Interview by Erwin Bauer / TYPO-PASSAGE Wien, March 2012
Do you think that design can change the people's lives?It can change people's lives, and because of that it holds a lot of responsibility. Bad design can mess up things as well! Just think of the voting system during the G.W. Bush election – that was a major design mistake. The displays of the machines where people had to make their choice were quite obscure and nebulous. I think that design should make things nice and convenient and especially readable/follow-able. We as designers are some sort of translators, and we should speak a distinguishable language. We are learning a new language with each client, which we have to translate for a much wider audience. In my opinion though, the word “designer” has become a highly overstated buzzword, with all its modified forms – chief designer, creative designer, fungus designer or whatever. We could rather try to bring clarity about what we do or should be doing as designers, at least for ourselves, but then again, the ego trip is a very tasty cookie as well.
Is a designer a translator only or can he/she affect more? If somebody approaches you with a certain idea – are you simply translating it or trying to effectuate something bigger?In a way you are translating the person and trying to get into the client's mind. You have to decide if you want to take on the business and if you are willing to delve into this project. Along these lines, you already have a big responsibility – not only for the outcome, but for your own upcoming days, weeks, months you will be working on that particular project. It's a time you will be spending with translating, learning, communicating, story-telling etc…
You talked about the language of a client. You as a designer have your own language – and in the end you have to create a common language that is understood by the people you are aiming at. So, the visual language consists of images, text, and nowadays more and more moving and audible elements. Typography is another part of communication, often acting in the background – do you think this is important or is it overestimated? But don't you think that touching people emotionally is easier with moving images than with printed type, or do you see an equal potential?Written text is arguably the most important part of graphic design, or even to us as human beings. With writing, you are building/destroying culture. Even when you are communicating with images only, you probably learned about their meaning by reading. (A H.G. Gadamer quote pops into mind here: “Nothing exists except through language.” – very cute)
Since the 1930s and 1940s – when advertisement started to migrate from the peoples eyes inwards to their brains– words started to change people's lives (just remember the Viennese born crowd psychologist Edward Louis Bernays who changed everything in perceptual advertising and crowd manipulation) - The written text has huge impact. You can see that in politics, think of the communists or the Nazis, – they all had their slogans, aiming to change viewpoints and ideologies. Of course we could also think of Coca Cola, McDonalds, Shell, Facebook, etc. and whoever else needs to get into the peoples minds to sell their underwear or perfumed water. Text, Image, slogans (and nowadays The-rapidly-altering-buzz-concepts) just get into your head because we grew reactive to them.
Choosing a typeface is something done by specialists, and even graphic designers are not always totally aware of their choice amongst a thousand of existing typefaces. The readers probably won't distinguish between different fonts. Do you think it makes a difference to write something in Arial or in Times?In some cases it makes a huge difference. And it's the designers job to convince the clients for the use of a particular typeface, without necessarily explaining why the font was chosen. People don't know the meaning of a font, or what drives them to read it easier – they just feel if it’s easy or hard to read. But if you choose a typeface, it is of course your responsibility how people will read it. You can read some paragraphs and even whole books set all in capital letters, but your eyes will get tired pretty quickly and you will probably tear the book apart after 15 or so pages. (…not an eco-conscious type decision)
So, should we concentrate more on the content than on the form? You were talking a lot about the message, the written text, and not about its visual appearance. How important is a form or style when transporting a message?I wouldn't confine it to one element, like the style. When you are doing something, you act upon it with all your knowledge and experience. Of course you are left with many choices, like if a font expresses your or the client's language. The form therefore completes the whole communication but nevertheless it is a decision you make after the phase of translating & understanding the ‘language’.
Are there enough typefaces existing or is it necessary to develop own fonts?What the Romanians basically did for the past decades, was to bastardize the common typefaces from all over the world thus playing with their rules and bending them to their specific needs… really good fonts resulted from this process, but unfortunately it remains frozen in time. As for me, I’d rather work with existing fonts than creating new ones. For now there is a very small range of typefaces I use. During the past months I tried to change my approach, and so I developed the fonts for some posters myself. It depends of course on the project, if I am doing something by hand, or working with spray, or if it is something more rigid.
