessarily represent our current ways of describing our opinions? We think the main reason for that is exactly because we want to show these changes. By publishing these old texts, we hope to capture some of the shifts that occur from interview to interview – not shifts in our opinions, but rather shifts in our way of translating these opinions into words.

Having said that – below you can find the rough, unedited version of the interview. (The edited version can be found in the book). Questions by Giorgio Camuffo and Maddalena Dalla Mura, answers by us.

1. The worlds of graphic designers

a. Can you briefly describe your “world”, or the environment you built as a team of designers and as persons: studying together, decision to work together, shared values and priorities, quality of life, attitudes, running the business etc.?

When we think about our ‘world’, the first thing that springs to mind is our studio as a physical space. It functions as an atelier, a working place, as an archive of our own work, as a library. It feels like a shelter, as a hiding place. The villain’s headquarters.

We are quite attached to physical spaces. We know that there are artists and designers who can work from any place in the world, people operating from ‘virtual studios’, but we are not like that at all. To function, we really need to encapsulate ourselves in our own physical environment.

b. It seems that you are a very coherent and self-sufficient team. Besides the three of you, how important is it in your life and work to build connections with other people? Would you describe these relationships – with clients, friends, partners, collaborators etc. – as a network, or are there better terms to describe them?

As graphic designer, it’s inevitable that you are part of a network of clients, artists, printers; in the same way, it’s inevitable that, as a human being, you are part of a network of friends, partners, family, etc. We only exist in relationship to the other, that’s a basic condition of existence.

However, we have to admit that we are not very interested in the concept of networks per se. We find it much more interesting and challenging to find, within the networks we are part of, some sort of isolation, some sort of separation. We don’t want to dissolve completely in a world of networks; we also need the possibility of disconnection.
It’s important to be connected, to try to establish meaningful relationships with people and institutes, but at the same time we believe that there should also be some space for isolation. Because we are convinced that isolation and separation are important conditions to come to singular, idiosyncratic ideas, new insights, original ways of thinking, progress.

c. I read in an interview with you that is published in the book Studio Culture that you see the [music] band model as more inspiring for you, than the traditional studio model. You also said that life in the studio “is a way of living, a specific way of looking at the world. Would you consider your way of living and working as a potential ‘model’ for other people?

(Before we answer this question, we want to clarify something. When we said that we consider the rock band a very interesting model for a design studio, we were certainly not talking about the concept of ‘the designer as a rock star’. We just meant that we really like the rock band as an example of a small unit of people, with a very concentrated, singular vision. What we don’t like is the concept of the glamorous, superstar designer; we have always rejected this idea. We hope this is clear!)

Now, to answer your actual question: indeed, we do consider the rock band to be an interesting model. A rock band is a very tight socio-economic unit: just two, three or four people, sharing one collective artistic language. For us, this is a much more interesting model than the mainstream design studio, which has a very typical boss/workers hierarchy: ‘junior’ and 'senior’ designers, interns and directors, ‘creative’ and ‘administrative’ people. We really dislike these traditional separations; we think they create a certain alienation from the end-product.
What we like about the band model is the fact that a band is small enough for every member to feel involved and responsible, but large enough to have the benefits of a collective way of working.

Do we consider the ‘band model’ as a potential model for other people? Well, on the one hand, we have a (perhaps silly) utopian belief that society would be better if it would be divided into smaller economic units. That way, workers would be less alienated from their end-products, and we would all enjoy the fruits of our labour in a more meaningful way.
But then again, we would never want to pretend this model would work for all people. Maybe there are people who actually enjoy working in large structures, completely losing themselves in anonymity, feeling alienated from their labour; who are we to force our model on them?

d. How important is it for you to build connections with other graphic designers or professionals in related field? Is this something that just happens or something that you look for, to find inspiration, to build a community, to share projects etc.?

Well, as we already described above, we think that disconnecting is as important as connecting. We don’t want to lose ourselves in some sort of virtual network culture.

