Every piece of Ayaka B. Ito's portfolio is considered. No subhead is overlooked, no hover state left to chance. Every color complements its individual project. Every piece of text is carefully kerned.
It's the best representation of how the New York based-designer and illustrator works: with diligence and attention to detail, owning every element of everything she does. So much so, she'll often create her own typefaces for projects, just to ensure originality and full control over the piece.
In this way, a decided elegance emerges in her work, no matter the client or project. And while much of that comes down to taste, style and expertise, we learn in this interview that for Ito, it's also thanks to endless studying and practice.
I think many of us associate “elegance” with softness, refinement or even traditional femininity. But I think work that is edgy, bold or dark can be elegant too. How do you define elegance?
I agree! Elegance can be represented through any means, and it doesn't have to be associated with femininity or softness. The design can be big and bold or full of glitter — to me, creating something "elegant" is about carving out a beautiful space for the design to live in and allowing it to feel effortlessly elevated.
You’ve shaped your identity through your elegant projects and typefaces. It’d be easy to call this your “style” but I think it goes deeper than that – to the clients you choose and turn down, the projects you accept and your attention to detail, for example. Would you say this has happened naturally for you?
Looking back, I've always enjoyed making intricate and detailed crafts growing up, whether it was origami, sewing, drawing, or making jewelry with tiny beads. I grew up as a single child, so I spent most of my time working on long craft projects that helped me develop immense patience and improve my attention to detail.
In terms of my "style," it's something I've actively worked on over the years. I don't think I've ever imagined myself becoming a graphic or type designer with my current repertoire of projects, to be honest.
Whatever I enjoy and am passionate about, I've made it my habit to learn everything about the subject matter. One day I'll be obsessed with traditional Disney animation drawings, and another day, I'm enamored by 30s Japanese lettering. I save every cent I can to allow myself to buy every book about typography, fashion, and arts that help build my foundation.
I also enjoy surrounding myself with people that inspire and push me. I cherish and curate every object we have in our home. Surrounding myself with as many things as possible that are meaningful, I believe, has taken shape into the body of work I currently have.
And this is the same with my career path. Whatever it took, I pursued working at two fantastic design studios in NYC — RoAndCo and NR2154 — where I had the opportunity to work with many high-end fashion, art and lifestyle clients that have also shaped my style of work.
It has taken 15 years since I left Japan to shape these things, and I'm eternally grateful for every person I've met that has helped build my path.
What role does typography play in your work? It seems to be a dominant one in the projects I’ve seen lately. You even go the extra difficult path of creating your own typefaces for clients. Why?
I always hope to go the extra mile of creating something truly unique for every client. Let's say for a book project, I love designing not just the book cover and layout but also the typeface with which I set the content. My dream projects have been those where I can make everything you see on a page as original as possible.
Just as much as my handwriting or yours will be naturally different from anyone else's, I've learned that if I hand-draw logomarks or make lettering and typefaces, it helps me create something original naturally.
With an increasing number of graphic designers in the industry and design services becoming readily available, creating custom type has become my way of pursuing my own authenticity.
"I always go overboard for every project, finding insurmountable references and making tons of internal explorations."
What decisions go into your choice of a specific typeface for a project? Obviously some of it just “feels right” but are there any choices, conscious or subconscious, that you consider?
Whether I create a new typeface for a project or find the perfect existing one from another foundry, I always start by asking myself the following questions:
What purpose should the typeface serve? Is it for headlines only or also body copy?
What medium will it be used on, digital or print?
Who are the client and the audience?
What concept or aesthetic am I trying to achieve?
Every typeface is designed for a specific purpose, so it's essential to pair the project with the right typeface from a practical perspective.
That all said, at the end of my exploration, I usually make my final decision based on intuition. If I love the typeface, I know I can get my clients excited about it.
The perfect typeface also will depend on the copy that you're writing. I wish I were a better copywriter, honestly. I can't stress enough how important good writing is. Good writing elevates the typeface and visa-versa.
I’ve worked with you before and I know you not only create gorgeous work, but you’re incredibly fast. Of course, a lot of this comes down to expertise and years of practicing your craft. But that truth aside: How do you achieve greatness on a deadline?
Oh boy, flattered you think so! Quite frankly, I always go overboard for every project, finding insurmountable references to making tons of internal explorations.
After years of consistently doing so, you start to build a repertoire of ways to explore ideas quickly, and eventually, you become more efficient with your process.
I wish I could keep my explorations to 2-3 ideas internally for every branding project. I think it comes from a fear of missing out. I need to exhaust every idea in my head to know that what I'm presenting to my clients is the best one.
I’d say for most traditional designers, typeface design feels like one of the most “inaccessible” areas of design. The expertise and level of craft aren’t something you learn in design school. How did you get into typeface design?
I understand! I never learned type design or even touched calligraphy in school. I studied new media design & imaging at Rochester Institute of Technology. It was truly an amazing experience where they taught you skills from 3D, animation, Flash, and Actionscript 2.0 (yup), but never traditional graphic design.
At my first job at Big Spaceship, I had great mentors Dan Mall and Jarrod Riddle, who had a deep understanding of type, which inspired me to learn more. I started by taking after-work typography courses at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Without knowing much, the class I took was a 10-week session with the legendary Ed Benguiat to learn how to kern… Helvetica. It was so hard and so intense, but so incredibly helpful. I took his class twice.
Thanks to NYC having fantastic resources, I also took many calligraphy classes at the Society of Scribes. I wanted to start from the basics, learn how to draw type, and understand the history of Latin alphabets. Hands down, my favorite class was learning Spencerian Script with Michael Sull!
I started learning more about customizing type digitally through working on many logomarks at RoAndCo in 2012. When I was at NR2154, I was lucky to have great mentors again, Jacob Wildschiødtz and Elina Asanti who helped elevate my taste. We always pushed every project to build on bespoke visual elements. I made custom lettering and type design for books and magazines. After working on Free, a Japanese fashion magazine with a four-year run, I wanted to learn more about designing typefaces, because the font we used for the body copy was the only element on the page that I didn’t have full control over.
I took two months off from work to pursue Type@Cooper’s Condensed program to dip my toes in the typeface-making world. The program gives you an introduction to calligraphy, history, drawing letters and essential font creating skills, but I also learned that five weeks was just not enough. Luckily there was a spot open for the one-year extended program, so I continued studying while working full-time at NR2154.
I've been lucky to have projects where I could immediately include custom typefaces, so that's how I started making type design more of a focus in my work.
Currently, I'm also studying how to draw Japanese characters and creating a Japanese typeface. Due to COVID, I can't travel back to Japan, and the Japanese postal services suspended international shipping, so it isn't easy finding resources! It gets my blood boiling with excitement, knowing that there's an infinite amount of knowledge and skill to acquire.
For those interested in getting into type design, here are a few of my favorite resources to start from:
We've said that a portfolio should be curated. This brings the picture of you are and what you want into clear view. Few portfolios accomplish this better than The Locals.
The Locals was created by Søren Jepsen, a Danish fashion and lifestyle photographer based in Germany. Upon first landing on the site, you might assume it's a fashion publication. It is in fact Jepsen's collection of street photography, curated separately from his other work and branded with its own name.
Jepsen has accomplished something smart yet simple here. In creating a narrative around his photography, he's made it stick in your mind. He's focused the spotlight on the work he's presumably proud of, and elevated it to its own brand. The Locals website aligns beautifully with our philosophy around portfolios, and just so happens to be built on Semplice.
Here we talk to Søren about the thought behind the website, how the pandemic has affected his work and what he sees ahead for the fashion industry.
Søren Jepsen, founder of The Locals – thelocals.dk
Hey Søren, can you tell us about yourself and what you do? How did you get into fashion photography?
I started out with my own street style blog about 13 years ago, documenting the style of regular people on the streets of Copenhagen, my hometown. Today, I still shoot street style, but I also do a lot of editorials, campaigns and travel photography.
Tell us about The Locals. What is it and how did it come to be?
The Locals is my home on the internet. It’s where my street style photography lives. I also have a portfolio site that showcases all aspects of my work but on The Locals, I only present my latest street style pictures.
It grew out of my first blog, which was called Copenhagen Street Style. After a few years, I felt that that name limited the scope of my work, as street style photography became more mainstream a decade ago, and I branched out to different cities and events.
Today, I travel to all of the big fashion weeks and shoot most of my pictures there. The Locals is linked to a custom archive, where my clients can find all of my pictures from previous seasons and sort them by trend, person, fabric color, etc.
The Locals website feels so branded and curated, I thought it was a publication at first. This is such a smart way to position yourself, especially if you have a very specific interest and line of work. Did you do this intentionally from the start? How has it worked out for you?
Yes, it was very intentional to build it that way. I have a giant archive of thousands of pictures but felt that they needed heavy curation. It is very important to me that there is a red line in everything I do and that my work is presented in a visually pleasing way. That not only makes me stand out among my competition, but also lets the people looking at my work get the full experience that I intended.
I also love to change it up. If someone is looking for something specific, I direct them to my archive.
How has the pandemic affected your work? I know most fashion weeks were canceled or moved online. Do you see this impacting the fashion and/or fashion photography world in any permanent way – besides masks becoming the new accessory?
The pandemic had a massive impact on my work. I used to travel almost non-stop. I just looked it up: in 2019, I took 24 different trips to more than a dozen different countries. This year, I have mostly been at home since I returned from Paris fashion week in early March. There were a few short trips during the summer, but generally, work is very sparse. It is quite scary. Most fashion weeks have been cancelled, and travel restrictions and quarantine requirements make it very hard to plan anything.
At the moment, I have no idea if and when things will be picking up again. I am sure that fashion weeks will continue to take place and be back once a vaccine is available. But I also think that the public might be looking for new ways of covering these events. People start to pause and question this all-out consumerism and the constant travel.
You’ve been doing fashion photography for more than a decade, and I see you catalog trends and your own OOTDs as well. What do you predict for the next decade of fashion? What trends do you hope or believe will come back?
I’m sure we will continue to see a revival of some specific trends, as we always do. But that doesn’t really interest me. What I do hope is that we can take this forced break and this general reckoning with the status quo that we have seen at the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer to question the industry itself. I am hoping for a slowing down and for far more inclusive representation of marginalized groups, be it color of skin, gender or size.
One of Søren's OOTDs, featured on his site
Last question: Why did you choose Semplice for your portfolio?
Because it’s the best. I have built my own websites for more than a decade and Semplice is far and away my favorite service. It doesn’t require a lot of programming skills to achieve beautiful and well-designed results. On top, it’s very fast and very easy to adapt to different screen sizes, which is just so important these days.
I am not the only one who likes it, by the way. I get a lot of positive feedback about my websites from people, and Apple even featured another one of my Semplice websites in a keynote.
On DESK, we always enjoy exploring creativity beyond the UX or brand design we're typically surrounded by.
It's here, not within our own field, that we find inspiration. And that's how we discovered Vagabund, a custom motorcycle shop based in Graz, Austria (which happens to be my hometown).
We decided to talk to Paul Brauchart, one half of the two-man Vagabund team, about building a brand that's more than "just a motorcycle shop," and just what "form follows function" means for beautiful, minimalistic bike designs.
Vagabund’s tagline is “We‘re not reinventing the wheel, but we‘re rethinking it.” How are you rethinking it? What are some of the dreams or requests you (and your customers) have that traditional motorcycles or the existing market weren’t fulfilling?
To us, Vagabund is more than just a motorcycle garage. This is where we started five years ago but now we’re growing into a larger brand that is seeking to diversify. We are getting some awesome companies that want to collaborate with us and we’re very excited for what the future holds.
When it comes to designing the bikes, we usually try to get rid of all the unnecessary stuff and integrate everything as minimalistically as possible. We’re currently working on a fantastic motorcycle which includes a ton of handmade aluminium bodywork. Our main goal for the future is producing motorcycles that are artistic pieces, yet still totally functional and street legal.
Do you mostly modify existing builds or are you designing and building some bikes from scratch?
Normally we work with pre-existing bikes as EU regulations can be problematic. For us it's not worth building a whole brand new suspension, frame or engine. However, once the bikes are stripped to their bare skeleton we recreate all the other parts from scratch.
I suspect people who do what you do have made a life of tinkering, making, following their curiosity. How do you get into motorcycle design? Did you do some sort of design or engineering before this, or did you just find yourself here?
I studied information design and Philipp Rabl, my partner, studied mechanical engineering. We both grew up constantly around motorcycles and were always building things. I met Philipp while we were both studying and working as test drivers.
What is Vagabund’s design philosophy? I’ve seen “simplicity” and “form follows function” mentioned in your marketing, but motorcycles seem anything but simple and your motorcycle designs are beautifully detailed.
Thank you, that’s kind! Simplicity is definitely what we strive for. While motorcycles are complex, we're trying to design as simply as possible and still maintain functionality and legality. It’s a huge challenge designing around existing bikes, we need to watch legislation and still try to achieve our minimalist aims. This is a challenge we love; it's not good enough if it looks nice, it´s still a vehicle which must be roadworthy.
Can you give us a behind the scenes look at your work? How many people are on your team, who does what and how does a typical customization process go? How do we work with you as a customer to get our dream Vagabund bike?
We are a two-man-show; I mainly do the design, marketing, graphics and conceptual stuff. And Phillip mainly does the engineering elements like CAD, welding, electronics and the mechanical stuff. However, we work closely together and our work often overlaps; I’m always in the workshop and Philip often designs too.
Typically when new customers contact us they have seen a previous Vagabund motorcycle that they admire, and we use this as a basis to craft them their own original piece. We try to create a whole experience around our customers getting a Vagabund motorcycle.
A big part of riding a motorcycle for many people, at least in the United States, is the culture and community. What is the community like in Austria? Do you aim to influence or change it in any specific ways?
I do think that the “community” feeling is much bigger in the States, and we aren't as much into this motorcycle scene. But there is a big motorcycle culture here, especially since we have fun roads to drive on through the countryside.
We aim to bring back some value to the field of custom motorcycles, and therefore mostly build limited stuff. We’ve chosen the longer path but a consistent one. We are trying to build a brand that develops cool products, and if we can influence the community in any way it would be awesome.
In the States (at least in the cities), bicycle sales have surged during the pandemic, and it looks like motorcycle sales are booming too. How has the pandemic affected your work, either positively or negatively?
We’ve been very fortunate during the pandemic and thankfully haven’t been affected too badly. We’ve managed it well and are grateful that our customers are still with us.
You’re already shipping worldwide. Where do you go from here? What’s the roadmap for Vagabund?
Jokes aside, we’ve also got some really exciting projects outside of the motorcycle realm. We’ve had our own clothing for a while now, and are currently collaborating with other companies on some cars, bicycles and other cool things.
We’re now thankfully reaching a stage where other companies would like to identify with our brand and image, and that's really crazy because we just started building motorcycles in a small parental basement workshop around five years ago. We definitely won't limit ourselves in what we're doing and creating.
Creating book covers is a dream design job. Many of us have it on our bucket list. Few of us find ourselves designing book covers full-time.
Janet Hansen is one of those special few who designs book jackets for a living. In almost a decade in the industry, she's designed for a range of clients and publishing houses, including The New Yorker, the New York Times, Penguin Press, Vanity Fair, New Directions and Farrar Straus & Giroux. She currently works as an associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf in Manhattan, while freelancing everything from rebrand projects to New York Times illustrations on the side.
In this interview, Hansen takes us behind the scenes of her work. We learn just how much freedom a cover designer actually has, the standard process and strategy when designing a book cover, and a lot more.
Some of us imagine a jacket designer collaborating closely with the author on the cover, finding a way to capture the essence of the book in one beautiful image – only after reading it and pondering its themes, symbols and characters deeply on their own. I'm sure it’s not (always) quite as romantic as that. How does it typically go for you?
While I do enjoy reading and visually analyzing a manuscript, it’s true that I sometimes am not able to, due to deadlines and abundance of projects. There’s also a surprising number of people involved in the cover approval process: publishers, agents, editors, sales — so it is not likely for me to be in direct contact with the author without many others involved.
It’s also important to remember too that while writing is an art form, ultimately a book is a product and its cover is an advertisement. My job is to find a balance between capturing the essence of the book while also making it “commercial” enough to entice retailers into marketing it and readers into buying it.
Artwork by Daniel Bjugård
Like any design work, I imagine there are publishers who just “get it” and give you full creative freedom, and others who don’t. Is that accurate, or are you typically given freedom to explore whatever direction you choose?
I’m lucky enough to work with people who allow a good amount of creative freedom. I will admit though, due to years of working with a group, I sometimes habitually steer my design into approaches I know will gain a more mass appeal. It’s important to break out of that habit though, and to test what a book cover could be even if it means more recurring rejection.
There are of course instances where an editor or author requests a very specific approach. I find that in these cases it’s sort of like shooting yourself in the foot.
Photograph by Jouke Bos
I am curious how far your final drafts usually are from your first ones. Can you walk us through the journey of a specific jacket design, from concept to final design?
Here's one that I think has changed in an interesting way…
Here was my first sketch for “The Slaughterman’s Daughter” (out in February 2021).
While the feedback was fairly positive, there was pushback on the idea being primarily a playing card. Also was pushback on the script type. I was initially concerned about removing the look of the playing card, but after trying it I realized it still worked well (and maybe even was better?!).
What I found out when I changed the type though, is that it wasn’t really complimenting the illustration in the way that the handwritten script was — it was a much weaker cover.
I begged for permission to hire an illustrator to rework this quite amateur illustration. And with Kelly Blair and John Gall’s blessing I was able to hire the very talented Jon Kutt at High Road Design, who elevated my wonky sketch into a beautiful work.
I presented this one to our Pantheon team and there was concern again about the type (womp womp!). So I went with the more book cover friendly typeface that complimented the subject matter well. Final approved sketch below.
Through experiences like this, have you learned any specific ways to not only pitch your designs, but fight for them? Any tips for designers who also face the possibility of design by committee?
I actually don’t do much of the talking! I tend to just listen. I don’t rule out criticism or suggestions until I have thoughtfully considered them. It’s also important to speak up if you feel strongly about why a design does or does not work — and to back up your opinion with facts and examples.
Where the magic happens. Janet's WFH desk.
What are a few of your favorite published covers we can find on bookshelves (or online)?
I’m really excited about Hiroko Oyamada’s new novel ‘The Hole’ that is coming out this October. And an old jacket of mine I never cringe at is ‘Voices in the Night’ by Steven Millhauser.
When it comes to the design I do, we have systems and best practices in place that guide the work. Are there any kind of best practices for designing book covers?
Reading the manuscript is step one for me. If I don’t have the time, I at least read several chapters. I highlight recurring themes or any visuals that I think could represent the book well, then create a grid of these themes and try to think of ways to visually represent them all. I usually will narrow my ideas down to three different concepts, and then focus solely on those.
It seems like a practice in restraint. Any insights you can share with us for narrowing your focus and creating your own restraints with the playing field seems wide open?
While I think of visuals that capture the essence of the book, it also needs to work well with its title. I try to steer clear of imagery that is used often on covers, and instead go with something that is visually interesting to me personally.
I usually find my inspiration outside of book cover design, in fine art or film. If the concept is one I have not seen on a book cover, and it is abstract enough that it could be interpreted in more than one way, I think that is a good thing.
Are there any specific trends you notice happening right now in cover design?
Anything with large and legible type seems to be of trend, because of the concern of how a cover will read online at a thumbnail size. The problem with this trend is it does not necessarily look as nice on its printed counterpart.
"While writing is an art form, ultimately a book is a product and its cover is an advertisement."
Do you sometimes have to make an effort to design for the book, rather than leaving “your personal mark?” Or do you consider yourself having a recognizable strength or style when it comes to your jacket designs?
I’m less interested in leaving my mark than I am in making something that I think is refreshing to see in a sea of book covers. I don’t always succeed in that goal, but it’s something to aim towards. And of course, I have certain tendencies, like leaning towards simplicity or design that is stripped down and clean!
I’d imagine it’s beneficial that you enjoy and resonate with the story you’re designing – but do you ever struggle with getting TOO close to a story you love, to the point where it clouds your perspective for the design?
There are times I have loved the book so much that it clouded my perspective as a designer to feel the need to market or “commercialize” it. If I don’t enjoy a manuscript, those are the covers I find the most difficult to get approved. A connection is missing.
Has the evolution of the book business – namely, our short attention spans, the rise of short-form, ephemeral content, book sales sadly moving mostly online to behemoths like Amazon, etc. – affected your work in any noticeable way?
My career began around the time Amazon and e-books came to rise, so I have always been working alongside this evolution. I try not to let this change how I design, but it’s sort of inevitable I guess. I still am a strong believer that the quality of the printed book should come first.
Despite everything happening online now, we are still (thanks to Instagram) more visual than ever. And we all know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we also know we’ve all noticed and purchased books based on the cover alone. Do you think, in this current age, a cover is still a valuable sales tool?
A good cover is a signifier that the process of putting this book out in the world has been thoughtful. It lets you know that the people putting it together care about it. And if a cover is good, people are more likely to share it on their social media. There’s so many more outlets for advertising in that way.
Are there any book covers someone else designed that you wish you’d designed yourself? What are they and why do you love them?
When I saw ‘Notes from a Fog’ by Ben Marcus (designed by Jamie Keenan for Granta Books), I had to pick my jaw up from the floor. It’s like nothing I have seen before. The reversed type, that photograph — just painfully brilliant, unexpected and deadpan hilarious.
Another brilliant design is Na Kim’s jacket for ‘Tegan and Sara’s ‘High School.’ The handwriting in combination with the mirror effect gives off perfect high school vibes while somehow feeling like highbrow book art. I couldn’t imagine a better solution for this jacket.
Most book cover designers I know love reading. Do you? If so, what are a few books you’d recommend to us (either ones you enjoyed recently, or all-time favorites)?
While I love to read, my reading for pleasure has gone out the window since the pandemic! It’s since been replaced with reading for work and reading how to raise a baby properly. Two books I’ve enjoyed thoroughly for work recently are ‘Whereabouts’ by Jhumpa Lahiri and ‘Speak, Okinawa’ by Elizabeth Mika Brina.
Our latest interview in the Design Around the World series continues our journey through Egypt, this time with Cairo-based freelance designer, Nora Aly.
In our last interview with Engy Aly, we learned that the visual culture in Egypt is complex, layered and sometimes confusing. We talked about the quality of design education in Egypt, the jarring commerciality of advertising and more.
Here we continue the conversation with Nora Aly, discussing the visual extremes in Egyptian advertising, the jobs available to designers in Egypt and why the design scene in Egypt is dominated by women.
Hey Nora, tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into design and what kind of work do you do?
I am a 31-year-old designer born and raised in Cairo. I studied graphic design in the faculty of Applied Sciences and Arts in the German University in Cairo.
My story with design – more specifically typography – started really early when I was around 6-7 years old, before even recognizing that this means anything. I was always interested in both Arabic and Latin calligraphy. I remember I used to really enjoy my calligraphy classes a lot. Whenever I had a pen and paper in hand, I used to write my name and some of my family and friends’ names in different experimental styles. I was also known in school by my good handwriting, especially in Arabic, a skill that I believe I inherited from my mother. I used to observe her when she wrote anything and try to imitate her handwriting.
In high school, I worked on my first Arabic lettering as a tattoo design for a close friend of mine, and she inked it on her leg. However, I was not aware at all that these skills could be developed further and turn out to be something more than a hobby. All I knew at the time was that I am generally interested in art and crafts, and it felt right back then to join a faculty related to that interest. It was more like a gut feeling decision rather than a conscious one, which should be a constant reminder to always follow this invisible voice 🙂
Fast forward five years, I graduated and joined Kairo, one of the rising agencies in Cairo that focuses on advertising and branding. I worked there for five years, in which I learned a lot and gained a lot of experience professionally and personally. Three years ago, I left Kairo to explore a new flexible, independent lifestyle. I am currently working as a freelancer on various commercial and culture-related projects. I get a lot of branding projects, but I try as much as possible to select the ones that are dealing more with Arabic typography/lettering which, I believe, is my main focus and it is also what I enjoy the most.
In parallel to the freelance work, I am working on my Master’s project which investigates the dying Nubian language (a language only spoken by a special ethnic group located in southern Egypt). This language is expected to die within 50-100 years because of many accumulative social and political occurrences. The language is not recognized by the country and the Nubian mothers stopped passing the language to their children, favoring the Arabic language instead due to the constant pressures that they face as an indigenous ethnic group in a dominating Arabic speaking society. In this project, I am working on a design solution that attempts to help the mothers to reclaim the value of their vernacular, in order to pass down the language to the younger generations and preserve one of the oldest languages in Africa.
Cairo is diverse and multi-layered, with many groups, politics and sub-cultures intersecting. Have you found a community of likeminded creatives there, or platforms and events where you can connect with other designers?
Being surrounded in university by creatives from different backgrounds, but sharing more or less the same interests and passion, helped in creating a great community that kept on getting bigger by the time. It doesn’t stop here – social media is also playing an important role in widening this network now. It helps to get exposed to a lot of younger, up-and-coming designers, and stay in touch with the fellow creatives that I already knew.
As for the platforms and events in Egypt, I believe we have been seeing a significant rise during the past couple of years. I try to attend these events as much as I can to keep myself updated and connected, especially after quitting the agency life. I feel the need more now than before to meet people and exchange knowledge since I spend most of my time working alone.
In our conversation with Engy, she mentioned the diversity of Egypt's visual culture is shrinking as commercial advertisements take over and speak in a jarring, elitist visual language. How do you see it? How would you describe the current design coming from Cairo?
We have a very diverse, strange, multi-layered visual culture that says a lot about Cairo and its people.
If you are walking in Cairo’s streets, you’ll be overwhelmed with the amount of visuals that you’ll encounter from the excessive amount of billboards, the colorful and overly designed pick-up trucks, to the hand-painted advertisements and the old small shops’ nostalgic signages.
I would like to make a small comparison that can give you a glimpse of the extremes we have in Egypt. If you look at the design of the majority of commercials on billboards, for example, and compare it to the hand-painted advertisements that are widely spread in less privileged neighborhoods, you can clearly see how the billboard designs are too western in how they communicate, mostly in English, and seek a certain impression that is not really influenced by Egypt or its culture whatsoever.
While the hand-painted on walls advertisements are completely the opposite because they communicate using only beautifully made Arabic lettering, trying to be striking with very vivid colors to catch people’s attention in the streets.
In between those two extremes, there are designers that always try to produce work that is influenced by Cairo and its visual culture and heritage. Most of the culture-related projects give room for this to come to life.
If you are interested to know more about Egypt’s visual culture, I recommend that you check the following books:
I’ve read that the arts and entertainment industries don’t get much recognition in Egypt, that these aren’t considered as important as other jobs. Do you see this to be true for designers?
Yes, I remember when I was an undergrad, students of other faculties like engineering and pharmacy used to make fun of what we do as designers and belittle our studies. However, I see this is changing with time. People are more aware now with design and its value, especially with the growing scene of entrepreneurship in Egypt.
Of course, there are still people who don't understand the role of design and underestimate the designer's efforts. I meet some of them as clients, but I believe it is our responsibility to explain to them how design and visual communication can affect their businesses.
Engy described education in Egypt as somewhat limited, although slowly changing. It sounds like you had a positive experience studying at the German University in Cairo. How would you describe the quality of design education in Egypt?
Before the German University introduced the faculty of Applied Sciences and Arts in 2006, as well as the graphic design department in AUC in 2011, design education was very limited in Egypt. Now, it is growing and getting more attention. However, this does not eliminate the amount of designers who were completely self-taught as well, thanks to the internet.
I know many international companies are headquartered in Cairo. What kind of jobs are available for designers within Egypt right now?
Jobs for designers, in my opinion, are limited to advertising agencies. Yes, we do have some international companies headquartered in Cairo but the type of work is too commercial, to the extent that it is enough to kill any creative’s soul.
It is very difficult to find a designer who is satisfied with the quality of work that they produce in an advertising agency, especially in the big/international ones. I believe that the kind of clients that afford to pay big agencies always tend to be on the safe side when it comes to their visual appearance, so the work produced becomes very boring and not challenging enough. On the other hand, startups and small/cultural businesses that can’t afford the fees of a big agency are the ones who most likely are ready to take more risks and experiment with their aesthetics, so they most likely go to freelancers or small studios.
I see that Cairo has a gap in the varieties of jobs that should be available for graphic designers. Currently, the available jobs are in agencies or teaching whether in AUC or GUC.
"A lot of the women designers I know have the best work ethic and drive, and that's why I think the scene here has so many powerful women."
Thanks to the internet (and now with the pandemic on top), many designers are working for clients overseas remotely. How is it for you? Do you work mostly with local or overseas clients, or is it a mix?
I work mostly with local clients but I had the chance to work with some overseas. I worked on several projects in Saudi Arabia, London and New York.
What impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
I used to get my clients through word of mouth mostly but within the past few years, social media started to have a great impact as well. Behance works best for me. I got a lot of clients through Behance, although I am not really good with updating my portfolio. I unfortunately get dragged with the daily routine and I forget to post about my work, but definitely the more present I am, the more clients I get, and this applies on Instagram too.
What does good design mean to you, and how do you see it impacting your country’s society as a whole? For example, I know women’s rights are a big challenge in Cairo/Egypt (like most places in the world). Does design have a place in that conversation?
There is still a lot of “gender-shaming” in choosing specific professions for all genders. Some men might not gravitate to art and design due to wrong gender-conforming ideologies, making it a little more dominated by women here. A lot of the women designers I know have the best work ethic and drive, and that's why I think the scene here has so many powerful women. However, I think that the Egyptian design field (not the advertising field, to be clear) is pretty dominated by whoever works the hardest and creates with passion, regardless of gender.
Design is very subjective if you are going to judge it visually. To objectively judge a good design, in my opinion, it has to serve its purpose conceptually and aesthetically. Sometimes, we fall into the trap of making something that looks interesting visually, but is not necessarily relevant. This defies the whole purpose.
I am personally still exploring if design can have a real impact on a society through my Master’s project. Once I am done I’ll make up my mind regarding this point 🙂 However, I have always had high hopes in which design can make wonders, but I have to try it myself to see whether it is a myth or it can turn out to be true.
Sustainable design is increasingly a conversation in the design community. I know Cairo struggles with air and water pollution, due to the high density of people. Is environmentally conscious design an interest for designers in Cairo right now?
Yes, it is. I was asked by two clients before while working on packaging briefs to come up with designs that are applicable to environmental friendly materials. It is more happening in product and fashion design though. We have a lot of young Egyptian brands like “Upfuse,” “Reform Studio” and Kojakm, who is a fashion designer who created a dress made out of recycled plastic bags.
In your opinion, what are 5-10 design studios from Cairo/Egypt that everyone should know?
Obviously I can’t skip Engy Aly. She was my first TA in college and my favorite too.
Sarah Mossallam who I used to work with a lot in Kairo, and we collaborated more than once after we both left the agency. She is a great illustrator too.
Ahmad Hammoud who I collaborated with as well on many projects. He is one of my favorite designers.
Christine Adel who designs children's games and owns a brand called “Zagazoo”
Follow Nora's work on Behance and Instagram. And if you're just now jumping into our Design Around the World series, catch up on our interviews with studios and designers from India, Jordan, Thailand, Serbia, Armenia and many more.
In every good story, the hero takes a journey. In my world, it's the designers turned product founders. The startups grown into multi-million dollar businesses. Or, in this case, the extreme adventurers now designing the future of clothing.
I was first drawn to Vollebak simply for its style. It's the kind of clothing I'd wear every day, although I'm not exactly its target audience.
Steve and Nick Tidball, founders of Vollebak, create high tech clothing meant to withstand the most extreme of circumstances. Before starting the company, the twin brothers competed in ultramarathons through the Namibian desert, the Amazon jungle, the Alps. And they still adventure now, which inspires the outerwear they create.
I talked to Steve and Nick about their unusual creative process, the possibilities of sustainable clothing design and what it looks like to run a clothing brand like a tech brand.
Nick and Steve, founders of Vollebak
"What we saw was this amazing crossover where extreme functionality and the extremes of creativity were impossible to tell apart. And that’s where we realized we should sit."
You’ve experienced your most creative moments at the point of extreme physical and psychological pressure, including a shared hallucination that sparked the idea of Vollebak. Is this a creative process you’d recommend to others?
STEVE: I guess it depends on your capacity for tolerating risk and pain! So when we’re coming up with new ideas so many of them come from being outside in nature running, riding, paddleboarding. I’m a huge fan of the concept of flow, so I deliberately harness this state to come up with most of my ideas. On a practical level that simply means doing the majority of my thinking when I’m out doing sport in nature, or immediately after finishing.
So for example, our Plant and Algae t-shirt is the result of an experience we had competing in a six-day ultramarathon through the Amazon. At the end of the race, a bunch of the runners put their kit into a pile and burnt it as it was covered in a week’s worth of blood and piss and sweat. And we wondered whether instead of burning your clothing at the end of these races, you could simply bury it - so we set out to make a piece of clothing entirely out of natural materials that could be buried in the ground and return to nature once it reached the end of its lifespan.
The Plant and Algae T Shirt, made from pulped eucalyptus and beech from sustainably managed forests, and algae grown in bioreactors.
NICK: For us, the best ideas always come from getting stuck into the reality of a situation and talking it through until you come up with something interesting. But our creative moments also happen in less pressured environments, and outside the world of adventure sport.
One of the moments that proved really influential in creating our design principles was the elBulli exhibition at the Courtauld Institute – as we never got the opportunity to visit the restaurant itself. One of the things that stood out most was a bespoke plate they had created for one of their dishes. It was entirely black and molded with a series of unique oval indentations where the various elements of the dish were intended to sit.
What we were really fascinated by was how in a different context, if you’d been told it was a plate designed for a mission into deep space you would have believed it. What we saw was this amazing crossover where extreme functionality and the extremes of creativity were impossible to tell apart. And that’s where we realized we should sit. Nearly every subsequent aesthetic decision has fallen out of that.
The Deep Sleep Cocoon, built for the first missions to Mars, strips out light like an isolation tank. You can see out, but no one can see in.
Vollebak clothing can withstand fires, water, wind, time – extremes I don’t often find myself in, but I want the clothes nonetheless. Who is this clothing made for?
STEVE: We never set out with an overly-tight target audience in mind. Instead we started out with the question “What happens if we make the world’s most advanced clothing?” The reality is that this approach has been a magnet for people interested in the future.
NICK: We obviously have extreme sports athletes, adventurers and the military. And at the same time, we have a lot of scientists, doctors and entrepreneurs – people who are actively shaping the future in their fields. This has helped us grow incredibly quickly from a brand that started with just two pieces of clothing four years ago, to one where you can kit yourself out for most adventures anywhere on Earth.
Thhe Full Metal Jacket, disease-resistant clothing built with 65% copper.
My own products are geared toward a very niche group of people within an already niche market. And I’m happy staying there rather than going for the largest reach possible. I gather you think the same way?
