The Walker Art Center has a yearly series where they invite graphic designers from all over to speak. For the last three years or so, they have been pretty grim for the most part. This year seems they rounded up a couple of good people including YWFT favorite, Daniel Eatock. You can watch the video here.
How has the response been to the new ‘Sessions’ book and is there anything more you want to tell us about it? The response has been much greater than expected. I’ve had to order more books, and it seems to have hit a chord with designers who want another perspective of the processes involved in collaborating, and especially commercial projects, such as with MTV or with overseas artists. There are also essays on the pitfalls of t-shirt production, and an essay on the collaborative process. The DVD also has a lot of toy templates by various toy producers, for designers to play around with to create their own 3D toy. Plus a poster and stickers, so the feedback has been that it’s a very dense and complete package.
People have commented on the amount of work involved in producing it, and co-producer Megan Mair and I are proud of that, because I believe a design book should be a lot more than just a series of seductive graphics. Those books leave me feeling a bit hollow, like my eyes have just eaten fast food. I think substance is important in a design book, and lots of essays and interviews. And, of course, seductive images. ‘Jeremyville Sessions’ has 304 pages of all of this, plus a DVD, fold out poster, and die cut stickers.
I think a successful design book should be dense enough to be revisited for years, not just consumed in one sitting, but something you can get more and more out of with each reading, and one that instigates thought and discussion.
For those who want an overview of it, ‘Jeremyville Sessions’ is about the process of collaborations, with over 300 artists and companies, like Beck, Genevieve Gauckler, Geoff McFetridge, Baseman, Lego, MTV, Adidas, Jim Woodring, Bigfoot, Tristan Eaton, Biskup, Miss Van, Converse, Devilrobots, Deanne Cheuk, STRANGEco, many many more, plus many essays, articles and interviews.
You come across mainly as an illustrator, but also as a persistent networker and promoter of yourself and creativity in general… Has this affable attitude been an important factor in your success? I see myself as an artist and writer first. Then a producer of projects. An artist who also collaborates with lots of other artists. I try and be the first at something; for example I wrote and produced the first book in the world on designer toys called Vinyl Will Kill, published by IdN. I also created Sketchel with Megan Mair, the first customisable art bag project based on our own satchel bag design. We’ve collaborated with over 500 Sketchel artists so far, like Beck, Genevieve Gauckler, Miss Van, Baseman, Biskup, Furi Furi, Friends with you, STRANGEco, Bigfoot, Marc Atlan, Saiman Chow, Jaime Hayon, Tim Tsui, some of the best around.
If you’re from Sydney, Australia and want recognition on the world stage, you need to make yourself known, and go out and get it. No one came knocking on my door. But of course any successful artist has networked and self promoted to some extent to get there.
You are a very thoughtful person making somewhat rudimentary looking things… How do you see your style evolving? It’s taken me a long time to get it that rudimentary! There’s power in simplicity and paring back, as long as the message is maintained, the image has a soul, and possesses a unique style. I see my style as very much evolved; I remove lines in my mind until just the essence of the mood remains. I can put a few marks down on a page and to me they are instantly Jeremyville. It takes years to get it that sparse. I’ve worked hard at developing my own voice, which I guess is, yes, deceptively simple and restrained.
You often mention some more cerebral historical art movements and individuals… Do you see a connection between these and the kind of contemporary cartoonish stuff you’re involved in? I personally think a cartoon can be very cerebral. Something complex expressed as a haiku. I try and wrestle the big issues like loss, death, love, longing, in a few seemingly simple lines, that hopefully evoke feelings in the reader, and resonate on a deeper level. Cartoons are my shorthand, and my shortcut to the essence of an idea. Of course I produce a lot of other work too: murals, toys, large canvasses, clothing, Sketchels, animation, books, snowboards, many products; I also work in many mediums, and feel equally at home in them. Cartooning is just one instrument in my orchestra. I love exploring a medium I’ve never tried before.
I started cartooning at the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s leading newspaper, at the age of 19, while finishing my architecture degree. I don’t like the conventions of cartoons- I’ve invented my own style- for example I just did a comic story on Geoff McFetridge, and he drew me. Each frame of the comic reads like a scene from a film, and Geoff commented on that too. I think there can be power and great meaning behind what is at first just a humble cartoon, or a cartoon style.
