fr/en Karel Martens
conducted with Ben Clark
Lets start with the obvious, your graphical obsessions: where did they come from and how do you work with them? For example number systems and colour, which are a continuing preoccupation in your work…
Initially, it was not my idea to become a graphic designer. I was intending to study mathematics. I was really intrigued by the mystical side of numbers. I had a very nice teacher in high school, and he treated numbers as a kind of poetry. So for me, numbers are a really intriguing thing. Another thing that I am really interested in is analysing things, like what’s the smallest thing in life? If you combine those things, then yes, these are a sort of obsession.
So how did you get from mathematics to design?
I couldn’t go to university because I am dyslexic. At the time my sister was at art school in Arnhem. I had already made lamps and drawings. She advised me to go to that school, and I followed her advice. I was really happy that I went, because I hate schools. It was a kind of relief for me going to that school.
Apart from your style, what are the elementary principles that motivate your work?
Curiosity is great for motivation. I am also interested in kinetic things. In the beginning, I had a strong motivation to make paper move, so I used optical illusions. Illusion, in our profession, is a real key word. I believe, generally, that people are receptive to illusions: for exemple, we always hope that the sun will shine later or whatever. And then you have of course limitations, for example, a budget, which is usually not enough. You are forced to be a little more inventive, to explore. In the past, when you went to a printer, in general you could choose from three typefaces (type size 24, 8, 9 and 6), and there were always typefaces you didn’t like. Now, as you know, when you open your Macintosh, you have more or less 2560 of them… That makes it harder to choose! But when you are so limited, when you only have 2 things, it is much more intriguing to make something out of it, and to try to make the best out of it.
To what extent are your experiments driven by bringing out the ‘beautiful’/interesting things? Or is it merely about experimenting?
It is not so much that I am looking to make beautiful things, rather that the beauty is the result of experimenting. Quite often this occurs by mistake. Making mistakes is really good. I remember for example, the first time I used my Macintosh. In the beginning the pitch of the type and the size was fixed. The first manipulation I did however was to choose the wrong pitch and it was quite by accident. Suddenly, all the type became so big, it became an image. From here you think: ‘how can I explore that further?’ It was surprising.
There is, I believe, also an important notion in our profession. That of distinction. You must make something new. I don’t say that I am able to reinvent the wheel but it is my intention. I believe we have to go forward. I have faith in the future, and I hope in the end, that the future makes life more beautiful.
You said that ‘the idea is more important than the form, the idea should precede the form’. Could you ever consider something ‘ugly’ coming from a good idea? Or does a good idea always lead to a good design?
I was educated at a time when the modernist movement began: I don’t believe in form without content. I believe that each form has a content, even if it is ugly. The form is an expression of a way of thinking. There was this big discussion in the Netherlands, between Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn; about content and form. Jan van Toorn claimed he delivered content and he said that Wim Crouwel was too concerned with form. In fact, he was more aesthetically inclined than Wim Crouwel. In my opinion, the content of Wim Crouwel was perhaps much more valued because he was more driven by his curiosity and the will to work with new things.
That said, beauty is perhaps the most important thing in life. And also in design. That is what I believe. In fact, it is not possible to create beauty in a conscious way. It can only occur by accident. Of course you can learn from what you do, but for me, each time I see something beautiful that I like, and I find strong, it is by people who dare. In my life, the ‘square’ of Malevitch is very important. I grew up in a small village. One day, the teacher showed us this ‘square’, saying ‘look how beautiful it is’, but I couldn’t see the beauty. Afterwards, suddenly, I discovered the beauty of it. But the beauty came, more or less, from the fact that someone had dared to do things differently, to move forward. Now it’s not like that, you can make a square but it would have no value. But Malevitch’s gave me another way of looking at the world.
Design is all about making choices. How much do you rely on instinct or experience?
I believe in using your experience, but when you are young you have less experience. It becomes easier when you are older, but it is still a difficult thing. To make choices is not hard, the difficult thing is to know if you have made the right good choice or not. Especially when you try to make new things. As I discovered with my students, they always like to look for assurance, looking up to heaven, so that God tells them, ‘what you are doing is good’. There is no one there though. You have to find out by yourself, with experience. It is so wonderful to watch children playing. I wonder at what stage of life you lose this ability. Perhaps you have to find out for yourself a more relaxed way of doing things? In general we look too far. Although, I remember, in the beginning I could put something on the table, have a cigarette, look at it for hours and hours. But that doesn’t work, of course. I discovered that afterwards. But you like to wait until what you’re doing feels ok. I believe the best way to create beautiful things is to stay an amateur. However, that is a little bit difficult these days, especially with design education.
What importance do you give to details?
