Nelu Wolfensohn was born in Bucharest, Romania. He graduated graphic design at the Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and continued education in History and Art History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He also studied Graphic Design at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) and in Muriel Cooper's Visible Language Workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Upon his arrival in Montreal (in 1976) he started “Nelu Wolfensohn Design”, an office specialized in visual communication. A year later he became the director of the graphic design team of Group Lavalin. In 1984 Nelu Wolfensohn became the president of Graphics Quebec, and a member of the Board of directors of the Institute of Design Montreal (from 1993 until 2007). Wolfensohn began his teaching career in 1992, at the School of Design of the University of the Quebec to Montreal (UQAM), where he focuses on the conceptualization process and the management of complex graphic design projects. In 2008, 27 of his posters were included in the permanent collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In 2010, he was nominated as Honorary Member of the Graphic Design Association of Quebec.

He lectured at several design conferences in Canada, France, Spain and the United States and served occasionally as a judge of national and international graphic design competitions. Presently, he is a member of the Decorative Arts Acquisitions Committee, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Interview by Ovidiu Hrin / 2012
You grew up in Romania then you studied design in Jerusalem and later you moved to Los Angeles and Montreal. Which of these places had the greatest influence on you?Starting from the 2nd and until the 12th grade, I had the privilege to study at the best (or so I think) school from Romania: St. Sava (former Nicolae Bălcescu). In the 50s, all the political and economic careers were reserved for those favored by the regime, so all that was left for us – the “bad origin” ones – was a development in the cultural and artistic realm. At St. Sava, both students and teachers were seeking an individual development based on the general culture and creativity (fields that were still untainted by the prevailing ideology), and I was fortunate enough to evolve in such a microclimate. Throughout those years I attended lectures, I acted in theatre plays, and of course, I participated in fine art exhibitions. I was highly interested in graphics and I still remember my first poster, BUCUREȘTI 500, designed for the five century celebration of the capital was exhibited in the great hall of the high school. The school had a great influence upon me; it determined my career development because of the very important part played by some of my teachers and especially some of my colleagues.
Which is the most beautiful part of the day/week/month or year for you?Every morning… and (almost) every night.
What impact can designers have on everyday life (society)? Can people be touched by design in general? What is graphic design’s strength?In less than a century, our society evolved from a written civilization to an audio-visual one. Photography, radio, film, television, and now, Internet, brought down the supremacy of the printed word. Today, images — the ultimate communication vehicle — reign supreme. Graphic design (a built-in component of the goods and services production line) is not only promoting sales. Its products: logos, posters, ads, T-shirts, Websites, etc.) fulfill not only utilitarian goals, but become as well a widely distributed form of art. It can be therefore said that, in this era of over-consumption, graphic designers can shape opinions and influence behavior, sometimes in a drastic way. Nevertheless, this newly acquired power has its downsides:
The ethical issue.If graphic designers generate change, can they be both ethically consistent and commercially viable in today’s complex and very difficult economy? Ethics are defined as “a body of values, percepts and rules of conduct, categorizing a particular culture, group or individual.” Dealing basically with right or wrongdoing, ethics relate mostly to moral principles, may vary from culture to culture and differ from one individual to another, depending on origin and personal history. Moreover, in time, ethics evolve and change. It is difficult to believe that, over a lifetime career, a graphic designer will always deal with commercial projects in total accordance with his fundamental moral principles. Cold-market considerations and unscrupulous clients will often affect his work. In order to survive professionally, concessions are sometimes a must. However, how much a designer will yield to pressure depends on character and circumstances. In the end, everyone has to choose where to draw his own line on the sand. And, presuming that ethical principles were to rule the practice of graphic design, designers will have to assume a number of self-imposed ethical responsibilities. A difficult decision in this age of ferocious competitiveness.
They say a picture speaks a thousand words. Can pleople be 'touched' more easily with an image than with a written message? What is the role of the written message, for you?First, let's not forget that letters represent (visually) sounds used in speech, while ideograms are visual symbols of real or abstract concepts. Therefore, all written messages ARE images. But, more to the point, for I do not want to get lost in semantics: I am a firm believer in the power of the wordless image carrying economical, political, social and cultural messages through strong visual metaphors. In this graphic system, a written sentence plays, for me, mostly a secondary roll. This said, in some of my posters characters or words ARE the main image. Dar asta este o altă căciulă...
You are the founder of CRIN (Centre de recherches des images of numériques / Digital Image Research Centre). What were the reasons that made you start this project?
CRIN aims to experiment with digital images, putting a particular emphasis on their development and their use in the context of printing. How does this process of experimentation and innovation go and what was the most innovating result?
In the 1990's, the digital revolution caused a major upheaval in the image creation process. It was of outmost importance to provide our students with a research platform where privileged encounters with the new technologies occur.

