At the beginning, the main purpose of this blog was to keep family and friends informed about my journey abroad. At some point I met this young girl in a book fair in Barcelona, she was a student at Werkplaats Typographie (I’ll post on that utopic and awesome school in the future) and Danny van den Dungen of Experimental Jetset was one of her teachers. She happily invited to visit her school when in Arnhem and meet Danny and Armand Mevis, that was an opportunity I could not let pass!
It was June when I met Danny at said school and he, Marieke & Erwin enthusiastically got to answer all of my questions. For me personally it’s a great honor to be able to share this interview with you!
Graphic design in Amsterdam
It’s been quite some time since people first talked about a notable decline regarding conditions and quality of graphic design and about how clients value our work. Do you have the same impression? And why?
We have been answering similar questions in earlier interviews – so forgive us if we seem to repeat ourselves here. But in general, we don’t believe in a decline regarding the quality of graphic design. In fact, we think the work created by young graphic designers nowadays is more interesting than it was in the previous few decades.
At the same time, we do believe that there is an economic and political crisis taking place in society at large. And obviously, this crisis has a very dramatic effect on the current cultural landscape – including the field of graphic design.
There used to be a time when cultural institutes and museums would really support independent studios, and young designers. But nowadays (mainly because of the whole mixture of neo-liberalism, privatization and populism that is currently forced upon us), a lot of cultural institutes (even the smaller ones) simply decide to play it safe, and choose to work with large branding and advertising agencies instead. In turn, these large advertising agencies then just hire some young designers, to do the ‘cultural work’ for them – and just discard these young designers after the work is done. After all, for these large agencies, these cultural projects serve primarily to add some ‘depth’ to their corporate portfolios – but they wouldn’t want to actually invest in those cultural projects, in any intellectual or ideological way.
We feel there’s a really strange discrepancy going on – while young designers seem to be getting more and more intellectual and progressive, a lot of cultural institutes are actually trying to achieve a more populist tone, and getting more conservative. They seem to move in opposite directions – and we have no idea how this rift can ever be solved.
Young designers are currently producing a lot of very interesting work – but this production takes place on a more subcultural, isolated (and hidden) level: in the spheres of self-publishing, small exhibitions, book fairs, underground projects, summer schools, master’s programs. To survive, these young designers are either forced to work (or worse, to intern for free) for large corporate agencies, or they have to find a ‘day-time job’, outside of the field of graphic design. There seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities nowadays for young designers to just start their own small, independent studios, and inject their ideas straight into the public space – and we think that’s a real shame.
Do you specialize in a particular domain or do you offer a more generalized service?
We see the field in which we work as incredibly broad. The projects in which we are involved are quite diverse: from small artists’ initiatives (such as W139) to very large museums (such as the Whitney), from DIY fanzines to widely-distributed postage stamps, from posters for local venues to t-shirts for Japanese fashion labels, etc. Within this field, we are operating in a lot of different ways: we design, we edit, we research, we curate, we install, we print, we write, we translate, we teach, we lecture, etc. So we feel that this domain (the field in which we operate) is extremely broad and diverse.
However, we also realize that a lot of other people will regard our field as very narrow, and will just dismiss it as ‘the cultural sector’ (or something derogatory like that). As if ‘the cultural sector’ is some sort of getto, basically.
But that’s just the way it is. What some people see as a ‘broad field’, others will dismiss as a ‘small domain’ – and the other way around, of course.
From the inside, things will always look different than from the outside, we guess.
Style & trends
Does a graphic designer need to have his own style or rather follow the trends? Should a design be timeless, open for evolution or rather be adapted to the trends?
Well, we can only speak for ourselves here. And personally, we never felt any affinity with words like ‘styles’ or ‘trends’. We rather think in terms such as languages, dialects, vocabularies.
To us, the word ‘style’ presupposes that ‘form’ and ‘content’ are somehow seperated – that a ‘style’ is something that can be added to (or stripped from) a certain ‘content’, without really altering that content, almost like a decorative layer. While the word ‘language’ has a very different meaning (at least, to us) – in the sphere of ‘language’, form and content are inseparable. The language in which a story is written will always alter the meaning of that story. Language is never a neutral device – it has a narrative of its own.
So in our view, the way in which we design is a language, not a style.