Having said that, we do believe in the concept of solidarity. We think small design studios and individual designers should care for each other, defend each other. This whole subculture of ‘micro-studios’ is something really special; we think we should protect it as much as possible. More and more, culture is taken over by slick, large ‘communication’ studios, advertising agencies, marketing people. In the middle of this madness, we should try to keep the idea of the small, independent studio alive.
So, wherever we can, we try to support our scene. Whenever we talk to clients, we always try to convince them to work with small graphic design studios instead of large agencies. When clients contact us with an assignment, but we are too busy, we always send them a list of small design studios. Because we really believe in this whole tradition of the small independent design studio.

e. Is there a special link with the place/city/nation where you grew and were educated and with the place/city/nation where you decided to settle your own studio? Why Amsterdam? Do you think that Europe today can offer a fruitful milieu? Why, or why not?

Amsterdam is important to us. As a city, it represents some of the values that we also try to reflect in our own work.
On the one hand, Amsterdam is a very neat, organized city; a traditional stronghold of Social-Democracy, a typical Dutch grid-like environment. On the other hand, Amsterdam has strong subversive undercurrents, a history of anarchists, squatters, provos, poets, artists, hippies. So there is always this very interesting tension between culture and counter-culture. And when we look at our own work, we see that tension as well.

As for Europe, to quote Jonathan Richman, “the old world might be dead”, but we “still love the old world”. We know that a lot of designers and architects are really interested in the new, upcoming economies: China, India, the Middle East. These designers are probably right: these new booming economies will undoubtedly be the future, and Europe will turn into one big open-air museum. But still, we’d rather be in an open-air museum than in one of these hyper-hyper-capitalist mega-cities. So let the more entrepreneurial types travel East; we will remain here, to watch over the ruins of the Old World. Someone has to do it.

2. Graphic design worlds

What I would like to discuss next, is your approach to graphic design, your ideas and visions of it; especially, how you practice design to analyse, discuss, narrate the world and to imagine, design and produce “worlds”.
a. How would you describe graphic design and which are your main objectives as a graphic designer? On your website you write that you often describe graphic design as turning language into objects”: can you explain this?
b.Would you say that you design or shape worlds, or that you participate in building worlds in a way, or in narrating, discussing the world? Are you advancing, or trying to advance, any belief or specific vision, idea or ideology of society and culture, or an attitude towards life?

“Turning language into objects”, that is exactly how we would define graphic design. And that is also why we find the subject of your exhibition, the theme of ‘worlds’, so interesting. The word ‘world’ is very close to the word ‘word’. Building worlds with words; this is very similar to the idea of “turning language into objects”. There is a very clear link between using language and creating worlds. In a biblical sense as well: “in the beginning was the word”. We are total atheists, but we have to admit that this whole 'word/world’ concept is quite interesting to us.

We think the act of turning language into objects (and thus building worlds with words), is based on a very primal human urge. Language lives inside us; so, as an act of reversal, humans will try to achieve the opposite: to live inside language. To try to turn ideas into a physical environment: that’s basically the story of culture, isn’t it?

For us, this whole idea of “turning language into objects” is also very much linked to the Marxist concept of dialectical materialism. In the words of Marx, “If humans are shaped by their environment, this environment must be made human”. So that’s pretty much our conviction: the idea that we are shaped by our surroundings, and that we have to shape our surroundings in return. A very modernist view on culture, actually.

c. Do you, as a designer, feel you have a responsibility towards society? Because of the skills you have and the tools and media you use, and because of the opportunities you have to design something and to reach people, because of the privileged position, designers may have, do you feel a commitment in front of society, the world, or just clients? Do you think graphic designers should have such a commitment? Can you draw examples from your work?

We absolutely feel a responsibility, and a strong commitment. What we always try to do in our work is to emphasize the fact that we are living in a constructed, designed environment: a world that has been shaped by people, and thus also can be changed by people. We try very hard not to create images that will imprison people in some kind of illusion, or magic spell: instead, we want to produce artefacts that will keep people constantly aware that they are looking at a constructed object. So, by using subtle-yet-stubborn technical devices (folds, cuts, perforations, empty space, etc.), and by trying to let the designed object refer to the medium of graphic design itself, we try to ‘break the spell’, to make clear to people that a poster is not some sort of magical, god-given image, but that it is a constructed, human-made object: a piece of paper with ink on it.