Now, working by hand – is it important for you and your inspiration?I'd rather work by hand than by computer. Setting up my new studio I noticed a simple computer desk won't satisfy me, I need a second table for drawing and sketching. Doing something by hand, I am right in the moment: right here, right now. I am not pre-defining what I am doing, but accepting the moment. I feel it much closer, and I only see afterwards what I actually did. This teaches you a lot about yourself and it is good and honest practice.
Is it not the same everlasting process like on the computer, when you are trying something again and again, changing and adapting until it fits? When you do an illustration, you might work for hours – but in the end it's not changeable anymore. Is this an advantage?I try to embed as much of the process into the result as possible. For instance, if there is a mistake in my illustration or handwritten typography, and this mistake still captures the soul of the work, it stays there and will be part of it. This is an important characteristic of my work ethic anyway: to accept errors. It gives you freedom in a way but keeps it also honest. It also makes it more human, because it is you making the mistakes and by admitting that it boosts you to be better. It takes a lot of time to know (admit) who you are but this is the important side of the practice. (practice, practice, practice, practice…)
So, are you aiming to make mistakes?There was one project that brought me closer to the whole idea of using errors. It was the second CD cover I made for the rock band “Implant for Denial”. The band members translated their previously Romanian CD into English, so there were two CDs sold together in a special packaging. “Translation” was obvious to be the general theme, and what comes with all the translations are of course its unavoidable offsprings, namely errors. So, on that project I was looking for mistakes everywhere and on all levels to use them as superimposing elements. I was overemphasizing them, as much as the booklet allowed it. From that point on, I thought of mistakes more positively.
Are you aware of the final product in the middle of the design process? When do you decide something is good and finished? When I am limited to a tight deadline by the clients, I have to be aware! Most of the time I try to push the deadlines as far away as possible and take things slowly (read – naturally) and in this process it is really un-constructive to have a final product in your head. Nothing is ever finished. Like life itself design should be an open process – which at some point needs to find its end in practice.
What are you doing with sketches which are unrealised? Do you ever get back to an idea?If time would allow it I would go back to them and reconstruct them. For the moment I am only archiving them... there are tons of ideas – the first thing I do when facing a new project is to take the notebooks and flip through the sketches and drafts. When I started with designing, there were too many ideas whirling in my head and it was pretty hard for an untrained guy to decide which one to select – or how should I concentrate on just one of them? This was a bit frustrating. Nowadays, I try to develop and focus on the first idea that comes to me and follow my primal intuition: When I am able to think of the next three steps, the idea stays. This doesn't make any of the ideas worse than the other, but it is just a method of selection and there are many methods out there.
Now, there is a passive influence where things come up without effort or attempt, and there is the active quest for something, searching for stuff to become part of you. Do you actively investigate and look for inspiration?Yes, this is actually how I started with design. Because the preparation I received from school was very dire I had to search for stuff, read a lot of books, learn from them and try to practice what others preached. We have now over 400 books in our studio – I studied them, and this is how I learned about graphic design and much more. I get inspired by processes and stories. I usually stay open and interested, without limiting myself to one specific kind of approach. Although there are some times when I would really like to do only one thing but do it well. (this is why I admire calligraphers a lot)
Getting back to the beginning: what is the most important thing for a responsible designer?To Keep being responsible. Or as some much wiser man has put it: “The ancient Masters didn't try to educate the people, but kindly taught them to not-know. / When they think that they know the answers, people are difficult to guide. / When they know that they don't know, people can find their own way. / If you want to learn how to govern, avoid being clever or rich. The simplest pattern is the clearest. / Content with an ordinary life, you can show all people the way back to their own true nature.” (quote from the Tao Te Ching, Verse 65 – written by Lao Zi)