Interview by Ovidiu Hrin / 2014
After the 2009 public announcement that TDR™ is closing you stated in an interview with Creative Review that "TDR will go forward after this". I can sense now a quite strong presence (if not stronger than in the three years before 2009) of TDR activity. What is the official status of TDR™ at the moment? How are you going forward? The Designers Republic was or is a design studio founded in 1986? What/who is TDR™ now, really?The Designers Republic™ is a state of mind, it’s an activity I engage in, sometimes alone and sometimes with others. It’s an attitude and an approach to how and why I do what I do. At various times various other people have come on board, sometimes the right people and sometimes too many people. Some people bring magic with them and help move the mission forward while others take away far more than they could imagine alone.
TDR™ became a business purely because that’s what you have to do to earn or pay a living — it was made as a declaration of independence not an income stream or pension scheme per se. Sometimes at TDR™ we earn more we deserve but we always deliver more than is reasonable. If we fight with the client it’s not for more money it’s for their greater understanding of what we’re doing for their benefit, on their behalf, for greater freedom to deliver the work they came to us for in the first place.
So, in January 2009, a business attached to the idea of The Designers Republic went bust, and with it went the account managers, business managers, new business directors, the non execs, the alpha males, the exit plans and the careerists. In February 2009 I was significantly poorer financially but astronomically happier with the liberty to collaborate directly with our clients, to really understand their needs and aspirations without the middle-man jibber jabber of account managers and other non-essentials.
It’s almost impossible really for me to plan an exit from TDR™ — although I could be persuaded to sell it for millions more than it’s worth — the further back I step from the front line, the less TDR™ The Designers Republic becomes so essentially, now, I’ve gone back to basics, back to the beginning, and rediscovered what makes me happy, which means I’m emotionally in a better place to deliver the impossible :-)
Right now, personally, I’m a creative director / art director for hire, an educator, a writer, a publisher, an artist or whatever else you want me to be; or I’m a prophet / seer / sage inspiring a new group of creative mis-shapes, encouraging engagement on a creative level / discouraging clients from entering our creative space. I’m happiest being a father.
What is TDR™ now? You decide — we’ve gone back to locking ourselves away and working with people who really want to find us.
You are one of the most ripped off studios alive (and still kicking). People usually copy/borrow/steal the look/style/color/form but they never seem to manage to get to the bottom of it and get a sense of the real nucleus behind the TDR™ work. How much do you want/love/hate to be copied/borrowed/stolen? What did you learn?On an intellectual level being copied frustrates me, not because i’m possessive about my / TDR™’s ideas per se but because it’s a waste of an opportunity for self expression by the person copying. Designers have a privileged position of being encouraged to express themselves, to share their worldview and create their own dialogue. If a designer simply does something someone else has done, without the process behind it, they are denying themselves the chance to connect on their own level. I would go as far as to say that without having your own ideas, you are NOT a designer.
On a business level, a clear infringement of my IP for easy commercial gain pisses me off, not purely in the sense that the commercial gain should be mine, but in the context of original thinking developed for and trust built with my client is compromised. Equally compromised is the body of work TDR™ has accumulated, the quality of which is the foundation for moving forward with more commissions — blanket piracy of our style devalues our achievement and reputation which affects our ability to charge for unique thinking and approach.
On a personal level I accept that to be loved is to be copied, and worse than being copied is being ignored... and worse than being ignored is not being noticed at all! I’m proud of what TDR™ has achieved and I value the influence other people have allowed us to have on them but i would prefer it to manifest itself by inspiring them to do something of their own, something building to be better than what TDR™ has done.
Throughout most of the interviews out there with TDR™ there are 4 concepts that have an almost mantric recurrence: BRAIN AIDED, PROCESS, PROBLEM SOLVERS, PROVOKE DIALOGUE. In a first, humble attempt to try and define TDR™ in a sentence, is it fair to say that TDR™ is a bunch of brain aided, process driven, problem solvers who provoke dialogue? Is this it? Is there more?Essentially we question and decode the brief, we identify the problems we need to solve, the questions we need to answer — and those we need to ask. We are messengers / communicators who use design as persuasion to provoke a response from a defined / targeted audience. It’s creativity with a purpose pushed as far out as it can go. We make calls to action.
The desired response is typically to encourage / inspire the target market to buy a client’s product or buy into their brand, in order that they might buy more — Graphic design is a means to that end. The better the design the more effective the communication.