STEVE: Before 2020 lots of our clothing had been adopted by people who seek out risk for fun – which is definitely a relatively small subset of people.
But what’s interesting now is that we can see the world becoming increasingly unpredictable, from disasters like flooding, wildfires and full-scale pandemics. And 2020 has shown that these really significant risks are now being faced by everyone. So I think what was once relatively niche might very soon not be.
NICK: If you’d asked people six months ago “How do you dress for a life and death situation?” you’d probably have been met with a lot of confused faces. But now, whether you’re seven years old or 70, you could probably debate the relative merits of covering your nose and mouth with a makeshift cotton bandana, wearing a homemade Perspex face shield, or leaving your house in a full hazmat suit.
So as we enter a new era of disease, the Earth heats up, and people of all ages are exposed to risk, gear like our Full Metal Jacket – which is our first step toward disease-resistant clothing – has much wider potential.
As far as I know, you don’t have a background in technology or science. How do you go about brainstorming and creating this clothing? Are you collaborating with scientists as well as fashion designers?
STEVE: Before launching Vollebak, we’d worked together in advertising for 15 years helping creative direct some of the world’s biggest brands like Adidas and Airbnb. So we took our experience from there to build our own brand. From the outside, we could see an industry that was fighting wars overpricing, trends and consumer eyeballs. But we couldn’t see the same level of competition around true innovation or ideas. And our background was in ideas.
NICK: When it comes to development, quantum leaps in technology are required for a lot of our gear, and it can take up to four years to find the partners we need and evolve the technology. We work very closely with partners who are also interested in exploring what the future of materials and clothing will hold. But they can come from extremely disparate fields, all the way from academic research, to fabric mills to military psychologists.
"I don’t know if anyone has ever put a camel in a lab before. But with our method, we don’t need to."
I know your clothing is inherently more sustainable than the standard, throwaway athletic clothing, and you’ve explored environmental friendliness even further with the Plant and Algae t-shirt. But when you’re working with extremely high-tech materials, it seems like you can only take sustainability so far. Do you see a future where you can create sustainably without sacrificing quality?
STEVE: So we have to explore advanced materials and sustainability at the same time – because the future will be built around both. And they may well collide at some point down the line.
Interestingly we don’t view sustainability as an advancement. 5,000 years ago humanity already had sustainable clothing. Otzi man was dug up wearing deer skin, grass and tree bark. His clothes were made entirely out of nature and would simply return to nature when he died.
So in terms of making sustainable clothing, we have some way to go just to catch up with where we’ve already been as a species.
NICK: My feeling is that with the rise of biomaterials, and fabrics that you will be able to grow in a lab, that ultimately the most advanced materials will also become the most sustainable. We might just be looking at a 50-year timeline before we get there.
The Black Squid Jacket, a waterproof and windproof outer shell that mimics the adaptive camouflage of a squid.
You like to ship your products early to get feedback early and iterate from there. Is there ever a battle with perfectionism and doubt at this stage, or is taking that risk another adrenaline rush for you?
STEVE: A lot of the ways we operate make us more like a technology brand than a clothing brand. In tech, you can either be late or early. To be late you’d stay in the lab for the next decade until you’d perfected lightweight armor made from graphene. To be early, you’d put an experimental prototype out into the world and harness the collective testing power of early adopters to improve and iterate.
So we open up our R&D process to our customers and to the outdoors, in order to accelerate their innovation and discovery. By taking these materials out of the research labs and into the field, we see our gear tested in the extreme scenarios for which they’re designed, and in some of the most remote parts of the world. And we’re comfortable with the process because it leads to excellent discoveries. For example, if we hadn’t released early, we might not have discovered that our Graphene Jacket could be used as a life-saving solar panel, or that you could strap it to a camel’s belly to absorb heat.
I don’t know if anyone has ever put a camel in a lab before. But with our method, we don’t need to!
NICK: Even for our first iterations, the process of building our gear is an exercise in no-expense-spared craftsmanship. While your idea is important, your execution is everything. A good idea executed badly is almost worthless. So we will only ever put something out into the world that people can see has had time, attention and love poured into it. While we come up with new ideas every day, very few are ever launched, and every piece takes between one and five years to make.
Adventurer Nikita Gushchin used the Graphene Jacket as a life-saving heat source when lost in the Nepalese mountains overnight.
You’re both into extremes when it comes to the outdoors, pushing your body and just general adventure. I sense it’s either all or nothing for most things you do. Does this apply to other places in your life/work?
STEVE: I would definitely agree that we don’t half do things. So even when I was told I had about 30 minutes left to live if I didn’t stop running an ultramarathon across the Namibian desert, I took about 5 hours out, then rejoined the race. Now I’m well aware that’s not normal decision making! And I suspect we do a lot of that in normal life too.
NICK: We definitely commit when we decide to do something. But we look at everything pretty simply, which is: When you’re 80 and you’re looking back at what you did, are you going to remember it? And are you going to be proud you did it? If the answer is no to either of those questions then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.
The 100 Year Hoodie, a waterproof, fireproof, windproof hoodie.
I’ve found once you’re running a company based on what you love, you eventually find it harder to make time for doing what you love. How do you run a business and also make time for the adventure/life experiences that fuel it?
STEVE: Nick and I are very hands-on. Having spent 15 years as a copywriter I write every word we put out. I can’t ever imagine leaving this to someone else. But as ideas are at the center of our business, we try and spend as much time as possible doing the stuff that generates those concepts. So we always find time to run, ride, surf, ski, climb, kayak, paddleboard.
NICK: There’s a saying about how you should meditate for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy, in which case you should meditate for an hour. That’s what we do with sport. The more we know we have to get done, the more sport we’ll do as it keeps our brains wired.
I know Vollebak has been compared to Tesla, and I’m a big fan of Tesla myself – but despite how advanced and futuristic its cars may be, they still look like... cars. Do you envision, or see a need for, a piece of clothing that might not even look like clothing? Or something so futuristic we can’t yet understand or see the need for it?
NICK: My gut is that Elon is only just getting started. Typically the things people like that are putting out into the world, are five years behind the stuff they’re thinking about in their heads. We’re the same.
STEVE: I think over the next decade and beyond our fundamental understanding of what clothing is, and what it is there to do, will shift. I think we will look back and laugh at how basic it is today. It won’t make sense that it just sat there on your skin doing nothing other than keeping you warm!
"I think I’ll just continue to be most excited about whatever it is I come up with that morning."
You built a product you wanted to use yourself. I’ve found that’s the best way to begin. What do you want or need now that doesn’t exist yet, whether that’s clothing, tech or something else?
STEVE: I would quite like to be able to clone myself to double my output. Or at least create a digital version of my mind so it can be working on problems while I’m sleeping.
NICK: I think I’d like a Boston Dynamics robot to ride around London. And a few pet ones for my children to ride.
The 100 Year Pants, built to withstand fire, nature, water and time.
Any new pieces coming out from Vollebak we should know about, or pieces you’re dreaming to create but haven’t yet?
STEVE: We’ll continue to look at intelligent clothing from two angles. We have to build the base conditions – looking at advanced conductive fabric like graphene and copper. And at the same time we’re working on "the intelligence" itself – so what it is that we want to gather and why.
NICK: I think I’ll just continue to be most excited about whatever it is I come up with that morning. Most of the time I don’t know what that’s going to be until it just appears. The only real limit we face is, can that thing be physically built today? Is the technology ready? Because it’s always far easier to simply think of something than it is to build it. But that’s the fun – marrying those two worlds.
Our latest addition to the Design Around the World series takes us somewhere we've wanted to explore for a while now: Egypt.
I found no shortage of talent when researching designers and studios in Egypt. Engy Aly's name came up more than once. The Cairo-based graphic designer was thankfully willing to talk with us, and so we did: About the overwhelming commerciality of visual culture in Cairo, about the quality of design education, using social media as a Cairene woman and more.
Hey Engy, thanks for doing this with us. First, tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into design and what kind of work do you do?
Thank you for inviting me to do this interview! Well, I’m 37, born and raised in Cairo. I live and work in my home and studio in Heliopolis, north-east of the city. I don’t separate much between life and work so I work in the main living space of the apartment – close to the coffee and the kitchen!
Growing up I’ve always had an interest in visual culture. My parents both studied art and work in architecture and interior design; they have a small studio together. I grew up surrounded by drafting tables, architecture tools, airbrushes and Letraset sheets, a tool I am still especially fond of and work with frequently in my independent project, Life Diagrams. My mum also worked with stained glass for some time. Working with our hands is something we both enjoy a lot.
I first studied graphic design in Cairo, in the early noughties (the early 2000s) at a then newly established design program. After graduation, I mostly worked in "fileclub," an influential and one of the few experimental design studios that existed in Cairo at the time. Sadly they closed around 2009, which is coincidentally also the year I started to work independently. Seven years ago, I felt the need to get out of the city and to go back to school, so I went for an MFA (now MDES) at the Basel School of Design in Basel, a city rich in art and design institutions and museums.
Most of the projects I work on are related to arts and culture, although sometimes I also do some branding work. The past three years I have primarily focused on artist books and publications, partially because more and more artists are interested in using books as a medium. I also love teaching because it is a constant and mutual process of learning and unlearning. I’ve taught different classes at the American University in Cairo as well as sitting on various student thesis presentations and juries in other institutions. Finally, recognizing the pressing need for establishing platforms where a discourse around design can be expressed, I have also started initiating and organizing curatorial design projects.
Engy in her studio
Cairo is considered the center of Egypt’s culture and politics. Have you found a community of likeminded creatives there? Do many platforms and events exist in Cairo / Egypt overall that connect you with other designers?
Cairo is the center of the “battlefield,” true! The city is composed of many different groups and subcultures with different, sometimes intersecting, interests. I can’t say I have a large network of fellow designers that I talk to on a regular basis, but I do have a local circle of “creatives” (I’m not so fond of this word) – artists, writers, designers, makers and educators that I am close to. Unfortunately I don’t spend as much time as I would like to with many of them, because I’m a bit of a house potato.
Platforms are slowly but surely developing. Some might be too commercial for my taste and sadly a couple of the new platforms are completely male-dominated. There is a lack of independent, free-form, non-institutional, experimental constellations which is why I initiated ‘Sporadic Schooling,’ a long term program of happenings that has unfortunately been put on hold because of the pandemic. ‘Sporadic Schooling’ is a pedagogical tool that focuses on developing new models of knowledge production and sharing, by inviting top practitioners in the fields of design, critical theory and museum practice to develop open formats informed by their experiences and perspectives. I look forward to picking it up again when things are more stable.
"Real estate billboards constantly suggest that you are not supposed to feel you are in Cairo anymore. You are now in Paris, in Beverly Hills, on a Greek island."
Mini visual identity for ‘Photomarathon 2019’, Alexandria 15.11. Collaboration with the Luca Schenardi – lucaschenardi.ch
Egyptians are considered the originators of “visual communication design,” from hieroglyphics to the invention of paper to the first use of grids. And I’ve heard the streets of Cairo are vibrant with posters mixed with hand-painted lettering, murals, tiles and colors.
How would you describe the design you see coming from Egypt today? Is it influenced by your culture/history/environment in any way?
Actually the vibrancy and diversity of public visual culture, as well as the sheer quantity of non-commercial visual material, have shrunk significantly over the past few years. It’s not that easy to hang posters on the street anymore. Most institutions are veering toward online posts for announcements of events, since the virtual space offers more safety. This, for me, has also changed my emotional connection to the city. My essay, "The Gradual Disappearance," which I wrote as an introduction to the publication "Delusions and Errors," (2017) discusses this issue.
A large portion of the city’s visual production is commercial advertisement, mostly for real estate developments on the outskirts of the city, and most of these are, frankly, hideous! These advertisements try to speak in a visual language that is intentionally elitist and projects an idealized image of a certain lifestyle as a selling point. Real estate billboards constantly suggest that you are not supposed to feel you are in Cairo anymore. You are now in Paris, in Beverly Hills, on a Greek island. I find this meeting between a perverse concept and the use of a generic visual material grotesque. These are the visuals one actually sees on a daily basis driving around. But on the other hand, there are many designers who do marvelous work, whether in the cultural sector (which is the sector more open to experimentation), the independent scene, or even some entrepreneurial projects that rely on branding, both online and in print.
A large portion of the visual production is influenced by Western design, I think because material, tutorials and other resources are more abundant and accessible. But a lot of new local projects are based on cultural research and are trying to connect more with local material and the surrounding environment.
Vector Walla Raster, 2017
Cairo is home to Al-Azhar University, the world's second-oldest institution of higher learning, and has the largest number of schools and universities in Egypt. What is the quality of design education like in Egypt? Do most designers seek a formal degree, or are many self-taught?
I have to say I do not find the history of Al-Azhar to be relevant to this topic.
Design education here is still somewhat limited but is developing quite rapidly, although I think not fast enough to accommodate the rising number of design enthusiasts.
Both public and private design programs exist, but they offer a different perspective on design education. Although some of these programs are a bit conservative in their educational approach, many of the students find their own way and their own paths to self-development. Many good designers are self-taught or have come to design from a different career. I have only worked in the private universities, so I’m not that well informed with what the public ones currently offer. But a conversation between both sectors is much needed.
AN ANTHOLOGY OF PUBLISHED & UNPUBLISHED WRITINGS BY HASSAN KHAN. With Annotations by the Author 1993 to 2018. Ed. by Philippe Pirotte. Text by Hassan Khan & Philippe Pirotte. London 2019. 17 x 24 cm. 288 Pages.
Thanks to the internet (and now with the pandemic on top), many designers are working for clients overseas remotely. How is it for you? Do you work mostly with local or overseas clients, or is it a mix?
I have mostly been working with a constellation of people from different places and backgrounds – for example a typical project could involve an Egyptian artist, a German museum, an Italian publisher and a Swiss printer all together. So we work in a diverse team that is located in at least two countries, two time zones. It’s great, though it means I work a lot of weekends. Between the local weekend and the European weekend, I end up working all the time! But I enjoy this open and rich connection. The challenge is usually production; I cannot always fly to see the work getting printed and I miss that somehow, being present for the production. But it ultimately works out. I’ve also done some work in the U.S. and a lot of work for Cairo-based individuals and institutions.
What impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
I’m not sure. As a Cairene female, you encounter constant harassment both in daily life and virtually, so I've decided to keep my main Instagram account private – to avoid attracting a lot of trolls.
Most of the work I get is based on clients coming across my work in person and being interested. I do not depend on my online presence, and maybe that’s why my website has been a work in progress for over ten years now (facepalm)!
"Our society is complex, layered and diverse, and real transformation has to be driven by changes in the whole structure."
A piece from Engy's "Life Diagrams" series titled "The long and utterly nonsensical wait for the world to change."
What does good design mean to you, and how do you see it impacting your country’s society as a whole? For example, I’ve read women’s rights are a big challenge in Cairo/Egypt (like many places in the world). Does design have a place in that conversation?
I don’t believe good or bad design can have an actually large impact on the country. Our society is complex, layered and diverse, and real transformation has to be driven by changes in the whole structure.
Women are quite present in design education, and I am quite happy with that. The TYPE Lab for example is a project initiated by women educators and hosts and highlights the role of women in type design and typography. There is a strong female presence in academia.
Visual for Sporadic Schooling: Experimental Type Design Workshop, 2020
Sustainable design is increasingly a conversation in the design community. I know Cairo struggles with air and water pollution, due to the high density of people. Is environmentally conscious design an interest for designers in Cairo right now?
Yes, it is. But primarily in product design rather than in printed media.
Publication design, Noor Abu Arafeh: Rumors Began Sometime Ago, 2018
In your opinion, who are some of the top design studios or designers from Cairo/Egypt we should know about?
I am not comfortable making a list of "top" designers. I would rather make a non-comprehensive list, in no particular order, of interesting visual practitioners that are part of my scene. Here are some of the people whose work I enjoy a lot:
My favorite type of people are the curious ones. The people who just can't get enough of life, who are always trying new things and asking questions not to better themselves, but simply to experience the world in every way they can. Gérald Ghislain is exactly that type of person.
I've always admired Histoires de Parfums, Ghislain's Paris-based "olfactive library." There's a romance to the brand that seems rare these days. And after talking with Ghislain about his work, I see now where this comes from. Lots of brands like to talk about storytelling, but Histoires de Parfums has something genuinely interesting to say. This may be my favorite interview we've ever done on DESK so without further adieu, I'll let Gerald Ghislain do the talking.
"My enlightenment doesn’t come from books but from people and from their stories."
Your interest in fragrances goes far beyond the scents themselves. Given the stories you tell with your perfumes, I imagine you are passionate about plants, about history, about culture, philosophy and a lot more. Do you consider yourself a Renaissance man?
I’ll have you know I’m not that old. Histoires de Parfums has been around for 20 years sure, but calling us Renaissance is a bit of a stretch.
Jokes aside, I see what you mean and I don’t know if I think of myself as a Renaissance man. I am just very curious and can’t rest. I need different projects, not just to be busy but to keep my mind young. I love going from an idea to another, jumping from owning a restaurant to launching a perfume line to opening a sex shop to owning a flamenco club. I just want to experience everything life has to offer and if that makes me a Renaissance man, then yes I am, but I always felt Renaissance men were kind of dull men, locked up in their towers, drinking up all the knowledge of the elders and talking to the stars. I don’t care for the knowledge of books. I mean, I love reading books but what I want to say is that the knowledge I value is that of the street." The knowledge of experience, of meetings, of traveling, of eating. You can learn a lot from just eating foreign foods.
My enlightenment doesn’t come from books but from people and from their stories. That’s why I started Histoires de Parfums, not with the scent of books but with the scent of characters, of real characters and of what they, not their books, would’ve smelt like.
"Most people think with arts that technique, mastery and rules are somewhat of a cage, when they actually allow you to be free."
The creation of scent is unfamiliar to most of our readers. What does the creative process look like for the work you do? Knowing a lot of it comes down to mastery and talent, can you distill the process for us a bit?
Hmm, I wouldn’t say a lot of it comes from talent. The issue and beauty of perfume is that it’s both an art and a craft, and the thing with arts is that talent is everything and nothing. What matters is being creative and having a clear vision of where you want to go. Mastery is something anyone can learn but real talent is using this mastery to serve your vision in a way no one has ever done before.
My perfumes always start with a vision, an image, a story. Once this is settled, then I get to designing the scent and work until the reality matches the image I had, and if I don’t do it myself, I’ll hire someone to do it better like Julien Rasquinet for Fidelis or Luca Maffei for This is not a blue bottle 1/.5.
There are so many paths in perfumery and they’re all as important, just like in any other art. In theatre, you’ll have a stage director, a writer, a scenographer, someone for the lighting. Cinema’s even more huge. And in perfumery, you’ll have perfumers of course but also evaluators, assistants and creative directors, and you can't really be one and all, the same way you can’t really write, direct and star in your own play. You can but it will be one-dimensional in that you’re stuck in your own head and vision. But once you bring someone else in, the plot thickens and unfolds.
Creating a perfume takes mastery of course, because it enables you to not find the most efficient way to go from a point A to a point B, but to actually see all the different ways you could choose. It’s like if you were to play the guitar but only knew one song. Sure you’ll sing it superbly and in different tunes and styles but in the end, it’s just one song. But if you master your instrument, you can play anything you want. Most people think with arts that technique, mastery and rules are somewhat of a cage, when they actually allow you to be completely free.
How much science is there to perfume creation? Do you need to first learn fundamentals, like certain notes pairing well or never mixing others, the same way designers learn color theory and design best practices? Or are you usually making up your own rules and following intuition?
Yes and no. Perfume isn’t much different than cooking. That’s how I fell into it. There aren’t rules to cooking; it’s a lot of trials and errors but ultimately, if someone could put pineapple on a pizza and make it work, there’s nothing a perfumer can’t do.
I always follow my ideas. They’re not always good but the point of chemistry in perfumery is that it enables you to almost magically, seamlessly blend any of two things together and make it work. Look at Irrévérent for instance, in our En Aparté collection. It’s built on a lavender and oud accord. How random is that? I always saw jasmine and oud, rose and oud, sandal and oud, vetiver and oud and I got bored and thought, “Why not lavender, it could be fun.” And after many trials and many errors, Irrévérent was born and it works out perfectly.
The history of perfumery is all about breaking the rules and glass ceilings. There are so many perfumes that are big successes today that shouldn’t have been born because they weren’t by "the book," because they overdosed this or that ingredient. Look at the first Guerlain perfumes: They were so packed with vanillin that Coty, Guerlain’s competitor, said the only thing he could come up with that much vanilla was crème brûlée. And here’s the food again.
The bottle is an important part of a perfume’s experience. How closely do you oversee the design of your bottles and packaging?
I follow the design so closely that I’m surprised I’m not in the bottles yet. I love anything that has to do with design and that is something you can really see when you come into one of our flagship stores in Paris or Milan.
Design is how art comes into your everyday life and as it turns out, perfume is an art. I can’t imagine a perfume without a bottle, or a bottle without a proper shape or color, because that’s what you’ll associate with the perfume. That’s even the first encounter you’ll have with the perfume before you spray it. And I’m a visual person. I also think in colors or shapes or textures and more often than not, ideas for perfumes came from seeing a painting or a street scene, and I’ll just go back to my design team with a broad picture and we’ll start working from there.
But my ideas are very precise, which means that I have to oversee it as closely as I can to make sure that this idea comes to life and not anything else. For instance, we just released 1/.6 as part of This is Not a Blue Bottle collection, which is our more artsy line inspired by Magritte, existentialism and Klein blue. Our point with this collection was to emphasize emotions over reason, art for the sake of art, perfume for the sake of perfume, beauty for the sake of beauty. We wanted to find a way for the customer to smell a fragrance without being influenced by anything, and we went so far as to blur the lines between perfume and design because the first perfume of the collection 1/.1 is literally a blue bottle. It has no name, no branding. It’s nothing but a blue bottle.
Why blue? Because this is a color in which you can dream. Blue can be anything you want. The sky, the sea, the eyes of a lover. It can be a summer’s sky or a winter’s one, it can be a nice provençal seashore or a colder one. Blue can be anything. The challenge was really to implement, through a creative design in tone with our identity, a way the customer would not be influenced by anything exterior to them. We just give them a perfume, a color, an energy, and the rest is up to their sensibility.
You aim to tell your stories through your perfumes, but it seems that people find their own stories within them as well. Are you disappointed or thrilled when a reviewer or consumer interprets your fragrances differently than you do?
On the contrary, I love it. That’s what I keep saying over the years, that’s the sense of our motto: “stories to be read on the skin,” meaning on YOUR skin. Once you wear them, our stories become yours. That’s the point of art. Once it’s out in the world, it no longer belongs to the artist. I love the fact that your vision is different than mine. This way it broadens the spectrum of possibilities and realities.
Perfume is intimate. My perception and memories of roses aren’t yours, the same way we could both make love to the same person and have two totally different experiences and opinions. But that’s the beauty of it, that it paints an even bigger picture than you imagined in the first place. It’s really great to see that a small idea or memory I had turned into a perfume that touched the lives of people in more ways than I could think of. That’s what brings stories into life.
You’ve mentioned before that you prefer the legend of perfumery of the early 20th century – strong perfumes with musk, leather, oak moss notes. Have you noticed trends in scent over the course of your career? I know we all have our own associations with certain times and smells, but what influences an entire generation to identify with specific notes in fragrances?
Perfumes tell much more about our society than we give them credit for, because there’s nothing more intimate than a perfume.
I mean, look at this. When WWI ended, it took down old empires, societal structures, everything we knew. At the same time, we noticed a declining trend in oriental perfumes (the Empire was no more) and floral ones (the old structures were no more) but Chanel boomed with her aldehydes that smelt modern and fit her new vision of femininity.
Then WWII came and what happened? People rushed back to floral and oriental perfumes, because they felt safe, and they kept them through the ’50s to forget the gloomy years of the war.
Then came the '60s, the sexual revolution and what happened? Back to aldehydes, green fragrances, avant-garde scents.
Then came the '70s with the first beginnings of unisex fragrances, or ones that could be read as such.
Then the '80s with their over-the-top, intoxicating, gender-stuck perfumes. And you can also see that people loved going for green fragrances when ecological disasters had happened.
So perfume is a societal and generational marker, because of how personal it is. Nowadays, the younger generation feels concerned about ecology and global warming and there’s also more freedom and fluidity about gender expression. How does that translate into perfumes? On the one hand, a boom in natural and clean fragrances that are respectful toward nature and on the other, a surge of abstract, conceptual, synthetic, unisex fragrances that tick none of the preconceived boxes or olfactory families we knew.
"I remember the smell of this place so distinctly: the flour, the yeast, the orange flower water and caramelized sugar of the brioche buns..."
Many people prefer to find their “signature scent” and wear it forever. But I imagine you change your scents like some change jewelry or outfits, depending on your mood or the occasion. Am I right?
I get that people feel like having a signature scent but to me, it’s like having a signature dish. Everyone knows you make a great boeuf bourguignon but do they really expect you to only be eating boeuf bourguignon at every meal? No, they don’t. And you wouldn’t even want to.
Look, you talked about moods so I’ll use this as an example. We have changing moods and sometimes mood swings. This is normal. Nobody expects you to only be happy or a hoot or deep or grave or depressed or whiny. You’re one and all at once. There’s a happy Gérald, a hoot Gérald, an angry-boss Gérald, a helicopter-mum Gérald, a pensive Gérald, a peaceful Gérald. They’re all different and they’re all me and that’s how you should look at signature scents.
It raises the question of for whom do you wear perfume? Do you wear it for yourself? If so, why do you care about a signature? Do you wear it for others? If so, stop caring so much about what people think and wear whichever perfume you fancy. Don’t live according to other people’s expectations of yourself. Live yourself, be yourself.
That’s why I prefer a signature “alchemy," a blend of perfumes that will somehow always smell like you. Plus it’s fun to choose your different perfume or perfumes of the day from your fragrant wardrobe and try layering them. That’s actually why I launched an on-demand bath line, so that you can mix and match your perfume with any other fragrance from our house in your body lotion or shower gel to create a real signature.
And you also have to keep in mind that perfumers seldom wear perfume because they’re covered with different mods all the time. I try so many perfumes every day that I can hardly keep count of what I am wearing. I have one on every little patch of skin and fabric I wear.
We all know from experience how smell is connected with memory. What is your strongest memory associated with smell?
I have two. When I was a child, we lived in Morocco and there was no French bakery in our neighborhood, so my mother would bake her own bread and brioche twice a week. Once all the doughs had risen, we’d go with the nanny to the public oven. It was a sort of communal hearth where everyone could come and bake their cakes, bread, pastries you name it. And I remember the smell of this place so distinctly: the flour, the yeast, the orange flower water and caramelized sugar of the brioche buns... it was a delight.
My other vivid memory also comes from my childhood. My father was a jockey so every Sunday we’d go to the racecourse and just before the race, the jockeys and horses would all come together and the air was thick with the smell of leather, horses, fresh plowed grass. I know it will sound weird, but this is one of the smells I find most comforting. That’s actually what I love most about perfume and what I was telling you about with our scent memories being unique. Some people would find this smell of horses and sweat absolutely disgusting, but I don’t.
Histoires de Parfums is about these personal stories, my personal stories with Sade, George Sand and Hemingway – but they become your stories because you can’t and won’t appreciate a smell the same way I do. All I can do is tell my story through a perfume to the best of my ability, and hope that you’ll find your own truth in it.
"Do you think Picasso, Hemingway or Verdi hired teams of marketers and copywriters to create a story around their works? No."
Let's talk more about storytelling. Thanks to the internet and social media, we all consider ourselves storytellers now. Designers use the term so often it’s started to sound trite and empty. But Histoires de Parfums seems to start with the story, rather than just trying to use it as a marketing tool.
How do we tell a meaningful story as a brand, in a way that feels genuine and not manipulative or empty?
You said it. Be genuine, not manipulative, not empty. Customers aren’t cattle. Feed them lies and they’ll notice it, especially since there are new brands coming up every week, and a lot of reviewers trying to educate the customers, and a global sense of awareness that applies to every aspect of our lives.
If you don’t have anything to stay, better stay silent. You want to tell a meaningful story? Have one. You want it to be genuine? Be it. And you don’t have to have a complicated story to be genuine. Art can just exist for the sake of it, but do you think Picasso, Hemingway or Verdi hired teams of marketers and copywriters to create a story around their works? No. They had something in their guts that needed to come out. They took their little brush or pen and expressed themselves. And that’s real. There was a Desperate Housewives episode about this, I recommend it.
So, to answer your question, I’d say the main thing would be to look at perfume as an art again, and not a craft. We don’t need art to survive – we need food, water and sleep. So we don’t need another rose perfume, but ask yourself what makes your rose perfume different? What’s in it that keeps you awake at night? Do this, just ask yourself this and you’ll have a genuine, meaningful story and if you don’t, well, drop the perfume and work on another one.
I find it interesting that perfume commercials and advertising have remained the same for years. It’s always some celebrity in a sensual scene, wind blowing through their hair while they stare off into the distance. The message seems to be: Wear this cologne, because Ryan Gosling does.
Do you think perfume companies and advertising agencies can do better? How would you do a commercial for one of your perfumes, if you had full creative freedom?
Why change a winning team? If these ads work it’s because they speak to the audience and have done so for decades, but it’s even more relevant in perfumes because perfumes are a luxury item and the most affordable one at that. And the most universal.
I mean, whether you’re Julia Roberts or a teacher in Manila or a flamenco dancer in Malaga or a firefighter in Sydney, you can somehow all wear the same perfume. You’ll never wear the same shoes as Julia Roberts, or the same jewelry. You won’t have the same house or go to the same parties or clubs on Saturday nights, but at least you know that you can smell exactly like her. And that’s not nothing. That’s why these ads work.
Could brands do better? I don’t know. If their aim is to create a sense of identification, there’s nothing better. Also, you can’t smell a perfume through a screen. You know what the Birkin bag looks like but you don’t know what the perfume smells like unless you smell it. And the only reason why someone sitting on their sofa in the middle of nowhere would want to get up and head to the nearest Macy’s to smell a perfume, is if they felt they could somehow become Ryan Gosling or Julia Roberts.
Now if I had full creative freedom, I think I’d just want to create scent experiences in different cities. Just big perfumed happenings, finding new and creative ways to tie in people’s stories with that of our perfumes. It’s not a commercial per se, but this is what I’d love to do.
"I would love to create the scent of the future. The perfume of someone who isn’t born yet."
Is there a specific story you’ve been dreaming to tell through your perfumes, that you haven’t been able to yet, whether it’s too complex or you haven’t been able to quite capture it the way you want to?
There is and this has been following me for years. I would love to create the scent of the future. The perfume of someone who isn’t born yet. To create a perfume of a generation we do not know, of words we haven’t heard yet, of cultural tropes and references we couldn’t fathom.
It’s not just about creating an abstract perfume but really finding a way to travel into the future and bring back their life lessons and insights and put them into a perfume. And it’s even more pressing that our future changes shape every week. It has never been more uncertain, so the possibilities have never been more infinite somehow. I hope I’ll find a way to capture this...
The subject of style will forever be contentious in the design and art communities. On one hand, we strive to find our style and stand out with an original voice. On the other hand, we don't want to be pigeonholed into a specific style we can't escape or grow out of.
Nobody I know has honed a style as well as James White, otherwise known as Signalnoise. James has been creating 80s-style art since 2008, and he still loves what he does as much as he did then. I've always admired James' work. For me, it captures the energy and sincerity I felt creating as a kid. And based on our conversation, it's clear James still feels that way when he draws.
Here James and I talk about the struggle of personal style, how the creative community has changed over the last decade and the infamous debate between being a jack-of-all-trades or a master.
The inimitable James White of Signalnoise
I’ve been following your work for at least a decade by now, and as far as I know you’ve been designing since the late 90s. Let’s start with a very simple question: WHY? Why do you still do what you do? Curious to hear what gets you up in the morning.
I never lost that sense of wonder that comes from creating something out of nothing. Imagination and curiosity. I’ve been drawing since the age of four, and spent countless hours of my childhood drawing my favorite comic book characters and cartoons, as well as creating my own characters. When I got into the design industry in 1998 (designing websites), I kept my creative path intact by working on my own projects during evenings and weekends. So, to answer your question directly, I still do what I do because I love it. My creative path hasn’t changed since I was four; I might have traded in my colored pencils for Photoshop, but the drive remains the same. I’ll never stop.
Your work has a very strong style, and as far as I remember I’ve never seen anything else from Signalnoise. Is this all part of a grand plan or do you think this is all just happening naturally for you?
Getting to where I am now, stylistically, has been a long road. As I said, I come from a childhood of drawing and got into the industry through web design. But there’s a 10-year period (1998 - 2008) where I was creating all manner of analog and digital art. I was machine-gunning content in a myriad of styles that hardly anyone will ever see. All that work, for better or worse, played a part in where I was at that point. I was experimenting, learning my tools, exploring and trying to find my place in the creative field. I knew I had more to say than just being a web designer, but that goal was out in the fog for a decade. It was undefined, so I just kept doing what I do: I made stuff. Comics, Flash animation, digital collage, posters, paintings, even sculpting at one point.
Arriving at the 80s style I’m known for took that amount of time to discover. In 2008, it happened very much through my late-night experimenting in Photoshop. I started playing with rainbows and lens flares which reminded me of television network IDs from when I was a kid. I started researching what, say, the NBC peacock looked like in 1984 and drew inspiration from that. Eventually, with the help of Flickr, I became known as the “80s guy,” a style that wasn’t being explored at the time and was deemed “cheesy” by many. But I was having lots of fun re-visiting styles from my childhood, so I kept doing it.
So what started very organically through experimenting became the face of my studio. It allowed me to go freelance and create art for big brands all over the world. But to say I had some grand plan in mind would be a complete lie. To this day, I’m just doing what I want to do and I’m very fortunate that it also pays the bills.
"I’ve always believed in the philosophy of never putting yourself ahead of your art. What you create should always be number one."
In talking with artist friends, it seems like some have angst around their personal style. While they are successful at what they do, they sometimes felt a bit pigeonholed. It’s like the style they crafted over the years became their own little prison they have difficulty escaping from. What are your thoughts on this feeling? Do you feel lucky to have found your personal style, or do you sometimes wish to break out?
I have my ups and downs, honestly. When I’m in the thick of creating some crazy 80s-inspired nonsense and having lots of fun doing it, I can’t think of ever working in any other style. It captures everything I want to capture: fun, enthusiasm, silliness and a bit of awesome. But I can’t lie, the thought creeps into my head every so often that maybe I have an expiration date. I’ve watched the 80s aesthetic rise with each passing year, eventually seeing it used in the likes of Marvel movies, car ads and popstar music videos. When something becomes a fad, it eventually goes away. It’s something you really have no control over. If Brittney Spears decides to make a video that looks like art I created four years ago… suddenly my art looks like Brittney’s shit, not the other way around. It’s unsettling. So in that way, yeah it could feel a bit like a prison.