That’s just some background. To get back to the main point of your question, I think the art movement of our time is not a stylistic one such as cubism or pop (which both essentially sprung from a particular geographical place and were championed by an art cognescenti), but rather, the new movement is international, happens mainly online, and is not owned by a few galleries. The new movement is collaboration. A project between 2 artists, between a company and an artist, between a publisher and a group of artists. It’s a conceptual movement which has seen the artist reclaim his or her freedom from the client or patron or gallery. The artist can now choose who they work with, how much money they can make. How many shows they have a year. Direct their own destiny. Shape the marketing of their career. Create products from their art. Dictate what in fact is art. Reach their audience online. The 20th century model of the artist as indentured servant in a gallery’s stable has been superseded, or at the least, relegated to a creative cul de sac.
We are in a creative revolution, and only some are aware of it. Who are some players in this new movement? KAWS. Murakami. Banksy. Gauckler. Mike Mills. Baseman. Fairey. Fafi. Barry McGee. Maya Hayuk. Kinsey. Michael Lau. James Jarvis. McFetridge. All artists who create within that nexus where the gallery meets the street, which meets collaborations and commercial projects. They are redefining the parameters of fine art, and of important art.
My book ‘Jeremyville Sessions’ is all about this collaboration process, seen from the context of the Jeremyville studio working on 300 collaborative projects over the last year or so. It looks at the redefinition of these parameters of art and creativity, and has an introductory essay about the collaboration movement.
Are you concerned with your contribution to the world, and what would you like it to be? Would you use your status to be more altruistic? The Jeremyville and DESIGN Lab studio contributes regularly to several charities, Jeans for Genes being a particular emphasis each year. We also donate our time and expertise to other charities who do great things for the community. I’m definitely a believer in giving back to the world. I also don’t drive a car, I ride a bicycle and walk. I think the fossil fuel industry has wreaked havoc on the natural world. Let’s start the electric car revolution! Let’s reinvent the whole notion of energy. It is achievable, and it can start with just one thought, in one person.
Even with the DESIGN Lab team in place, do you enjoy the business side of your lifestyle or does it infringe on the energy you can devote to being artistic? I love the business side. We’ve constructed a business engine to help us make projects happen. We have a great team which covers all areas of expertise needed for a successful business. The business side doesn’t really impact on my time to create, indeed, it helps me tackle a creative problem from a different perspective.
Your background includes an architecture degree, as well as film education… Since you already maneuver in so many different mediums, will these fields ever connect with Jeremyville? I believe the methodologies I learned in those fields help me daily. Architecture is all about an initial concept, tempered by a set of constraints, which finally results in the built form. You take into account various constraints, such as client input, budgets, other disciplines such as engineering, and tweak your idea to realise that built form. It can take a year or two of arduous work to unfold this process, and compared to that, my projects such as producing a book, are relatively simple.
So with that architectural education in mind, I always try and see a project, such as a book, from a linear perspective; that is, starting from the original notion of the final ‘built form’, but one which will be tempered by various factors along the way. It’s a daily exercise in problem solving, lateral thinking, and a series of small changes, while still maintaining that vision. The aim being to end up with something as true to the original idea as possible.
Jeremyville graduated from Sydney University with an architecture degree, began his art career by cartooning at the Sydney Morning Herald at age 19, and now designs toys, books, paints murals, designs his Jeremy clothing label, and runs his online store at www.jeremyville.com. He works with Neil Venkataramiah, co-director of the company, (a UTS Communications graduate) and Megan Mair, Associate Creative Director (Dip. Graphic Design from KVB.) Jeremyville and Megan Mair have produced the first book in the world on designer toys called Vinyl Will Kill!, published by IdN.
One of our profile magazine features, Steve Harrington has a new print available at his site. Pick up one today.
Maryellen McFadden’s, aka Alki1, Flickr Stream is full of straight hot designs from modernist masters. Go over and bow down to the swiss collection, I did.