BRAIN AIDED DESIGN (B.A.D) is THE most famous mantra TDR™ repeats (almost) constantly - it is written almost everywhere possible. Does this talk about the importance of process? Is this part of a manifesto directed towards the newer generations of designers (who clearly read less and less and thusly tend to be bad listeners - which is a killer for the designers job)? Or is it just a reminder of causality - an advice one can give to any designer (read human) young or old - 'Think before you act'?Every late 80’s early 90’s creative conversation / interview started with the premise that technology was (the last) magic, and ended with a request for shot with the designer sat next to their bulky beige computer, as if owning one, or even being in the presence of one was proof of creativity and designerism. Even comments like ‘it’s just a tool — the real ideas and action happen in my head’ were met with bemusement, confusion and disbelief, or a patronising nod of the head — like telling a dog a joke. All design was considered computer aided design in a way that hadn’t been applied to the prior technology of Rotring pens or K-Trace (Rotring Aided Design/ K-TAD ? ).
So Brain Aided Design (BAD) was initially a response to the ubiquitous CAD of the time, a declaration of the right to be human, and a celebration of human thinking over technology’s doing. It’s how we work. it’s what we do and the attitude we do it with. Over time it became, by default, an un-stamped mission statement, a self-imposed rule to be broken and put back together however we pleased whenever we wanted.
As with any easily regurgitable buzz-phrase soundbites, Brain Aided Design™ became the standard TDR™ touchpoint for media review(er)s / interview(er)s, while for us it served as a shorthand to describe what we did and why to deflect unwanted questions about process and software / attitude and activity, usurping ‘New & Used’ as the mythical TDR™ book title in the process). It helped me crystalise and focus what I / we were looking to achieve without straightjacketing our adventures with polemic or dogma (or telling dogs jokes).
Maybe saying it made it true... The mantric repetition of monetising / commercially exploiting Brain Aided Design through The Peoples Bureau For Consumer Information grows the personal perspective into a universal truth — you can’t buy The Designers Republic but you can have ownership the idea.
BRAIN AIDED? Is this enough? What about SOUL DRIVEN?Nothing is enough, if you want it to be or unless you don’t want it to be. Thinking with the head, doing with the heart.
H.G.Gadamer stated (while writing on the subject of Language) -"Nothing exists except through language" - If we're trying a mental exercise to picture everything that TDR™ did so far, pasted close-by on a huge imaginative wall - we get a very well coagulated language, an epic strain if you want. Can we talk about the hermeneutics of TDR™? Is that an intentional thought process? Can you expand on this subject? [ are you comfortable with this? :) ]Nothing communicable exists with(out/out)side some context especially when the context is a specific call to action directed to a specific audience. Rather than thinking of TDR™’s output in terms of hermeneutic analysis, it’s probably more accurate to see it (in hindsight) as a (clumsy) attempt to apply hermeneutic thought upfront as an approach.
We can’t escape context but we can play with it — we can fuse contexts artificially to attempt some amplified / hyper-communication within them. We can ringfence contexts until the parochial within them becomes universal (within context), until the languages we develop internally evolve their own semantics, become self referential and (almost) entirely undecipherable outside of that context. We can use this to grow brand and consumer culture tribe loyalty through a sense of belonging / audience creative ownership / association and cultural cliques — you’re either IN or you’re OUT. Nothing signifies creed membership more than the exclusion of others.
Then, perhaps the most interesting arenas become the lingua francas bridging these plastic isolated contexts, the grey areas of fused meaning or even of suggestion, the extra-contextual possibilities of what if rather than what is become the playgrounds to infer new realities.
There isn’t an intentional thought process in the context of hermeneutics, it comes naturally as a result of an intuitive approach — the result of feeding numerous disparate elements through a single filter.
Do you have any thoughts regarding the cultural vacuum that many academically-niched design schools tend to leave within their students? Any comments regarding the responsibility of the school vs. the reality check students face after jumping 'outta school? How do you see the education system today?I don’t think cultural response is something which should be addressed academically. In my experience design / art education is best when it effectively leads the horse to water, explains how and why to drink, but leaves it to the horse to make the decision whether to drink (or not) (and why). The responsibility is to provide students with the tools to create visual communication, whether in terms of the technical ability to make and produce work or the thinking to best develop and express ideas.
In my workshops I try to deprogramme what the students have learnt academically, not to replace or refute what they think they know, but to expose them to the notion that there is always another way, and encourage them to embrace the liberating feeling of being wrong. Sometimes. And learning from it.