And our particular language is a product of all the previous languages in which we were brought up. We were shaped by the language of Late-Modernism, the visual landscape of the Netherlands in the ’70s, in which we grew up as children. But we were also shaped by the language of Punk and Post-Punk, the subcultures that formed us as teenagers in the ’80s.
So, out of these two languages (and some others), we forged our own dialect, our own vocabulary, our mother tongue. This also means that we see our way of designing as inherently autobiographical – we are always speaking in our own voice, referring to our own experiences, our own influences, our own roots.
We don’t put on a different mask for each project – what you see is always our own face.
In Amsterdam, do graphic designers follow certain trends or does the city have its own style?
Again, we don’t really have an affinity with words like ‘trends’ or ‘styles’. But we do think that the graphic language, as being ‘spoken’ by designers living and working in Amsterdam, is partly shaped by the (material and historical) infrastructure of the city. It’s inevitable.
We know that there has been a lot of talk lately about the ‘globalization’ of graphic design. And yet – despite the seemingly infinite ‘globalizing’ influence of internet, we still believe that the work one creates is always shaped by the material (and local) environment in which the work is created.
And Amsterdam, as a material environment, is so particular and so specific – it will always leave traces in the work produced in its surroundings.
In the first place there’s the infrastructure of Amsterdam – not only the infrastructure of schools (Rietveld Academy, Sandberg Institute, etc.) and cultural institutes (Stedelijk Museum, W139, De Appel, etc.), but also the actual material infrastructure of streets and canals. For some reason, the circular shapes of streets and canals in Amsterdam create a sort of battery, a sort of circuit, in which contrarian and subversive forces seem to circulate forever.
In addition to that, there is the historical dimension of the city. From the notion of ‘Republiek Amsterdam’ (the ‘Republic of Amsterdam’) in the 1500s, all the way through to the concept of Amsterdam as a ‘Magies Sentrum’ (‘Magickal Centre’) in the 1960s – Amsterdam has always been a platform for dissident and renegade views.
We think it’s impossible for any designer living and working in Amsterdam to escape the material and historical forces that are still haunting the infrastructure of the city.
And rightly so.
Do you know about graphic design in Barcelona? Do you think it has its own style?
When we think about Barcelona, we think about Mariscal – we were huge (huge!) fans of Mariscal when we were young. In fact, when we see Mariscal’s early work (El Rrollo Enmascarado, Los Garriris, etc.), we still get goose-bumps.
And in the mid-’80s, we were also following underground comics like Peter Pank, Cairo, El Vibora, etc. (obviously, we couldn’t actually read these comics, as they were in Spanish. But a lot of these comics were translated, and published in Dutch and English magazines like Titanic and Escape – so that’s how we know about these Spanish comics).
We also really love the ’60s pop-art wall paintings at Flash Flash. Whenever we are in Barcelona (which is not very often, much to our regret), we try to visit this tortilleria. We are vegan, so we obviously don’t eat tortillas – but we just visit this place to have a drink, and look at the murals.
So we have a lot of love for Barcelona. This whole mix of Mariscal and Peter Pank, Miro and Gaudi, Picasso and Tapies. There’s this rebellious Catalan spirit, this modernist life-force running through La Rambla, streaming from the mountains to the sea (and back again). It’s great, we think.
The designer of the future
Does the profession of graphic design need a facelift?
In our view, it’s not graphic design that needs a facelift, but society as a whole that needs a complete restructuring.
As we already explained in our answer to your first question – if there is indeed a crisis in graphic design, we think that this crisis is rooted in the dismantling of the welfare state, and the ongoing attack on social-democracy in general. Europe is more and more becoming a neo-liberal project (while the rest of the world is either turning to sadistic religious fundamentalism, or absurd hyper-capitalism). Social-democratic or socialist alternatives seem almost impossible to envision.
There are sometimes tiny glimmers of hope on the horizon (student/occupation movements, insurrectionist groups, Syriza, Podemos, the Catalan and Scottish parties, Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, left-wing tendencies in South-America, secular Kurds, etc. etc.) – but in general, it seems that we will be stuck in a neo-liberal reality for the time being.
So we have to be realistic (and paradoxical) here. We somehow have to function (and survive) within a neo-liberal economic situation, but with our socialist principles in mind. To speak with the Situationists: we have to work within the spectacle, against the spectacle.