To meet this challenge, I created in 1999 at the School of Design of the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM), the Centre de recherche des images numérique (CRIN). The research centre's goal was to explore the avenues of experimentation with digital images in a context free of commercial constraints.

Troubles started right from the beginning. Exploration with software such as Photoshop or Painter confronted us with huge and unmanageable image variations resulting from the prototype. Consequently, the difficulty of making valid aesthetic judgments, or, in other words, a much-diminished ability to choose, made us realize how urgent it was to better understand the phenomenon of choice and focus on its ablative/reductive characteristics. So, as a first step, we tried to find a working research methodology, which could systematize the software-using process. Many months of errancy followed. In the end, all modeling attempts were abandoned and random experimentation ("trial and error") replaced what became to look as a fruitless theorizations attempt.

Today, CRIN is primarily a creative centre, focusing mostly on issues related to the digital image materialization (printing) on paper. As such, the correlation between the screen image and the printed one remains one of our most important preoccupations. In the early 2000, CRIN purchased a wide format printer, an Epson 9000, which allowed us to print very large images. From the start, it became clear that we were dealing with two different worlds. While on the monitor's screen the colors were brilliant and striking, on paper, the image looked different. Calibration, saturation and color modulation were explored and tried with mixed results. We could never match computer screen and paper regarding impact and luminosity! At their best, the results looked more like screen prints, due to the huge quantity of ink absorbed by the uncoated paper. Furthermore, the use of the printer was very difficult and sometimes, frustrating, due to its fragility and complexity. In addition, the images printed on glossy paper changed pigmentation very rapidly and eventually they almost disappeared. In conclusion, this was an astonishing and totally unexpected result, for the printed images belonged more then anything else to the world of art.
Another project you initiated is "CONCEPTS FOR ALL". How do you see the role of graphic design, particularly the poster, in sending a social message?CONCEPTS FOR ALL is an Internet image bank offering immediate free downloads of visual concepts related to humanitarian causes. The main topics are: human rights, the environment, refugee and immigration issues, racism, famine, disease prevention, war and violence, abuse of women and children, illiteracy, social isolation, etc.