But, despite the stereotypes, the aesthetic I work in isn’t just one thing. Over the years I’ve found there are plenty of stylistic areas to explore within the 80s retro style. The art I create now is different than the work I created in 2012, despite coming from the same source of inspiration. I get comfort in the idea that there’s still terrain to explore in doing what I do. I just have to stay on my toes and keep pushing myself.
I know you’ve been working in the design industry for a long time. You’ve also become a household name at design conferences around the world. What has significantly changed for the design community in the last 10-15 years, that you’ve noticed? And do you still feel the “community” is there like it used to be, or have things evolved for better or for worse?
Man, great question. Things have definitely changed a few times during my tenor in the industry, most notably is size. When I was learning graphic design and tech back in 1995 - 1998, the tools you needed to create digital art weren’t accessible to everyone – certainly not young people. Computers were expensive, as was the software. As a result, the online creative community was a lot smaller and you really had to know what sites to visit to even know what was going on. I’m talking, late 90s and early 2000s, the time of web portals and bulletin board systems.
When blogging became a thing, people could suddenly have their work featured in places that got a lot of traffic. Blogs became news sources for what creative people were doing. This was a huge time for me and my studio. My work was picked up by sites like Abduzeedo.com and Smashing Magazine, exposing my art to people all over the world and ultimately paving the way for me to go freelance.
And now we’re in the social media era. Technology is accessible to people of all ages, resulting in our creative community exponentially growing.
Now, for better or worse? That’s a tough one. On one hand, we have a much larger audience than we had in the past, and some people can make a living through the design community alone without the need of clients. So much new work is posted every day that it’s impossible to keep up, spawning new genres and tribes almost overnight. This is all great and inspiring.
But on the other hand, it’s becoming harder and harder to cut through the noise. Algorithms create a situation where we may not even see the work of your favorite artist despite you following them. When everyone’s shouting, how can anyone be heard? As I said, it’s a tough one.
I totally agree. Becoming a “design” or “artist” celebrity can happen within just days now, sometimes even hours. Platforms such as Instagram, TikTok etc. have given us the tools to become a viral sensation within a short period of time.
Do you believe this new way of “going viral” can be distracting for young artists when it happens too fast and early, or do you believe it is the best thing that can happen to a young artist?
I’ve always believed in the philosophy of never putting yourself ahead of your art. What you create should always be number one. In light of that, no, I don’t think the pursuit of going viral is a good thing.
As creative people, we should be worrying about the thing we want to create, the thing we want to say or the project we want to execute. If we do that job effectively, with a little luck, our creation will be widely shared and we might see some benefits come from that (getting commissions, for example). The PURSUIT is the creation. The RESULT is the exposure.
If the goal of an artist is to “go viral” or “become famous," they labor under ego using their work as a vehicle. We can use stuff like Instagram or TikTok to show what we’ve created, but the love should always be for the art, not the likes. So yes, I do think the idea of going viral is distracting for artists and skews what the ultimate goal of creating art should be.
But hey, I’m old school.
I’ve always operated under the mantra “do work so good they can’t ignore you,” which seems similar to your philosophy here. Yet I’ve seen artists who are incredibly good at self-promotion even though their work isn’t that great, and I’ve also seen artists who are brilliant at what they do, and their art isn’t seeing the light of day.
Assuming we’re putting our work first like you said, how does one balance creation vs. self-promotion? What’s the best use of our time, given all the possibilities out there?
It’s a tricky balance, isn’t it. I’m sure marketing types won’t agree with me, but there isn’t a perfect recipe for self-promotion that works for everyone.
I’ve always operated under the rule of being myself, and the most successful people I know do the same. When I’m catching up on posts from the people I follow, the best form of promotion I see is from those who are authentic. Creating work that comes from your heart AND being able to talk about it with your own voice isn’t easy for some, but even the effort shines through.
Taking me as an example, I try to keep my art and posts as on-brand as I can… and by “on-brand,” I mean pertaining to my nerdy interests. When I’m not creating art, I’m reading comics, playing old video games, goofing with my toys or watching old action movies. All that stuff works its way into the language and content I post about. My audience knows my work, but they also know me. That’s the balance I’ve managed to sort out for Signalnoise, and I think everyone needs to sort that out for themselves.
"In the digital realm, there’s a load of elements that can change, update, break-down… but drawing is always the same. It will forever be my escape."
You’ve consistently maintained the slightly raw feeling of hand-drawn work throughout the years. When digital tools today allow you to make your work so polished and detailed, even photorealistic, why have you chosen to keep your illustrations more flat and raw?
Drawing will always be my first love. I’ve picked up new tools and techniques over the years to digitally improve my drawings, but nothing is as fun and simple as flipping open my sketchbook and getting pencil to paper. It’s lo-fi, something I can do anywhere without the need of a wifi connection or a charge cable.
Even though I’m not known for my drawing, almost everything I do starts in the sketchbook. That’s my playground where I can rough up concepts and color quickly to see what direction I want to pursue before getting into Illustrator or Photoshop. It saves time but also results in a better product.
I think the reason I prefer to keep my drawings raw is that my process hasn’t really changed since I was a kid. I throw down pencils, get the inks lines on, then fill in my blacks. It’s the same way I drew when I was 12, and there’s a real comfort in that. In the digital realm, there’s a load of elements that can change, update, break-down… but drawing is always the same. It will forever be my escape.
You’ve worked independently for a while now. Is there any other artist you’ve dreamed of collaborating with? Who and what would the project be?
Heading back to my roots, I think Dave McKean would be my choice. His influence was very strong in my early work (1998 - 2005) and a big reason why I dove into Photoshop to the extent I did. I’d reverse engineer his works as best I could to figure out how he achieved the results he did, all the while learning the ins and outs of digital software. It could be said that I learned more about creating art from McKean than I did from any school.
I wasn’t drawn to McKean’s work because of the digital side, but because he was a mixed media artist in the truest sense. He painted, sculpted, built structures, even set things on fire to get the result he wanted. Pouring over his work in the late 1990s taught me that art (analog or digital) didn’t have to be just one thing.
Even though his influence can’t really be seen in the work I do now, I owe McKean a great debt. He was the right artist for me to be a fan of at the right time in my career. SO, what would our collaboration be? I really have no idea, but you can be damn sure I’d learn a lot from it.
Today, a jack-of-all-trades has become desirable to companies. But I know you prefer honing in on whatever you’re good at and mastering it. Let’s end the debate now: What has more lasting power today, the jack-of-all-trades or the expert?
Haha, not sure my two cents will end any debates, but I’ll give it a shot.
We have to think about who benefits from each path. Being a jack-of-all-trades is in the best interest of agencies (in most cases). Having an employee who can do a bunch of stuff gives them access to a wider group of clients. They make more money, they pay the designer, blah blah.
Mastering something you enjoy benefits the artist/designer. Embarking on a quest to figure out what kind of work you want to do, what brings you the most enjoyment, and excelling at that raises the odds of being known for a distinct creative voice. The biggest plus being that it’s something the artist loves to do.
So, there’s no right or wrong path. It depends on the artist and what they want to accomplish with the time they have. I’ve always advised younger designers to make stuff, a lot of it. Through the process of creation we discover what we enjoy, what we dislike and inevitably learn new skills along the way.
I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career back in 2003, but my path became clearer the longer I spent in the sketchbook and on the computer, creating my own work outside of the day job.
Time. It takes time to sort out who we are and what we want to create. There’s no way around it.
Our latest addition to the Design Around the World series is a fun one: Serbia.
I'll be honest. Before this interview, what I knew about Serbia was limited mostly to the fashion world and random stories I'd see in the news. I certainly had no grasp on the design scene there, which is why I set out to do this series in the first place.
After talking here with Mirko Zarkovic, a Serbian designer (who also happens to use Semplice.com for his portfolio), I got a taste of the delightfully weird, vibrant and unexpected voice of Serbia and Serbian design. Mirko's words here have as much style as his designs, and it made for an enlightening and entertaining look into design in Serbia.
Hey Mirko, thanks for talking with us. First, tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into design and what kind of work do you do?
I'm a 39-year-old interdisciplinary designer from Novi Sad, Serbia. I like how the word interdisciplinary sums me up. My professional experience spans video editing, visual effects, motion graphics, CGI, web design and extended reality. It was heavily influenced by the music I used to listen to and now, the data I browse. This all flows and combines through my career, but, the most important update I go for daily is from the field of visual communications and the relevant technologies. It is a chain reaction guided by instinct, constant questioning and exploration to clear the clutter that piles up around us on every level of our lives.
This might sound like a careless life, but It was difficult and it still is. Every project must be better than the previous and on top of that, socially and environmentally responsible.
Mirko at LOKAL, the creative space he founded in Novi Sad. Image by Marija Mandic.
I’ve heard Belgrade has become a stylish, creative city, especially when it comes to art. What is the design scene like in Novi Sad and Serbia overall? Is there energy and conversation about design happening among your community?
There’s a difference between Belgrade and Novi Sad. The mentality is different. Throughout history, Novi Sad was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 100 years ago, and Belgrade was part of the Ottoman Empire. This is really embedded into the culture and that’s something you can feel as soon as you step in.
Novi Sad is going to be a European Capital of Culture for 2021, which is nice but there’s something stuck here on the educational level. There’s no link between students and the market. As a designer, it’s really up to how self-thought and mature you are to overcome this gap and aim further for international projects and collaborations.
On the other side, if you scratch the surface you’ll find many brilliant small initiatives scattered across Novi Sad that are popping up in a stealthy manner. They connect like-minded creatives and breed in content and narratives to some new and rediscovered places.
"I see it as a small dose of Eastern European awareness, mixed with Balkan trumpet bass music while driving your German car in an Armani tight-shirt going out tonight."
Part of the web shop Mirko designed for Revolver Pullover.
I know you run LOKAL for your creative community. Can you tell us a bit more about what this is and the response you’ve seen from local designers?
Lokal is a small creative initiative that fits into 30sqm. It’s a ground-level commercial space that sits where four small streets intersect. Rarely someone passes by into this easy-to-get-lost area called Almaški Kraj, and it’s still five minutes by foot away from the city center.
The space itself is inviting and it really takes just a click kind of initiative, and it happens. Almost without any effort. No financial plan, no clue what’s next, just pure responsibility to pull up values that are around us and combine them in order to get and feel something whole and different. When you create a wave, it triggers other waves around and then you get this creative social stimulus that results in something tangible through real human connections and creative output. That’s what matters the most.
A film Mirko animated for ANIMANIMA, an international animation festival.
Besides LOKAL, do many platforms and events exist in Novi Sad / Serbia that connect you with other designers?
Part of Mirko's brand identity for PicPic Clothing.
How would you describe the design you see coming from Serbia today? Is it influenced by your culture/history/environment in any way?
I see it as a small dose of Eastern European awareness, mixed with Balkan trumpet bass music while driving your German car in an Armani tight-shirt going out tonight.
Art yes. But, design no.
"It’s really amazing how you can wrap up your portfolio and send it to someone as one-liner within a second. This way I become a part of a global environment."
An image of Mirko's past "workstation" from his About page (one of the best About pages I've seen). mirkozarkovic.com
Considering Serbia’s recent history of conflict, I’ve read that design tends to look forward rather than back. “People here abolish history. They want the new.” Do you agree and see this to be true for Serbian design?
It’s really interesting now to see how we’re accepting our cyrilic alphabet. It’s a pity because it’s still mainly seen as something related to Eastern Orthodox Church and its ideology, but that’s something we should definitely overcome. Nowadays, since we have a strong street fashion influence coming from world known Eastern Bloc designers, I see more and more good use of cyrillics that’s mainly coming from young designers' new perspectives. Again we need this self-reflection coming from around us in order to become aware.
Some might argue the internet has homogenized design, with everyone looking outward for inspiration. How do you feel about globalization and its effect on Serbia’s design identity?
I see only good here, and I hope it will always be like this. Because in the end, it is just up to us.
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
Basically no impact at all. I rarely share my work on social media. In a way, I like to act from the backstage and send my work straight to the desired locations. It’s really amazing how you can wrap up your portfolio and send it to someone as one-liner within a second. This way I become a part of a global environment and only this way I can become relevant and bring more to the local community.
Mirko's portfolio homepage.
What is design education currently like in Serbia? Are many designers choosing to study or are most self-taught?
I’d like to mention the Department of Digital Art on Media and Communications Faculty (I hope that’s how it translates) in Belgrade as a great starting point for young creatives.
Most designers in Serbia are self-taught. Design classes are limited to a small number of students and to be honest, I feel that in order to become a good one, you need to be self-taught and enter this world from a different background to bring something unique and multidimensional.
On the other hand, I feel that we can’t just jump into design education without learning and practicing creative approaches for problem-solving. That’s a missing piece that is my major concern.
"In Serbia, there’s this feeling that somehow everything works. Like there is an invisible force that just works."
Behind the scenes of Mirko's PicPic Clothing project
What does good design mean to you, and how do you see it impacting your country’s society as a whole? Do you think it can solve larger issues Serbia faces?
Good design is invisible. It just works. In Serbia, there’s this feeling that somehow everything works. Like there is an invisible force that just works.
Do Serbian clients, generally speaking, appreciate good design and understand what it takes?
Unfortunately, generally no. Aesthetics are not embedded in our DNA and the amount of visual junk around us is defines clients' expectations while completely demolishing their potential to distinguish between good and bad. Lower offers win the pitch.
You’ve worked more than a decade in this field. How have you seen it change over the last 10 years? What do you expect or hope for your community in the next 10 years?
Design trends are morphing and recycling but we’re still stuck into our screens. We need to break this tight, two dimensional, non-tangible surface and start thinking about how to reinvent the way we are, what we do and how we relate.
UX & UI for 3deluxe, a transdisciplinary design studio based in Wiesbaden & Hamburg, Germany.
In your opinion, what are the top 5-10 design studios from Serbia that everyone who might be not familiar with the Serbian design community should know?
And now to our last question: How can all designers and design communities do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Serbian design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
Good question. Let’s co-create something about it.
I first discovered Julie Kraulis' work at the A. Lange & Söhne boutique in New York. It was astounding.
It's something you appreciate in layers: First, you register the fact that it's a pencil drawing, not a rendering or photograph. Then, if you're a watch nerd like me, you hone in on the gears and inner workings, the mysterious details of the machine. Then you see the shading, the incredible detail where Julie captured a nick in the metal, the shadow on a dial, the slightest wear on the wristband. You consider the scale of the thing, at least three feet in height, and eventually, you find you've been standing there studying the piece for 10 minutes. At least that was my experience.
After talking with Julie about her work here, I have a whole other level of appreciation for it.
Julie signing her A. Lange & Söhne Datograph piece, which she describes as her most challenging project.
From your previous interviews, I already know where your fascination with watches came from. What I’m curious about is how it’s held your focus so sharply.
Are you a person who typically gets fixated on one thing and wants to master it, or are you always experimenting with different subjects, mediums and interests? What are some other subjects that have captured your interest over the years?
I stumbled into watches serendipitously but I feel like it was fated, in a sense. There is so much I’m drawn to; abstractly with the concept of time and our relationship to it, as well as the concrete aspects of design. A few years back, I had wanted to focus on a collection of work that would engage both my head and heart. Something to keep me curious and interested in the intellectual realm, and something to capture me on the soul level. The art of watchmaking does both.
I’ve always loved design and I’m intrigued by what makes something timeless in any form of it. I’m fascinated by objects and spaces designed decades ago that achieve cult status, continuing to capture and enthrall a following. There are principles of design and then there’s the layer of mystery as to what makes something tick. This is what keeps my focus.
I am definitely someone who focuses deeply on something, working to understand and glean as much as I can. And then, eventually, I’ll get this feeling to pivot and move on to something else. At any given time, I always have side projects on the go – a variety of creative outlets and interests separate from my ‘day work.’ I have this compulsion to always be making things and I’ve got a list of creative skills I’d like to learn, including printmaking and textiles at some point.
I feel I’ve just scraped the surface with the timepiece collection. It’s the first subject I’ve explored this deeply and I’ve got a bunch of big dreams within it to keep me inspired and hustling.
"Possibility makes me tick; I love the challenge of figuring out something I’ve not yet done."
The GMT Meteorite in progress
I know you like to work in the history and story of the watch into your drawings. How much creative freedom do you typically have in doing that for commissioned pieces? Do you often brainstorm with clients or do they trust you to run with it?
I look to weave in history and narrative elements within each piece I create and I work closely with clients to find these unique notes to emphasize. In the preliminary stages, I glean as much as I can about a timepiece through research and conversation. I let it all roll around and eventually, all of these details will distill into ideas.
Most of the time, the client is completely open to what I come up with and after proposing a few different design approaches, we’ll refine the selected one together. Up to this point, most have desired a fairly straightforward capture of the timepiece, but I’ve got plans for pieces with a deconstructed, conceptual approach.
Julie's interpretation of the Rolex Submariner
I’ve seen artists recently who do technical drawings, either with watches, sneakers or other objects. Yet your work is unique because you add your own artistic twist to these paintings that, as far as I can tell, increase the difficulty 100x fold.
While others might just try to draw a perfectly realistic and technical drawing, you go one step further and do things like the overlapping effect on the Dategraph. In the end, we’re seeing the timepiece in a completely new perspective, one we would never get from a purely technical/photorealistic drawing.
Is this something that just comes naturally to you? I’m curious how you go about marrying the unique visuals with the watch itself.
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to go beyond just a hyper-realistic approach. I wanted to capture these iconic timepieces with a different perspective, adding layers to create a bespoke piece. These added elements make the work unique and visually interesting.
I think it comes naturally but not necessarily easily! Picasso’s sentiment resonates: “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” Possibility makes me tick; I love the challenge of figuring out something I’ve not yet done. For each piece, I usually have a clear image in mind and then work to figure out how to translate it on the page.
You’ll often see natural elements in my drawings. Textures in the natural world have always captivated me and it’s been a super fun challenge learning out how to draw them when they suit the context of certain timepieces, like water for the Rolex Submariner or meteorite for the GMT Master II.
"We live the ever-present dance between hope and doubt. The questioning of the work is an invaluable part of creating, I think."
Julie at work on the Heuer-Monaco Movement.
I saw your work many times on Instagram before, but then one day I spotted your Datograph piece hanging on the wall at A. Lange & Söhne in New York. My friend and I kept admiring one particular part that probably only watch nerds like ourselves would obsess over – it was the pure dark grey shade of the dial itself.
While some may think this is the easiest part of the drawing, I have a feeling you can tell us the exact opposite.
Exactly right. There is a magic to graphite in real life. It’s a very lively medium – there is a shimmer and a depth. I love the idea of using one of the humblest tools around to push its boundaries and find luxury in huge, intricate work. There is also a special metamorphosis that takes place as the wood is shaved off layer by layer, transforming the tool in hand into something on a page.
As is often the case, simple is the most difficult. Pure, even planes of graphite can be the most challenging element of any drawing. Gradients on a bezel or bracelet, as well. I have to move around the piece in all different types of light to refine these areas.
The exquisite A. Lange & Söhne Datograph, which took Julie more than 400 hours to complete. I saw it in person!
Each piece you create takes hundreds of hours of work – you’ve studied the mechanics of timepieces as much as a horologist. Do you feel like you understand the inner workings in a mechanical way, beyond an artistic standpoint?
The timepiece drawings take anywhere from 250-450 hours, depending on the level of difficulty and intricacy. Over the last year, I’ve started drawing movements but I don’t have a grasp on the mechanical engineering bit just yet. I plan to take the Horological Society of New York watchmaking course to better understand a movement and what makes a watch tick. The next phase of this collection will have a conceptual focus based on the inner workings, and this is an essential course I have to take to really explore these ideas.
I had the great pleasure of visiting the A. Lange & Söhne HQ in Dresden last year. While I was touring all of the labs and workshops, I was spellbound at the watchmakers’ benches. These tiny intricately crafted pieces lay still and inanimate and by an order of expert assembly, they come alive and there’s a heartbeat. Just amazing, undeniable soul.
Julie drawing the A. Lange & Söhne Triple Split for a client. The wristband alone is just insane.
I know for many designers, if they’re looking at their own work for that long, hit a point where they question everything and suddenly want to destroy it and start over, or move on to something else entirely.
Does that ever happen to you? What do you do to keep your mind fresh and see an extremely long & detailed project through to the end?
OH, yes. This is the natural state of being for anyone in a creative field! We live the ever-present dance between hope and doubt. The questioning of the work is an invaluable part of creating, I think. It’s also necessary to find moments to see the work through fresh eyes; whether stepping away, putting it aside or seeking feedback from trusted voices. Sometimes it’s just necessary to destroy the work and begin again.
The timeline for each timepiece drawing is long and intense but because of this, I focus on small areas at a time and build slowly. There are many days where I find myself in a meditative, flow state focusing on texture and form. I almost always lack confidence in a piece until about three-quarters of the way. At that point, things start to come together.
The OMEGA Speedmaster CK2998 – the first watch worn in space.
I read you don’t own a watch yourself yet and you’re constantly discovering new ones to love.
Two questions here: 1. What classic timepiece is most your style right now? 2. What would be your ideal watch, if you could dream/draw one up and have it created by the masters?
I know, it’s crazy. I’ve never worn a watch but after spending a decent chunk of time with them, I’ve now got a bunch on my list. I have a special affinity for vintage timepieces; they have stories to tell and secrets to keep. It took me a while to settle on and find my first one: A pink gold Lange 1. I was living in Portugal earlier this year and on the day I was supposed to fly to Germany to pick it up, I had to fly home to Toronto instead due to the upheaval of the coronavirus. So, it’s currently spending life quarantined in Dresden for the next little while…
I couldn’t say what my ideal watch would be. I think that’s the beauty of collecting, to have watches that suit all sorts of moods and occasions. I can say it’d be a dream to create something with Lange, F.P. Journe and Voutilainen, to name a few.
Some favorites across the spectrum: Rolex GMT-Master II 1675 tropical dial, Omega Speedmaster Alaska Project, Lange Zeitwerk, Journe Chronometre à Resonance, Heuer Skipper, Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso.
It's the end of an era, in the truest sense of the word. net magazine, which has been a source of inspiration for the design & tech community since the early days of the web, is shutting down.
Every day now, you hear about another business closing due to the pandemic. Many of them are local institutions, beloved restaurants and cafes shutting their doors after decades in business. A print magazine, just like that cash-only deli run by the same family for generations, feels like a precious relic from days past. Print was pronounced dead long before this global crisis. But the end of net magazine, a consistent voice since 1994 (when I first fell in love with the internet), seems like the door finally slamming shut.
net magazine played a significant role in my career. Along with Computer Arts, which also printed its last issue this month, it fed my passion for all things design and tech since an early age. Years later, I was lucky enough to contribute to both magazines. So when I heard the news about net mag, I wanted to honor the publication and its editors who both celebrated and shaped the web in its more formative years. Here I talk with Oliver Lindberg, editor at net mag since 2012, about the history of the magazine and the future of print media.
"We love the tactility, touch and of course, smell of holding a print mag in our hands. It’s impossible to recreate that experience online."
Hey Oliver, thanks for talking with us. First, tell us a bit about your work and history with net magazine. You obviously love the web – how did you find yourself editing a print publication?
I kind of fell into it! My background is in magazine journalism, which is what I studied for a postgraduate diploma at Cardiff University, and then this job at .net magazine came up. I had always been interested in the web and its incredible versatility. From the beginning, I was fascinated with the web’s community aspect, its DIY mentality, and the abundance of information you could find. The web connected us, and it made it simple for anyone to have a presence online.
When I joined the magazine, it was still a bit of a fanzine for the internet, and it slowly evolved into a leading publication for web designers and developers. I was editor between 2012 and 2016, and subsequently went freelance to work as an independent editor, content strategist and conference curator/organizer. As a print title about the web, net magazine held a unique position. But because readers spent their days staring at screens, they really appreciated being able to move away from them and read about their subject matter in print.
People have said “print is dead” for at least the last 15 years. I’m curious about your opinion here given your experience with net, and as someone very focused on digital. Is there still hope for print media?
Print is certainly dead in many ways now. For net magazine, COVID-19 just accelerated what had been on the cards for a while anyway. Circulations and advertising sales in print have been declining for years, and traditional publishing houses have been struggling to adapt. With 25 years on the newsstand, net magazine had a remarkable run, but I think the era of monthly print magazines, especially niche consumer titles, is clearly over.
That’s not to say that print is dead completely. Some mainstream magazines still have very strong readerships, but commercial specialist mags just can’t compete with the amount of (mostly free) content online, whether it’s blogs, video tutorials, podcasts etc.
Mag closures are often met with a lot of sadness and fond memories. They make us remember how much a mag meant to us and – in net magazine’s case – how influential it was in shaping people’s careers. At the same time, it’s a nostalgic view. We have almost forgotten the value of magazines. If we don’t support and buy them, they are obviously going to disappear.
I’ve started to see a lot of highly independent magazines lately, some of them run by small businesses. I can’t imagine these publications are profitable though – they seem more like a labor of love. I know that’s why I order any print magazines now, simply because it feels special to receive them.
Do you think this is the future of print? More of a specialty than a practicality?
That’s exactly it. Specialist subjects lend themselves perfectly to beautifully-designed indie mags with a small print run and a less regular and demanding publishing schedule. Often printed on great paper stock, it’s still an event when the latest issue lands on your doorstep. We love the tactility, touch and of course, smell of holding a print mag in our hands. It’s impossible to recreate that experience online.
Magazines often also stand out through their art direction. The design of a feature can be a real event, and in digital we’ve been quite restricted. Only recently has CSS evolved enough – with the advent of Grid and Flexbox – to allow us to almost match the layouts that can be achieved in print.
Indie mags don’t tend to last long, though, and yes, it’s not easy to make them profitable. To understand just how much goes into making a sustainable indie print magazine, I recommend checking out this fascinating and very detailed post by Kai Brach, the publisher of Offscreen.
When every publication offers a digital version these days, what makes a print subscription, in your opinion, valuable/worth it? If you could start your own print magazine, would you do it?
The value of a print subscription lies in offering high-quality content that you can’t get anywhere else. Sure, there’s a lot of content online, but there’s a skill involved in professional editing that a lot of digital content is lacking. So much content is being published without having been reviewed by the expert eye of an editor, so it’s often littered in typos and errors. There’s also a lot to be said for the careful curation and compilation of content into one handy package. (See that last sentence for another lost art: the use of alliteration on a magazine cover to attract attention on a busy newsstand!)
I don’t know if I would start my own print magazine these days. Certainly, not as a conventional monthly. If I did it, it would be a passion project that I would pursue alongside other work that pays the bills.
"It feels more valuable because it’s less temporary, less fleeting. And who doesn’t like seeing their name in print?"
With print, there’s a deadline every other month. Ink is being put on paper and it’s permanent; you can’t retract what you said or make changes on the fly. Would you say this is the biggest challenge with print magazines, especially when it comes to the fast-moving tech industry?
Yes, that certainly caused some issues for us! It’s a challenge, and you have to be on your toes to ensure that what you’re publishing doesn’t go out of date immediately, or, worse, is factually incorrect. We therefore had our practical tutorials peer-reviewed by industry experts before going to print. It added to the workload but it made sure we were only publishing the best advice.
The fact that it’s permanent, however, is also one of the unique selling points. It feels more valuable because it’s less temporary, less fleeting. And who doesn’t like seeing their name in print? We always had contributors ask for print copies – for themselves and often for their parents as well.
Print also offers people an opportunity to slow down. Work has sped up massively over the last decade or so, especially in tech, while online content is full of SEO keywords and clickbait. When I worked on net magazine, print allowed us to focus on what matters most – the actual content, which readers could then consume at their own pace.
The biggest challenge for print magazines I’d say is the rising costs, ever-dwindling budgets and lack of advertisers still willing to invest in print. Sadly, there’s not much you can do about that.
Can you recall the days you had some projects on your desk for the .net magazine that you got really excited about? What were your favorite pieces of content to work on – and were those the same the audience appreciated most?
I’ve always been quite hands-on, and so for me, some of the most exciting projects were interviews I conducted myself. For example, I once had the pleasure of meeting Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the internet." At the time he was planning to take the internet to space!
What I really enjoyed about working on .net magazine was our unrivaled access and the opportunities it opened up. We made a lot of connections at events like SXSW, the Future of Web Design and later, beyond tellerrand. The mag became a real who’s who of the web design community. Over the years we featured everyone who made a name for themselves in the industry, from A like Irene Au to Z like Jeffrey Zeldman, while fostering and uncovering new talent as well. It became a badge of honor to have an article published in .net magazine. The same is true for brand extensions like the .net awards – winning titles such as Designer or Developer of the Year helped boost entire careers, and to this day some wear these titles with pride by mentioning them in their bios.
Lately, I’ve gone back to my roots, and so I contributed as a freelancer to the final issues of net magazine and interviewed such incredibly talented and passionate designers / developers as Chen Hui Jing, Charlie Gerard, and Tim Kadlec. I think what resonated most with net magazine’s audience was that they were learning from the best.
Any parting wisdom or advice for those who still want to believe in print?
If you want your favorite magazines to stick around for a bit longer, make sure you support them before it’s too late. I always thought mags like net offered incredible value – at least in the UK the cost for an issue was equivalent to less than a couple of drinks.
While the traditional newsstand may be dying, it’s really nice to see that independent and specialist titles are still flourishing. In Bath, where I live, we have a beautiful little store called Magalleria, for example, which offers a stunning selection of print mags from around the world that you can also order online. It’s worth checking out Stack as well, which delivers a different independent magazine to your door every month.
So there are plenty of reasons to still believe in print. The less common it is, the more we appreciate the analog beauty of print in a digital world.
For this addition to our Design Around the World series, we're looking at a place known quite well for its creativity and excellent design: Portugal.
When researching for this interview, we found no shortage of top-notch design studios in Portugal. But as soon as we discovered Koiástudio, we knew we had to talk with them. Look through their work and it's clear they are passionate about good design and just have fun with it, beyond the business aspect. And that's even more apparent in this conversation with Jorge Almeida, in which we talk about designing in the midst of a crisis, doing a lot with little and promoting your work through partying with friends.
Hey Jorge, thanks for taking the time. First, let’s talk about your studio. Who is the team behind Koiástudio and why did you decide to open your own design studio?
We are three people now working at Koiástudio. It’s me (Jorge Almeida) and Bruno Albuquerque, both graphic designers living in Porto and sharing our office downtown, and Diogo Bento, who is a photographer living and working in São Vicente, Cape Verde.
The studio came about in 2012 when Diogo and I, both working as independent freelancers at the time, realized we could start doing work together, even if there was an ocean between us, since we have a common background (we’ve been friends for a long time) and similar tastes. This opportunity would allow us to challenge and improve our own practices, all the while making something bigger than the sum of the parts. At the same time, we would be able to secure more work and share common projects and goals.
Later on, the opportunity arose for Bruno to join us, bringing new languages and ideas to the studio.
The three of us have been working together for three years now.
Jorge completing the office aesthetic
I read that “the Portuguese find themselves at the crossroads between tradition and modernity” while being very open to new ideas and an international/eclectic cultural influence.
How would you describe the design coming out of Portugal today and what are its biggest influences?
We think that the relationship between culture/tradition of one’s own environment and the work of design will always exist. And it's a welcoming relationship. It exists not only for us as technicians, thinkers and creators, but also in the mind of the clients and even within the projects we work for. However, we consider that it is also a starting point from where to search for some kind of disruption and where design work can find its place.
As a matter of fact, we can give an example of our own, albeit a simple one: Working with some projects in smaller, less-cosmopolitan towns, in more conservative regions of the country, we always try to push things a little bit forward, without losing the focus and the roots within the given context. We also think that we can always add a little something new to each of these projects that we carry out.
Nowadays we all have access to what is happening around us, almost everywhere, and Portuguese designers are aware and are part of that. We can easily find influences, trends and languages that circulate everywhere. Of course, sometimes we also joke that a certain trend has arrived late to Portugal, but the truth is that Portuguese designers and other creatives belong to this global network and are obviously influenced by it, while also assuming their role as influencers.
Porto seems to have a growing creative scene. What brought this about and are you seeing this elsewhere in Portugal? What about Lisbon?
Yes, Porto has always been a cluster for the creative industries and design has been a big part of this. Design schools and, more recently, the city council’s cultural policies have played a fundamental role. But this is also due – and we return to the tradition/culture point – to the way of being for Porto’s people and their adopted citizens, like we are. It can be characterized by the capacity to constantly renew oneself and always be in a certain state of inquietação (unrest) – like the singer-songwriter José Mário Branco has reminded us of. This makes the city seem to be always bubbling up.
Obviously, we must not forget that Lisbon is a great creative hub, an incredible city and, of course, has many good designers. In fact, some of the studios whose work we appreciate the most are located there.
Perhaps the only thing that can be separated here (and this may be an outdated idea) is that Lisbon has always been better known by the big communication agencies, big structures, with projects that involve huge resources, while Porto has always been better known for the small creative studios. This may bring greater proximity between those who actually work on a given project and their clients. What we are seeing is that many of the great cultural venues of the city of Lisbon, such as theatres, museums and cultural spaces, are looking for or working with design studios from Porto.
It's also great to see how smaller cities, although still few, are investing in graphic design in such a visible way. And this is great for everyone and helps to bring forward the industry as a whole. We’re talking about cities like Braga, Viseu or Coimbra.
Diogo in his home office.
Do many platforms and events exist in Portugal that connect you with other designers? Is there energy and conversation about design happening among your community?
We are not very participative in that kind of events, but yes, they do exist. We cannot deny that it has become easier and easier for designers to connect and get together and, therefore, to share different ways of doing design. Speaking about Porto, several initiatives take place regularly during the year, such as the event "Bolsa de Ideias." In Matosinhos, a neighboring city, we have “Casa do Design," where exhibitions are held regularly. We now have the “Porto Design Biennale” (which started in 2019). And there are other smaller initiatives happening all over the city, in places like co-working spaces, galleries or schools.
All this always generates more discussion, energy and interaction between designers; between designers and other creative people; and between designers and individuals who don't necessarily have a creative activity, but who are nevertheless interested in these issues, which seems relevant to us. All this helps to foster a critical attitude toward the discipline of design.
From what I read, formal design education in Portugal is still relatively young – the first courses were created in 1969 and design as an academic discipline in 1975.
What is design education like in Portugal today? Do many designers attend university or are most self-taught?
Nowadays there seems to be a very comprehensive response for those who want to study design, especially at a university level, from formal graphic design to courses focused on specific areas of graphic design, or courses that embrace graphic design as a relevant discipline. Because design education is relatively recent for us, we sometimes notice some variations or uncertainties in these degrees’ programs. Although we would say that’s totally fine, given they are still finding their path or place in the design landscape.
