fr/en De Designpolitie
Richard van der Laken
De Designpolitie, Gorilla, What Design Can Do… did you develop these projects seperately or is each an evolution from the last?
They are all in a way linked to each other. I started, together with Pepijn, De Designpolitie almost 18 years ago, and from day one we always worked for clients but we also really liked to create our own projects, or do something together with friends. From the beginning we made magazines and exhibitions, we developed all kinds of stupid and nice ideas. And as De Designpolitie, we also always tried to have a critical perspective. That is how we started the Gorilla project. Because we had already done illustrations for newspapers and we are news junkies, starting it was quite a logical step. Suddenly, with Gorilla, we had a platform on which we were able to react to what was happening in the news. We could just as well have been columnists, giving our opinion. It’s a far cry from what we expect from a graphic designer. As a graphic designer you’re always a translator of your client’s message, and here we were responsible for the content and the message and, of course, how it looked. It also gave us a certain responsibility: what was our opinion on the subject, how are we going to translate it into a public image that make sense to the reader of this newspaper. It makes us very aware of our position as designers, and that was also, in a way, the step to WDCD. Because for this event, we also tried to think about the role and the importance of designers, and design in general. And as De Designpolitie, we also did the design for WDCD. So there are two separate ‘brands’, but of course they are all connected.
Because, more than a link, it seems like there is a progression, an evolution… In social involvement, on the one hand, and in the autonomy of the content on the other. Can you first tell me about the evolution of social involvement?
I think it is also because of experience. As I said, we have been doing this
for 18 years now. When you start, you just want to do things and make things. You want certain clients because that is exciting. But after a while, you realise that you are doing the same thing over and over again. For us, it became so obvious that we asked ourselves, ‘why are we doing the things we do?’. And with Gorilla we still wanted to do the stuff, but with WDCD, we also give space to other people, we were a connector, and that is something else. So if you talk about this ‘social involvement’, it’s an involvement with society, but also with the design community and how we can bring people together in general. But the funny thing is that we always do it from our position as designer.
And as for the evolution of the autonomy of the content? From the status of intermediate, to that of an author and then a connector.
Once in a while I have a problem with being a translator, because when you translate something for somebody, there can be a disconnect and tensions: a client wants it in another way and at a certain moment you can think, ‘why are you asking me to do this?’. But being an author also has its problems, because even with Gorilla we work for a client, the newspaper that hired us. In that case you behave like an author. If they ask you a question and you have to answer it, then it is also possible to be considered as an author. And thanks to the WDCD event, we can combine all our roles at once: we are designers, curators, organizers, connectors… And it’s great.
Are you satisfied with the level you have reached (in both fields)?
There are also a lot of frustrations. I think that, for a lot of creative people,
you start doing things because you are frustrated or dissatisfied by certain things. We also realised that, throughout our career, if we were not doing something for a client, then we were going to do it for ourselves. Pepijn and I are very much focused on the project itself and not really on the relationship with the client. And sometimes you see beautiful projects and concepts die because of politics. That is very frustrating. For example, something like Gorilla gave us complete freedom. The only responsibility we had is that the readers liked it and, at a certain moment, if people no longer like what you are doing, then you are gone. And with WDCD we were also setting our own standards and that will become more important for us in the future.
In all these initiatives, we recognise more your way of thinking, your wish to launch a debate, rather than your style.
Yes and no. I think it’s correct that with our work, whether it’s Gorilla, De Designpolitie or WDCD, we always try to raise some kind of reaction or a position. Because, then suddenly you can have an interesting discussion. On the other hand we do have a certain style. Style in graphics, but also in our tone, the way we approach things. That is our handwriting, that is something you cannot just take away. Our style is also very important. But I mean that in the broadest sense of the word, so not only the fact that we use a lot of red and blue or something, but also our tone of voice, our ironic approach.
I was considering that the tone of voice was part of a spirit, but finally you can’t dissociate it from the style.
Your work for De Designpolitie and for Gorilla are completely different in terms of relation to time, how do you deal with it?