The CONCEPTS FOR ALL objective is to assist non-governmental and non-profit organizations at work in the developing world by providing their communication needs with powerful, wordless visual metaphors through which messages and meanings can be easily understood. Translating this awareness into action was, in our case, an attempt to rethink and reposition the poster as a new/old propaganda tool by helping humanitarian causes and by mobilizing young designers to this purpose.
Decline of the posterThe formidable advent of new technologies was instrumental in the decline of posters. Once, a powerful visual statement, the poster sinks rapidly into obsolescence, whereas digital images travel faster, reach many and have more impact than a printed image glued on a fence and seen (or not) by few passersby. In order to subsist, serve new causes and reach a much larger audience, posters need to adapt. It is obvious that Internet, a limitless diffusion vehicle, is the place where change must occur. Consequently, rethinking and repositioning the poster as a new/old propaganda tool, becomes an important mission for all poster designers. In the present globalization context, they can shape opinions and influence events. This challenge implies larger political, social and cultural responsibilities, which have to be assumed. Thus, the main two ideas behind the CONCEPTS FOR ALL project were first, to assume a number of ethical and social responsibilities, and second, to revive the poster in the age of the Web.
More than 1200 images were created since 2007 within the framework of a workshop attended by students in their final year of the Graphic Design Program at the School of Design. All the images are copyright-free and can be downloaded without any charge by the interested parties. They can be used for posters, brochures, pamphlets, or as digital images, for websites and electronic mailing. There is no explanatory text, but users according to their needs and in their own language can insert words afterwards.
Should we focus more on content or on style? What is the role of style in expressing visually a concept?This is a difficult question and the answer can’t be other but subjective. In my posters, it can be said that a well-defined and immediately recognizable personal style is not there to be found. Moreover, it is my firm belief that staying prisoner of repetitious image-making patterns enhances formalism, leading as a result to an excessive dependence on a predetermined visual discourse with detrimental effects on idea’s substance. Also, doing it always the same way and for a very long period of time is SO boring! Consequently, my work is multifaceted — a realm in which concepts are an essential preoccupation and where photography, illustration or typography takes the lead, as needed. My graphic discourse relies on allegorical communication logic, whereas the aesthetic and formal aspects of the image are always a second consideration. However, a metaphoric approach does not exclude form richness, and my posters, intended to strike a visual blow, often contain an iron fist inside a sumptuous velvet glove.
What about graphic design in Romania? Do you think we have something to complete with the international canon of graphic design? Do we have a voice of our own?I do not know much about the modern Romanian graphic design. Mea culpa! Please, inform me!
Is it important for Romanian graphic designers to have this voice of their own?In one word: YES! It is important to make this country’s graphic designers voice heard in order to get respect and recognition, not only in Romania but also, abroad. This goal can be achieved partially through massive participation in all international graphic design competitions. There are SO many out there, most of them (and the most prestigious one) totally free of charge.
I dare to ask if the Romanian cultural context and roots are to be found in your work. And if so, on what level do you use them (method, approach, conceptual, imagistic style)?I usually generate concepts through an associative process deeply rooted in a huge reservoir of archetypal images, stored since my young years. The importance of individual specificity, a mix of reasoned behavior and the nebulous contribution of the unconscious is undeniable. The designer’s work is also predetermined by many other factors: genetics, sensibility, talent, ideological, political and religious convictions, education, artistic training, ethnic, racial and social roots, cultural identification, etc. Therefore we, graphic designers, we are not only what we create, we are also ...our past. For this reason, I believe that my Romanian past has an important influence on me, mostly conceptual.
We have learned to write and draw by hand, along our lives we strive to make both drawing and writing better, so they become a mirror of our mind / body relationship. This journey requires a certain amount of discipline, exercise and self-knowledge. Is this exercise endangered? In this context, what does the omnipresence of keyboard, mouse and touch pad mean? Towards what are we going? How important is for you to work by hand?If almost all graphic designers (me included) still use from time to time a pencil, a marker or a brush, for at least two decades we are witnessing the emergence of the computer as THE essential creative tool, a new reality with significant effects on the way we “fabricate” design. By breaking up the former links with the physical world, the image is no longer palpable, but exists only virtually behind the monitor screen. Today, the graphic designer can create, but also, copy, clone, or alter any virtual image, rapidly and in large numbers. Moreover, while working, he has the option of going back to any previous stage of his creative process, being thus able to compare in real-time multiple visual options. This is a great and totally new source of freedom! Indeed, for the first time, the visual artist is able to break the linearity his work, which was completely irreversible in the past.

Even though the computer deprives the designer/artist of any physical contact with his work by removing the spontaneity and the emotion of the primordial artistic gesture, the new creative process is imposing new reflexes related mostly to fast evaluations defining and rapidly selecting the best suited images among an avalanche of visual alternatives. In contrast with the past, today, the most important artistic gesture is the act of choosing.