Mr Owens changes up things over Volumeone. New site layout as well as some new work.
While changes in visual style, education, and practice evolved predictably in the past, some unexpected developments are affecting graphic design today. The profession many of us remember as bright and optimistic is now overwhelmingly introspective – permeated with anxiety, cynicism, and pseudo-intellectual debate.
Idealism and passion for creative work have been replaced by ego-driven striving for personal gain that inevitably leads to frustration. Compounding the problem for designers seeking personal and professional growth are production overcapacity, a crowded job market, and, most significantly, a shortage of meaningful work. These conditions have become such a part of life that we have to pause and reflect on what is going on right now.
Technology: hands off
Most designers are driven by creative ambition. Each will use his or her own talent differently, but ultimately every designer longs to create a unique, innovative visual product. Newcomers to the field, fresh from the academic studio experience, are often naïve about how a professional office functions. They assume their day will be about making designs, only to discover that much time is required for peripheral technical and administrative chores. They learn that instead of practicing their skills, the computer usurps them.
Today, tackling graphic design jobs is impossible without mastering a plethora of software products. Programs, most inelegantly designed to start with, require frequent upgrades, making it difficult for the designer to stay current. By the time the intricacies of a specific program becomes familiar, a new version replaces it. Mastering any program, in fact, mastering anything, is frustrating and time-consuming so this cycle of constant re-education diverts from more meaningful and satisfying work.
Electronic equipment has replaced the traditional tools of design expression: pencil, crayon, pen, and brush. Design has been “dematerialized”. The tactile qualities of materials such as trace- and colored- papers, boards and overlay film that often inspired ideas are no longer viable. For the designer who enjoys the sensuality of working with actual materials, the absence of touch, smell and even sound is disarming, as if part of the nervous system had been deactivated.
Devaluation: ready for landfill
Ideally, graphic communication used to be carefully planned and produced to achieve clear, realistic goals within a predictable amount of effort. The end product was respectable and used, then saved for a period of time. The means of design were limited to using type, photography, paper and printing to maximum effect. If everything went according to plan, the designer felt fulfilled and the client felt satisfied.
Today, many graphic designers struggle with overly ambitious, nebulous goals – often defined by committee – while at the same time finding their talents and products undervalued. For every decent piece of communication, a million horrendous pieces are produced. Digital design and printing, and easy access to inexpensive but excellent manufacturers overseas, have all contributed to reducing production costs. Graphic materials produced and distributed in such overwhelming quantities become a nuisance, and the critical consumer gets used to discarding ineffective communications instantly. The widespread attitude that design can be replaced quickly and cheaply has fostered negligence and waste.
Digital design furthers the problem by allowing instant variations, devaluing the carefully developed original and depriving the designer of a sense of authorship, recognition, and achievement. Witness how fast innovative designs are now bastardized and commercialized.
Isolation: so near yet so far
No designer can produce an effective solution without awareness of the assignment parameters and a familiarity with the client’s culture. Experiencing the client’s organization firsthand provides the designer with a sense of direction and empathy for all personalities involved. It also provides an opportunity to experience the world outside the studio.
Today, designers are tied to their computers for hours on end with little direct human interaction or contact. They produce work with a diminished sense of purpose and only scant understanding or sympathy for the client’s problems. Even though seemingly more “connected” to the world through the Internet, the designer is actually more personally isolated. Projects are sent back and forth electronically between the designer and the client with cryptic notes attached. Lacking physical presence, scale, and texture, designs seem disembodied, as if appearing from outer space untouched by the human hand, furthering a sense of disconnection.
Isolation, of course, doesn’t just affect graphic designers. We live in a world where personal isolation is becoming more the rule than the exception. Email conversations with colleagues half around the world seem no different than those with people nearby. We walk down the street oblivious to the immediate environment, isolated from surroundings by cell phone conversations or music wired into headsets. Everything seems overscaled – the cities we live in, the buildings and offices where we work in, the spaces for shopping and playing – reducing our sense of identity and reinforcing isolation.