For the newspaper we have to hand in work six times a week (now we do
it for a weekly magazine so it is completely different), so you do it and it is finished and it goes to press. So you also have a lot of mistakes. Once in a while you think like, ‘that wasn’t brilliant’ and also sometimes you think ‘whoa this was really good’. What I want to say is that we have been doing that for more than six years, so Pepijn and I have got used to it, we know how to do it. When we started we were really, really nervous and afraid that we would fail. We were really impressed by all these people in the media who do that everyday. Then, after a while, you get into the rythm, and now we just do it like eating and drinking. And it is also very nice that you can combine very short and fast work next to projects that go on for weeks and months.
Does managing one influence the other?
The funny thing is that for Gorilla we always work very fast, and then sometimes you look back and find that the composition, the concept and the whole thing, is perfect. And you can also work on something for weeks and… come up with nothing. It is an enigma. Sometimes it’s good to go fast. But if you have the time you will fill it. If you have six weeks, you are going to put it off until the last week, you have already had five weeks to think about it, and now you only have a few hours left. In a way you go through the same process whether you have little or lots of time. I don’t know why but this is how it works for us.
What stimulates you outside graphic design?
Creativity in general. That is of course, also, a reason for starting WDCD. I think that it is really inspiring to see the passion and the will to do things in other people, in all kinds of disciplines in design. And next to that, I read a lot, I like literature.
According to you, what is the social responsibility of a graphic designer?
That is a very big question. In the first instance, your so called responsibility is up to you. You don’t have to be socially responsible when you are a designer, I think. If you don’t feel like doing it, you should not do it because then it’s fake. But, as a graphic designer — which in a way is also a bit of an old-fashioned word, I think you are nowadays much more a media designer, or communication designer, whatever you want to call it — you have access to all kinds of media, also mass media, that a lot of people will see. When you are, for example, in furniture design, you make a chair and if you are really successful, then this chair will be made in thousands and thousands of copies. But still, the impact is very different from that of a communication designer. You are always working with messages and stories, that has a lot of impact on people. In that sense, as a graphic designer, you do have a responsibility: ‘How should I deal with the message for the client, how do I translate that into media?’. For example, for WDCD, two years ago we worked with Oliviero Toscani, a photographer. He was the art director of Benetton. In the nineties, he did a very well-known and also very controversial campaign, with all kind of topics like hate, discrimination and religion… what I think that he did very well, is that he used the power of Benetton, the power of the mass media, to communicate about very important societal issues. And you also have First Things First manifesto 2000, written by lots of well known designers. In this manifesto they also ask ‘What are you doing as a designer? Do you use your skills for shampoo bottles and advertising for yoghurt, or are you going to try to make society aware of issues? How can we do that as designers?’. So there are a lots of designers who see the tension that you have in the media, because you have a lot of companies or organizations that have access to these medias and use it in the wrong way. That is, according to me, where the social responsibility of the graphic designer lies.
As a designer, especially with a project like Gorilla, how far can your commitment go? How objective are you?
We try to approach the news and issues with a certain distance.
For example, here in the Netherlands, when the elections come, you have lots of different political parties, so we always try to be critical of all of them. On the other hand, it is impossible to be completely objective, you always have your own opinion on what is going on. Sometimes it is also about the news itself, because the news goes so fast. If you have very big issues, like for example, what is happening in the middle east, we do not have enough information to take a stance. So we try to make statement about how the media is treating the subject.
‘What impact can design have?’(1)
[Laughs]. A question we have invented, yes. I think it can have a lot of
impact but on the other hand it cannot save the world. It is just a piece in the puzzle. But what I do think, is that companies, and governments, and organizations, can use design in a much more effective way. But the designers could also make their own agendas, they could take the initiatives. Of course, in the end, you always need designers, you need a client or an organization, you need your audience or the consumer, and you need the government to support you. So it is always a group of people that has to be involved.
Do you have any advice for a young graphic designer?
I think it is really important that you, on the one hand, try to be
a generalist, so that you know what is going on. It is not so smart to focus on one activity. But you also need some specific skills. So we also try to have a broad view of things, but when it comes down to what can we do, then we are graphic designers with a focus on ‘iconic images’. It is very important that you develop some kinds of personal skills and next to that you must be aware of different media that you have to work with, because it is all about media. So don’t restrict yourself to only printed matter or only web design. We noticed, recently, that through the years, all digital and interactive stuff from website to animations, is an integral part of our work and if we didn’t know how to use these new tools, we would risk being out of the picture.
(1) What Design Can Do interrogates how the designer's work can impact the wider society.