This said, besides computers, I always use crayon to sketch ideas on paper and, sometimes, drawings, aquarelle or even oil painting as the principal technique for my posters.
Another project developed by CRIN, "Where are we heading?" deals with the influence of technology on fine arts and design. Is this a positive influence? How do you think graphic design will develop and how will the internet influence this process?Graphic design is going through an existential crisis. Today, in our profession, trends and fashions are instantly and universally spread. Cheap Internet design solutions, proposing for a nominal fee, logos, Websites, etc., have an ever-growing impact on the industry. The proliferation of fast-track graphic courses, promising jobs and quick profits, threatens higher education and endangers the transmission of knowledge. These ominous changes relentlessly question not only the future but also the purpose of our profession.

Today, the industry demands from the designer creativity and originality, extensive training and continuous technological updating, real-time adaptation to change and good understanding of complex issues . Occupying a leading role in tomorrow’s multidisciplinary communications teams is our only hope. This strategic position should be rightfully ours. We have to assume it or disappear.
What is your environment, when working on a project? Can you can work in any conditions or do you require of a specific environment?I can work anywhere. I just need a crayon, some paper and a good Mac, connected to the Web.
What was the project that brought you the greatest professional satisfaction? (and personal?)The CONCEPTS FOR ALL project, the first free of charge Internet image bank dedicated to humanitarian causes (, is, without any doubts, the most significant contribution I ever made to society. On a more intimate level, poster creation was and still is for me a never-ending love story.
What advice would you give to students and young graphic designers?First, be informed, be curious. Develop a large number of personal interests. Have a solid culture in as many domains as possible. Cultivate your strong points. Elaborate an efficient method of generating concepts by using visual symbols and metaphors as much as possible. Do not become a prisoner of trends. Give always preference to ideas. Learn how to make highly professional presentations. Develop argumentation skills. Listen to what clients have to say. Be critical about your work, but not destructive. And finally, cultivate a good sense of humor.
If we would ask you to make a list of the most important things you learned in your lifetime, what would we find on it?It is a fact that most people live with the illusion of, somehow, having control over their destiny. For my part I’ve learnt only one thing: everything in life is luck, and luck, or hazard, or destiny, or karma, is the result of causality — an infinite chain of events totally out of our control. Conclusion: freedom of choice is only a deceptive impression. But, rejoice! Not knowing one’s future is the greatest form of liberty.
Tibor Kalman used to say "People usually cry about the end of the world, but keep your calm; it's only the end of design." Do you have any fears regarding the future of the world/design?If you are talking about the end-of-the-world apocalyptic prophecies (Mayan, environmental, ideological, religious, etc.) — likewise Mr. Kalman, I do not give them too much credit. This said, I worry more about his vision predicting the end of graphic design as we know it. On this topic, allow me please to quote him again:
“Corporations have become the sole arbiters of cultural ideas and taste in America. Our culture is corporate culture.”
In the light of this observation, should we be alarmed? Has Corporate America the might to enslave graphic design, especially when culturally or socially oriented? Well, not really. Powerful institutions (political, religious or economical) always initiated and subsidized art in all its forms. Historically, their involvement had varied from oppressive and detrimental to enlightened and knowledgeable.
Asserting that, in today’s North America, only corporations have power over culture may sound very alarming. Though, is this the reality? In my opinion, other factors are at work, imposing constant change and therefore, control. Technology, for example, has an ever-increasing impact on many aspects of our life, particularly on culture. Where will we be today without radio, film, television, computers or the Internet? Moreover, culture is a two way street. Occasionally, artists and, recently, geeks, have also influence and input, shaping society’s values, taste and behavior. Walt Disney, the Beatles, Picasso, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and many others did it. So, HELLO!!! The world we live in is complex. Not painted in black or white, but in countless shades of gray...
One may observe that Mr. Kalman and I we do not see eye-to-eye, for I don’t share his fears. Graphic design will not only continue to exist, but also diversify and prosper. In the future, the impact of visual communication will be determinant and, for this reason, I totally agree with Philippe Quinton*, who said that in order to survive and thrive, graphic design must evolve as: "... a profession whose purpose is not necessarily the financial gain, but one where the achievements can be also human, social and cultural... "
(Philippe Quinton, Design graphique et changement, Paris 1997).
In any case, the night of the Mayan prophecy I will sleep pretty well...