Yes, most active Portuguese designers today have formal higher education. However, we cannot go without those who opened the way for us, who are still relevant both for us and the Portuguese design scene, and who did not have a specific design diploma. We are thinking of, in the field of graphic design, designers such as Sebastião Rodrigues (1929-1997), Victor Palla (1922-2006) or, more recently, João Machado (still active). People that continue to make perfect sense when it comes to talking about design in Portugal.
Although design education in Portugal is still finding its own way, we think that it has become more attractive and more consistent in terms of practical and theoretical approaches, making it a credible field today.
Portugal seems to have a special place in its heart for book and magazine cover design. I see Koiástudio has created some beautiful book covers itself. Where did this all begin and is it more of a specialty today, with more and more designers focusing on digital?
Universities with more years of graphic design education continue to invest heavily in print media, and especially in the area of editorial design. We think that anyone studying in these institutions will become fascinated with the book as an object. However, as we all know, it's not exactly an easy market; there aren't many publishing houses publishing very regularly. Perhaps that's why we've also seen, and not only in Portugal, a boom of self-publishing authors and small independent publishers owned by designers.
There won't be many designers working exclusively on book covers. But yes, we do have really good and beautiful book covers in Portugal. We advise you to look for the work of Rui Silva (Alfaiataria) or Silva Designers.
At Koiástudio, this was one of our first major interests. We find it stimulating the fact that the process of making a book cover brings an exercise of interpreting the book content, and the challenge of adding something new to the written narrative without compromising the author’s ideas. We have also a romantic idea of the book as an object that defines a certain time for us, a certain time for the public, and a certain time for us as a society.
However, today we have turned our attention to album covers. Something that has also always had a great interest for us and which we love to do. It ends up having a process similar to that of a book cover. Although in some cases, depending on the genre and the clients themselves, it becomes an even more open exercise, especially due to the nature of the content with which it relates: music and sound.
I know the financial crisis is recent in Portugal’s memory. Did that affect the design scene and your work in any specific way? Does it still?
Yes, it affected us all, directly or indirectly. Trying to bring up something good from this crisis and the severe political measures that followed: we think it brought a more interactive role of the designer as an agent in its community. We remember that people coming out of the university, having to struggle to find a decent job, became more engaged in our communities or, at least, more active. We think we're now seeing a tendency to incorporate or look at different approaches to things, that goes beyond the trends often acquired in schools. Which ends up bringing more diversity.
There seems to be more willingness to take risks in certain groups of designers, especially the younger ones. And if in many cases this goes in the direction of innocuous relativism, in many other cases it brings new ideas that are well-structured and well-founded. Of course, unfortunately, this is almost always at a very precarious or unsustainable level, but it is good to think that it is a way of dealing with things and of opening the way to the new.
Right now, in the face of a crisis that is predicted, we are already thinking about the challenges we may have to face and, as a studio, what can we bring back to us and our clients.
Bruno contemplating Koiastudio's next big idea.
In an article from years ago, someone said, “Portugal it seems that necessity truly is the mother of invention. Forced to work with limited means and resources, it seems that Portuguese designers have become frugality experts by ‘doing a lot with a little,’ being exceptionally creative and ‘doing it all, on call.’”
Is that the case today, or have you seen things evolve since then?
Yes, unfortunately, in Portugal there is often a gap between projects and existing resources. Most of the time resources are not up to the needs of a particular job or the kind of inputs we want to apply to the project. If we said earlier the discipline of design is now a credible discipline in Portugal, the truth is that it still does not have the desirable echo of what is invested in design work. We’re not only talking budget-wise, but also about what is invested in terms of trust in the designer or the time allowed to carry such projects.
Sometimes we come across projects that really interest us, but whose time for design is too limited. Often this time is also made more limited by too much bureaucracy, especially when we talk about institutional clients.
This makes us have to adapt, often overnight. We have had cases of having almost finished projects, and because of late responses from the clients, we have to come up with unforeseen, fast and cheaper production solutions. Obviously, if this would mean a poor output, the work will not go out until we and the client find a better solution.
This seems to be changing, but it will always be a slow change.
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
We have to confess that we are not given much to self-promotion, either by direct contact or through the use of social networks. Obviously, we know the full potential of social networks and how showcasing work can help find new clients and projects. We are still trying to shape our individual way of being to make the most out of this. The three of us have always been very inconspicuous! In this sense, what really works for us is the network that we create through our conviviality with friends. Going out partying and being with our friends is our way of social networking. This means that a lot of our clients reach us by word of mouth, and our friends do a really good job at this. We are thankful to them.
We also put a lot of effort into doing our best all the time and establishing a close relationship with all of our clients. We believe this is key to creating a bond and a sense of trust that will encourage a long-lasting relationship with our clients.
I learned about the word “saudade” from Portuguese friends – this deep feeling of nostalgia or longing for something dear that has been lost.
This feeling seems to be embedded in Portuguese people, tinging the world a certain color and perhaps bringing a deeper sensitivity (generally speaking) to work and life. And it's certainly a pertinent feeling to the world right now. Does “saudade” play into creative work in any way?
"Saudade," maybe this concept exists to define a certain level of shyness and a need for close human contact. In these times when we are all closed at home, this becomes paradigmatic.
In general, although this seems to be changing; we need a lot of human contact. Maybe this will bring greater understanding about human relationships, how people interact with each other, and consequently how individuals and communities interact with objects, images, etc. And this may interfere with our work. We try to have a poetic degree in every image that we compose or in every object that we build. And the three of us even have different ways of doing so.
Obviously, this may not always be visible, it probably isn't, but we like to think that each of our objects/works brings forward some more poetic narrative to those who receive it and see it.
If this may be something coming from the concept of "Saudade," we are not sure, at least on a conscious level.
"Here in Portugal, it seems there has always been a time problem!"
“Desenrascar” is another word I’ve heard, which literally translates to “unscramble” in English. As I understand it, it’s about doing things “fast and fine” and at the last minute. This seems to be the way for most designers no matter where you’re from. Is it for your team at Koiástudio?
Yeah, the famous "Desenrascar." This concept is most likely related with what we’ve mentioned earlier about finding solutions with the few resources we have and, at the same time, with the time at our disposal for each project. But yes, we Portuguese use this characteristic of doing everything in the last minute to define ourselves. We believe that this is often the designer's work routine all over. However, here in Portugal, it seems there has always been a time problem!
In our work this also happens, not because we do things at the last minute, which is not what defines us in the first place, but above all because we often have very little time to dedicate to a project – and, in many of these cases, we have to find quick solutions.
On the other hand, being already aware of this, we are always trying to find implementation mechanisms that enable us to find the technical constraints of projects early in the process. Basically, we are shaping our tools and working methods to give more relevance to the exploration/discussion of concepts and experimentation with languages, and to spend less time with technical issues.
“Responsible” design has been on the minds of designers today. Creating sustainable designs has become more of a focus. Given your packaging design, for example, is this something you consider in your work?
We would like to say that this is always a premise, but it would not be true. The truth is that sometimes it is very upsetting for us to have to abandon certain materials or techniques. If we try to use sustainable materials – and the truth is that most of our work is printed on recycled or recyclable paper – we tend to trust that the printers will do the same, e.g. in the inks they use.
Of course, it can't stop there, and often what defines the final format or materials for a particular object takes into account how long it will last. This becomes important in regards to these issues. It's different to choose the materials, or even the media, for an object that has to communicate for an unlimited period of time and the materials or media used for an ephemeral object that will last for two or three weeks, or even a month. We often see objects of very short duration with incredible finishings (expensive and unsustainable). For us, this kind of approach does not make much sense.
In your opinion, what are the top 5-10 design studios from Portugal that everyone who might be not familiar with your design community should know?
Finally, how can all designers and design communities do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Portuguese design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
Starting from the last question, there aren't many blogs or magazines specialised in design in Portugal. However, there are two authors of special relevance dedicated to critical writing about design: Mário Moura, professor, design critic and curator, and Frederico Duarte, also professor, critic and curator.
Both also have several books dedicated to the subject.
We would also like to highlight the work being developed by ESAD-Idea, a design research center, which is currently responsible for programming the “Casa do Design” in Matosinhos and which also has a series of publications on design theory and practice.
Going now to the first question, it is our understanding that the communication between designers and the communities of designers should be less driven by styles or trends and more open to diversity. It is in the discussion of different ideas and approaches that we enrich everyone's work and, through that, the field of design.
Your interview series is an example of an interesting way to put designers in dialogue and we thank you for letting us be part of it.
Thank you for doing this with us, Jorge! The energy and dimension in Portugal's design community is obvious, and we're excited to follow your work as well as these other fantastic studios you shared here. We look forward to seeing what Koiástudio creates next.
For the latest addition to our Design Around the World series, we are going back to South America, this time to Argentina.
My associations with Argentina are based on the Argentinians I know: They are vibrant, warm, full of life. And through talking with those people I know Argentina is a beautiful yet complex place to live. What I didn't know is how that affects designers and their work.
First, let’s talk about your studio. Who is the team behind Twentyfive and why did you decide to open your own design studio?
We are currently two people. Ana is a digital art designer and I work as a design director. We work with some people remotely – designers, illustrators, copywriters and programmers.
I always worked independently, until at one point I wanted to set up a studio to improve my work, add more quality, and therefore have more clients. Also opening your studio is a great challenge, which tests our ability in several aspects.
Ana, digital art designer at TwentyFive
Buenos Aires had a big creative/arts scene in the 1920s. Is that still the case? Is there energy and conversation about design happening among your community? What about in Argentina overall?
Argentina has a very strong creative design energy. There are many designers, therefore the design scene is very present through events, conferences, festivals.
It seems to me that all that energy is scattered; we are not very united as a community. I believe that we should be more united to enhance our work more, show ourselves better and empower ourselves.
For a long time Argentina exported many designers, mostly in the 1990s. A few years ago that happened again. Many designers decided to leave the country. That is not good for the Argentine design community, but it is good for everyone who wants to look for their future where it is better.
So, there is a strong design scene but we need to be more united as a community.
"In Argentina, unfortunately, we are used to crises. We live with it."
Do many platforms and events exist in Buenos Aires / Argentina that connect you with other designers?
There are several events, not platforms, or at least I do not know.
There is a very big design event that has been taking place for more than 15 years and that brings together more than 4,000 people. That is the biggest event and that connects many designers. Also, there are other smaller but also important.
It is important that there are events that serve to connect with other designers.
In talking with friends from Argentina, I know the current social and financial situation is on many Argentinians’ minds. How does this affect your work as designers?
In Argentina, unfortunately, we are used to crises. We live with it. There are moments of calm, and that is very good. But when the financial crisis is great, it brings problems.
It is very complex to explain what happens. At some point you could not work abroad because you could not make a bank transfer; it was not allowed (yes, that difficult and crazy). There are many issues related to the dollar that would be long to count... This is undoubtedly very damaging to our work.
In Argentina, you not only have to think of your work as such, but also live with these situations that directly or indirectly affect your work.
Argentina is wonderful, but not in these cases.
I read that Argentina’s financial struggles in the late 90s / early 2000s left most designers working for clients overseas. Is that still the case today? Do you work mostly with local clients or international clients?
Exactly. It happened in the '90s that many designers decided to go to work in other countries due to the deep crises that occurred. Today something similar is happening although the crisis is not the same.
I work with international clients, but most of my clients are local. In 2019 I launched my foundry with my partner, Aldo Arillo. He is Mexican, and we decided to build society in Mexico. That is another type of business and in this way it allows us to work with clients around the world.
"There is something that equals us all and it is the ability to think. We should make more use of it."
How would you describe the design you see coming from Argentina today? Is it influenced by your culture/history in any way?
I think that for many years, the Argentine design had a look similar to everything that was done in Latin America: a lot of color, collage, etc. Somehow you still see that although to a lesser extent; I imagine it is present in the DNA.
In my case it does not happen. My design was always related to European design, (Germany, UK, Switzerland). I imagine that is due to the strong typographic presence that exists in my work and the simplicity that I manage.
Many times they told me that I should go to work in those countries. I had the opportunity on several occasions, but I decided to stay in my country and pursue a career here.
"There was very little to look for inspiration. The inspiration was from the street, in the music and in a search of our own."
Some might argue the internet has homogenized design, with everyone looking outward (especially to the West) for inspiration. How do you feel about globalization and its effect on Argentina’s design identity?
It is true, long ago everything is within reach of a click.
I come from a culture where the internet did not exist. There is something that equals us all and it is the ability to think. We should make more use of it.
I was educated without the internet; we didn't have access to almost anything. Design and / or typography books did not reach Argentina. There was very little to look for inspiration. The inspiration was from the street, in the music and in a search of our own.
I don't watch much of what happens. I design the fonts for almost all the projects I do, I try to generate new languages. My search is to other side. I think it is good to be able to see everything that happens in the world in a very easy way, but it is simply that.
Yes, it is true that globalization transformed design a little in Argentina. You could see what was happening elsewhere and that served as inspiration for many of the new generations.
You do a lot of branding and typography work. With most big rebrands today, we see companies leaving behind the old quirky logomarks in favor of extremely simple, sans-serif text for a logo.
What’s your opinion on this trend?
That is true. I think that in some cases it was positive, but in many others it was not. The problem with following a trend is that everything looks the same. Many logos lost personality and that is not good.
Each brand has a message, and I feel that several lost it. You have to be very careful with trends. The problem with trends is that they do not last over time, and that cannot happen in a logo.
Like any trend, there is an overuse of it.
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
I spend little time on social networks; there is something I still cannot understand. I don't know if it only serves to show my work or to get clients. I think it only serves to show my work and in a lower percentage to get new clients.
It is a pending task to give more importance to my presence on social networks. I don't know what is better: I am on Instagram, Behance... Facebook and Twitter I almost don't use. And my website.
But I think social networks are very good.
I read that it took many years for graphic design to become part of the university curriculum in Argentina, but there seems to be some influential design programs in schools now.
What is design education currently like in Argentina? Are many designers choosing to study or are most self-taught?
Many universities have graphic design in their study plans. That is very good. The University of Buenos Aires is where the largest number of people who choose a graphic design career meet.
Most people choose to study; I don't know many people who have made a career of being self-taught.
Also, the UBA (University of Buenos Aires) has a postgraduate degree in branding and a master in Typography. I am part of the branding postgraduate staff since four years.
What does good design mean to Twentyfive, and how do you see it impacting your country’s society as a whole? Do you think it can solve larger issues Argentina faces?
It is difficult to explain the meaning of good design. There are many projects that I see and like. At Twentyfive we try to design projects that generate impact. As I said before, we seek to generate new languages, we try to break with the established, to go further. It is a great challenge to achieve this in each project, but the search is that.
There is a lot of work time put into each project. We do tests and more tests until we are convinced that what we are going to present is the best we could do.
I'm not sure that design can solve bigger problems facing Argentina, but we can help.
Do Argentinian clients, generally speaking, appreciate good design and understand what it takes?
I always say the same thing when asked what kind of clients are looking for Twentyfive. They are clients who understand the value of design and the impact this can generate on their brands. So constant effort is satisfying.
I read that the work of Lucien Achille Mauzan in the 1920s still has a big influence on poster design in Argentina today. Is poster design still relevant in your community?
I'm not so sure that it will continue to influence poster design in Argentina.
Poster design has a presence; I like to see the city with good posters. Also, there is a great presence of murals and street art. That is seen more and more. Many designers and illustrators are working in that area.
In your opinion, what are the top 5-10 design studios from Argentina that everyone who might be not familiar with the Argentinian design community should know?
How can all designers and design communities do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Argentinian design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
I believe that everyone from their side can collaborate in making a design community. Being good professionals, helping us and respecting us. I don't know any blogs or magazines that we can follow. I think that as we said before, everything is within everyone's reach.
Let's be better and better.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, Ariel. We'll be following TwentyFive's work (and these other incredible Argentinian design studios you shared) and look forward to seeing more from the Argentinian design community.
Before our feeds were filled with Zoom screenshots and sourdough loaves, you probably saw at least one Instagram post featuring the work of teamLab. The collective has produced numerous immersive exhibits internationally, and it's the sort of thing you can't experience without photographing. Yet photos alone can't capture what teamLab is doing.
A team of artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians and architects, teamLab creates art exhibits best described as transportive. Step into a teamLab exhibit and you enter a sensory and surreal world of light, color and sound. Like many immersive experiences you see now, you are encouraged to touch and explore the art. Unlike other exhibits, teamLab's art responds to you or transforms as others around you interact with it too.
And unlike many made-for-Instagram experiences we've seen lately, teamLab is not sniffing for social media exposure. They want to dissolve borders between art and people, to encourage the rediscovery of nature through technology, and bring people together through it.
Our worlds have narrowed drastically over the last couple of weeks. We are confined to our homes, limited to the entertainment within our four walls. Yet at the same time, we are more connected than ever, a truth that resonates with teamLab's belief system, as you will read shortly.
Considering most exhibitions and events have been canceled or closed indefinitely during the pandemic, a digital tour of teamLab's work is a refreshing escape. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
teamLab began as a personal project between friends 19 years ago. Tech has evolved significantly since then and your team has as well. Were there any projects way back then that you couldn’t create due to limited tech or resources?
No longer limited to physical media, digital technology has made it possible for artworks to expand physically. Since art created using digital technology can easily expand, it provides us with a greater degree of autonomy within the space. We are now able to manipulate and use much larger spaces, and viewers are able to experience the artwork more directly.
In interactive artworks that teamLab creates, because viewers’ movement or even their presence transforms the artwork, the boundaries between the work and viewers become ambiguous. Viewers become a part of the work. This changes the relationship between an artwork and an individual into a relationship between an artwork and a group of individuals. A viewer who was present five minutes ago, or how the person next to you is behaving now, suddenly becomes important. Unlike a viewer who stands in front of a conventional painting, a viewer immersed in an interactive artwork becomes more aware of other people’s presence.
Unlike a physical painting on a canvas, the non-material digital technology can liberate art from the physical. By using such digital technology, we believe art can expand the beautiful. We want to create a space where you can feel that you are connected with other people in the world.
What really makes teamLab unique is not the technological advancement, but rather the fact that teamLab has become able to do truly massive art projects simultaneously worldwide in-house at a high speed — to the extent that no one has been able to do before.
With several hundred strong specialists, teamLab has become bigger than ever, as we increased the size of our own team, our own funds, as well as the number of people who are willing to support what we want to do, because of our more widespread recognition. We develop our own systems; however, it is the advances in video equipment and technology that make it easier for us to do what we want to do. There are other media artists that use much more advanced technology than we do. What is really interesting (and often chaotic) with teamLab is that while we combine relatively new technologies, we turn our ideas into visuals and scales that no one has ever imagined and execute everything with an in-house team.
Are there any ideas you have today where you’re still waiting for tech to catch up?
At times, we must develop our own systems and hardware in order to explore the ideas on the scale we hope.
For instance, in our permanent museum teamLab Borderless Shanghai in Huangpu District, Shanghai, we created a Light Sculpture space consisting of a thousand moving lights: an unprecedented amount and density. In order to achieve this amount and density, we had to develop our own original moving light. If we were to use ordinary moving lights, one thousand of them would heat up and bake our visitors. So we had to develop something to reduce the heat levels.
"What is life? What separates the 'living' from 'inanimate' cannot be defined biologically to this day."
Likewise, our upcoming permanent museum teamLab SuperNature, which is coming soon to The Venetian Macao, will feature the never-before-seen Massless Clouds Between Sculpture and Life.
A giant cloud floats between the floor and the ceiling within the confines of the space, as though transcending the concept of mass. People can immerse their bodies in this cloud, blurring the boundaries between the artwork and the body.
Even when people push through the floating cloud and break it, it naturally repairs itself like a living thing. But, as with living things, when the cloud is destroyed beyond what it can repair, it cannot mend itself, and it collapses.
What is life? What separates the “living” from “inanimate” cannot be defined biologically to this day.
That you continue to be tomorrow who you are today is against the “law of increasing entropy,” wherein tangible things collapse. Entropy (a measurement of the lack of order in a system) is being maximized in this universe, but life goes against this direction.
Physicist and 1977 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Ilya Prigogine, observed that in the natural world, when energy is absorbed from an external source, internal entropy is generated, then released.
Living creatures take in energy from the outside in the form of food, disposing of entropy in the form of excrement, thereby preserving entropy. Life cannot exist independently, it is part of a continuity with its external surroundings.
In this artwork, self-organization is tested. Universal gravitation and centrifugal force are opposed, and the clouds rotate while floating in the space between the floor and ceiling. And, just like life, they endeavor to repair themselves.
Ultimately, teamLab is a laboratory run by a team, a place where the team experiments. So we are not afraid to try something new in our mission to explore the relationship between the self and the world and new perceptions through art.
"Although large concepts are always defined from the start, the project goal tends to remain unclear, so the whole team needs to create and think as they go along."
teamLab is all about collaboration, and you’ve made the point before that digital work can’t be delineated – a designer cannot design an iPhone without thinking of the OS.
We talk a lot about collaboration in the creative field but it’s much harder to put into practice. Do you have any practical tips for true, harmonious collaboration within a creative team?
Our artworks are created by a team of hands-on experts through a continuous process of creation and thinking. Although large concepts are always defined from the start, the project goal tends to remain unclear, so the whole team needs to create and think as they go along. teamLab's organizational structure seems flat at first glance, but it is also extremely multidimensional, with an underlying layer that is unclear and undecided.
Once the large concept of the artwork is set, we gather specialized members related to the work and think more finely. For example, the Forest of Flowers and People: Lost, Immersed and Reborn piece, which is in teamLab Borderless in Tokyo, was created with a specialist who creates 3D CG flower model and animation, a 3D software programmer, an engineer who designs equipment such as projectors, a software programmer who localizes and integrates dozens of projectors within the space, an architect, and so on.
"In a future society, traits that only humans possess—such as creativity—will become increasingly important."
teamLab’s creativity is based on ‘multidimensionality,’ where members with different specialties create together by crossing their boundaries, as well as their ‘transferable knowledge,’ a type of knowledge that can be shared and reused. As a result, teamLab generates what we call 'collective creation', the creation of something of higher quality by a group, thus strengthening an entire team. An individual person may not be directly involved in the project but his or her shareable knowledge might be. This continuous process of creating and discovering the transferable knowledge at high-speed yields the power of the group. It is organizations like this, able to uncover vast troves of knowledge that differentiate themselves.
You’ve talked before about the flawed education system that rewards us for the correct answers, rather than correct questions. As the world becomes more homogenized and the Internet tells us the “correct or “popular” way to do things (such as design), how do we remain original thinkers?
Artificial intelligence and machinery could replace much of the existing work that we know of today. In a future society, traits that only humans possess—such as creativity—will become increasingly important.
Humans are naturally collaborative and creative. However, current education emphasizes only one correct answer over all others, stifling creativity. Free thinking and behavior that is different, is suppressed. And by doing so, students become afraid of making mistakes and lose their natural creativity. Whereas in the real world we find that there are no problems that have only one correct answer. Often as not, the correct answer 10 years ago is now incorrect.
By creating new solutions that solve problems in different ways, and give people enjoyment in the process, new correct answers are born. It is creativity that allows us to overcome problems that cannot be defined as either correct or incorrect.
The present situation in education is that tests are taken by individuals and evaluated on the ability of the individual. Before we know it, individualism is forced upon us. Additionally, large numbers of people are addicted to smartphones. Their brains may be connected, but their body is isolated. As a result, opportunities for nurturing co-creative experiences are decreasing.
Humans learn about the world through interaction with others and by sharing experiences. People think with their bodies as they move through the world, and society has developed through creative activities born from collaboration. This is why co-creative experience is very important for society.
By focusing on creating change in the connections between people, as well as creating positive experiences, teamLab hopes to turn individual creative acts into co-creative activities. Hopefully, through enjoying co-creation, people will be able to find creativity in their daily life. It was from such a desire that this project was born.
“Instagrammable” art experiences are becoming more and more popular – exhibits that claim to be interactive but are really more about providing a good backdrop for your Instagram Story.
I see the positives – the artist gains more exposure and more people are visiting museums. However, it seems we often see the art through our audience’s eyes, more concerned with getting the perfect shot than actually appreciating it ourselves.
How do you see it? Can we truly be immersed and appreciate art when we’re more concerned about taking photos for our followers? Can we “dissolve the boundaries between art & people” as you’ve put it, when there’s a phone between us?
It is a natural human desire to share emotions or something that is moving and inspiring. However, the “experience” cannot be cut out.
Through smartphones or TVs, people can understand only with their heads. Knowledge may be gained, but the sense of values and perceptions cannot be changed or broadened. Only through the actual, physical experience of the world or artworks can people start to recognize things differently. Even if people look at teamLab’s exhibition images on Instagram, their values will not be broadened.
teamLab wants to continue creating experiences that cannot be shared just with photos or videos.
Our interest is not the technology itself, but instead, we’re trying to explore the concept of “digital" and how it can enhance art.
Most of Silicon Valley-originated technology is an extension of someone’s mind. Facebook, Twitter, these digital domains see the “self” as the principle. These are meant to be used personally.
What teamLab wants to do is to enhance the physical space itself by digital art. It doesn’t necessarily have to be yourself that intervenes with it. It can be other people, or a group of people that vaguely includes you. And instead of personal use, we want to make it usable by multiple people.
By digitizing the space, we can indirectly change the relationships between people inside. If the presence of others can trigger the space to change, they’d become a part of artwork. And if that change is beautiful, the presence of others can be something beautiful as well. By connecting digital technology and art, we think the presence of others can be made more positive.
Not long ago, most museums didn’t even allow photography so they could prevent copyright issues and damage to light-sensitive works. But this also allowed us to be fully present. Do you have certain exhibits where you don’t allow phones?
We allow phones in all of our exhibitions, though we prohibit the use of flash and large equipment, such as tripods or selfie sticks for most. This way, visitors can enjoy and experience the art as they choose, but they do so in a way that does not disrupt any other person’s experience.
"Living in the city, you feel as if there is a border between yourself and the world, but the world really is meant for us to be involved with."
I know Yayoi Kusama’s immersive exhibits have been recreated (essentially stolen) by other artists and museums. Have you ever experienced this with teamLab’s work, or does the heavy engineering and extravagant concepts make it difficult for others to recreate?
Yes, we have experienced other organizations attempting to mimic teamLab exhibitions, and even go so far as to use teamLab images to promote their own spaces without our consent or knowledge.
On August 8, 2019, teamLab filed an Intellectual Property - Copyright lawsuit against Museum of Dream Space LLC. This case was filed in the U.S. District Courts, California Central District. We will be distributing a press release related to this topic soon, so there will be more information available shortly.
Despite these occurrences, teamLab remains unique because of the scale at which we are able to create our work.
Your work seeks to blend people with nature. Our jobs as creatives, especially designers (a large portion of the people reading this), sadly do not involve nature. Most of us are sitting inside in front of our computer screens for 8+ hours a day.
How do you reconcile this in your own work? Do you make a structured, concentrated effort to connect with nature every day, or is it more about changing your philosophy about work and the outdoors?
We want people to be involved with the world. As much as possible, we want to re-think the boundary between the world and oneself. Living in the city, you feel as if there is a border between yourself and the world, but the world really is meant for us to be involved with. It may be just a bit, but the world is something that changes due to your existence. We believe that there is a borderless, continuous relationship between us and the world.
The 500,000 square meter Mifuneyama Rakuen Park was created in 1845, during the end of the Edo period. Sitting on the borderline of the park is the famous 3,000-year-old sacred Okusu tree of Takeo Shrine. Also in the heart of the garden is another 300-year-old sacred tree. Knowing the significance of this, our forebears turned a portion of this forest into a garden, using the trees of the natural forest.
The border between the garden and the wild forest is ambiguous, and when wandering through the garden, before they know it, people will find themselves entering the woods and animal trails. Enshrined in the forest is the Inari Daimyojin deity surrounded by a collection of boulders almost supernatural in their formation. About 1,300 years ago, the famous priest Gyoki came to Mifuneyama and carved 500 Arhats. Within the forest caves, there are Buddha figures that Gyoki directly carved into the rock face that still remain today.
Lost in nature, where the boundaries between man-made garden and forest are unclear, we are able to feel like we exist in a continuous, borderless relationship between nature and humans. It is for this reason that teamLab decided to create an exhibition in this vast, labyrinthine space, so that people will become lost and immersed in the exhibition and in nature.
"We think what’s more important, at least as an artist, is to seek out and affirm an idealistic part of humanity, and present an idea of the future."
We exist as a part of an eternal continuity of life and death, a process that has been continuing for an overwhelmingly long time. It is hard for us, however, to sense this in our everyday lives, perhaps because humans cannot easily conceptualize time for periods longer than their own lives.
When exploring the forest, the shapes of the giant rocks, caves, and the forest allow us to better perceive and understand that overwhelmingly long time over which it all was formed. These forms can transcend the boundaries of our understanding of the continuity of time.
Humans have created many different artifacts by borrowing the power of nature. Not just art such as sculptures, but also huts and roads. Every artifact is made from nature. But we thought humans could create something by using nature as it is, without physical intervention. Digital art uses things like software, sensing, network, light and sound. By using these non-material digital, we can turn nature itself into art without destroying it, keeping nature alive.
We think people in the past were more conscious that we are part of nature. You can see this in Mifuneyama Rakuen where the boundary between the natural forest and the areas humans have touched is ambiguous.
In Mifuneyama Rakuen, forest, rocks and caves have formed over millions of years, and people found meaning in them over thousands of years. The huge rock that enshrines the highest-ranked Inari Daimyojin, where we’ve projected a waterfall, and the cave that houses the Five Hundred Arhats and the Three Buddha Figures are some of the examples.
In a previous interview, you said, “We just find it more important to create the world than to criticize the world.” It reminded me of this quote by Viktor E. Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Today, especially in the creative world, it seems that everyone is a critic. How do we shift our response toward curiosity and creation, rather than judgment?
When we look at the world through an intellectual lens, problems are overflowing. And when you see the problems that we cannot solve, you just feel hopeless. In this era, we think what’s more important, at least as an artist, is to seek out and affirm an idealistic part of humanity, and present an idea of the future.
We’re not talking about a simple fiction of manga or video games, but instead, it’s an ideal fictitious world that may be realized somewhat. There are problems that cannot be solved at this very moment. But what we can do is to suggest that we may be able to create an ideal world once more by connecting the hints that can be found in the long history of humanity. As we said, we find it more important to create the world than to criticize the world.
Our intention is to change people’s standard of beauty, even if it requires a great deal of time.
At some point in history, humans saw flowers and thought “beautiful.” But we do not really understand this phenomenon of “beauty.” Evolution explains some instances: it is natural that we would perceive other humans to be “beautiful” from a reproductive standpoint. But this does not explain why humans have found flowers “beautiful.”
In theory, we should have used different words for these two completely unrelated concepts, so the fact that we conceive of them in the same way is quite miraculous.
We believe that art is an act of modern people creating their own flowers and expanding the notion of “beautiful” with those flowers, just in the way that ancient human beings saw flowers as “beautiful” and expanded the idea of beauty. We do not instantly understand the reasons or meaning behind this expansion. However, through these positive expansions of “beautiful,” 30 or 50 years later, people may behave differently in a way that we cannot understand with today’s limited knowledge, allowing humanity to continue to grow and thrive.
At a minimum, our interactive installations call more attention to the actions of the viewers around you than would a traditional painting. The result is that the art gains the ability to influence the relationships between the viewers standing in front of it. And if the effect of another person’s presence on the art is beautiful, it is possible that that person’s presence itself will be seen as beautiful.
The paradigm in traditional art has been to treat the existence of other viewers as a nuisance. If you are at an exhibition with no other viewers for example, you are likely to think of yourself as extremely lucky. But in the exhibitions put together by teamLab, we encourage people to think of the presence of other viewers as a positive factor.
If you’re like many of us, you’ve been obsessively refreshing the news and Coronavirus maps for at least a week now. Or, if you’re like me, you’re making an intentional effort to control your media intake during this anxious, confusing time.
While most of us are on the receiving end of the news, waiting to know what happens next, other designers are working carefully to disseminate it.
Presenting information in a clear, honest way is important right now. It's a fine line to walk between relaying the gravity of the situation and not contributing to more panic and chaos. The news cycle is moving faster than ever to cover the quickly spreading virus, providing an overwhelming amount of (often conflicting) information to sift through. Publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker, which typically put content behind a paywall, have provided free access to all Coronavirus updates.
As designers, we have a responsibility to visualize information in a simple, accurate and easy-to-understand way. This couldn’t be more true for designers reporting the news during this global crisis.
A simulation from the Washington Post, which illustrates the exponential effects of a disease and how it spreads, has been making its rounds over the last couple weeks. It’s been a challenge convincing people to stay inside their homes, and this visual makes it clear how one person’s actions can affect countless others. It's currently the most-viewed article – ever – on the Washington Post website.
Washington Post graphics reporter, Harry Stevens, who created the visuals, originally planned to simulate Covid-19 itself. After speaking with a professional disease modeler, he realized it would need to be more simple. The resulting simulation, which shows a sequence of moving dots that bounce about the screen, is simple yet powerful.
A frame from the "Why outbreaks spread exponentially, and how to flatten the curve," simulation, by Harry Stevens for the Washington Post.
“It is hard to strike the right balance, but for this piece I feel we hit the nail on the head,” said Stevens. “I have gotten hundreds of emails over the last few days from doctors and mathematicians, as well as everyday folks expressing gratitude for the graphics.”
Amanda Makulec, data visualization lead for the technology consulting firm, Excella, said Stevens’ graphic may be one of the best data visualizations and pieces of public health behavior change messaging she’s seen.
“The day it was published, I had at least a dozen people send me the link and many more posted it to social media,” Makulec said. “As a result, a key public health message (stay home!) was amplified quite effectively.”
When one infographic can influence public behavior and potentially saves lives, the weight of a designer’s responsibility is greater. Considering the volume of information, both now and before the pandemic, it’s easy to scan headlines or graphics and make incorrect assumptions. It’s also easy, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to mislead readers through design.
Designers are taught to present information in its most clean and aesthetically pleasing form. When it comes to data, those inclinations and good intentions can lead to mistakes.
“Charts lie in a variety of ways — displaying incomplete or inaccurate data, suggesting misleading patterns, and concealing uncertainty — or are frequently misunderstood,” Cairo writes. “To make matters worse, many of us are ill-equipped to interpret the visuals that politicians, journalists, advertisers, and even our employers present each day, enabling bad actors to easily manipulate them to promote their own agendas.”
Everything from a designer’s choice of chart, scale, color and even typeface selection affects how it’s perceived by a reader. A chart zoomed in too far or shown on the wrong scale can make a trend seem more drastic than it is in reality. The color red invokes fear or alarm and can be used to manipulate a response in readers.
Designers are inclined to simplify. We are taught to present information in its most clean and aesthetically pleasing form. When it comes to data, those inclinations and good intentions can lead to mistakes.