My gift to them is essentially two words — ‘Ask Why’.
Why are you doing what you’re doing? Why were you asked to do it? Why were YOU asked to do it? Who is your audience? Why? What are you communicating? and Why? What reaction are you looking to provoke? and Why? What engagement are you facilitating? and Why? What is the tone of voice? and Why? etc
Questions are the best answers.
I don’t believe we should look to create new designers (in our image) — we should look at providing various platforms from which those with the passion, desire and vision can move forward from on their own initiative.
Your advices towards students and youngsters are usually these: to use their brains, to ask themselves 'why?' and for them to have a purpose. Do you see this teleological approach growing in the new things designers do around the world or is purpose fading away from the design definition?Too many people approximate graphic design because they can. The technological democratisation of the means of creative production is having some serious repercussions for the creative industries. People don’t need to think about what they do now that it’s possible to pushbutton something / anything on the premise that something is intrinsically better than nothing. It isn’t. Of course.
We’re definitely slap bang in the middle of a period where the populist zeitgeist is a sense of creativity based on x=y rather than asking why x=y. There’s a natural desire, in a data-fed knowledge-based culture, to find not ‘an’ answer, but ‘the’ answer — excluding any other possibilities in the process... a mindset of Yes or No, when creatively Yes AND No is preferable.
There’s a wider cultural issue in terms of whether younger people feel they have the permission to think for themselves, about whether self expression is even valid or desirable. In a tick box generation the fear of being wrong, or worse, considered wrong by peers is a very powerful negative. Its not enough to be dismissive of what they do in the context of what we did / do, educators need to find a way to encourage the same freedom of thought / enquiring minds we perceive as empirical, in the context of how the world today shapes their cultural engagement.
It’s difficult, sometimes when i tell my students i’d rather understand one thing than know everything, it’s back to the telling a dog a joke gag — not because they aren’t intelligent, it’s that there’s no aspiration to be intellectual. The key disconnect for, say Generation Z, is that while they expect credibility / truth / honesty etc in what they see / read / experience, that don’t grasp that this is possibly the most complex message to communicate,
Somewhere out there in a parallel universe there’s 10 million monkeys taking 10 million years to create something using illustrator that we made using freehand in an afternoon.
In your experience as a human being (also designer if you want) - what is the most important (& then inspiring) thing you have learned so far? (except impermanence)Everything / anything (and maybe nothing) can be inspiring if you want it to be. It’s not the fates colliding nor the stars aligning nor the state of the world that inspires, it’s the state of mind. There is no hierarchy of influence.
There is no one important thing. Everything is beautifully fluid dependent on perspective and experience (specific or universal). Change is equal to change and there is no one truth. Conceptually what happens next is better as a journey planned and never taken, the richest people are those with options, the happiest people are those who can explore those options because they want to, not because they have to.
Rather than searching for inspiration yourself, you will find it by inspiring in others what you look for yourself.
You can explain something to someone but you can’t understand it for them. Knowledge without understanding is like having money but nowhere to spend it. Knowledge isn’t power — knowing what to do with it is.
"Disinformation provokes more of a response than information" — I.A.
Your (META)discourse (the small text written usually in 2pt Helvetica throughout your work) is inquiry driven, provocative, reaction generating. What drove you to 'hide' this discourse in plain sight? [Are you a pragmatist(or pragmaticist)? or are you playing with semiotics? or are you taking the piss on the stiff academic-philosophic-elliptic-endless-argument-based-slang which never tends to end because there is none?]
Information should be achieved not given. The process of learning is more important than what we learn. The best answers are questions — ‘seek and ye shall find’. To create communication we need to provoke a response by any means necessary, we need to inspire dialogue in order to exchange ideas and better understand each other.
To create more effective communication, to ensure we provoke the desired response, we need to maximise the time we can rent in the audience’s mind and we can do that by asking questions they will innately respond to — in advertising terms, asking why Detergent X washes whiter is a stronger communication than simply stating that it does — the statement requires no response.
What is design now when everything is share-able and like-able (and immediately afterwards forget-able)? Is design eating itself? Do we need another name for what we are doing?We definitely don’t need any more names for what we do, we need less. Whatever it is that we do, it is imperative that we are able to adapt to the changing world around us. This is particularly true in the music industry, for example, where we’re being driven by technology to think in terms of music without the industry. We should celebrate change and benefit from the challenges such change initiates.
Design is the (visual) response to how we communicate our world proactively. Wherever we are (and why) and whatever we are doing (and why) is our context.