Education: dumbing up
A classical design education used to integrate imagination, skills, knowledge, understanding and experience. Years of basic studies, search for personal interpretation, expansion of professional horizons through exposure to different specializations such as corporate identity, advertising, packaging and exhibit design were all typical steps. The knowledge and skills necessary for practice were clearly defined and understood. They were acquired by working with master teachers as well as by studying a small number of classic texts on design. Learning from books was an enjoyable and relaxing pastime that fostered a sense of shared value and community.
Modern technology has severed most connections to the past and put a new spin on education. We are operating in a strange hiatus, where traditional expertise is being replaced by constantly changing new standards. Digital media dissolved the boundaries of graphic design and altered the way skills are both learned and applied. The knowledge necessary to practice now has increased exponentially – so much that the “rules” are undefined. As a result, there are endless, contentious debates about what constitutes design education today.
Meanwhile, education has become experimentation, moving along free of ideologies and theories. “Good design” is no longer plausible, possibly the victim of political correctness or the zeal to eliminate boundaries at all costs. A multitude of visual approaches exists side by side, there for the taking. Baroque decoration is as accepted as bland modernism. Exposed to so many different styles, the young designer is robbed of a sense of direction, resulting in confusion.
Today designers who bother to look at books consume them by scanning rather than by carefully reading and reflecting on their content. Instead of relying on the theories and aesthetic principles that were the basis of visual communication for previous generations, designers derive bursts of inspiration from the Internet, magazines, film, video, music, and philosophy texts. The constantly changing landscape of popular culture does not provide a solid base for a career, making the designer insecure.
The more complex the design problem is, the wider the range of knowledge and skills necessary to solve it. From project to project the required specialized expertise and skills vary. We cannot hope to master them all. Today we need to be a print designer, tomorrow a web designer, the day after a wayfinding designer, and then an illustrator, etc. The idea of the designer as a Renaissance man no longer applies; there are too many competencies for any individual to attain. Inevitably, the designer’s role is becoming that of thinker, planner and coordinator of various specialist skills.
Identity theft: the disappearing genius
Brilliant visual ideas, outstanding artistic and technical skills, and the ability to present work convincingly used to be the hallmark of the great maverick graphic designer – a specie that has all but disappeared. Today’s highly competitive business environment is too complex for an individual designer to operate alone successfully. Designers instead collaborate in project teams on business strategies executed within budget and on schedule to produce projected results.
Any designer who is ill prepared or disinterested in the different skills required to function in today’s complex environment experiences insecurity and frustration. To function at a high level, the designer ideally should be conversant in marketing communication, business, economics, sociology, and psychology, and facile with writing and public speaking. In fact, most of the time a professional with outstanding communication skills edges out the visual designer. Furthermore, the computer fosters a dialectic approach. Every project soon evolves into a game between the designer and the client, who makes changes at a rapid pace without concern for visual consequences.
With the introduction of personal computers and graphics software in the 1980s, a new playing field was created. The domain of the professional designer, who used to be the expert in aesthetic and production questions, became accessible to virtually anyone interested in producing and disseminating graphic information. Technically proficient people without visual education increasingly take charge. In an age when speed of production is the overriding criteria for success, the graphic designer loses ground to the technical experts, succumbing to frustration.
In the 1970s and 80s many graphic designers were guided by the convictions that purpose and principles are more relevant than style; that individuality and passion are more important than conformity; that quality is superior to quantity, and that professional commitment and integrity are more important than the financial rewards.
It would be impossible to prescribe remedies to cure the various frustrations of graphic designers. The profession is too fragmented by educational, philosophical, economic, and generational gaps. Designers born into the computer age have a different perspective about today’s situation than those who have experienced profound technological change – and no one wants to turn the clock back anyway.
What we’re experiencing in graphic design goes hand-in-hand with other evidence of current societal decline: obsession with monetary and material values, craving for instant gratification, lack of manners, short attention span, foul language, etc. Graphic design will always continue to be produced in one form or another but no one can predict how future iterations will take shape. Human beings by nature are problem solvers so it is likely that today’s problems may spark tomorrow’s opportunities.
Copyright © 2007 Willi Kunz
About Willi Kunz
Willi Kunz practices graphic design in New York. He is the author of Typography: Macro- and Microaesthetics (1998) available in English, German, Spanish, and Chinese editions; and Typography: Formation and Transformation (2003). He is a member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale).