“The biggest mistake I see in simplifying graphics to suit easy social sharing is to underrepresent the uncertainty in the data,” Makulec said. “We remove error bars and ranges in favor of straight bar charts, or plot a line of numbers that really should have a band around it, or bury notes and issues with a low response rate to a survey in the footnotes where readers seldom notice.”
The fact that people scan, rather than read, poses a dilemma for data designers: How does one make a graphic easily and quickly digestible at a glance, while not disregarding or concealing necessary information?
On COVID-19 charts, for example, “confirmed cases” may take more space than “cases," but that modifier matters. It’s a balance between staying brief and simple without losing meaning.
A detailed chart is not necessarily a factual chart, and the most beautiful, easy-to-understand chart can still be misleading.
So how does a designer create a responsible visualization?
Naturally, it requires an understanding the data.
Stevens compares his process to any form of reporting, the difference being that with graphics reporting, one spends more time interrogating the data than interviewing sources.
When creating his simulation for the Washington Post, he first interviewed sources and read published papers on the subject. Working off an experiment he'd done previously with collision detection, he created his dots simulation. With the help of his editors, he then refined his working prototype over a week or two before it was published.
The goal and audience, as with any design, also determines how a graphics designer approaches their visual.
“I always start with who the audience is and what I want to communicate with the visualization,” said Makulec. “Balancing who will read the visual and what I want them to take away from the chart is what leads my decision process.”
From there, she sketches rough pictures or creates quick prototypes.
As both Stevens and Makulec explain, feedback is an invaluable part of the process. Seeking feedback from someone uninvolved in the design process, who can look at a prototype and say what their key takeaways are, is a gut-check for how well your visual communicates.
When asking for feedback, Makulec includes the project goals, audience and stage, as well as what type of feedback she’s looking for.
“If you’re not a subject matter expert in the topic you’re creating visualizations and writing about, ask for feedback from someone who is, in order to make sure you don’t lose technical nuances,” said Makulec.
It may seem like a straightforward enough process, but search "COVID-19" on Google and the amount of information and misinformation is formidable. A detailed chart is not necessarily a factual chart, and the most beautiful, easy-to-understand chart can still be misleading.
"We need to take responsibility for the ways data visualizations make information feel more certain to readers, and do our best to communicate both what we know and what we don’t in charts."
Data must be used to tell the truth
It's a reporter's job to present the truth. With the exception of opinion pieces, people expect news to be unbiased. Yet a designer’s personal experience or beliefs may consciously or subconsciously change how they present information, skewing the truth.
As Swedish physician and academic, Hans Rosling, wrote regarding the Ebola virus in his book, published two years ago, “Data was absolutely key. And because it will be key in the future too, when there is another outbreak somewhere, it is crucial to protect its credibility and the credibility of those who produce it. Data must be used to tell the truth, not to call to action, no matter how noble the intentions.”
And so a relentless loyalty to the data is necessary for a factual, informative graphic. That includes the data we know and the data we don’t know – and right now, there’s a lot we don’t know.
“We need to take responsibility for the ways data visualizations make information feel more certain to readers, and do our best to communicate both what we know and what we don’t in charts,” said Makulec. “Particularly in crises like a global pandemic where confusion can invite panic, and understating the gravity of the situation can invite complacency.”
The Washington Post piece may have inspired action, but it did so by presenting factual information, not a plea. The goal is not to make a decision or form a conclusion for a reader, but to inform or encourage further thought.
Stevens defines the difference in approaches as exploratory vs. explanatory.
“Generally speaking, if it is explanatory, you just want to help your reader understand a concept as clearly as you can. If it is exploratory, you are building an interface the encourages your reader to learn things themselves and find things you had not anticipated.”
The simulitis graphics were more explanatory than exploratory – although Stevens admits there can be overlap between the two.
"Collaboration, iteration and feedback are important parts of the design process at any time, but particularly when visualizing sensitive data in the midst of a global crisis."
Aside from the Washington Post simulation, Makulec points to several other examples of responsible and effective data visualization.
Lisa Charlotte Rost at Datawrapper created and continues to add to a list of ‘responsible’ charts around COVID-19. The page is transparent about why they made certain design choices, such as consistent use of color (intentionally avoiding the color red), answering individual questions rather than attempting to serve all needs, using clear reference lines and bands where the data is questionable, and clear headlines with supporting text for clarity.
John Burns-Murdoch, data journalist at the Financial Times, has been creating daily charts of COVID-19 case information, which Makulec considers another excellent example.
With these charts, the annotation layer tells you key information in the headline and includes annotations on the individual marks.
The chart also uses a log scale for the y-axis due to the exponential growth curve for COVID-19 (avoiding the hockey stick shape we’d see with a linear scale) and aligns the countries along the x-axis based on a common measure (here, number of days since 100th case) to better enable comparisons on a trajectory.
Perhaps most importantly, according to Makulec, Burns-Murdoch actively seeks input and feedback from subject matter experts and iterates over time.
“Rather than leaning back on own expertise, he looks for input,” Makulec said. “Collaboration, iteration and feedback are important parts of the design process at any time, but particularly when visualizing sensitive data in the midst of a global crisis.”
It’s human nature to let our fears and biases influence how we share and interpret information, both as designers and readers. The question is: How much responsibility falls on us as the reader, to think, read and repeat information carefully, and how much falls on the designer?
"As the world seems to clamor for ‘real-time’ updates on COVID-19, I think we need to pause and ask if that’s really the information we need as a general public."
Is the responsibility on the designer, the reader or both?
To Stevens, it’s the designer’s job to ensure information is understood correctly.
“I like to say that there’s no such thing as user error,” said Stevens. “If someone tells you your graphic isn’t working, it’s your responsibility to fix it.”
Makulec believes designers and readers have a shared responsibility. But for the reader, our responsibility extends beyond careful reading and consideration. It’s about being patient and thoughtful about the news we seek in the first place.
“As the world seems to clamor for ‘real-time’ updates on COVID-19, I think we need to pause and ask if that’s really the information we need as a general public,” Makulec said. “Somehow we’ve become accustomed to instant access to information, but what will functionally change about my behavior based on the number of U.S. cases at 10 a.m compared to 4 p.m.? Is this data actionable to me?”
Real-time information is actionable for other groups: hospitals and medical professionals in regions with increasing cases, local governments managing their own response to the disease, experts at the CDC and other global bodies who are actively responding to the crisis, Makulec explains. But the difference of a few hours isn’t going to change our decision to stay home or not. Waiting for information may also translate into better quality information.
Where designers can help
Everything that’s happening now is unprecedented. We know about disease but we’ve never, in our lifetime, seen it on this scale. The government is working off information as it unfolds in real-time. Scientists will be testing vaccines for the next several months. The rest of us, well, we watch from behind our windows and we wait.
Designers, however, can play a role in bringing clarity in a confusing time. But unless your job requires it, designing graphs may not be the most productive contribution.
“As designers, we need to be very cautious about designing charts and graphs with the case data, which has so much uncertainty and sensitivity,” said Makulec. “I’m enthusiastically sharing articles and information, but I don’t need to create any of my own charts when there are great ones already out there.”
Instead, Makulec recommends designers direct their enthusiasm and energy in two ways: By signing up to volunteer to work with a civil society organization that has subject matter expertise and a specific need, or creating charts that help us better understand all of the other things happening in the world during this time of social distancing.
If you do decide to create some visualizations with the open case data, read these ten considerations before you press publish.
Thank you to Amanda Makulec and Harry Stevens for taking the time to share their knowledge. To learn more about the role of a journalist during this crisis, watch Harry Stevens' "How to be a journalist" video.
We started our Design Around the World interview series in Nigeria with Dá Design Studio. It was a defining place to begin.
We learned about the challenges of designing in a country where design is considered a luxury, and the vision two designers had for the future of Nigerian design. That was three years ago.
Recently, in catching up with Seyi from Dá Design (I had the honor of meeting him in person this year!) I learned plenty has changed since 2017. So we decided to continue the conversation, this time with Lagos-based designer & front-end developer, Kolapo Oni.
Here we talk with Kolapo about the fast-growing tech scene in Nigeria, the radically changing quality of design work and the bold, new confidence of the Lagos design community.
First, tell us a little more about yourself. What first made you interested in design and development, and how did you learn? Do you work independently?
My name is Kolapo Oni. I’m a web designer and front-end developer with a passion for interactive design, aesthetics and clean user interfaces. I love photography, and I take nice pictures which I mostly put on VSCO. I’m also interested in architecture and interior design – I have boards on Pinterest where I curate this.
I enjoy crafting beautiful and interactive experiences. This passion, coupled with the fact that I studied computer science at university, also played a part in my design and development journey. My first major experience in design started from game design and two really interesting games I designed are Pong & Fading. Fading is a minimalist 2D game where you traverse the mind of a man whose wife is dying of cancer. I started working on it while I was in university and it took quite a bit of my time as I had to do UI design and level design alongside programming. The process I worked through for Fading is pretty much how my learning process goes. It’s mostly individual learning, loads of practice and teaching myself the things I want to know.
Getting into web design, I started out designing interactive web experiences and some relevant projects I’ve worked on to date are beautiful experiences,Ose games and my 2019 Year in Review site. You can check out my portfolio website to see more interesting projects I’ve worked on. Although I freelance occasionally, I currently work full-time as a front-end developer at the digital lab of Sterling bank in Lagos, Nigeria, where we’re focused on building digital products. At the work front, a product I’ve worked on is a digital bank called Gomoney, for which I’ve had to work on the early access website, the marketing blog, a web payment portal, as well as a dashboard for viewing user transactions.
Kolapo's portfolio homepage
Africa is one of the fastest-growing tech markets in the world. How do you see that affecting your work and the creative/design scene right now? Does the growth feel tangible in any specific way at this point?
Yes, the growth is quite tangible. From Nigeria alone, these past few years have seen a drastic rise in a couple of tech companies (both old and new) and this has kind of broadened the career diversity in the tech space. Now there are more graphic designers, photographers and content writers and other creative roles in the tech space than we’d have seen like, five years ago. As a person who draws inspiration from my environment and people around me, the diversity in the tech space has made a positive impact on how I think and work.
Web design & development work for Ose Games. Duru (@durustudios on Instagram) created the 3D models.
As we understand it, getting design gigs can be more difficult in Nigeria because clients believe they will get higher quality work elsewhere.
Is this still true today, generally speaking? How is it for you, especially working independently?
Looking at 2017 till now, we have seen a positive radical change in the quality of work that Nigerian designers have been putting out, so I don’t think getting design gigs based on quality of work is more difficult for Nigerian designers. I know designers who get gigs both within and outside Nigeria. I’ve also had discussions with a few clients interested in working together based on my portfolio.
As recently as last year, I got more emails and messages from people I’ve never met, from Nigeria, Europe and the U.S. appreciating my work. So if we’re discussing quality of work, I think the global impression is positive as more than a few of us are already known for putting out dope work.
What is your opinion of the current state of graphic design in Nigeria right now? What about in Africa overall?
I can’t really say about Africa in general, but for Nigeria, particularly Lagos, the current graphic design scene is becoming bold and daring because studios like Dá Design and Niyi Okeowo have set new standards and raised the bar of expectations for graphic and visual design in Nigeria. This can be seen from a couple of outstanding works they’ve put out there.
In our interview with Dá Design Studio, Seyi said many local clients, when outsourcing their work to other countries, “fail to realize the importance of context in design, especially when designing for Nigerians.”
What makes designing for Nigerians different? What is the context a designer from South Africa, for example, might not have?
I agree that context plays an important role in design. Generally, culture and environment influence design, and certain elements like color and language hold cultural values. Language, for one, is diverse across nations and color is also an element that can have different meanings across cultures. A South African designing for Nigerians might find it difficult to convey a message a Nigerian can pass across when working with translations that deal with metaphors. Same way a Nigerian designer might struggle in the South African context.
Have you been able to find a network or circle of like-minded creatives in Lagos? Any local design platforms or networks that you participate in?
For me, it’s mostly casual hangouts with friends that are already in the creative space. There are also events centered around art, photography and design I’ve attended in Lagos.
Usable is also a design meet-up that is held every last Thursday of the month at CCHUB in Yaba, Lagos. It is one of the most consistent design meetups, which I’ve attended a couple of times.
In our interview with Dami and Seyi, we learned good design is still considered a luxury in Nigeria, given the country’s other more pressing problems.
Why do you think good design is important (despite or maybe because of these problems) and what does good design mean for you?
So irrespective of these problems, I think good design is important because it improves our day-to-day experience and interaction with our environment by making our lives easier. In our general daily life, we interact with hardware, spaces and digital products, so I would say industrial design, digital product design, architecture and interior design all play important roles in our lives either directly or indirectly. I think the outcomes from these fields are crucial. If, for example, I find it hard to use a blender, navigate a site or use an app, it will inevitably make my life more difficult, but good design will cut these problems off before I even interact with them.
Lekki-Ikoyi link bridge
Though Lagos can be a beautiful city, I understand there are also certain pressing problems that still affect us daily. I think good design is very important because you honestly don’t want to make something that’s going to add to the existing level of stress and chaos.
For me, good design means intuitiveness and clear expression of function.
Good design is timeless.
Good design is great storytelling.
"I honestly believe that if you are consistently putting out good work... you will draw the right attention and eventually gain visibility."
You are all about good taste and aesthetics. Do you see other Nigerian designers with the high level of taste who want to raise the bar for good design?
What do designers in Nigeria need most right now in order to do that?
Yes, there are a couple of Nigerian designers doing great work. I’ve worked with some of them, and I have seen some beautiful work from other designers I haven’t personally interacted with.
I think staying inspired, being open-minded and always pushing the boundaries as to what’s achievable is something that’s really important in raising the bar for good design.
What impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
For me, it’s Twitter. I’ve made a couple of relevant connections and gotten gigs just talking about a site I designed and my work in general on Twitter.
I believe doing good work isn’t enough. You also have to showcase your work on platforms where you’re active or reachable. And I honestly believe that if you are consistently putting out good work, even if you don’t share all of it, you will draw the right attention and eventually gain visibility.
Also the fact that my work has been featured on web design platforms like Typewolf and thegalley.io this year has amplified my visibility. A few clients have reached out just seeing my work featured on these platforms.
In your opinion, what are the top 5-10 design studios from Nigeria that everyone who might be not familiar with the Nigerian design community should know?
How can all designers and design communities do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Lagos design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
Besides a few design gatherings that are held from time to time (like Usable), I think having more casual hangouts with other designers and creatives would help.
At the moment, I don’t know of any major platforms you can check about design in Lagos. However, an idea I’ve been toying with is a podcast interviewing creatives in Lagos, and designing a site to showcase great work from creatives based in Lagos. I think these will help a lot.
Keep an eye on Nigeria and specifically Lagos – it's obvious a lot more is coming from this design community and it's happening fast. The links above are a good place to start, as well as Kolapo's website and Instagram. We look forward to seeing what another three years bring for Nigerian design.
We recently started exploring design in Japan through our Design Around the World series, starting with Nagasaki. Now we are looking at the design scene in Tokyo with Irobe Design Institute.
Given the breadth and quality of design in Japan, we knew we still had much to learn after our interview with DEJIMAGRAPH in Nagasaki. We also knew exactly who we wanted to hear from. The team at Irobe Design Institute, based in Tokyo, creates pristine brand identities, wayfinding systems, packaging design and more. They've received awards from Tokyo Art Directors Club Japan One Show Design and D&AD, to name a few. So we were thrilled when Yoshiaki Irobe himself agreed to chat with us.
Here we talk with Yoshiaki Irobe about the lack of quality design education in Japan, how one small action can trigger big change and, of course, the 2020 Summer Olympics logo.
First, let’s talk about your studio. Who is the team behind Irobe and why did you decide to open a graphic design studio?
My team is based in Nippon Design Center, Inc. (NDC). Speaking of, I’m still a member of NDC which is a long-established design company in Japan. After I joined NDC in 2003, I was in a big team which heads Kenya Hara. Eventually I got an offer for an individual from clients, which led to having my own team inside NDC. At the beginning of 2011, I was the only team member. Now we have eight designers, including myself and a project manager.
Japanese design is known the world over, but tell us a bit about design community in Tokyo specifically. Tokyo is considered the design hub in Japan – what makes it so special? And do many platforms and events exist in Tokyo that connect you with other designers?
Everything is gathering Tokyo — not only culture (including design) but also business and politics. So when you see it from outside of Japan, this makes Tokyo special.
When we take it inside of Japan, geographically Tokyo is located in the middle of the Japanese archipelago, so many cultures are crossing by each other and mixed on average. This could also be what makes Tokyo special. These days there are energetic graphic designers based in the Kansai area (the west side of the Japan center on Osaka) and Hokkaido.
We all have an idea of Japanese design in our minds, to the point where some might stereotype it or think of cliches (minimalism being one of them). How would you generally describe the design you see coming from Tokyo and Japan today?
Speaking with the perspective of a long history, there are two contrasting aesthetic senses in Japan. One is the austere beauty represented by ISE JINGU, which has a link to minimalism. The other is the flashy beauty represented by NIKKO TOSHOGU SHRINE.
I feel that there is nothing like a big “ism” or style that should be noted recently. It may seem that the individual preferences are subdivided and it could feel “weak” as the entire tendency. Looking at the last 5-10 years, especially on the economic side, the rapid growth period is over and the maturity period is reached in various ways.
I feel that the cycle of making new things (whether it is necessary or not) has stopped, and the movement to use and modify what already exists is increasing.
In Europe, hundreds of years of historical buildings have been renovated and used carefully. As a recent tendency of Tokyo, many buildings that do not have historical value are renovated in the same way, yet without the historical value. These kinds of approaches are increasing more and more.
Recently, I was in charge of the renovation project of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo with Jo Nagasaka, an architect. Unless it was a relatively new building completed in 1995, it was necessary to renovate only with the new sign system and furniture, without touching the design of the architecture due to ordinances.
For a museum with a hard impression made of stone, iron and glass, a combination of materials such as cork and wood gives the space a softness. A flexible sign, and a furniture system created changes in conductors and location. In the future, I feel that the movement to devise and improve existing things will be activated, regardless of whether the product is new or old.
"Visual language is global and can easily cross a border like a verbal language, and the internet environment is pushing this further."
Globalization seems to be a big topic on designers’ minds today, specifically the concern about Western influence. How do you feel about globalization and its impact on design in Japan? Do you see designers reacting and striving for individuality in their work?
Visual language is global and can easily cross a border like a verbal language, and the internet environment is pushing this further. For example, it was hard to imagine a European designer knowing my design only half a century ago. For designs that have evolved in small communities, the range and depth of expression seem to be rapidly evolving with the environment that knowledge from around the world can be shared.
Many designs I see from Japan, especially poster designs, combine both Japanese and Latin/Roman characters. Is this just an aesthetic choice or do most of your designs need to cater to an international audience?
Needs to target an international audience is also an opportunity. In the first place, Japanese typography is made up of a combination of three different characters: Chinese characters transmitted from China, Katakana created based on them, and Hiragana, which was originally evolved.
Of course, there is no problem if English is included in the Japanese text. Accepting and changing such different languages is the complexity of Japanese and makes it interesting as well. It's difficult to think about design with different elements, but it's a unique point. It may be a sense that is not compatible with minimalism, but I think creation while accepting complexity is also a unique Japanese sensibility that was nurtured through everyday life.
I’ve read that Japanese typeface design can be so complex, designers often create characters just for specific headlines, rather than designing a full typeface. Is that accurate for your work?
Unlike the alphabet, Japanese has about 3,000 characters, so it takes time to develop from scratch. In addition, even if the kanji was used on a regular basis, there are 1 to 23 strokes, so unlike the alphabet, the density of characters can be greatly uneven. Furthermore, Katakana and Hiragana, which have a small number of strokes on average, have a different line quality of the characters themselves, and the combination itself is very complicated.
From what I've read, the Tohoku earthquake of 2011 had a big impact on Japanese design, shifting the priority from style/personality to form and function. Has this impacted you and your work in any specific way?
I don't think that my design trend has changed due to the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. If anything, because of the nuclear accident, I think I have a higher consciousness of disaster preparedness. In addition to this, I think that people are becoming more aware of sustainability and the community.
Do you see Japan moving toward more environmentally friendly designs?
At a global level, Japan may still be less aware of the ecosystem. Excessive packaging is one of the serious problems in the Japanese market. Regarding the package design that I am working on, I would like to eliminate waste as much as possible, including the cost aspect. However, on the other hand, material-rich expressions such as paper made by craftsmen should remain necessary.
I read that Japanese designers still seek a contrast between traditional design craftsmanship and new media in their work. But it seems that Tokyo specifically is diverse and open to new ideas. Where do you stand on this?
I want to be open to new media all the time, and also want to be open to the diversity of each project, not to stick to my own expression. On the other hand, even if it is a new method, I would like to have a natural relationship with something like the history of graphics.
What are the job opportunities available for designers in Tokyo right now?
It is difficult to answer because job opportunities are becoming increasingly diverse. In Japan, there are high expectations for inbound demand for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the 2025 Osaka Expo, so various facilities have been newly created and renovated. There seems to be a lot of projects related to such development.
What is design education like in Tokyo? And do most designers seek a formal education?
I don't think there is a system that can define design education in Tokyo. Especially when I was a student, the curriculum is quite focused on creating. There were not many teachers who were asking the way of thinking and process. I think the current situation seems to have changed considerably, but at that time there were only a few teachers who had practiced it. To be honest, I think it was quite immature as design education.
Related with my current team members, I think we have a variation of members who have unique experiences. In that way, rather than passively educated people, we have many members who have been actively investigating their interests, and I think it is good to have such people gathered.
What would you say are unique challenges for designers in your community right now?
Many designers, including myself, have studied mainly on print media, but we also actively propose dynamic on-screen media. Visual design is a technology that instantly conveys sensuously across languages.
Don't stick to the familiar tools in seeking how to communicate. Our team continues to challenge themselves and pursue this possibility.
Tokyo is so large and moves so fast, I imagine the design industry does too. Do agencies have the same crazy, fast-paced nature as we do in New York?
I don't know the situation in New York clearly, but I feel that the West coast is changing more rapidly with the development of technology. In Tokyo, the industry itself seems to be a slow tempo compared to the speed of the whole city. The overall trend is that rather than being renewed within each design agency, newborn teams are creating something new and pushing for change.
Under such circumstances, Nippon Design Center (to which my team belongs) is an old company with a 60-year history, but we keep evolving with proper speed. Based on the idea of “identify and visualize the essence”, we will continue to create with the intention of being both authentic and innovative.
As the world is getting smaller with the help of the internet, working with international clients is very common. Do you actively work with international clients or focus mostly on local clients? And do businesses typically work with local designers and studios?
I am actively working with overseas clients. This is because there is a desire to expand the ability to visualize the essence of ourselves to the unknown. And I don't think it's global because it's an overseas project. On the other hand, just because it is a Japanese region, I do not think that it is not global. Companies, countries and regions are all local when viewed from the surroundings, and I think it is our role to visualize and open local attractions in an easy-to-understand manner.
Based on my research, it seems that the government doesn’t provide much support for design in Japan. Given the popularity of design there, I found that surprising. What do you personally think needs to happen in Japan for this to change?
I think that there are two specific actions to get the government to recognize the importance of design and get support.
The first is to create a national design museum. It may seem surprising, but Japan does not have it. It is a shame that the value of design is not recognized despite the fact that we have globally famous designers in fashion, architecture, products and graphics.
The second is a change in education since childhood. In Japan, from elementary school to high school, design belongs to a sub-category that is introduced on several pages of art textbooks. I think it’s good too, teaching it as a separate subject while recognizing the commonality with paintings and sculptures. Personally, I think that design is a technique that can contribute to society and people in a different way from art. In order for people to live better in various situations, we need a lot of design power, and I think it is important to spread the benefits.
With the popularity of design in Tokyo and the number of new businesses opening every day in the city, how do you strive to stand out from the competition?
While observing the status of other companies from time to time, we are basically focused on generating the best solutions for our projects. We don't do anything to differentiate ourselves from other companies. However, I think that it is important to differentiate the design itself from the others, so we are working on design that is not possible or conceivable by others.
"Please do not hesitate to take any action based on your own thoughts. Something should change regardless of how big it is."
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
I haven't analyzed the cause so I don't know, but in Japan, there is a unique saying: "if the wind blows the bucket, makers prosper." It means that one trigger can have eventual effects in unexpected ways. The important thing is that nothing will start unless you take action to make the wind of the first move.
I believe that there are endless possibilities to connect people, including this interview (laughs). I had an independent proposal to rethink Japan's address plate even though nobody asked me, and these activities went around and led to a branding project for a national park in Japan. If there is a young person reading this article, please do not hesitate to take any action based on your own thoughts. Something should change regardless of how big it is.
I am also a believer in small actions leading to big change and have seen that to be true for myself.
Do you think good design can impact your society in a significant way or solve any issues it faces? And what does good design mean to you?
It’s a simple and difficult question. I don't want to define it strictly in my personal sense. There is also the term “optimal solution” that represents a good design, but it is the language on the side of accepting the design, not the language on the side of creating/providing the design like us.
Personally, I think that the term “individual solution” is more appropriate because I think many projects require individual, special answers. I would be very happy if I could solve the big and small problems I faced through my skills and ideas.
In your opinion, what are the top design studios from Tokyo that everyone who should know?
This is the hardest question to answer… There are so many interesting studios in Japan that make it difficult to choose. And there are various indicators such as uniqueness and solidity.
From well-balanced, medium-sized design companies such as NDC, we belonging to private studios where individuality stands out, there are so many attractive studios. If we have a chance to have dinner together, let me answer this question.
How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Japanese design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
If we have a closed impression from the outside, that is what we should care for more. Some magazines have a history such as IDEA magazine, but I can't find any design journalism that I think is interesting now. If there’s anything interesting outside of Japan, please let me know.
The 2020 Summer Olympics logo has been controversial in the design community, with a non-official concept finding more favor on the internet than the official logo. What's your take on the official logo? And are you noticing lots of positive design opportunities and initiatives in Tokyo as the Olympics get closer?
As a personal opinion, I do not think that it is perfect as a design. From the viewer’s perspective, the Olympics is a highly entertaining event, so picking up such expectations well is the most important. In that way, I don’t think it responds enough.
From a more specialized point of view, I'm most concerned with the type design. The formability and concept of the emblem are great, but the type design is too reluctant. Since this is a national event, couldn't there be any form of advice or collaboration from experts with knowledge of typography? I’m disappointed, a little.
But if you give me a question of right or wrong, my answer is right. I think that it is an extremely wonderful proposal in terms of the proposal ability of the emblem. I think that there has never been a case where the commonality and difference between the Olympics and the Paralympics have been so vividly expressed. But to the extent I can now know, no positive changes or initiatives have been found so far. After the first emblem that was chosen had trouble and was withdrawn, the design feels a little timider than before because of fear of criticism.
Yoshiaki Irobe, thank you so much for talking with us. We look forward to seeing what you and your team do next and seeing where each project, large and small, leads you from here.
Friends, check out Irobe Design Institute's work and if you know of any great design literature in Tokyo or elsewhere, share it with us and Yoshiaki Irobe. And if you're just discovering our Design Around the World series for the first time, you can catch up here.
With this latest interview in our Design Around the World series, meet Turbo, an independent design studio and creative space in Amman, Jordan.
Throughout this series, we've learned that much of our personal experience as designers is universal. Other designers must work to educate their clients. Other design communities debate the role of design in business. Other design communities are embracing the "new breed" of hybrid designers that fill multiple needs in a company.
But a young design community, fresh-eyed and still finding its footing in the world, has its own unique challenges and opportunities. So is the case for Amman, Jordan's capital. Here we talk with Turbo founders Mothanna and Saeed about Amman's burgeoning design scene, the creative space they carved out in the middle of it and their efforts to push boundaries in their community.
First, let's talk about your studio. Who is the team behind Turbo and why did you decide to open a graphic design studio?
Both Mothanna Hussein and I founded Turbo together and we continue to be the sole team behind its creations. We are both graphic designers who have been working in the design field for the past 13 years. The decision to establish Turbo was fueled by two reasons:
First, we have both had enough of working in companies where we could not make final decisions or push the boundaries regarding graphic design and general design trends with clients. In addition, there is a general lack of smaller design studios producing well-thought out, wholesome design.
Second, we fell in love with our space when we found it, although it was technically a dump that hadn't been used since the eighties. We felt that once renovated, it could go beyond a typical design studio and give us space to combine work and play.
Tell us a bit about the design community in Amman. I read the city is very open and creative, and many young people seek to live there. Yet it seems like the design scene is still fairly new. What are the advantages and disadvantages of living in a city with a young design scene?
The design scene is still young but quite promising. That said, there are some great designers who have been around for quite some time. In recent years, the rise of Instagram and other social media platforms has brought lots of different talent, both old and new, into the limelight.
An advantage is probably that the scene still has a way to go to reach a certain level of saturation and experimentation, so it is fertile ground. Then again, sometimes a certain level of competition is necessary to push everyone forward and evolve — which as things stand right now, is still lacking.
Turbo clearly contributes to that evolution. You participate in Amman Design Week (now in its second year) and host design events and exhibitions yourself in the Turbo space.
Are others out there making an effort to build the community? Do other events and platforms exist in Jordan that help you connect with other designers?
Social media is where one would get to know about other designers, illustrators and makers. As far as events go, from general exhibitions and performances, we get to meet other people in the creative scene. But then again, the scene is quite small and everyone knows each other. Amman is where most activity is when it comes to the arts and design scene.
We heard a lot of “risky,” and “silly” and “why?”
In an interview with The New York Times, Mothanna mentioned, “Everyone was against the idea of Turbo.” Why were people against the idea of your studio? Have opinions and perspectives changed since then?
The area where the studio is located, which is one of the oldest streets in the capital, and the conditions that we found it in were the major reasons behind other people’s skepticism. We heard a lot of “risky,” and “silly” and “why?” Many of those naysayers have since changed their minds, especially once we were done fixing up the space and started hosting different exhibitions, print sales and general pop-ups.
What are the job opportunities available for designers in Jordan right now?
Although more and more dedicated graphic design studios are getting established, a lot of designers have opted-out of working in offices and have been freelancing. Or they freelance on the side of a more corporate job, since big advertising agencies are a place where many designers would start their careers in Jordan.
It is still difficult for smaller studios to sustain stability in a small-ish market where well-paying clients usually choose to work with big advertising agencies.
How would you describe the design coming out of Amman and Jordan overall right now? Does your culture or environment influence your design in any specific way?
It does, and probably subconsciously. The design coming out of Amman is quite good but again, worthwhile and well-executed design, or even design with a more experimental edge, is still being produced by a small number of individuals and studios for smaller events and clients.
What is design education like in Jordan? Do most designers seek a formal education within the country or overseas? Or do you see many successful designers who are self-taught as well?
Yes, most designers will seek formal education whether here in Jordan or overseas. Graphic design courses have been improving in the past couple of years judging by the grad shows we attend at times. With that said, there are also some with no formal education who are self-taught. Saeed, for example.
What would you say are unique challenges for designers in your community right now?
For many, especially with the current economic situation, design becomes a luxury of sorts. In addition, good graphic design is still undervalued and not fully understood. In many instances, this leads a client to go with a design studio or designer solely based on their price offer.
There is also a fundamental problem which might not be specific to Amman or Jordan. It’s a combination of design being a visual field where personal taste will always come into play (“I like blue”), and the lack of professional trust and understanding when it comes to the client/designer relationship. One does not often argue with a doctor over a diagnosis.
"The day you stop pushing boundaries, whether yours or the client's, is the day you should quit."
We've heard from others in the series who said design is considered a luxury in their country. While that may not be the case generally in the West, uneducated clients can definitely have an impact on our work.
How do you deal with these challenges and how can designers work to change them? In the meantime, are you forced to compromise in any specific ways?
It is a challenge, but we believe that part of our work as designers is to inform and educate the client about the design process and what happens behind the scenes. Either in presentation form or an actual meeting, we would try to explain why and how we reached a certain approach, or why we have opted for one approach and not another.
We think it is of the utmost importance for designers to try and push the expectations of their clients. Work produced with the goal of simply pleasing the client comes out quite bland and lacks character. The day you stop pushing boundaries, whether yours or the client's, is the day you should quit.
In regards to compromise, the compromise is usually in the pricing. Choosing the safer option would make our lives quite easier in many instances, but even when we try, we cannot get ourselves to do it. At the end of the day, the project will come out under our studio's name.
As the world is getting smaller with the help of the internet, working with international clients is very common. Do you work with mostly international or local clients, or is it a mix? And do businesses work with local designers or seek agencies outside the country?
It is a mix of both, and yes, most local businesses work with local designers and studios.
Being located in a part of the world where conflict and unrest often make international headlines, do you notice any stigma or frustrating stereotypes when connecting with clients or others outside the Middle East?
Not so much stigma as a bad local economic situation, which eventually will play a part in the amount of work one gets.
Economy certainly plays a large part. I know Jordan presents other challenges as well, like water scarcity and a lack of other resources.
What would you say these are unique topics on the mind of designers in Jordan today? For example, is environmentally friendly design a common discussion?
Yes, it is. Seeing what the past two Amman Design Weeks had on display, environmentally friendly design and using design and technology to raise awareness have been a point of focus, from interactive displays and installations to recyclable packaging and materials.
With that said, we as a country have many more problems and needs to attend to before environmentally friendly design becomes a priority.
"In Jordan, word of mouth is king."
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general?
For us, social media attracts an international clientele. In Jordan, word of mouth is king.
What does good design mean to Turbo?
Good design is honest, communicative, and pushes boundaries and expectations.
In your opinion, what are the top 5-10 design studios from Jordan that everyone who might be not familiar with Jordan’s design community should know?
Both of us still do our solo projects, so you can check out some personal work here:
How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Jordan design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
Not sure how that can be achieved, although it would be quite nice. In regards to Amman, Amman Design Week would be a good place to start, seeing it combines and showcases design from many design fields, whether it's graphic, product, furniture or installation design.
Daftar Asfar (Yellow Notebook) was a project where different artists, designers or illustrators from the region would pass one notebook around, and two different people would complete each other’s work on a single spread of the notebook.
A mural in your space reads “Yes Yes.” What does it mean?
There is no meaning behind it. It was a spur of the moment thing that a friend of ours came up with and was conceived and produced in the span of an hour. The calligraphy itself was produced by master calligrapher Hassan Kanaan who we work with often. It is funny – when sitting in the studio, you keep hearing passers-by read it aloud.
Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Mothanna and Saeed. I admire what you're doing in Amman and hope to check it out the studio in person someday. In the meantime, I'll be following your work and reading up on the other resources you shared. Readers, be sure to check out Turbo's site and follow along with their work on Instagram.
With this latest interview in our Design Around the World series, meet Sciencewerk, a "micro" design studio based in Surabaya, Indonesia.