We once read that Brecht, in his early plays, used to have a banner on stage that proclaimed “DON’T STARE SO ROMANTICALLY”. So that is basically what we try to do in our work: to try to disrupt the romantic gaze.

So we feel we have a responsibility. But it is first of all an aesthetic responsibility; a set of beliefs that manifests itself in the designed object.

Do we think graphic designers SHOULD have a commitment? We don’t know. There are designers out there who seem to function without any social commitment, and they make work that we feel is really important. And then there are designers who are totally driven by social commitment, and they make work that we feel is less interesting. Some designers are socially important, without knowing it, without even wanting it. So yeah. You cannot force social commitment onto people, we think.

d. In 2008, opening the Networks of Design” conference (annual conference of the Design History Society), the French sociologist Bruno Latour argued that the ongoing extension of the word design can offer, let’s say, a framework to “tell a tale of the ways we deal with objects and action more generally; according to him, “design is one of the terms that has replaced the word revolution”: not in the sense that design is revolutionary but meaning that design is a substitute for revolution and modernisation; meaning that, today, designing – that, in Latour’s view, is always re-designing and implies a certain degree of humility – is an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings, and radical departures. Would you agree with this view?

To be honest, we do not know enough about Latour to react properly on his lecture. We are sorry about that. Hopefully we will be able to formulate our thoughts on Latour another time.

Totally unrelated to Latour, we have indeed noticed that the meaning of the word ‘design’ has shifted a bit, lately. In popular media, the word suddenly has a certain gloss. More and more, it seems to represent the shiny world of i-Phones, i-Pods, i-Pads, TED speakers, a commerce-friendly sustainability, a bright sort of pragmatism, ‘innovation’, ‘added business value’, ‘thought leaders’, ‘social design’, ‘network economies’, etc. The people behind this newer, sexier brand of design seem to radiate a glamorous sort of optimism. We are certain that these new design leaders have the best intentions, and in fact, we have no doubt that these brilliant minds will probably deliver us to a better future. But still, this shiny world is something we personally don’t feel connected to.

When we look at our personal interests, it is exactly the ‘hubris’ we are interested in. In our own way, we try to explore those obsolete formats, dead languages, forlorn utopias, forgotten subcultures, lost worlds. We still believe there is something to be said for “absolute certainty, absolute beginnings, and radical departures”, if only for the tragic beauty that can be found in those failed attempts.
We are fascinated by the margins of design, radical gestures, isolated ideas. We believe there are still interesting things to find in the ruins of modernist movements, in the hubris of the Old World: plans, scenarios, or, in the words of the English writer Owen Hatherley, “spectral blueprints”.

3. Worlds “around graphic design

a. Foundations and museums: how important are, in your opinion, museums to discuss and spread visual culture and other institutions (i.e. foundations) to support specifically the culture of graphic design?

Foundations, museums and other government-funded institutes are important, because government-funding is basically the only alternative we have right now to the dominant ideology of the so-called ‘free market’. Whereas ‘free market’ thinking is motivated mainly by maximizing profit (by giving the consumer what they want, and thus what they already know), government-funding has the potential to enable artists and designers to explore ‘unpopular’ concepts. And we are convinced that it is exactly in this sphere of ‘unpopularity’ where the real innovation and progress takes place. This is the concept of the ‘cultural vanguard’, and we very much believe in this.

We are not saying that we are against the ‘free market’ per se. But we do think that there should be some space left for alternative systems, zones untouched by dominant market thinking. And government-funding is a very concrete way to create these alternative spheres, to explore other ways of thinking, making and seeing.

Unfortunately, as more and more European countries are transforming themselves from Social-Democracies into Neo-Liberal economies, and as more and more museums and foundations are dependent on private sponsors, we see that ‘free market’ thinking is increasingly infiltrating culture. This has a very concrete effect on the the practice of graphic design: more and more cultural institutes shed their ideological feathers, and choose to work with advertising agencies rather than with small, independent graphic design studios. It is a sad state of affairs, but for now, there’s not much we can do about it, at least not right now. We should just keep going on, against the grain, and against all odds.

Experimental Jetset, July 2010


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