You have a variety of work, and have had continuing engagements with several clients… do any projects stand out as favorites? We’ve been doing regular illustrations for The New York Times (mainly the Book Review, but other sections as well). These projects often illustrate an essay or article with a more abstract intellectual theme or relate to the impact of culture on language. Since there usually hasn’t been an immediate visual reference to start with it’s a fun challenge to figure out a visual accompaniment to an abstract idea. Unlike our usual projects, the time lines of these illustrations, which range from 24 hours to a couple days, force us to conceptualize and execute them very rapidly. We’ve also continued to design for the Johns Hopkins Film Festival for the past six years; it always challenges us to think of new ways to approach a poster subject that’s so well-worn. We’d also love to do more book design and publication design in the future; it’s a medium we enjoy working in.
Tell us about the traveling experimental typography show you curated, Alphabet. Alphabet: An Exhibition of Hand-Drawn Lettering and Experimental Typography is a show that we curated in 2005 for Artscape, a large arts festival in Baltimore. We sent out an open call for experimental and inventive interpretations of the letters A-Z and selected the 60 best alphabets from the hundreds of submissions we received. The show features artists and designers from around the world— including work from renowned designers like Ed Fella, the calligrapher Jean Larcher, and House Industries’ Ken Barber to exceptional alphabets from students and artists such as Andrew Jeffrey Wright, C.W. Roelle, and Luke Ramsey. In spite of the fact that the show was based on an open call, the level of work submitted was overall very high quality, and the resulting exhibition reflects that. There’s also a nice range of approaches ranging from elegant conceptual work to the surreal and illustrative. Since the show closed in Baltimore, Alphabet has been traveling to galleries and institutions around the U.S. (currently in Minneapolis). Check out the Alphabet website for more information.
What does your band, Double Dagger, have to do with graphic design? When we began the band a few years ago, we planned Double Dagger as a graphic design punk concept band. Design and art references made their way into a lot of the lyrics, as parallels and metaphors for the usual stuff punk bands yell about. As the band has grown and evolved, the design stuff has faded from the content, but there’s still a good bit of Internet-age, post modern stress throughout which we’re sure most designers and others can identify with. Double Dagger has also provided us a chance to design and screenprint a lot of posters, packaging, and shirts, so it’s also a chance to express ourselves visually and be our own client. We’re also really loud.
What’s next for Post Typography? Bruce: I’m going to the Dominican Republic. Woo! Nolen: I’m gonna get my car fixed and shave more regularly. We’re also making Post Typography more “legit”, working to get some larger jobs. We’ve done a lot of work across many media, but we’re excited whenever we get to do something new that forces us to think in a different way or explore new media. For example we did some film titles last year as well as our first completely Flash-based website, and we hope to continue to explore new media and ideas in the future.
Who are some other individuals or studios that you feel are doing interesting things with design? We’re generally too busy working to pay too much attention to what other people are doing. It seems like with the recent explosion of design blogs and trend-spotting blogs, one could spend all of one’s time just reading about design. We prefer to spend our time working on our own projects. That said, it seems that in general there are a lot of young smaller studios or individuals who are doing really smart and beautiful work that blurs the line a bit between design and art.
About Post Typography
Originally conceived and founded in 2001 as an avant garde anti-design movement by Nolen Strals and Bruce Willen, Post Typography specializes in graphic design, conceptual typography, and custom lettering/illustration with additional forays into art, apparel, music, curatorial work, design theory, and vandalism. Their work has received numerous fancy design awards and has appeared in such publications as Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type and D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself, The Art of Modern Rock, STEP Magazine, Metropolis magazine, and Taschen’s upcoming compendium, Graphic Design Now. Post Typography has appeared in multiple design and art exhibitions, and their posters are collected by high school punk rockers and prominent designers, whom they consider equally important. Strals and Willen currently teach classes in design and typography at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and have lectured at the Cooper Union, Society of Publication Designers, and Pennsylvania College of Art and Design among others.
Check the Little Friends Flickr Stream for hot new prints and other work.