When we set out to do this series, we expected to learn about design communities that do or see things differently than we do in the West. To understand how their different cultures, processes, environments or influences compare to our own. And we have. But it's equally enlightening when we see our similarities. This was the case while talking with Sciencewerk.
Here we talk with Danis Sie, Sciencewerk founder and design director, about the misconceived value of design in their country, the relatable designer hiring gap and how to stand out in the "jungle" that is Indonesia.
First, let’s talk about your studio. Who is the team behind Sciencewerk and why did you decide to open a graphic design studio?
At first, I was working overseas for some years. I felt stuck in the rat race and took a few month’s break to finally go back to my hometown in Surabaya.
I founded the studio in 2011 in hope of contributing something to our local design and art scene. It’s a compact studio mainly made up of two divisions, design and illustration. Our Surabaya studio is run by me and Evelina Kristanti. Design is lead by Natasha Ng, and illustration by Yosephine Azalia and Steven Renaldo. Our partners Devina Sugono and Erin Harsono, who are based in Jakarta, lead events, copywriting, interior, content and production.
A glimpse into the Sciencewerk office
Can you tell us more about your design and art scene? I read that design is relatively young in Indonesia. Are there many designers and independent studios like yours, and do many platforms or events exist that help you connect with other designers?
There is a design organization based in Indonesia, ADGI (Asosiasi Desain Grafis Indonesia). There is also the government-based organization BEKRAF that was established in 2015 to focus on the Indonesian creative economy. Some creative spaces exist, mostly in Jakarta, that host design-related events such as Dia Lo Gue.
We are a new player in the industry. What I can see is that design business is still heavily-centered in Jakarta, but independent studios outside Jakarta are starting to grow as the demand rises in other cities such as Surabaya (here), Bandung, Malang, Jogjakarta, Bali, etc.
Part of Sciencewerk's identity for Out of The Blue!, a bistro in west Surabaya
Indonesia is a diverse blend of Arabic, Chinese, Malay and European influences. How is this reflected in the design coming out of Indonesia today? Aside from work for clients that follows a brief, do you notice a specific design aesthetic or identity?
I think we are all still struggling to define what Indonesian Design is in the context of graphic design. Most design work here is heavily influenced by other countries and cultures. We have more than 300 local cultures that make it even more complex and difficult to define. Each Indonesian designer is also influenced by their individual experience be it their culture, heritage or where they studied design. Maybe that diversity is part of our identity.
"Nowadays, most companies set expectations very high while new graduates overestimate what their skills are worth."
What are the job opportunities available for designers in Indonesia right now?
The demand is always for the Jack of all Trades designer, of course. Illustration, new media and digital designers are on the rise. The Indonesian market is very big. Creative-based businesses are appearing and there are actually many opportunities for anyone who dares go beyond their comfort zone.
What I find funny here is that there are thousands of design graduates every year, but friends from agencies and studios are having a hard time finding the right candidates. There might be many factors like design skill, taste and resumes involved but in my observation, there is one underlying problem. Nowadays, most companies set expectations very high while new graduates overestimate what their skills are worth. It’s good to be confident, but we must regularly do a reality check by thinking outward, not inward.
Aside from the mismatched expectations, what would you say are unique challenges for designers in your community right now?
Design value. In Surabaya, some people are still thinking that design is free, so they just pay for the print and they get free design. This practice is rather toxic, undervaluing the design industry especially for next-generation Indonesian designers. So today, we try to educate our clients and people about how design can bring value and profit to their business. Every time we meet a potential client, we still have to explain what we do in the simplest way.
Ningyo the Fishman, a proposed concept for a local rice wine product.
As the world is getting smaller with the help of the internet, working with international clients is very common. Do you work with many clients outside of Indonesia or mostly local clients? And do businesses in Indonesia seek to work with local studios?
At the moment, the majority of our clients are local clients. The international ones are those that are expanding their business to Indonesia. Businesses here are starting to consider working with studios regionally. But with the internet, they can work with anyone in other cities too.
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
It’s good but still a lot less efficient than personal recommendations and networking. What works best for us is still recommendations.
Identity work for Threelogy, a coffee shop in Surabaya
I read that graphic design in Indonesia originated with politics and propaganda. Do you believe design still has the power to influence the political or social landscape in Indonesia today? For example, I know Indonesia has experienced devastating natural disasters this year. Can design play any part in helping or recovering from issues like this?
Of course graphic design has the power to influence. It subconsciously influences people to act, to buy or to do something. It can solve problems or add problems indirectly.
In the context of political issues in Indonesia, graphic design can add more problems. For example, when creatives are paid to spread political propaganda not knowing whether it’s a fact or a hoax, promoting a candidate that may be a corrupt leader. And so much more. In the context of social issues, I think graphic design is still far away from really helping. It may help but indirectly through awareness.
"Indonesia is like a jungle. There are so many animals and you just need to be a different kind of animal in the jungle."
What does good design mean to you at Sciencewerk?
Good design makes people happy, think, remember and act.
Good design is relative. Here we can’t force certain principles of good design on all clients and projects. The design industry in Indonesia is like a jungle. Sometimes you will meet someone who appreciates good design, but many others don’t. There are so many animals and you just need to be a different kind of animal in the jungle. This will attract a flock of animals who understand your uniqueness.
"The Last Supper"
In your opinion, what are the top design studios from Indonesia that everyone who might be not familiar with the Indonesia design community should know?
Last question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with Indonesia’s design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
Thank you for your time and honesty, Danis. It's fascinating to see that some of the same issues we struggle with here in the States (the disconnect between companies and designers, for example) are present in other countries as well. We learned a lot talking with you and look forward to seeing how design evolves in Indonesia.
Friends, check out the inspiration Danis shared with us here, and be sure to visit Sciencewerk's site to see what they're doing in Surabaya and beyond.
Our explorations of design communities around the world have led us everywhere from Brazil to South Africa to Pakistan to China. Now we're looking at design in Taiwan with the lovely team at HOUTH.
HOUTH, a creative studio based in Taipei, is the work of co-founders Ho Wan Chun and Huang Chi Teng. They describe themselves as designers who "appreciate simple, pure things and interpret this hilarious world through a unique perspective." In a time when we as designers take ourselves and our buzzwords very seriously, I appreciate HOUTH's lighthearted outlook.
Here Ho and Hans tell us about the creative landscape in high-tech Taiwan, the country's "mix and match" philosophy and why we should be talking less about globalization and more about good design.
Hey Hans and Ho, excited to have you in the series. First, let’s talk about your studio. Who is the team behind HOUTH and why did you decide to open a graphic design studio?
Ho Wan Chun: Both of us are co-founders of HOUTH. I have been working as a designer in design studios and creative companies for over five years. Everything was uncertain during that time, and opening my own design studio was always only a dream for me. Luckily, I got the chance to visit some cities in Germany in 2014. That was my first time to Europe. What I saw completely changed my mind, especially in Berlin. After the trip, I decided to open my own studio with Hans (Huang Chi Teng).
Huang Chi Teng: Before we started HOUTH, I had been working in different fields like publishing, marketing, event planning, project management etc., but I always liked to read design/creative-related news. When Ho mention opening a studio with me during my mid-thirties, I knew I needed to do this or the rest of my life would probably be the same.
Ho Wan Chun:Because I love design and he loves photography, we think it’s a good and fresh mix to combine design and photography as a creative design studio.
Hans & Ho
Taipei was named World Design Capital in 2016. It seems like for Taiwan overall though, design is still growing. Can you tell us a bit about yourdesign community? Is there a strong design presence beyond Taipei and do many platforms or events exist that help you connect with other designers?
Ho Wan Chun:Young designers are emerging all over Taiwan’s design community. In this information-overloaded age, young people can find design references from the internet easily. More and more designers are willing to do voluntary design proposals to get their opportunities or simply hope to make society or life better. Designers pay close attention to social design than before. It’s good for social development, but also more competitive to run a design business.
Huang Chi Teng: Except for some design joint exhibitions, there are not so many platforms or regular events for designers to hang out or connect with each other.
HOUTH's bottle and packaging design for GQ Taiwan
What are the job opportunities available for designers in Taiwan right now?
Ho Wan Chun:Compared to 10 years ago, the design opportunities now are bigger, better and more flexible. There are so many creative forms to express design from traditional graphic/layout design to product/packaging design to art installation to live events/performances and even interactive experiences and exhibitions.
Huang Chi Teng: More and more people are starting to appreciate design and understand how design can change the game. They would love to put more effort and money into the design field, and create more design-related job opportunities.
Taiwan is the 22nd-largest economy in the world, and its tech industry plays a key role in the global economy. How has this affected the design community? Are many designers working in the tech space?
Ho Wan Chun: We have the most advanced copyrights, skills and technology in the tech industry, but the main business model is still OEM, and other countries which provide cheaper rent and salaries will replace Taiwan sooner or later. It’s time for tech industry owners in Taiwan to seriously think about the next move, and we suggest putting more efforts on “Design Thinking” to change the business model from OEM to ODM.
Huang Chi Teng: Of course, there are many people work in the tech space, like programmers, web/UI designers, product designers, 3D modeling/rendering, AR/VR designers etc., and also some outsourcing projects from the tech industry, like logo, packaging and website design.
The sunny HOUTH office in Taipei
Taiwan has quite a complex culture given its history of colonization. How would you describe the design you see coming from Taiwan today? Do you notice a certain style or formative influences, or is it influenced by your culture in any way?
Ho Wan Chun: Mix and match is the way we describe design here! We have to deal with the conditions and limitations we have and solve the problems with the design method we propose. Taiwan is a small island but at the same time, she shows the possibilities of richness.
Huang Chi Teng: The charming feature of Taiwan is the people’s warm hospitality, and this not only affects the design but the whole lifestyle.
Explore the Wild/YLD – HOUTH's branding for a beer collaboration between Taiwanese Taihu Brewing and Japanese Yo-Ho Brewing
It seems like designers in many countries today are concerned about globalization/commercialization and its impact on their country’s design and culture. How do you see it for Taiwan?
Huang Chi Teng: Instead of arguing globalization or distinctive local culture, we should be asking more about “What is good design?” Instead of talking about the distinctive culture, we should dig more into what’s behind the local culture. How does it work with visual/design language? How can we make it better, more connected and sustainable?
"There are many design trends that pop up and disappear just like a flash in the pan."
Taiwan is one of the most highly educated countries in the world. What is design education like in the country, from your experience?
Ho Wan Chun: I went to art school and then majored in visual communication design in college. During that time, I learned art history, background knowledge and skills mostly from books. The education direction is more focused on building stable and good techniques or skills. We spend a lot of time refining skills, but don’t care enough about creative thinking or design concept.
But art education has changed. Teachers are teaching students more creatively and in a more fun way, like having workshops or work with exhibition planning. These fresh, active and diverse ways will inspire creative imagination in students.
Part of HOUTH's work for Nativeye, a creative production company based in Tokyo and Kanazawa
What would you say are unique challenges for designers in your community right now?
Ho Wan Chun:First of all, the market in Taiwan is small and competitive, and people prefer to follow the trend. That means you will probably see many similar design styles or work during certain times.
Huang Chi Teng:Because of society’s fast consumption, there are many design trends that pop up and disappear just like a flash in the pan.
As the world is getting smaller with the help of the internet, working with international clients is very common. And of course, Taiwan already has a strong presence in the international marketplace. How is it for you?
Do you work with many international clients – and do businesses seek to work with local studios or international?
Huang Chi Teng: Except for the mostly local clients, we also have clients from Hong Kong, Japan, China. We also receive many inquiries from around the world.
International corporations or big companies here still prefer to work with international designers and studios, only because of the analyzed numbers and data. But there are more business and organizations start to support local designers and studios.
Ho Wan Chun and Huang Chi Teng doing the open floor plan right
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
Ho Wan Chun: Social networks like Facebook and Instagram works for us as a way of information sharing and self-promotion.
Huang Chi Teng: Design platforms like Behance do sometimes help us get new work and clients.
What does good design mean to you at HOUTH, and how do you see its role in your society? Do you think it can solve larger issues it faces?
Ho Wan Chun: Good design not only solves the problem, but also stands the test of time and makes it sustainable.
Good design is changing our society now. Take the Aestheticell textbook redesign project, for example. This project invites designers to redesign textbooks for elementary school students, not only visually but also functionally. The Big Issue Taiwan helps the homeless to make their living easier. The TFT (Teach for Taiwan) focuses on rural education in Taiwan. There are many young companies or organizations dedicating themselves to improving Taiwan’s culture and life through social design.
Product photography for Danzo studio
Do clients in Taiwan appreciate good design and understand what it takes?
Huang Chi Teng:We are very lucky! All the clients we’ve met understand the possibilities of the creativity. At the same time, they are willing to take the bold, unique and creative direction we suggest.
In your opinion, what are the top design studios from Taiwan that everyone should know?
HOUTH animated the JJ and Jason Mraz "I am alive" music video
Last question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with Taiwan’s design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
Ho Wan Chun and Huang Chi Teng:
We still don’t know how, but we hope there will be a system to support designers and help them become more engaged in the international design community in the future.
Social networking is probably the best way to engage with the Taiwanese design community, but most of the content is probably written in Mandarin. It’s a pity that we still don’t have a blog or magazine that helps us (especially graphic designers) build a design community that can connect internationally.
Thank you so much for sharing us your time and thoughts with us, Ho Wan Chun and Huang Chi Teng. I agree that designers could benefit profoundly from being more connected across countries and languages, and I hope we keep getting closer to that.
In the meantime, be sure to follow HOUTH's work and read our other interviews with design communities around the world – the talent, inspiration and information out there is endless.
With this long-awaited Design Around the World feature, we're finally looking at design in China with A Black Cover Design.
We've had China on our list since the beginning of the series, knowing full well the vast country and its design community can't be easily summarized. Guang Yu and Nod Young, founders of the Beijing-based creative studio, were quick to enlighten us. Design in China is still relatively new and with that comes unique challenges and opportunities – including design education, finding perspective on globalization, and making an effort to challenge one's own narrowness. Let's get into it.
First, let’s talk about your studio. How did you meet and ultimately co-found A Black Cover? What made you decide to start your own studio together?
Nod: We used to work in a four-people studio called tomeetyou Graphics. About three years ago, we two started the current studio A Black Cover Design, focusing on brand design. The other two former partners also set up their own studio, focusing on life aesthetics.
Guang: We got to know each other very early. The first time I saw Nod's works was at the first “Get It Louder” exhibition, and I really appreciated it. After working together, we have more trust in each other, and we've found that our understanding of design is also very consistent.
Nod and Guang Yu on a sunny Beijing day
Tell us a bit about the Chinese design community. I know design in Shenzhen is strong, but is it beyond key communities like this? Do many platforms or events exist that help you connect with other designers and share your voice in the community?
Nod: The situation in Shenzhen is quite special. In Shenzhen, there is an organization called Shenzhen Graphic Design Association which can be joined through recommendation, voting and other links. Although this organization contains "Shenzhen" in its name, its members come from different parts of China.
I feel that in China, graphic designers receive much attention as exhibitions and cultural exchanges are frequently organized. The graphic design community is also very big, attracting sufficient attention from society. We two are relatively self-independent in China and basically do not join any organization.
Guang: Apart from some local designers in Beijing, we don't have much contact with designers in Shenzhen and other areas. There may be only a few ones. Neither of us really likes frequent communication in the industry. The way to release one's voice is through one's works. I believe that you are interviewing us today not because an association recommended us, but because our work was displayed on a certain platform, and the impact of our work is being felt.
Nod: I think designers should communicate with the public through the normal “application” method, such as commercial sales. Either communication via associations and agencies or “internal communication” belongs to communication between designers.
The competitive landscape seems fierce in China, especially in the tech space. With competition and technology changing so rapidly, companies race to build their next app releases, for example. How does this compare to or affect the graphic design industry?
Nod: Ten years ago, no one cared about graphic design in China and the social economy would not tilt toward graphic design. In the recent decade, especially in the past five years, graphic design has received unprecedented attention for reasons such as economic development, technological innovation, increased consumer awareness among common people, and importance attached to design by companies and brands.
Guang: The previously “quiet” situation in the field of graphic design was because everyone's demand remained on a shallow level, and there was no competition between brands. At that time, everyone did not have brand awareness and did not need to maintain a visual image. Just as in a time marked by extreme material scarcity, it would be very nice to have a military coat. You would not consider what brand it was, you just needed to ensure your mere subsistence.
Now that the problem of mere subsistence has been solved, everyone can take time to pick style, texture, color, brand and design, which is a kind of satisfaction for spiritual needs. So the development of graphic design is directly correlated with the improvement in people's living standards. And be it the fierce competition in other commercial fields or graphic design being valued nowadays, it is actually a manifestation of improved living standards.
How do China’s heritage and culture influence its design style and set Chinese design apart? Do you have any examples of Chinese design style you can share with us?
Nod: The local culture of the Chinese nation basically exists in people's living habits. For example, the age distribution in China's current society is featured by a majority of middle-aged and elderly people, so their living habits will affect the overall social environment. However, these middle-aged and elderly people may not always conform to the tradition. They differ in cultural literacy, and most of them are even deficient in this respect. They have special preferences. For example, they like the bustle, red color, gorgeous clothes, etc., thereby affecting the visual reality of Chinese society. By contrast, the proportion of real traditional cultural factors is very small, especially on the application level. Most people only have a smattering understanding of these factors.
So look at the work that graphic designers are engaged in today. Take me and Guang Yu as an example. We can be counted as more of an "urban type.” From the perspective of the scope classification all across China, our style and mode can't be ranked as 5%.
A peaceful corner of the ABCD office
Guang: We don't have any special "Chinese style" to share with you but rather, being Chinese, what we are doing now is a kind of Chinese style. What I mean is in today's globalized world, we don't want to use the "Chinese style" to pursue design. The design we output is neither the Eastern nor Western style. Instead, it is a solution to the problem.
Nod: For example, today we use a Chinese-style "moire pattern.” Who is it intended for? How many people on earth will have an inner yearning for this pattern? We don't know about it ourselves, so we can't make a judgment. Another example: A dragon is a Chinese symbol known to the entire world. However, what different responses will the dragon trigger when consumers see it? I think every person and every case is different.
Speaking of globalization, I read that concern about western influence and its effect in the world today is a topic on the minds of Chinese artists and designers. Some see globalization as a threat to China's distinct cultural heritage. How do you feel about globalization and its impact on design in China?
Nod: China is indeed a very stubborn country. During the Qing dynasty, foreign envoys hoped to establish diplomatic relations with her, yet the emperor's reaction was that such relations were unnecessary. I think this was not only caused by the backwardness or isolation, but also by the Chinese people's reluctance to communicate with the outside world.
Today, it has become quite different. For example, in the Wangjing area, Beijing, you may find yourself getting in touch with the Korean culture. However, the Chinese people's psychological aspects still remain the same. For example, the way they get on with others. So in my opinion, this issue should focus on what changes "globalization" will bring to the Chinese people.
Guang: "Globalization" is a boon. Some people may think that this is a threat, which goes against my understanding. Doesn't the U.S. president always stress the China Threat Theory in his speech? It seems that there are idiots everywhere. The influence of “globalization” can have both good and bad impacts on design. It makes everyone share something in common, such as aesthetics and expression method. But at the same time, some of the individuality disappears, and life and design become monotonously the same.
Even those who don’t speak Chinese appreciate the beauty of Chinese calligraphy, and I know it was important to China’s visual culture in the past. What’s your relationship with calligraphy as designers today? Do you often use it in your work, and do you see other designers using it in effective and unique ways?
Nod: Calligraphy is not just a kind of character. It is a fine art and an image with text as its carrier. So when we appreciate calligraphy and Chinese paintings, we will feel an unrestrained feeling because it has no boundary: craze, grace, individuality and commonality can all possibly exist from the perspective of emotional expression. I can't say exactly what affect calligraphy exerts on design. It may exist as a gene does, instead of just a reference to a method.
Guang: I think calligraphy is great. Many designers will get in touch with the style or elements of calligraphy, but we won't deliberately refer to it in our work. Some designers around us would use the elements related to calligraphy for design. It can be said that calligraphy is still en vogue today, and the artistic conception of calligraphy is something I appreciate.
Nod: Take an example: The Dutong Tie (Stomach Ache Calligraphy Copybook) by Zhang Xu in the Tang Dynasty is a copybook to describe his stomach ache. It is also a kind of design to some extent because the calligraphy conveys his feelings about an incident – the way the calligrapher wields his brush, the character shape expresses the stomach ache he suffers from at the moment of writing. As is the case for many Chinese designers when doing their design. There will always be some content for emotional output, expressive of a certain situation in the image.
Posters also played a big role in the history of Chinese design, specifically in regard to propaganda. Is poster design still relevant/popular in the Chinese design community? Do you find it’s still an effective way to communicate a message?
Guang: In foreign countries, there are special environments and facilities to put up posters such as a poster column. However, it is forbidden to put up posters in the street by laws and regulations. In China, the design community likes to make posters for the sake of making them. A poster is more like a personal work. Previously, posters were one of the main ways to convey information. At present, due to the sophisticated network and widespread use of smartphones, the form of posters is no longer limited to paper printing.
Nod: "Haibao" in the Chinese language does not entirely overlap with the word "poster" in the English language. Posters in China may manifest themselves more as a banner of a website, or an image matrix composed of nine pictures clicked open in a mobile phone. These are Chinese-style posters that I can easily find. So this is very different from the way foreign posters are presented. A poster may not need to be printed and the audience it addresses may not be the same, because the event it describes may happen in a remote place, not in the vicinity. For example, today I saw a poster on my mobile phone and the event it described happened in Tianjin.
I read that most designers in China are young, so design mentors aren’t very accessible yet. Design schools are graduating thousands of designers now but qualified instructors are harder to come by. Is this accurate? What is design education like in China from your experience?
Guang: The reason why thousands of designers graduated at the same time is related to China's huge population base and to the demand for design. As for whether it is difficult to find qualified instructors, I think this is a problem arising in design education. First of all, I don't think basic education is doing well. In addition, schools are not clear about what kind of population the future graduates should serve. China's design education lags a little behind, in my opinion.
Nod: I agree with Guang Yu's view. In China, people outside the education system are indifferent to education, resulting in the shortage of educational resources. In foreign countries, education is an important topic. As in today's interview, educational issues may emerge, indicating that everyone cares much about education. If a society cares little about something, then it won’t develop.
I don't think there is something wrong with Chinese teachers. Rather, they are isolated. The reason they are isolated is not that they are doing poorly. The conditions involved are complicated. For example, Guang Yu and I don’t converse with those who teach design courses in school. They may not know us. We are designers, but who are they? This is the estrangement caused by the social system's indifference to education.
Guang: Another point is that design education in school focuses more on the form of the image, which I think is a bit worse. If students taught in this way only care about the form of the image and do not touch upon the genuine needs, then I think it will always create a contradictory situation. Everyone is airing his own view without paying attention to others' ideas – meaning, I just say my needs and you provide your design. It's difficult for us to meet each other halfway.
What are the main job opportunities available for designers in China right now? Do you find that tech companies are hiring most qualified designers, or are many designers finding jobs at design studios like yours?
Nod: I can't answer this question because I don't have a survey data in hand. As far as I know, one of my students does a poor job in design. However, he makes a good fortune by cashing in on the shares of the company after it goes to public, and can quit the design business at any time. But this is an individual case. If I were him, I would have made it, or at least tried.
Guang: I also know that after graduation, some young people go to a Party A company, where they enjoy a nice income in a stable environment. But some people choose to come to studios like ours or even set up their own studios directly. These are personal choices on which I will not comment, as they are choices based on personal values.
"I think design should serve the public, not the minority. If it is really to serve the minority, then we can pursue art at any time."
In an interview with It’s Nice That, Guang Yu categorized non-commercial Chinese design into “elite” design and “power” design – an “elite designer” being someone who’s known internationally (but not locally) and not serving society, and a “power designer” being someone who works in the public sector. Why are power aesthetics more mainstream in China, as you mentioned? Do you see one or the other being a more valuable pursuit?
Guang: Why are power aesthetics more mainstream in China? I think everyone knows that it is not necessary to answer this question. Neither "elite" nor "power" design is what I go after. Maybe we set one foot on the boat of "elite design," because we're working hard enough in design. It's not that we only know how to make designs that look beautiful and win us awards instead of serving society. On the contrary, we are noticed because we've made excellent designs that serve society.
Nod: We can talk about phenomena, pursuit, ideals, but what is the reality? It is what Guang Yu once summarized. We don't pursue "power" or "elite" at all. We just do well what falls within our capacity, this is our pursuit. I think design should serve the public, not the minority. If it is really to serve the minority, then we can pursue art at any time. Today, we choose design as our career with a purpose of improving people's living standards a little, even if only ten thousand or a hundred thousand people benefit from our designs. This is my ideal.
What would you say are unique challenges for designers in your community right now?
Nod: One is your horizon, and the other is your understanding of the times. The former is about how big the world is in your eyes. For example, Sichuan people should not think that except Sichuan cuisines, other cuisines are rubbish. The latter is our understanding of the era in which we live, whether you are willing to follow the changes in the situation and economic development to generate new design aspirations, motives and methods. I can hardly find the above in Chinese designers. Most of them are still designing things 15 years ago and haven't changed at all, though the world has already changed.
Guang: I can't speak for designers around me. But I do think that they, including myself, are challenging their own narrowness.
Nod: We are also trying to make ourselves less narrow-minded and more open-minded. This is also a challenge for us.
It seems like the government has been supportive of the design industry in China. Have you seen this to be true and do you experience tangible effects from government interest in your work?
Nod: The government's support for the design industry is tangible. Take, for example, actions such as planning a special area as a creative park. Or providing convenient conditions for young people related to creativity and innovation when they start up their businesses, through reduction in rent and other policy support. But the government won't make a person grow. What it provides is the convenience for such growth. Whether a person can do well has nothing to do with the government. I myself haven't had direct contact with the "government" in the real sense, because I don't know who the "government" is and where the "government" is. For me, it remains to be a concrete existence.
Guang: I was once invited to design by a relevant government department, but I did not follow it through because the cost of communication was too high. I think the government's demand is not specific enough compared to that of the company. By contrast, a company has its own employees and competitive pressure, and it will tell me its demand and let me know who I am to serve. In my experience dealing with that government department, the person from the government department was always stating his personal opinions and understandings, but I didn't really care whether he liked it or not. What I cared about was which group of people would like or dislike my design. So nothing came out of it finally.
As the world is getting smaller with the help of the internet, working with international clients is very common. Do you actively seek international work or has this happened naturally for your studio? And do Chinese businesses typically work with local designers and studios?
Nod: When I first operated my own studio, I targeted overseas customers which accounted for more than 80% of my business. At that time, there were not so many domestic customers and the domestic market was in a state to be further explored. At present, China's market demand is very robust. Many companies have begun to pay attention to design and attach due importance to design, and feel that design is a part of brand competitiveness. Currently, our studio focuses more on domestic design, having no time to take care of foreign markets. Besides, I am more willing to contact Chinese customers as I understand this market as well as the psychology of customers. So naturally, I take more initiative to get in touch with domestic customers.
Guang: When local designers deal with local customers, in most cases, they are more competent than overseas designers in every aspect. So are Chinese companies. In most cases, they are willing to cooperate with local designers, and meanwhile Chinese designers are gradually maturing.
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
Nod: I think social media plays a big role. Social media is not the same as “socializing.” For example, I myself have trouble with socializing. If you put me in a party, I will feel ill at ease. If you ask me to post something on social media, I will be very pleased. So social media is not simply used for socializing, but as a way for an individual or a team to output and display itself, and in turn, reap an all-around understanding of itself from the outside world.
However, we do not use it as a channel for obtaining customers. Our situation is basically to obtain new customers from old customers' recommendations. The designs we have made for our customers are seen by more people, providing a commercial model for them. I have never published my works on Weibo. I have only a few words about my works, but more opinions and ideas about phenomena and events.
What does good design mean to ABCD and how do you see it impacting your country’s society as a whole?
Nod: I think a good design is "neat,” which does not refer to the material aspect.
Guang: I thought that you would comment on “good design” from a commercial perspective. However, you said what it looks like.
Nod: It's really hard to say, as there are different angles to describe. A "good design" that I identify with makes it possible for more people to improve their quality of life. Even if it is improved a little, I think it is a good design. Ikea, Uniqlo, McDonald’s, Nike... all produce good designs through the joint effort of the designer and enterprise.
Guang: I see eye to eye with him but because I used to focus on art design, I am not weary of niche design as it has its own audience. I feel that there will be problems if all designs are purely commercial in a country. From the perspective of having a good influence on both the country and community, there should be an abundance of design in different categories. Then design will be rich and interesting.
Nod: This question is also particularly relevant to what one cares about. Who I care more about are not those who are also designers like me, but the audience. When it comes to the impact on the country, I think it definitely exists. The brands we participate in have all gained attention in the industry. The success of business means to serve the public, which is equal to serving the country.
In your opinion, what are the top design studios from China (or at least Beijing) that everyone should know?
Guang: From a commercial perspective and understanding of customers, Mei Shuzhi is a new type of designer. He is a person with a sense of service, not just focusing on personal expression. In addition, designers who specialize in a specific category include Ma Shirui, Roujiang.
Nod: UDL Studio is also quite good.
Final question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Chinese design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
Nod: I think "exhibition" is the best way. Two designers, like two people who practice martial arts, should stage a set of boxing techniques for the purpose of communication, instead of empty talks. Just as two masters should put on a genuine fight when exchanging blows. Similarly, works are displayed together to judge their respective value, which, I think, is the best way. In addition, we can also conduct some open dialogues on the scene.
To be frank, there is no good medium domestically that only deals with design as it is too narrow.
Guang: I think competition is also a very good way. As Nod says, works are on display so that the ideas and techniques are compared, to see what can be learned from them and what experience can be drawn on as well.
Nod: It is not difficult for foreign designers to look for opportunities here in China. Of course, they should be proficient in Chinese. But customers all over the world, including Chinese customers, prefer to choose a well-known designer. So maybe you are famous abroad. However, no one may know you domestically. In view of this, you need to establish prestige for your work in the local area and give customers a reason to choose you. In my opinion, in China, it won't happen that a company or brand does not choose you as you are a foreign designer. But its reason to choose you may not be so sufficient.
Guang: You are recommended to read Details, from which we can learn about some information and special reports on art and design.
Guang and Nod, thank you so much for your time! I appreciate your straightforward, no-bullshit answers – this interview has been illuminating for me.
Readers, be sure to check out ABCD's website to see more of Guang and Nod's work. And if you're just now joining the Design Around the World series, catch up right here.
With this latest interview in our Design Around the World series, meet HOICK, a creative agency and collective based in Cape Town, South Africa.
We were immediately drawn to Hoick and inspired by their work, a strange and delightful mix of experimental art and design. At the center of the studio is Dale Lawrence and Claire Johnson. They talked with us about why it's the perfect time to be a creative in South Africa despite the challenges that designers — especially young designers – currently face.
First, let’s talk about your studio. How did you meet and ultimately co-found HOICK? What made you decide to start your own creative agency together?
Claire: We met at design college twelve years ago. We both went on to study fine art and started freelancing together during our studies, going on to work together at a small studio after graduating. Dale set off to start Hoick and I joined him a while later.
Dale:We had a friend living in London who had approached us to start a studio whereby he would source and we would service clients. That worked well for a while, but we ended up parting ways and focusing more on the local client base we had built. Relying on a local client base was a scary prospect for us initially – South Africa’s design industry can be conservative at times and creative work is often undervalued. A lot has changed since then and many independent creative practices have flourished. We work with a range of very interesting (mostly) young businesses with great energy. It’s a good place to be.
Running our own studio allows us to make our own progress and our own mistakes. We’re able to test different modes of working to see what works for us and have the flexibility to act on new ideas. It’s hard work, but ultimately it makes a big difference to motivation to know you’re doing it on your own steam.
Hoick's dreamy office space in Cape Town
Cape Town was named World Design Capital in 2014 by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. Is there a strong graphic design community in South Africa beyond industrial design? Do many platforms or events exist that help you connect with other designers?
Claire: The design community generally come together for cultural and social events (gallery openings, designers’ clothing launches) rather than specific design events. The design, art and fashion industry is all quite fluid in Cape Town, and there is strong support from the Cape Town creative community.
Design- and art-orientated events like First Thursdays and Ladies, Wine and Design and some larger forums such as the Design Indaba, Business of Design, Open Design Afrika and Investec Cape Town Art Fair, bring the creative community, and those interested in design and art, together.
What are the main job opportunities available for designers in South Africa right now? And are most opportunities in places like Cape Town?
Dale: Cape Town has traditionally been thought of as the creative capital of South Africa, but I would argue that Jo’burg is a strong contender for that title now.
Most job opportunities are with digital or advertising agencies servicing corporate clients. It’s difficult for independent agencies to achieve stability enough to grow in size without seriously compromising the standard of their work, so there aren’t many job opportunities provided by studios that are producing good, critical work. It’s a bit of a problem, because younger designers often aren’t able to receive proper mentoring to get off the ground.
That said, there are many opportunities for freelance creatives to collaborate. While the only consistent members of the studio are the two of us, we draw from a large network of independent creative people depending on the needs of the project.
A few of several sculptures Hoick created for Littlegig Festival
South Africa has been called “the rainbow nation" due to the range of cultures, languages, and religions there. Does this diversity influence the design coming out of South Africa in any way? What specific influences or styles do you notice?
Dale: I think South Africa still has a long way to go to achieve the multiculturalism and the integration of diverse tastes and aesthetics we are striving for. Slow progress in economic transformation and the Western-centric status quo have lead to many (most) not embracing each other’s points of view as sources of inspiration, rather than points of difference.
It’s a great position to be in as an artist or designer in South Africa; our attempts to create work that speaks across cultural divides will hopefully contribute to a greater understanding of each other’s cultures in the greater scheme of things, and to the realization of South Africa’s founding vision of an overarching culture built on the celebration of diverse viewpoints.
The contemporary art industry stands out as the most progressive of our industries in this regard. Artists like Athi-Patra Ruga, Zanele Muholi, Billie Zangewa and Igshaan Adams are among the most accomplished of the new generation of South African artists. They are making massive strides in the creation of an African aesthetic that is representative of the vast multiplicity of the people of Africa. There are also those, like Manthe Ribane and Dear Ribane, who are breaking the barriers between music, performance and art.
Claire at work
Speaking of art, you both have post-graduate degrees in the field of art and design. Is it common for designers to seek a formal education like this in your community? What is the quality of design education like in South Africa?
Claire: It is fairly common for designers to have diplomas or degrees in design, communication, advertising or fine art. Also, the crossover between fine art and design has become quite fluid – the two practices inform each other and strengthen the depth and scope of work.
There are some very good design colleges where one can obtain degrees and postgraduate diplomas, but as yet there are not opportunities for masters degrees in design. This is something that will hopefully come with time, but people seeking master’s or doctorate degrees in design fields have to do them in Europe or America. There is a big gap for a master’s degree in design in South Africa.
"Countless fresh and important design voices are lost as people are unable to break through into the creative field."
What are the other unique challenges for designers in your community right now?
Claire: Trust and bravery. Most South African companies are highly conservative and tend to look at what others are doing to guide decisions. Some local brands want to push the envelope (in theory) like they see some international brands doing, but are too afraid that their audiences won’t “get it” and commit. They don’t give the public enough credit. Design doesn’t need to be didactic to communicate effectively.
Another huge challenge is education. There is so much potential that is lost in the creative industry because of limited access to studies and training, and the high cost of higher education in South Africa. Countless fresh and important design voices, and their messages, are lost as people are unable to break through into the creative field.
Part of Hoick's identity for Hokey Poke, a poke bar in South Africa
Cost does seem to be a large barrier overall. I read that South Africa has the seventh-highest per capita income in Africa, yet poverty and inequality remain widespread. When talking with designers from countries in similar positions, they explained good design is considered a luxury for this reason. Is that the case in South Africa?
Dale: It is the same here. It is assumed that people with limited economic means simply require access to inexpensive goods and services. The sad result is that this becomes an excuse to offer poorly considered, cheap things that are unsatisfying and often cost more in the long run, while companies profit from their lack of concern. High levels of inequality contribute to those statistics.
With regards to communication, businesses are often scared that more unique concepts will “go over people’s heads,” which becomes another excuse to offer generic services and communicate them with generic designs that satisfy no one.
It is less that design is a luxury, but rather that many businesses in South Africa (particularly the large ones) are content not understanding their audience, because their audience often has no alternative but to use their product – so there’s no incentive for them to change.
You mentioned that when starting Hoick, you decided to work with local clients. Is that still the case?
Claire: We’ve worked with international clients on several projects, but currently most of our clients are local.
It makes a lot of sense for international clients to work with South African agencies: the cross-pollination of our different contexts and points of view makes for very exciting work, and the exchange rate is beneficial. But in our experience it only works out well if the client has made the decision to work with us based on merit and character, never when price is the main motivation.
Hoick's tapestry for Max Bagels
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
Dale: We rely mostly on word-of-mouth and people finding us through projects we have done before. We find it works best when clients and collaborators are directly familiar with work we’ve done and are specifically looking for our approach.
Claire: We use our Instagram account as a behind-the-scenes, as projects often take a while to finish and we want people to know what we are up to. It’s less a tool for getting new business than it is for keeping in touch with peers.
More from Hoick's identity for Hokey Poke
What does good design mean to HOICK, and how do you see it impacting your country’s society as a whole? Do you think it can solve larger issues it faces?
Dale: Good design is attentive, experimental, brave, honest and transparent, rooted in its context and of the moment; specific to its context but broad in its reach. It captures the essence of a subject and is flexible enough to evolve with it. It is simultaneously unique and universal.
Claire: Design has the power to communicate without words and across languages. Any tool that can help people understand each other better will be powerful and important for the future of South Africa. That is the main hurdle we as South Africans face right now, to understand and communicate better.
"Bits and Pieces" by Dale for an exhibition titled "On Second Thought"
In your opinion, what are the top design studios from South Africa that everyone who might be not familiar with the South African design community should know?
Claire and Dale clean up nicely. Photo by Jonathan Kope - jonathankope.com
And now to our final question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the South African design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
Dale and Claire, thank you very much for your honest and eloquent answers. I'm inspired by your work and excited to learn more from South Africa's design community.
To see more of Hoick's work, check out their website right here. Be sure to also visit Claire's website and Dale's website to see their individual art, and explore the resources they shared here as well.
And until our next interview, catch up on the Design Around the World series featuring studios from Iran, Armenia, Brazil and more.
With our Our Design Around the World series, we've explored design communities and met designers from countries like Brazil, Nigeria, Pakistan, Singapore and more. Now, we're learning more about design in the Middle East with Studio Koniak.
Run by Nurit Koniak and partner Natasha Boguslavsky, Koniak is a branding consultancy based in Tel Aviv. The studio does everything from art direction to branding to motion graphics to packaging, with a decidedly elegant and minimalistic style.
While it's clear the tech scene is currently exploding in Tel Aviv, but we didn't know much about the design community specifically, or how political tensions in the country are affecting it. Nurit shares her perspective with us in this interview.
First, let’s talk about your studio. Who is the team behind Koniak and why did you decide to open a graphic design studio?
I founded the studio in 2005. After about six years, I needed to expand the business, so I started to develop a professional team. One of my leading designers whom I love and adore, Natasha Boguslavsky, joined me around that time and helped me build the business. Eventually, she became my partner, and together we have shaped and defined the studio’s voice over the years. We focus on brand design and image making, with special attention to consumer goods – our greatest passion.
Nurit and Natasha at work in the studio
Tell us a bit about Tel Aviv’s design community. Is there a strong design presence and do many platforms or events exist that help you connect with other designers?
Tel Aviv is an amazing design destination. The local design scene has grown tremendously over the past ten years, and there’s a real dynamic ambiance everywhere. Somehow, despite the political difficulties, there’s a real creative hub with multiple cultural influences that fuse together into something new and intriguing. Gallery openings, restaurants and pop-up shops are springing up everywhere. There are lots of design collaborations because people are always somehow connected and the help is nearby.
Technology is thriving in Tel Aviv and many large tech companies have established a presence in the area. It’s been compared to Silicon Valley with the second-largest number of startup companies in the world after the United States. How does that affect the design community? Are most job opportunities for designers in the tech scene right now?
This is a very interesting development. Despite the cultural thrive, the economic reality is so grim that people in Tel Aviv cannot imagine buying their own property or living as a family in the city. Prices have gone far beyond anyone’s reach. So it’s obvious that designers opt for higher paying jobs in the startup scene. This has become a real goal for graduates. They prefer to play in a band or design posters after their day job hours. As a result, the independent design scene lost a lot of talented designers to corporations and startups.
How would you describe the design you see coming from Tel Aviv today? Do you notice a certain style/influence or is it influenced by your culture in any way?
I think what makes the Israeli design scene so interesting is the specific fusion of American, European and Middle Eastern influences. The Israeli design heritage is very tender since the country itself is only 70 years old, but our complex relationship with the Palestinians and our neighboring countries has had an inevitable influence. Israeli culture was never about opulence and abundance, so Israeli design is quite austere and minimal but manages to remain fresh.
You live in one of the most educated countries in the world. In 2012, it ranked third in the world in the number of academic degrees per capita. What is design education like there? Do most designers seek a formal education or do you see successful designers who are self-taught as well?
Design education is big in Israel with great schools and academic programs, and of course hundreds of designers graduating every year. But the design industries here are limited in their resources, so many of the students don’t really end up in the practice. People often migrate between fields within the design world or alternatively dream of working abroad to jump-start their career locally.
What would you say are unique challenges for designers in your community right now?
Our biggest challenge would probably be keeping our voices heard. Our current government is very right-wing and recent developments have given us reason to believe freedom of expression is at risk. In basic Israeli mentality, design is considered somewhat of a luxury and is often regarded as fluff – not being taken seriously enough. It’s very frustrating over time, and one needs to be patient and understanding to sustain in the industry.
“The clients look outward only to learn that the local work is actually better.”
As the world is getting smaller with the help of the internet, working with international clients is very common. Do you actively seek international work or has this happened naturally for your studio? And do businesses typically work with local designers and studios?
We have been lucky in the studio to work with international brands as well as Israeli brands. We love the versatility in working with both. Long-distance dialogue is possible these days, but there are many advantages to being physically close to your client and having an intimate talk to make progress on a project. Ironically, we’ve had quite a few Israeli clients approach us after they were disappointed with UK based firms. The clients look outward only to learn that the local work is actually better.
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
Instagram is a very interesting platform in that respect. We feel like the era we live in a transitional period in media and its usage. Social networks are big, but their full potential is yet to be discovered. It has become somewhat of a replacement to websites, but it’s still lacking a formality and technical tools that could enable it to become a real business card. It’s great for self-promotion but it still feels very limited.
What does good design mean to Koniak, and how do you see it impacting your country’s society as a whole? Do you think it can solve larger issues it faces?
We never think about the long-term effect of what we do, but we always try to aim for a signature that’s very minimalistic and timeless in style. A test for good design would be to look back at something you did ten years ago and smile. In some cases the decade’s footprint is apparent and in others, you don’t feel the time passing at all.
How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with your design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
We highly recommend following Telavivian Magazine, a brand we designed a few years back and remains one of the most interesting local platforms for engaging in local creation. There are other great independent publications such as Milk & Honey and A5.
Thank so much for talking with us, Nurit! We appreciate your straightforward, honest answers and look forward to seeing how design in Tel Aviv continues to evolve.
Our Design Around the World series explores design communities outside our own, introducing us to new creatives and perspectives. With this latest interview meet LIE, an independent graphic design studio based in Kuala Lumpur.
As soon as I discovered LIE, I knew I wanted to include them in the series. The studio's work is fresh and vibrant, and their team clearly has personality. Driv leads that team as LIE's founder and art director. Here he gives us a peek into the Malaysian design community, still young in the country with great opportunity ahead.
First, let’s talk about your studio. Who is the team behind LIE and why did you decide to open a graphic design studio?
Having stuck at work as a designer for several years in overseas, I took a long break strolling around Japan for three months. Along the journey, I met many Japanese people who dedicated their lives to their business and career. Inspired by such dedication, I decided to start a design studio in Kuala Lumpur with the hope of contributing to my hometown and the local design community. To date, LIE consists of an art director, three designers, a content writer and an intern periodically.
It seems as though industrial design is big in your country, but is there a strong graphic design community as well? What are the job opportunities for a designer in Malaysia?
The graphic design industry in Malaysia is not as mature, nor are the values of graphic design as well-recognized, as in other industries. In the past, most designers went to advertising agencies. Yet it is getting more and more exciting in the recent years, as an increasing number of amazing work and small to medium-sized design studios have been popping up. With the popularity of online platforms, talented creatives have increased exposure and opportunities to work individually.
Illumination 10, one of several beautiful music packaging projects by LIE.
Do many local design platforms or events exist yet?
There aren’t many mainstream graphic design-related events in Malaysia, but there is an increasing number of small to medium scale events and activities related to graphic design. These are initiated by designers through cross-collaboration, or organizations such as wREGA, ThinkCity, Malaysia Design Archive, Design Union and Huruf, to name a few.
I’ve read Malaysia’s colonization plays heavily into its design history, and Malaysian design in the past was influenced by its social and political climate. How would you describe Malaysian design today? Do you notice a specific style or influences?
Malaysia as a multicultural and multiracial nation has inspired and influenced local artists and designers. Nowadays though, designers are taking influences or references from everywhere. As such, it is rather difficult to define a particular style or identity as "Malaysian design." Nevertheless, with our diverse culture and the collective effort of local designers, I still look forward to seeing design here slowly take shape and lead to what we can proudly claim as Malaysian design.
"A Fruitful Mind," LIE's work for an exhibition celebrating local Malaysia fruits.
What is design education like in Malaysia? And do many designers seek a formal education or are they self-taught?
Malaysia has quite a number of institutions of higher learning with design courses. Some of these institutions focus solely on design education. Most designers still seek a formal education at local institutions or further their studies overseas.
What would you say are unique challenges for Malaysian designers right now?
There are actually a lot of talented designers out there, but we don’t have enough established companies or platforms to keep everybody together. A lot of Malaysians will have to look for jobs overseas for better pay. It might be different if the design scene in Malaysia improves and more opportunities arise that could attract talented designers back to Malaysia to progress their career.
How much impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
Since social media is more targeted to an individual and direct consumer, it is good to generate awareness but doesn’t have a significant effect on new business for us yet. The typical mediums such as our company website, Behance and word-of-mouth still work best for us.
What does good design mean to LIE, and how do you see it impacting Malaysian society as a whole?
Good design isn’t just about aesthetics or design according to our own preference. We reckon good design should provide a solution to a problem that could make a positive impact on a business and do good for society.
In general, not many people in Malaysia really understand the value of graphic design. It’s actually OK that the client doesn’t understand, so long they are open-minded and willing to work alongside the designer for a better solution. Our role is to guide them through the creative process. A good design process is a collaborative effort between client and designer, not just following the brief or vice-versa.
When more and more good design is presented, we hope that Malaysian society will get to see and appreciate the values of design, and that it eventually creates an impact.
LIE's illustration for Nike Running: Shanghai Marathon 2016
In your opinion, what are the top creative agencies or design studios from Malaysia that everyone should know?
And now to our last question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Malaysian design community? Are there any blogs or magazines we can follow?
Design festivals, design conferences, collaboration and community-led talks featuring local designers and visiting artists encourage the exchange of ideas. This would certainly help.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a specific or common platform in the Malaysian design community yet, but organizations such as ThinkCity, wREGA (Graphic Design Association of Malaysia) and Malaysia Design Archive endeavor to bring the local designers and resources together to help shape the design community.
Driv! Thank you for sharing your honest thoughts with us. We're inspired by your work and excited for the future of design in Malaysia with studios like LIE leading the way.
With this latest interview in our Design Around the World series, we're excited to feature the awesome Anagrama studio located in Mexico City.
It's likely you're already familiar with Anagrama and their branding work. I've personally admired the studio and followed their work for a long time now. So it was an honor to talk with Daniela, creative partner at Anagrama, about the growing design community in Mexico and where it's headed next.
Hey Daniela, let's do this! First, tell us a bit about yourself and your studio. Who is the team behind Anagrama?
We're a multidisciplinary studio with work spread out into three big branches: branding, architecture and interactive. We are eight partners: Sebastian Padilla, Mike Herrera and Gustavo Muñoz. They started the company around 10 years ago. Roberto Treviño, Carolina Ortiz, Roberto Castillo, David Gutierrez and myself joined the partnership later. And there’s more. We are a team around 40 talented creative people with different roles in different areas. We are a big family!
Mexico City was named the sixth World Design Capital in 2018. It seems like Mexico overall has been receiving attention for its design lately, especially architectural design. How did this reputation come about?
I love this fact. Mexico is a country full of culture, colors, aromas, shapes, sounds. Somehow all the diversity that surrounds us is part of our visual growth.
I feel honored that our team is part of the current design movement in Mexico. It’s true to say that something is going on here; there is so much creativity in the air. In the city there are galleries, exhibitions, installations, social media art/design content and murals. I think this might be a response to the current hunger of creative expression.
And wait for more – we keep moving.
Part of Anagrama's branding for Maka, an environmentally-conscious water company with strong Mexican roots.
Does Mexico have a distinct design style? If so, how would you describe it and how does your country’s heritage play into it? Do you have any examples for us?
Well, I believe that a good design project should follow the brief more than its own culture or heritage. If we talk about a project where Mexicanity is part of the brand values, we have good examples in our portfolio. Amado and Maka had Mexicanity as an important message, so we did communicate it through the brand, avoiding clichés.
You work with clients around the world. Did it take any special effort to reach an international audience or did this happen naturally for your studio?
It started naturally since the beginning, but we have plans to expand to the U.S. market. Hope I can share more info about it soon! So excited.
Work for Alfredo Gonzales, a Rotterdam-based brand.
What is design education like in Mexico? I’ve read that the entire Anagrama team attended university. Is this common for designers in Mexico or are many self-taught as well?
Unfortunately there’s so much to do about design education in Mexico. Sadly, politics and corruption have affected the education system. For a lot of people in Mexico it’s a privilege to go to university. We feel grateful to say we all have degrees, but I can say too that there are talented people we have worked with who didn't have a formal education.
We don’t believe it's crucial if a person has enough interest and practice in design and creativity. That said, design education is improving as the creative industry is growing and getting stronger in Mexico.
Anagrama's Lavaderos project for Rosewood Puebla
Why do you think good design is important, and what does good design mean for you at Anagrama? Do you think it has the power to create social change in your country?
Good design communicates efficiently and offers a strong differentiator for brands. These days it’s all about connecting people with products and services — not only for the product or service attributes, but for sharing a philosophy of life, a way of thinking. We believe design and an integrated branding experience is the perfect tool to execute a well planned identity strategy.
And yes, our main goal is to upgrade Mexico’s visual culture.
Anagrama honored yet modernized traditional Mexican motifs for the rebranding of Café la Nacional, a Mexican coffee shop.
In an interview with It’s Nice That last year, Sebastian Padilla said “Many people think Mexico is cheaper, too, and that’s not a good thing for us, because our quality is so high.”
How is your design community overcoming this perception? Is it just a matter of educating clients and continuing to put out great work?
I can say times are changing and much has improved since then. But the truth is we keep working on to change that mindset. Hopefully we are closer now.
Anagrama's reimagined Mexican coat of arms for Cafe La Nacional.
In your opinion, what are the top creative agencies / design studios from Mexico that everyone should know?
And now to our last question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Mexican design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
Daniela, thanks so much for sharing your experience and thoughts with us. It's clear this is an exciting time for design in Mexico and we can't wait to see more from your creative community.
Friends, be sure to check out Anagrama's latest projects as well as the excellent resources Daniela shared with us. And if you're just joining us in the series, there's lots to learn from the design communities in Nigeria, India, Brazil, Pakistan and more. Catch up here.
With our Design Around the World series we aim to meet new designers and explore design communities outside our own. Now we're excited to share add India to the series, featuring the lovely team at Animal.
Animal is an independent creative agency with offices in New Delhi and New York. They create beautiful work for clients like Adidas, National Geographic, One Plus and lots more. They're also champions of the Indian design community. Take Indianama, the platform they started to highlight and create dialogue around contemporary Indian design.
I talked with Kunel and Sharon, co-founders at Animal, all about life as a designer in India today, the change they see happening now and where Indian design will go in the future.
First, tell us a bit about your studio. Who is the team behind Animal and why did you decide to open a creative agency in India?
Kunel grew up in New Delhi, India. Sharon studied here and later joined advertising. Having seen the industry change over the years, we naturally felt the need to create alternatives for things that were working and avenues for those that weren’t. India is a robust, developing market that is changing at the speed of light, and the opportunity to do amazing things is vast.
There’s just so much raw material to play with.
A traditional structure (at the time we started) would have slowed us down and so we experimented by working with a new style of structure, where people with different talents could work under one roof, as opposed to the traditional agency model that is limited to art, copy, planning and management. This new kind of structure gave way to a freer approach of thinking on briefs and concepts, as well as a chance to collaborate with a wider set of talent, from India and abroad.
There seems to be a growing voice for design in India, for example projects like “India Design Platform” and your work with Indianama. Do you see the creative landscape shifting or evolving in a significant way – and what sparked this dialogue?
Oh, it has come of age. And yes, it’s evolving in a beautiful way.
This thing we call "the underground" has fast taken the centre-stage and at the risk of sounding like a prophet, we’d say it’s our great reckoning. We transitioned into what some pedants are calling the post-text era, smoothly. There's still a long way to go but we’re on our way, and that’s all that matters at the moment.
Part of Animal's Adidas Originals EQT project
I read you started Indianama because as a brand, India lacked a modern visual presence. It seems like design and art is very much a part of India’s history, though. Do you feel Indian design has a dated or inaccurate reputation? Why has India lacked a modern design identity to this point?
All the way up until this moment, design in India was deeply inspired by historic references to architecture and textiles from different parts of the country, truck art, matchbox art, Bollywood films and other such clichés. While they are special in their own way, we believe we’re done exploiting them for commercial application in design and somehow they are being bundled under one category that is purely kitsch.
We wanted India to surface gracefully onto the international design scene. One way of ensuring that was Indianama — retain the India you know and love, reimagine the India that you’d like to see.
There’s no word which, on its own, can define the Indian culture. One predominant aspect of the country’s identity is that of being a mix, a melting pot, of ideas and systems. That sure makes the terrain of design here a little difficult to maneuver, but that’s also what keeps us from getting comfortable.
Dated, we’ll say yes. The accuracy is what we’re here to seek.
How would you describe India’s evolving design style? Does your heritage and culture still fit into it, just in a different way?
On the timeline of where we’re coming from and where we’re headed, we’d call it the post re-interpretation phase. We’re contemporizing our heritage and culture — giving birth to new vantage points that show different sides of India to everyone looking over — as opposed to one universal definition of India as a heritage state.
At the cusp of being exploited and enriched, some of the notable examples would include Old-Delhi based Painter Kafeel whose rich brush strokes and meticulous typography originating from the 1950s appear, with a dose of nostalgia, in advertising campaigns for the likes of Google.
Also Mira Malhotra, who has delved into the cultural significance of the saree. Her "How to Unfold a Saree" is a unique piece of graphic design. It’s a one-off mini-zine that celebrates this iconic fashion garment at the intersection of design and culture.
Hoshiyar Singh, who once started as a billboard painter 45 years ago, has been collaborating on fashion shoots and set designs with the likes of world-renowned fashion designer, Manish Arora.
Calligraphy seems to play a big role in India’s graphic design history. Is calligraphy still a common practice among modern graphic designers there?
Calligraphy in India has become a two-sided coin. If we were to see it on small town walls or sign boards of local shops, we’d nonchalantly term it as bourgeois, a style that conforms with the kitsch aesthetic of old Bollywood. As we move onto bigger brands and high-end spaces, the style is labelled artisanal.
Our languages are just as complex as they are numerous. As an ode to them, we’d love to experiment with them in a setting that’s both contemporary and functional. That’s also something we’re enthusiastically working toward.
In 2012 Kamal Nath, former Minister of Urban Development in India said, "India has already unleashed its entrepreneurial ability, now it needs to unleash its creative ability. We need design." Has the government helped advance design in the country in any tangible way? I know in the past it invested in fashion to support the textile industry, but what about graphic design?
Governments change every five years, so do the initiatives. Which is why it is becoming more and more important for the design community to look at initiatives with long-term goals. With Indianama, that is what we have envisioned.
We have the National Initiative for Design Innovation and such, so surely the government understands the need of the hour. The tangibility can, however, only be commented on after a few years of gauging the impact.
I’ve heard new design schools and courses are opening up in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Pune. What is the quality of design education like in India? Did most designers at your agency study at a university or were they self-taught?
Yes, there are some great design schools in the country. But we’re in a fix because of two things: while design education is still fairly new and mainstream in terms of taste inspired from the West, the global shift in that same taste with technology has fast seeped into our Instagram feeds, creating a dichotomy of opinions — a war of sensibilities within the industry.
We get a mix of people, from those who studied at design schools like JJ School, Srishti, NIFT and NID to those who are self-taught. Some don’t even know the full spectrum of design software, but they have a great taste. Now who wouldn’t love that.
“On one hand we have the Internet that travels and progresses at the speed of light. And on the other, we have the labyrinth called India.”
Recent reports predict India will continue as the world’s fastest growing internet market. It seems like India’s design community is still catching up to this growth – is that an accurate perception? For example I read that India’s many complex scripts are being adapted into typefaces for consistency online.
On one hand we have the Internet that travels and progresses at the speed of light. And on the other, we have the labyrinth called India.
They are two disparate mammoths. It will take more than genius to get the two on the same page through design. So for now, the wise thing would be to go one step at a time.
Our traditional typefaces, keeping in mind the uniqueness they hold, are worthy of digital preservation and commemoration. The job might sound tedious, but who’s to say that the result won’t be exquisite?
Animal's work for Google Allo
Why do you think good design is important, and what does good design mean for you at Animal?
Good design works against the psychological violence of banality. It also transcends medium, message and time.
The beautification that design offers is obviously the cherry on top of the cake that’s communication. Good design then becomes the foundation of good communication. The aesthetics you play with should first serve the purpose at hand, be it advertising or branding.
As we’ve talked about earlier, the land we’re out to explore offers a terrain that’s not easy for a conformist to steer through. Our people are varied, so are their sensibilities. Good design, for us, is design that can educate the people en masse about its importance in everyday life.
Adidas Originals NMD, conceptualizing the never-ending journey of the urban nomad
In your opinion, does design have the power to create social or systematic change in your country, for example propelling the economy forward and/or decreasing poverty?
Design in an economy like India is also treated as a medium of marketing, a way of presentation that’s bound to get your attention. It gives us, the designers, the power to steer change through visual communication. The simplest way of doing the same is coming up with simple and effective systems of information absorption, making our people understand the values that would drive us forward.
While this helps corporations and startups that work with creative agencies like us, empowering them with great design systems, there’s a whole other side of it that is completely ignored.
At least until now.
In this year’s edition of Indianama, our focus lies on improving the design landscape at a grassroot level. We’re going to the streets, working with the really small businesses and local shops and providing them access to quality design through collaboration with 71 designers around the world. Once adapted on a larger scale, it could definitely help certain sectors of the economy grow.
That is the bigger picture we’re working toward, and undoubtedly the most ambitious one.
Is good design valued in India as a whole? Do your clients understand its potential and are they willing to pay for what it takes?
The ideal comparison would be that of one project with the other, rather than of clients. Largely, how receptive and appreciative they are of good design depends on what they’re offering and who they are offering it to. Many a time, we’ve worked on projects based on experimental design with brands you’d perceive as traditional. Other times, the up and the coming companies are the ones on the lookout for conventional, tried-and-tested methods. Overall, the standards that underline design in India are definitely on the rise.
I’ve read that India excels in system design, creating incredibly efficient and streamlined processes. Is that reflected in the design industry or the clients you work with?
Great system design is sometimes an effect of dire need. Our land is beautifully chaotic, which makes us work continuously toward systems and processes that are efficient, effective and sustainable.
The Dabbawalas of Mumbai are the perfect example here. That kind of functioning at that scale has been achieved, we feel, because it’s a community working toward a common good without the meddlesome bureaucracy of MNCs.
More from Animal's work for Google
In your opinion, what are the top 5-10 creative agencies / design studios from India that everyone should know?
And now to our last question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Indian design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
There’s a lot of dialogue amongst designers and like-minded communities from around the world on platforms like Instagram and Behance. Curating some great content from an Indian perspective and relevance to culture would be websites likePlatform Magazine andHomegrown. For a deep dive into the upcoming and often untold stories from the Indian sub-culture, there’sMotherland Magazine. And for a fairly new, but edgy source of the latest dialogue on the design industry in India, we’d recommend Design Fabric. To those wishing to visit some of the local design events, we say don’t miss out onKyoorius Designyatra, an annual design conference and festival that in Goa every year.
Kunel and Sharon, thanks so much for taking the time and giving us a peek into your world. It's truly exciting to see the work you're doing at Animal and Indianama, and I'll definitely be following these other studios and publications you shared as I learn more about the Indian design community.
Friends, be sure to follow Animal on Instagram to keep up with their work. And if you're just now jumping into the series, catch up with our other Design Around the World interviews right here. Until next time!
We originally began our Design Around the World series because frankly, we were tired of always hearing about the same studios and design circles in SF or New York. We wanted to spotlight design communities we don’t often hear about (especially those not based in the West) and see what we could learn from them. Almost a full year into the series, we’ve learned a lot.
After interviewing creatives in 11 different countries across continents, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite insights from the series so far. Thank you so much to these talented people who took time out of their busy schedules to give us a peek into their design community. It’s invaluable to us and we hope our readers have enjoyed the series as much as we have.
1. Design and art can help change society
“I’ve come to a realization that while a society needs its doctors and engineers, it also needs its poets and artists and designers for life to feel truly liveable, for a culture to remain humane and compassionate.” - Shehzil Malik, designer & illustrator from Pakistan
"I’d say design can’t really solve issues in our country by itself, but it can help in how others perceive these issues and influence them to change it." - Craig from Plus63 in the Philippines
“The nature of design is problem-solving and there are problems unique to us that good design can solve.” - Damilola from Dá Design Studio in Nigeria
Damilola and Seyi from Nigeria
“Good design for us is not about making things look and feel good; it should also change people’s behavior in a positive way, and we feel it is our job to continue educating our clients on this.” - Constant creative agency in Hong Kong
“Pakistan is generally a harsh place to live in a number of ways; most of the systems don't work and society is becoming increasingly intolerant. It’s getting harder every day to have meaningful conversations around social issues. This is where art can step in." - Shehzil Malik, designer & illustrator from Pakistan
"It’s easier to talk about beautiful pictures and foster empathy through an image that is honest.” - Shehzil Malik
Shehzil Malik from Pakistan
2. In some countries, design is still struggling to find its voice — and creativity can even be considered a luxury.
"People still think that a creative career is not a financially-viable path to take. Parents still prefer to see their children take conventional courses like nursing, medicine, law and accountancy." - Dan from Plus63 in the Philippines
“Nigeria is a hard country! Basic amenities aren’t basic so creativity appears to be a luxury. This is an illusion, but many brands are willing to buy and feed into this illusion.” - Damilola from Dá Design Studio in Nigeria
“[Design education in Vietnam is] growing and trying to find its voice. However, when it comes to design I don’t think young designers look up to the institutions to legitimize their creativity as we see in the West. Here, because of our past and the influences of technology, creatives are often time self-taught. There’s a huge reliance of intuition, self-determination and an pursuiant of passion. You might not see design that is globally groundbreaking all the time, but you can really get a sense of working best with what you got.” - Cong from Rice Creative in Vietnam
"Graphic design is relatively young in this country; we are all still finding a place to stand in the world." - Jean from Farmgroup in Thailand
Christina, Eliza and Mary from Armenia
“We live in a country with a developing design industry. We have a big share in its development… Step by step, with hard work over many years, we gained people’s trust and made them believe in quality design.” - Christina from Backbone Branding in Armenia
“Many designers have trouble communicating with their clients because a large number of clients do not understand what modern design is.” - Everyday Practice from South Korea
“I don't think we are that productive as a nation to be honest... I hope clients can understand that good design takes time, and hope that they do a lot of homework and planning so that each project can be planned ahead, so as to gain ample time for execution.” - Yah-Leng Yu from Foreign Policy in Singapore
Yah-Leng and Arthur from Singapore
3. Love of good design unites us.
“Humanity is complex; good design helps us enjoy our complexities when we can and brings simplicity when we can’t.” - Damilola from Nigeria
"Good designers here and everywhere work hard to push the boundary with their clients. Good designers here and everywhere are hungry to make a change in the client’s industry through their work... This is what matters to Foreign Policy: to create design that makes an impact, design that matters." - Yah-Leng Yu from Foreign Policy in Singapore
“We believe in design that makes people move, makes them feel, makes them happy or sad and forces them to do something.” - Studio Melli in Iran
The Studio Melli team in Iran
4. Crises and risk lead to creativity.
“I believe it is at times of crisis that the potential for change, discovery and innovation is at its highest. In fact, I believe the creative market can thrive during times like this.” - Leo from Bonde Conference in Brazil
“As nonsense as it may seem, crises are extremely interesting for the creative industry, because it is at this time that people reinvent themselves, come up with products and seek to escape the crisis.” -Isabela from Sweety & Co. in Brazil
The Farmgroup team from Thailand
"Where there is no risk, there is no creative breakthrough." - Jean from Farmgroup in Thailand
5. Design events & platforms in many countries can sadly be as insular they are in the United States.
“I see that there is an enormous willingness of the designers to exchange experiences, but I do not see common sense. There are many micro-events of little relevance [in Brazil] and others fostered by universities, but I still see them as shallow and purposeless.” - Isabela from Sweety & Co. in Brazil
“In Korea, the term ‘hipster’ is a trendy word among designers. If you visit any design communities they talk about their favorite brand, fashion, club, etc. They may think they lead the trend of design, but if they only focus on the design community, they will lose their sense of communication… Of course we need to share information and collaborate each other, but I would hope that such a community does not serve some only to reject others.” - Everyday Practice in South Korea
The Everyday Practice team in South Korea
So much more to learn
Of course these interviews give us only the tiniest of glimpses into complex societies and design communities. We’re eager to keep learning from these designers and following their work, and we already have several new interviews lined up with others. If you're still catching up, here's the full list so far:
With this latest interview in our Design Around the World series, we're looking at design in Vietnam with Rice Creative design studio.
Rice Creative may be located in Ho Chi Minh City, but their work is recognized and requested around the world. This diverse and multi-talented team works with big brands like Uber, Unicef and Coca-Cola but also lovely little artisan chocolate makers. I was curious to hear their perspective as a branding studio based in Vietnam with clients and team members from all over the world. And to my excitement, three members of their design team answered all my questions about it.
Tell us a bit about yourselves and your studio. How many people work at Rice and how did it all begin?
JOSHUA: It began with a leap. We felt we had to work with people doing good things. Having had enough of the advertising scene here and wanting to do more, it forced our hand to create this studio of like-minded creatives. No looking back. The team now fluctuates between 18 and 20 people.
CONG: Rice Creative is kind of an anomaly in comparison the other studios in Vietnam, but also abroad. While we operate similar to your standard design studio in that we mainly do design work, from branding to packaging to digital, we see ourselves more like a collective of people with disparate skill sets who work together really well. Because of this, one of our most important priorities is curating an amazing team. Rice not only consists of designers, we have researchers, illustrators, communication specialists and a robust production team.
Vietnam’s economy is growing fast and is predicted to become one of the world’s largest by 2025. How has that affected the creative industry and Rice Creative specifically?
JOSHUA: It is very exciting. We see so many new, thoughtful companies come through the door. We are witnessing all the established ones reinventing. What it has afforded Rice is a chance to be even more selective about our partners, and encourage ones we feel are visionary.
DAN: As well as working with new businesses, It’s really exciting to be in a position to give big companies a voice in Vietnam.
The beautiful Rice Creative studio.
What’s the quality of design education like in Vietnam?
CONG: It’s growing and trying to find its voice. However, when it comes to design I don’t think young designers look up to the institutions to legitimize their creativity as we see in the West. Here, because of our past and the influences of technology, creatives are often time self-taught. There’s a huge reliance of intuition, self-determination and an pursuiant of passion. You might not see design that is globally groundbreaking all the time, but you can really get a sense of working best with what you got.
JOSHUA: It is really nothing like more developed nations. In a way, it is starting from scratch. We find this liberating most days.
Early iterations for Eastlake, a brewery & taproom in Minneapolis.
Do you have much competition from other studios within Vietnam? What’s the design community like and how many designers are pursuing freelance vs. studio work?
CONG: The creative scene in Vietnam in many ways is going through our very own renaissance phase. It seems like everywhere you look there are things popping up left and right whether it be in the field of fashion, design, art, music, architecture or even smaller scale businesses. Part of this insurgent of creativity is partially because 70% of Vietnam’s population is under 30, with a desire to differentiate themselves from their parent’s generation and of course the interconnectedness of social media. We’re actually seeing a decline of creatives wanting to work in studios, especially more corporate agencies, and preferring to work amongst friends or starting their own practice altogether.
JOSHUA: There are others popping up in the scene all the time, and that is great. We hope for a richer and richer scene. The large advertising agencies still offer branding services and we hope they will stop, because advertising is really its own expertise.
DAN: Looking beyond just design, it’s so inspiring seeing such young people doing independent creative things for the first time ever in the country. I’ve met some boutique shop owners for example who don’t even seem to realize that they’re pioneering something here.
Illustration seems to be a popular field in Vietnam. Is that one of the most common creative career paths in your country? What kind of work are most designers getting?
JOSHUA: There is huge pool of talented illustrators in Vietnam. Image making in general is very strong here. I find a strong sense of narrative in most work here.
DAN: It’s great to know that we can take an illustrative approach to our projects with no doubt that the results are going to be fantastic. We’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with some amazingly skilled and incredibly versatile creatives recently.
Intricate chocolate packaging illustrations for Marou in Paris.
You have clients everywhere, from Vietnam to France to the United States. How easy was it to break into the international market and was this your intention from the beginning? Are many studios doing the same?
JOSHUA: Currently we have clients from Japan, the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Europe. It happened when we released our first works online. Suddenly we were getting international inquiries; there was something in that work that people were responding to globally. Having a very international group in our studio is crucial to our success. All of these viewpoints and different experiences challenge and benefit the work greatly.
What impact does your social media presence have on getting new clients and self-promotion in general? What works best for you?
JOSHUA: To date, we have not really marketed ourselves much. We maintain our Instagram, which we keep more personal. We hope our audience can see our culture and lifestyle there.
Most of our online exposure has come from publications sharing our projects. We have had a lot of exposure from sites like The Dieline, but it’s also been a bit tricky because we do not specialize in packaging. We are overhauling our website and it should be our strongest asset in showcasing what we are all about. Our clients are also very proud of the work we have done for them and it will be a great place for them to point people to us and show off a bit.
DAN: It’s a tool for much more than reaching out to clients. Social media is often the platform through which prospective employees are exposed to the studio too. Being able to offer someone on the other side of the world and insight into how we do things is a reminder of just fantastic social media can be.
Rice's work for uberMOTO in Vietnam.
Why do you think good design is important and what does good design mean for Rice Creative?
JOSHUA: Good design solves a problem. We find ourselves going well above and beyond the original brief. Good design will solve problems for years to come. Since we also choose clients that are already doing something “good,” good design for them is very likely.
DAN: The importance of design craft and visual communication is really well understood here. The implications of symbolism in ancient motifs and designs are still prevalent. You only need to take a walk down the street to recognize the level of craft that goes into everything from the metalwork in housing gates, to the details within traditional street performer costumes. It’s really inspiring.
CONG: Design can only be as good as the client. You get a good client who is just as smart, talented and passionate as you are, then 90% of the work is done.
"The question is not whether good design is valued and celebrated; but rather how the design communities have overcome these challenges and continue to thrive even on a smaller scale."
Rice Creative has won a ton of awards from associations in other countries, but I don’t see any from Vietnam. Is good design valued and celebrated in Vietnam? Why or why not?
JOSHUA: We cast an international eye on Vietnam, on purpose. This is why we go for awards. All of them were firsts for Vietnam. We get more Vietnamese clients and more Vietnamese names in the awards. Someday Vietnam may have its own creativity award — maybe we’ll start one — but for now, at least the world is talking about Vietnam as a creative place.
CONG: I think one of the things that we understood early on about starting a design business in Vietnam is that the industry had to start from scratch from post-war years. Colonization really altered the course of this field and many others — as a result of the war many people left, certain crafts died out, there was more red tape, etc. The question is not whether good design is valued and celebrated; but rather how the design communities have overcome these challenges and continue to thrive even on a smaller scale.
Rice's work for Wallpaper* Thai edition, inspired by Vietnam's neon signs.
I’ve read that negotiation is a big part of Vietnamese culture and commerce. Is that an accurate perception and if so, is this true for the creative industry? Are companies willing to pay a fair price for creative work?
JOSHUA: We do not have much time for haggling. We’ve been able to avoid that situation because we choose the right clients that have a general appreciation for the value effective design brings. You know, you get what you pay for.
I know community and family is highly valued in Vietnam. How does that play into your workplace culture and work/life balance?
JOSHUA: We have a great culture in the office. It’s tight. I think we all wish to spend more time eating and partying together, but everyone is also seriously determined. A lot of us are pretty exhausted by the end of the day. During the day, everyone is really supportive of each other. We do have beer on tap at the office from our beer client. So now that I think about it, we do kind of hang out a lot at the studio with brews.
CONG: Of course family dynamic is a big central theme in Vietnamese culture. And in that sense, it does bleed in our work a lot. We often see ourselves as not just colleagues but friends and chosen family. It’s not unlikely to see some of us congregate to grab dinner or go out together. We actually try to make it a habit to hang out with each other outside work hours at least a few times a month.
DAN: Being one of the many people who have moved around the world to be here at Rice, I definitely feel a sense of family here. For the people like me, we are in this together. We’re learning things from each other’s backgrounds and discovering things here together. Both in and out of work. Inclusive community traditions still live strong here in Vietnam, and they do not stop at the workplace. It didn’t take long to feel at home.
The culture in Vietnam is a complex adaptation of Chinese, Japanese, French and American colonial influences. How does this influence its graphic design style and aesthetics?
CONG: I think there’s a lot of nostalgia for the traditional crafts that predates colonization; in a way a reimagination of what Vietnam would’ve been like without its particular past. But we also see an embrace and/or influences from colonial and war time. This is often because it’s the most readily accessible “visual language” we see — whether it be from leftover signage or corroded motifs on buildings. Due to our past, I think the mentality has always been about a strong DIY culture, where you have to really work with what you got. It just means a less emphasis on materiality but more on problem solving.
In my research I saw that Vietnam’s Thu Phap calligraphy involves “blowing beauty into every single character.” I love how intentional and thoughtful that sounds. Does this mindset translate in the Vietnamese design community in any way? Is beauty highly valued?
JOSHUA: It does. We certainly embrace thoughtfulness and meticulousness. Beauty is certainly highly valued. Often it’s about how that beauty was reached that makes it really resonate.
CONG: What's also really interesting is that while visual language is increasingly more valued and embraced in Vietnam, the uses of language to describe that work is just as important and in many ways can be just as beautiful.
For BRAIN mag's "strawberry red" cover theme, Rice blasted strawberry purée at a wall through a stencil.
How can all designers and design communities do a better job of communicating with each other?
CONG: The magic of Ho Chi Minh City in many ways can be experienced through “hidden hẻm.” Hẻm is a Vietnamese word for the little alleyways populated throughout the city. It’s kind of a play on hidden gems. Like these hẻm, the design communities are not centralized in one place but rather dispersed throughout, and encounters are often met in serendipitous manners. This makes communicating to the mass a bit tricky but running into each other every other moon at an art opening or design launch super rewarding.
DAN: Coming from the street culture, I think there is a real face-to-face element that lives in the creative scene. Companies have faces and thus personalities. People know and support each other as friends. There is a real ingenuity to what people are doing here; people are doing unconventional things in unexpected places. It wouldn’t be the same if these initiatives existed only online. To experience it you really have to come here and discover it for yourself.
"A Year with Thirteeen Moons" by Rice Creative
I read that Vietnam owns about 20% of the coffee market share, and is the second largest coffee producer in the world. Which leads me to one question: How many coffees have you had today? 😉
JOSHUA: I usually have one a day. One big thermos I brew every morning that lasts all day. Pour-over, Vietnamese light roasted Arabica, of course.
CONG: Two yummy cold brews!
DAN: I’m totally hooked. If Rice doesn’t keep me here, the coffee for sure will.
Joshua, Cong and Dan — thank you! Very grateful for your thoughtful answers to my (many) questions about design in Vietnam. I feel like I have a much better understanding of the creative community there now, and I plan to keep learning. To keep up with Rice Creative's work, follow them on Instagram and visit their site. And be sure to check back for more Design Around the World features coming soon.
Everything Foreign Policy creates just feels like smart humans are behind it – no tired buzzwords or dated design trends to be found. Their work has so much personality, I knew the team behind it must be awesome. And they are. I visited the Foreign Policy studio in Singapore to meet them in person and talk with Yah-Leng, the studio's inspiring co-founder, about the design community in Singapore. And of course, I brought my camera.
Hey Yah-Leng, tell us a little bit about yourself and your studio. How did you and Arthur WeeSheng Chin decide to co-found Foreign Policy together? And what inspired the studio name?
Arthur and I both came back from New York after studying and working in the U.S. for 15 years in 2007. We wanted to build a design practice that different from the bigger international agencies that were the main players in Singapore during that time. We started with two and today we are about 12. The name Foreign Policy is really a reminder to ourselves that we should keep a more global perspective and diversity when we approach design.
Inspiration everywhere in Foreign Policy's creative space.
What is the design community in Singapore? It seems like you contribute a lot with events like LUMEN and The Swap Show. Are there other events or platforms where designers can connect with each other?
The Singapore design community is a young and vibrant one. I think I said in 2015 that this is absolutely the best time to be a designer in Singapore. Everyone is driven and inspired to do good work, to up the design standards and to have their own voice in each project. I think this is really heartwarming to see as the landscape was different when I first left the country compared when I came back. Many designers are taking initiative to organize various events and exhibitions, and working on collaborative projects with different creatives, which is absolutely awesome. It brings the designers ever closer and grows the community even more beyond the non-design community.
Foreign Policy's work for Singapore Design Week
The Foreign Policy team works across many disciplines, from branding to architecture to website design. Is it standard for studios in Singapore to be full-service this way, or are most more specialized?
It really depends on their goals and mission. Singapore is a tiny market for us; it just makes sense as we grow. Especially since we are creating brand experiences for our clients and their customers, a holistic 360 approach works best so we can cover all bases in terms of delivering a consistent brand experience.
"As with all designers in the world, designers in Singapore do not have it easy."
The kimchi burger, please.
You trained and worked in the States for quite a long time before going back to Singapore. That gives you a pretty unique perspective. How would you compare the life of a designer in Singapore to other places you’ve experienced? Do Singaporean designers and studios work or think differently in specific ways that you’ve noticed?
As with all designers in the world, designers in Singapore do not have it easy. We have to be sure we stay in touch with current affairs, be on top of current and future trends, and stay knowledgeable in various genres. We cannot only be knowledgeable about design, but every non-design subject. Every project is a new subject to be learned, a platform to harness our previous experience. Good designers here and everywhere work hard to push the boundary with their clients. Good designers here and everywhere are hungry to make a change in the client’s industry through their work.
“Proportion”, representing the ratio of men to women designers in the design industry — 85:15.
Does Singapore have recognizable design style? How does your culture and history influence the work you do today?
We do not particularly have a Singapore design style. As an island nation with a super strategic geographical location, we are a hub for trading and air travel — we were founded by the British due to our strategic port for trading in the 1800s.
We are really quite well-exposed to various cultures and influences coming through the city or going out. Especially in this day and age, many of us are super well-traveled and well-informed of what's out there outside of our little island. Our jobs, our education and air travel being so cheap and accessible, we get to see the world much more frequently. Being a former British colony, we do get influences from the British; many design students choose to further their studies in the UK. But I would say we find influences all over.
Oh, the colors!
Singapore is considered one of the most technology-ready nations as well as the city with best investment potential. How does that impact your work as product and digital designers? I’d imagine you get to work with some exciting startups and projects.
I think it's becoming to be — the past 10 years were just a lot of restaurant and cafe startups, with a lot of work coming from that sector. In the last two years and moving forward, we are seeing more tech startups in the city nation. I hope they do work with designers; it would help to jump start yet another aspect in the UX/UI and interface design side of things, as well as a larger spectrum of projects that would challenge Singapore designers.
"Either we as a nation need to learn to be better planners or we as a nation are too quick to react and demand a solution too quickly."
Singapore is also the second-most competitive nation, based on factors like economy and business innovation. That seems like a lot of pressure! As business owners, do you see or feel that spirit of productivity and competitiveness?
I don't think we are that productive as a nation to be honest, but yes — demanding clients and a super fast pace for sure. Lead time to launch is usually shorter and rushed; either we as a nation need to learn to be better planners or we as a nation are too quick to react and demand a solution too quickly. I hope clients can understand that good design takes time, and hope that they do a lot of homework and planning so that each project can be planned ahead, so as to gain ample time for execution.
Foreign Policy's work for The Space Program
Singapore is of course a small country compared to its neighbors. Do businesses typically look to work with local studios like yours within the country, or do you find yourself competing with companies outside of Singapore? And on that note, how often does Foreign Policy work with clients overseas?
I do think we have some advantages due to our strategic geographical location. And being a former British colony, our business language is English. That has helped us gain access to other countries, especially the developed western countries. With that, doing business is much easier and that helps with our overseas business development. Plus, we are pretty bilingual — Chinese being our mother tongue, it helps us bridge the gap between clients from China. Our communications barrier is zero. I would say half of our work is from outside Singapore.
Branding work by Foreign Policy
I’ve read that UX/UI designers as well as designers with coding ability are highly sought after in Singapore, since the market moves fast and new companies need websites. Have you seen this to be true? What are the biggest opportunities that you see for designers in Singapore right now?
Yes, and I think this is true everywhere. Singapore is a small market so you have to know many skills to do as well and be able to approach a problem from different perspectives and viewpoints. I think that is very valuable, and clients and employers hold this breed of designers in high esteem. I would like to say Singapore designers are always looking to challenge and better themselves, choosing more testing work with each new project.
Why do you think good design is important? What does good design mean for you at Foreign Policy?
Good design is not just a pretty design — that is a given. What's most important to us is that the story holds water and strikes an emotion with the beholder and most of all, that it makes an impact in somebody's organization and somebody's life. This is what matters to Foreign Policy: to create design that makes an impact, design that matters.
The Swap Show, an event Foreign Policy puts on for creative exchange.
In your opinion, what are the top 10 design studios from Singapore that everyone should know?
And now to our last question: How can all designers and design communities from other countries do a better job of communicating with each other? How can we become more engaged with the Singaporean design community? Are there any blogs or specific magazines we can follow?
I think the internet and social media are pretty strong links for everyone globally. I also encourage the Singapore design community to put their work and their thoughts on these mediums. We cannot deny these are very powerful bridges to the rest of the world. Myself and my fellow design studio owner friends run a design society here in Singapore and hopefully in 2018, we can create a greater awareness of the Singapore design community to the overseas design community.
Yah-Leng, thank you so much for taking the time out of your travels and busy schedule to talk with us! So many great insights here and I'm excited to continue following your work and learning more about Singapore's design community. Readers, be sure to check out Foreign Policy's awesome site and follow their work on Instagram. You'll not only learn more about other design communities outside your own, but I promised you'll be inspired by Foreign Policy's unique approach to design and life.
Sometimes a side project turns into something much bigger. Before you know it, seven years have passed and what was once a stupid side project is now your passion. That's what happened for Nicole Gavrilles with ONE Magazine.
Nicole is a senior visual designer at Code and Theory, a digital agency in NYC. Originally from Canon, MA, she’s been living and working in the city for five years — all while single-handedly running a fashion magazine featuring work by photographers across the world. Nicole's a good friend of mine and I've always wondered how she manages to balance her full-time job with what seems like another full-time job. So I asked her. And while I've always said side projects should be stupid, Nicole's got some golden advice of her own.
Let's do it!
Hey Nicole, tell us about yourself and ONE magazine. Why did you decide to create an editorial magazine dedicated to exposing fashion photographers? What inspired the idea?
Photography has been present throughout my entire life. When my mother was young, my grandfather was fascinated by the technology and gadgets released in the 60s and 70s. He always wanted to have the newest and greatest camera and was constantly taking photos (one of my precious possessions he passed onto me was his Nikon film camera, in perfect condition). Also, my father was an auctioneer. I was constantly surrounded by antiques, artwork, artifacts, you name it.
When I was 14, my dad got me my first film camera. Photography became a passion of mine in high school and I was always seen with my camera taking photos of everything and everyone. When my interest in fashion began to evolve, it was like two roads met each other at one end. My love for photography and fashion are what led me to creating ONE.
“It all started from the pure excitement of making something for me.”
Before college, I was obsessed with Fabien Baron’s work with Interview Magazine in the mid to late 2000s. And since I was studying graphic design at Ringling College of Art and Design, marrying my three loves was the perfect potential portfolio piece. It all started from the pure excitement of making something for me. It was a way to express my love for fashion photography through design.
The first two issues were pure experiments, since it was my first try at editorial design. I featured my photography work as well as friends' work from college. That summer, while I was interning at Code and Theory, I was inspired to completely reinvent the magazine. I branded ONE, redesigned the entire editorial structure and published my third issue featuring 11 editorials (cover story photographed by me), 18 designer features, nine articles, four product feature spreads, two artist spotlights and 26 illustrators — phew. Honestly, I don’t know how I constructed all of that into one issue by myself.
But that excitement of creating something was like an addiction for me, and I couldn’t stop. I've always been a cheerleader for my friends. Everyone at Ringling was so talented and I couldn’t wait to see them go off and accomplish amazing things. And that’s how I’ve always approached my contributors to ONE. I want to showcase how amazing they are and that will always be my main goal.
You’ve been running ONE Magazine for seven years now alongside your full-time job. How do you make the time for this project? And do you still consider it a “side project” after so long?
Time management is definitely key. I mainly work on the magazine on the weeknights and usually take Friday and Saturday off, then pick back up on Sunday afternoon. It can get pretty tough when there are late nights at work. Those nights I can’t work on ONE, so the work piles up for the following night. When I’m working on the printed issue, the month leading up to the submission deadline gets a little rocky. That’s when I begin working weekends as well.
"If I’m tired from a long day at work and I don’t feel like working that night, I won’t do it."
Since I’ve been working on the magazine for so long, I’ve learned to step back more and not let it consume my downtime as much. If I’m tired from a long day at work and I don’t feel like working that night, I won’t do it. I want to make sure every time I work on the magazine, I’m in a content mental space. I never work on it if I’m stressed, tired or frustrated because I don’t want to build an association of negativity with working on ONE.
I still consider it a side project because it’s mostly me producing every inch of its presence on social media, the website and throughout each printed issue.
Aside from all the time you spend on ONE Magazine, you have the costs of your tools and your team, plus the production of printed issues. How did you fund the magazine from the start, before you sold any copies? Is the magazine self-sustaining now?
Since the reinvented third issue from 2011, I’ve been selling the magazine through magcloud.com as print on-demand. This takes the burden of shipping and costs for printing off my shoulders. Even though the printing process isn’t the highest quality, it’s been the easiest way for me to produce a printed issue of the magazine. Other than MagCloud, I have a strong digital following and presence on ISSUU. Their platform has given ONE a global audience.
The magazine was never funded. It began with emailing photographers I admired and asking to feature them. And that process hasn’t changed much other than people now are reaching out to contribute to ONE.
Tell us more about your process for releasing each issue. How long does it take from concept to completion? What are the steps?
I publish ONE Magazine biannually and I’ve got the planning process down to a system that’s worked pretty well over the years.
For the summer issues, I release the theme and submission date in January. The deadline would usually be in April/May and the final summer issue would be released in May/June. For the winter issues, I release the theme and submission date in July. The deadline would be in November and the final winter issue would be released before or after Thanksgiving.
Working at a digital agency and knowing how to produce decks for presentations has come in handy when concepting each theme. During the initial brainstorming for an upcoming issue, I research the most recent fashion week season and construct a list of recurring trends and styles. I read trend reports, group color palette patterns and establish overarching moods I feel resonate with this season’s collections.
Sometimes current events could play a role in the theme for an issue as well. For Issue No.14, The Vibrant Issue (published June 2017), I was inspired by the bright colors and patterns showcased throughout the spring/summer 2017 collections. At the same time I was constructing the theme for this issue, the Women’s March in January was days away. I wanted to encourage my contributors to produce concepts depicting how color can interpret strength. Issue No.14 is about celebrating color and liveliness through interconnectivity because today’s women are strong, diverse and independent.
After the theme PDF is constructed and the submission deadline is selected, I release the info on social media and the website. From there, I’ll receive emails from potential contributors pitching their interpretations on how they’d like to shoot an editorial based off the theme.
Once I’ve approved concepts, the photographers (I mostly work with photographers overseas) plan the shoot details with their team, check in with me from time to time, then send a preview of the un-retouched selects. If approved, they send me high-res images along with team and styling credits.
Editorials for the issues come in at different times. Once I get a couple final stories in, I like to jump right into mocking editorials in the InDesign file. I have a roster of image layouts I repurpose but organize differently for each issue. As the rest of the stories come in, I continue to layout their spreads. Once all content is in, I export the PDFs, produce and schedule each Facebook/Instagram post, export assets and copy needed for the website, publish on Magcloud and Issuu the night before, and then announce in the morning.
It seems like a lot of pressure to lead the vision and review submissions from so many talented people. Of course your design background helps with this, but how much comes down to confidence and figuring it out as you go along?
It’s all about figuring it out as you go. Everything has been trial and error. My artistic viewpoint has strengthened over the years working on the magazine. I have improved the way I conceptualize my ideas and communicate what I’m looking for by providing the right artistic direction and feedback to a contributor. But all of those improvements came with time by learning what works and what doesn’t. Nobody is perfect and I’ve definitely made mistakes over the years, but that’s the only way you’ll learn.
“It’s a daily battle, but the stress of rushing something and expecting it to be immediately perfect is not worth it.”
In your Issuu spotlight, your advice to aspiring magazine publishers is to go at your own speed, to not rush things. Can you expand on that more? What were the stages to making ONE Magazine come to life? Did you take it slow?
Over the years while running ONE Magazine, I’ve noticed how quickly people launch and publish a new magazine. And I say to myself, “Wow! That’s impressive! How do they do that?” They’re probably not doing it by themselves, which is how they can get it up and running so quickly. But I’ve enjoyed taking baby steps in developing ONE. I’m in no rush to print and stock it throughout the world (although that would be amazing, of course!). The magazine wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for the growth and development process I experienced. You can see how the visual language has evolved throughout the years, flipping through one issue to the next.
It all comes back to a work/side project/life balance. Over the past two years, I’ve noticed how more of my time has been sucked into late nights in front of my computer answering emails and preparing weekly digital features. It’s been catching up to me lately, and this year especially, I’ve been trying to construct a healthier schedule where I can enjoy time off but still get the work done.
Living in New York City doesn’t help with the whole work/life balance either. We’re workaholics and for some reason we’re OK with that. I try to tell myself every day that stress isn’t always worth it. Plus, I love my full-time job and I’m not looking to give that up anytime soon. It’s a daily battle, but the stress of rushing something and expecting it to be immediately perfect is not worth it. And I’ve noticed how my readers enjoy being part of my process and growth. They attach connections to past issues and enjoy seeing what the next issue will be.
Do you mainly use social media to promote ONE Magazine? How do you get the magazine and its content out in front of people, and which networks work best for you?
Instagram has been my main source of exposure, other than ISSUU. The audience grew immensely since I created @one_magazine in January 2014. Instagram is a pretty remarkable tool. Their business account provides me with the tools and capabilities to track each posts’ impressions, reach and engagement. Since I started the account, I’ve established a social post database where I document how I write posts and which posts get posted when. This has been helpful when I’ve taken on interns to help out with managing my social media platforms in the past.
Fashion has become one of the main pools of content saturating the Instagram universe. I think I launched the magazine on Instagram at the right moment. But it has also taken time to get the following to where it is now, and I never rushed to get the numbers up like others I know have. But as we know, Instagram isn’t a perfect place. The algorithm may sometime cause issues, but there’s not much you can do other than staying consistent to your posting ritual.
“I know it sounds cheesy, but you truly receive so much from people when you’re nice to them.”
What about gathering submissions? Do you seek out submissions or do people typically find you? How did you create your community around this publication?
In the beginning, I used to reach out to all my contributors, asking if they’d like to submit a completed story or shoot something new for the magazine. At this point, I receive numerous emails daily from photographers or stylists sharing their mood board ideas or completed submissions. I do still reach out to specific photographers, either photographers I’ve built a relationship with over the years or new photographers whose style emulates the breadth and vibrancy of ONE.
I want to be very real with my contributors or to anyone who emails a submission to me. The fashion industry is known as a “not-so-nice” atmosphere to work in, and I never want to make anyone feel like they’re being ignored or disrespected. I’ve met some of my contributors over the years and the recurring feedback I’ve received is that I respond to them, and they greatly appreciate something as simple as that. I’ve built these strong relationships with my contributors because I present them with kindness. I know it sounds cheesy, but you truly receive so much from people when you’re nice to them.
Many artists and designers now consider their personal “brand” — their social presence, their network and the work they create — a way to promote their business. Does it work that way for you? How much does ONE Magazine depend on your public persona?
I like to keep ONE Magazine and myself separate when it comes to a social presence. My personal Instagram is private and I only accept new followers if I know them. But there are other ways I like to associate myself with the magazine, such as on my website or another platform where my design work is present. I like keeping things separate and I kind of like being this mysterious “Nicole, Founder of ONE” in relation to the magazine’s social presence. It helps keep my personal life and my close friends mine, instead of letting the whole world know what I’m doing daily.
What was your biggest challenge with getting ONE Magazine off the ground? Have there been any continued challenges throughout the years?
The biggest challenge is sustaining a printed issue that’s not actually printed — at least until someone orders it. Most contributors I work with won’t shoot for me unless it’s “printed.” It’s an old-school mindset that’s still present in the fashion industry, when everything surrounding it is producing digital content. But in the end, everything featured in the printed issues ends up getting featured digitally as well.
That challenge also shifts into a sub-challenge, where the printed issue is not accessible to all readers. Anyone can can access the full issue digitally, but that’s not enough. And I get that because having the printed issue in your hands and flipping through the pages is where you can truly marvel over the beautiful editorials. I don’t work with a printer, or stock in any bookstores and magazine bodegas, mostly because I don’t have the time and money to tackle that on my own.
Running this on my own has placed more weight on my shoulders as the community and following continues to grow. But I stay true to what I can handle and continue to publish beautiful images by talented photographers. All of those big next steps have always been in my mind, and I’d love to take it there one day. But I focus on the now, my full-time job and my happiness, sustaining a comfortable balance between work and life.
A continued challenge is breaking into the fashion industry. I like the feeling of being on the “outskirts” of the industry, but when I’m looking to feature a designer or pull clothes from a designer’s collection, their team not being familiar with ONE Magazine causes them to pull away from collaborating. Again, it’s all about who you know in the fashion industry. I’ve worked closely with a fashion director for my designer features over the past couple years, and she is the reason I’ve had access to interviewing Yoshiyuki Miyamae, the creative director of Issey Miyake and Claudia Li. You have to have a connection to step into their world.
And you’d think in today’s social world, designers would be open to working with new brands. Sadly, that’s not the case. A few years ago, I reached out to an up-and-coming jewelry brand based in Paris and I was immediately turned down because they “didn’t want to participate in my first issue.” Clearly they didn’t read my email, because I was working on producing my eighth issue. Not sure how this behavior will change, but for me it came with time and by building the brand’s presence and consistent style that readers and PR companies can immediately recognize.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned over the years while running ONE Magazine? Do you have advice for those who want to do something similar?
1. Be selective about what you choose to feature. In the beginning I was too nice and I had a difficult time telling people no. But now that I’ve honed in on keeping the style consistent, I have to be very selective and curate the right content that speaks to ONE Magazine.
2. Things come with time. Have patience. I’ve slowly grown the magazine’s following and consistently adjusted its visual appearance over the years to a point where I feel it balances nicely with the editorials within each issue.
3. Don’t take on every single thing by yourself. I still do, but not entirely. Having my fashion director help produce the designer features has been a huge weight off my shoulders and the results are truly beneficial. And finding someone to work with who speaks your language and understands your vision is very important. I was lucky enough to find that person.
And advice I would give others who are looking to start a magazine is to be yourself. Try not to do what others are doing. Focus on the core reasons why you want to create something and highlight that as the main voice of the brand.
Thank you so much for this interview, Nicole! I loved how much detail you shared about your process and story.
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Every time I visit Tokyo I fall in love with it all over again. Everywhere I turn there is beauty and inspiration. Liam Wong can back me up on this.
I came across Liam's photography a while ago and have since become an avid follower. His photos of Tokyo and other cities feel like they're from some fantasy world. After digging a little deeper I found out that Liam is also a graphic design director at Ubisoft, which brings so many questions to mind. I'm thankful Liam took the time to answer them in this interview.
Hey Liam, can you tell us a bit more about what you do during the day as a graphic design director? What are some of the things you work on?
Liam Wong in the streets of Tokyo.
LIAM: At my day job I design, define and direct visual identities for AAA video games. I specialize in creating artwork that summarizes a "look and feel." I took the position at Ubisoft at the age of 25, making me the youngest director. It's been four years and I haven’t been fired, yet. I think what people find most interesting about my career is that I went from graduate to director in the space of two and a half years. Because of this, everything I knew about anything was from video games and my time at university. My role at Ubisoft is my second job. The most daunting thing when I joined Ubisoft was to set the style for a game. That game was Far Cry 4. The third game is one of my all-time favorites and so working alongside that team was a dream come true. I worked as one of six or so directors and my focus was visual identity. My role in production was to interpret the ideas of the game and translate them into meaningful and memorable images. I worked with a team of talented artists to help develop that.
LIAM: Since then I have been working on a bunch of unannounced projects that I can’t talk about yet, but I am really excited to see them go out there to the public eye.
I’d say most people probably know your work through Instagram, including your moody and colorful portraits of some of the largest cities in the world. How did this whole series start for you? When did you get your first DSLR camera and was there a turning point when you decided “this is going to be my style?” Or was it more like a natural process happening slowly?
LIAM: The series started when I purchased my first DSLR for a trip to Tokyo. Before that I was using my iPhone and a compact camera. I began sharing my vacation photographs on Facebook while I was in Tokyo and my friends really liked them. They encouraged me to share them on Instagram, so I made a public account and began to post them.
"It was when I posted one specific image that my following just blew up."
It was when I posted one specific image that my following just blew up. I was walking back to my hotel in the rain and outside my hotel in Kabukicho was a taxi driver waiting for a couple to exit one of the love hotels. This was that moment. I knew when I took the shot that it was one that I would be happy with.
LIAM: Interestingly enough, it's still one of the only images I have ever posted featuring a person. I never show my face on Instagram which has become part of my signature, I guess. When I go out in the cities alone after midnight, I usually wear a mask to avoid getting jumped since I look pretty young. It also adds some mystery.
You're very active on Twitter and it seems like you're always trying to provide as much value to your audience as possible, which often includes posting others' work. But you also seem well-versed with self-marketing. Is this something you've naturally embraced since the beginning?
LIAM: Twitter is an interesting one for me. I've been spending time working on it. When I first made my Twitter I used it infrequently, only ever surfacing to cross-post images from my Instagram — which in retrospect makes for very boring content. However in the last month I was able to grow my following from 2,000 to something like 15k now. I got really into the analytics of being an artist and learning how to best market my work. Once my following grew, instead of using my Twitter to post my own work, I began posting the work of other artists instead, as well as things that inspire me.
"Self-marketing is something I think I have always had a knack for, even more than being an artist."
Self-marketing is something I think I have always had a knack for, even more than being an artist. I think it's why I ended up in the position that I am in, doing the work that I do. It is all aimed toward first impressions, following trends and creating meaningful aesthetics which appeal to people. When I take a photo or create an image, I am very aware of the things I want to communicate, the feelings I want to evoke.
I saw you even give helpful lessons on Twitter on how artists can better promote their work. What would you say are the top tips & tricks for artists to promote and push their work, while still being able to create and stay creative?
LIAM: 1. Surround yourself with people more talented than yourself.
This is the most important one for me. I came to Ubisoft because there are 2,500 people around me who can teach me things.
2. Share the work of other artists
This is how I’ve grown my following to over 100k. Nobody wants to follow somebody who only cares about themselves and never engages with their audience.
3. Mix things up - learn a new skill.
I am a broad-range generalist with deep expertise in one area (graphic design).
Photography is still my weakest skill, but I use my primary skills to take my photography to another level. Reanimating photographs in After Effects, laying them out in InDesign for my photo book, creating GIFs/Cinemagraphs/Timelapses in Photoshop. I remember creating a GIF randomly one day with one of my photographs and it got half a million views from Reddit and Imgur — platforms I have no following on.
One of the things I like so much about your photographs is that they can easily be mistaken as illustrations or even CGI, making you question their reality. Is this something you are aiming for when shooting and editing these images?
LIAM: I get a lot of emails from people asking if they can buy my paintings. With my background in video games and my love for super-saturated colors, my photographs often come across as illustrations. I think with this background I never cared for minimal edits like most photographers would.
I’m sure many readers are curious about some more technical behind-the-scenes stuff, so I’m going to fire a couple more simple questions at you:
What camera do you use and what’s your go-to lens?
LIAM: The majority of my images are taken with a Canon 5D III and a 24-105 lens. After my photos went viral and I started to gain a following, Canon reached out and hooked me up with a 5D Mark IV, which is what I use now.
Do you shoot mostly by hand or do you use a tripod?
LIAM: All by hand. I used a tripod for only one of the images I have posted. I have been using my tripod for time lapses (in the same style), which I will be posting soon.
If you could choose between a rainy city or a sunny one, which would you pick?
LIAM: Rain every time. It goes without saying that I am a pluviophile — a lover of rain, someone who finds joy and peace of mind during rainy days. I travel a lot and whenever I see rain in the forecast it is a level excitement for me that I can never really describe. I also happen to be a night owl, so the two things go hand in hand perfectly.
How much post-production do you do? Do you strive for the most perfect result in camera or are you totally fine with fixing it up in post?
LIAM: I consider myself an artist first and foremost. When I first started shooting, I really did not know how to operate my camera. I then learned Lightroom and began experimenting. Initially I would do everything in post-production, using color theory and my sensibilities until I was happy with the image. In the last year I have picked up new gear which has allowed me to get the visuals that I currently achieve, and I try to do as much as I can through the camera. Custom settings, lens filters, gels on flashes, that sort of thing. My first set of Tokyo images were all edited on my 11” Macbook Air. I'm often asked how long I spend on each image. The time I spend on images depends greatly on the shot. Typically I don’t shoot pictures of people on the streets; it's mostly architectural, so they’re a lot easier. However I just did my first fashion shoot in Tokyo, which ended up in HYPEBEAST. It was a very different challenge but the self-portraits I took helped prepare me for that. Some of my images are shot on my iPhone, others on my DSLR. I have been experimenting recently with Lightroom Mobile and my iPhone, and have been really happy with the results.
I'd love to hear more about your work at Ubisoft. What are some of the most recent games you’ve worked on and what was your role on them? Can you give us any sneak peeks?
LIAM: I often get asked which games I am currently working on but it isn’t something I can share yet. I have been working on a bunch of style guides, logos, trailers and motion graphics. My photography has helped me understand how to create a style and maintain consistency. I did a talk at GDC where I went through a bunch of things from Far Cry 4 that I helped direct, which may be of interest to some people. You can check out the slides right here.
Liam! Thank you so much for doing this interview and giving us an insight into your work. I can't wait to see more magic from you in the future.