All my attention. I believe everything is important. Whether it be a big, well paid commission or simply a business card for your neighbor. In architecture for example, when you see a building by Mies van der Rohe and you go to the toilet, it is even a pleasure to stay there. But take this building which is definitely a really beautiful building, but in its detail, it’s terrible. I cannot even open the window. For me, it is made for the architect. There are details everywhere in our profession. A postage stamp in relation to a building or a book, is a detail in itself.
How do you see print in the future? Can it keep up with digital methods?
I believe that it will always exist. There was a big fear when the internet came along that books would disappear. Afterwards, there have only been more books, I get books everyday, I don’t even know what to do with them. Nethertheless, for certain kinds of information the computer is much better, it is easier or lighter. In such a box you can contain your whole library. That is unbelievable, that is wonderful in a way. But that’s not what the book is, a book is something different, another experience. They both have their advantages.
As a designer designs for the future, one has to be aware of new technologies and to work with them?
You are forced to do it in a way, whether you like it or not. Otherwise, you risk getting left by the wayside. I was lucky that I grew up in a time of the letterpress: everything was printed. A lot of designers, because of their criteria of beauty, stopped designing when the letterpress disappeared. But when you continue to idolise the past, it is not valued anymore. However nice it is, it is not updated to the current time or atmosphere. You are denying it in a way, you are closing you eyes to reality.
So it is the responsibility of the designer if he still wants to use these old techniques.
For me it is, but not everyone agrees. But other people have perhaps other motivation. Mine is not better that any other, but I believe strongly in it.
You said that ‘you can only make good things when the commissioner and designer understand each other […] and that more and more, those people in charge of companies are no longer interested in being a partner in such an adventure’, but they are purely motivated by profit.
When your commissioner does not agree, or is on a different wavelength or has another way of thinking, then stop. That is my experience. The best work is when it is a collaboration with the commissioner and a designer, where they need each other, understand each other, and are motivated in the same way. It’s nice when you can generate that kind of spirit with people from your own generation, that you become equals. Sometimes you have to deal with people who read too many books about marketing and swear by them. They can’t imagine that other approaches are possible. That design is not a formula. Many times in the past, I’ve had to say ‘I am sorry but we come from different worlds.’
In that case would you say the graphic designer is losing out?
Yes but you cannot go against yourself. I feel physically unhappy when I do such a job. I cannot sleep anymore. It’s not worth spoiling your life to do something that doesn’t seem right, it’s just not worth it. And the commissioner will get nothing out of it either.
How then do you see the future of graphic design, if there are more and more of these commissioners and the influence of marketing is increasing?
Indeed I have the feeling that it is the marketing people who make the world go round. They don’t have the same ambitions as us. The issue is now: how can I increase profits? But there are exceptions to the rule. At the moment, for me it’s not such a problem. In the past I was shy, I was not at ease expressing myself. But you quickly realise that people who are really successful are those who speak easily. It is not only about the design, you must also be able to tell a story You have to convince other people, it is important to be able to defend your work.
What projects did you most enjoy working on?
I have to say the one for the NAI. It was very special for me at that age, especially as identities are fashionable at the moment. I found it such a good idea from the director of the NAI to say ‘how, in one week, can we make 3 institutions into one institution?’. That is impossible! It would need a year to prepare a transition. But in the meantime, the merger should be visible for the outside world, and that was a seducing idea. I don’t know how, but I immediately had the feeling that I had to use existing material because otherwise you have to throw it away and then order new material for the transition year, then throw it away again… So I got three boxes of existing printed matter from the NAI, the Premsela and the Platform. We made stickers that you have to put on it, as a layer between the past and the future. I also liked to communicate with people from my world. I love working for people who think the way I think. I also liked the public’s appreciation, that they liked what had been done. Of course you need a kind of support, if you are working yourself hard and nobody says anything and you don’t have feedback, that is not so good…
Graphic design is often a compromise with the client’s expectations. Do you manage to reconcile this with what you want to do?
I can’t work if I have no input. Of course you have to convince your commissioner, but I believe that, first, you have to convince yourself. And of course you have to imagine yourself as the public, it is very different if the work is for children or for people in the fashion industry. But I repeat — because it is my ideal aim — you must stay true to yourself. You have to make compromises from time to time, but I have to say that, in the past, I was quite intransigent. I often refused projects because of that.
What stimulates you outside graphic design?
In fact, I am not fanatical about graphic design, so I like everything. Music, nature… lots of other things. But I like working. I am a workaholic, that is for sure.
You are very involved in teaching. What did you get out of your own education? Did it help you in your development as a designer?
As I told you before, it was not my first choice to go to art school. The first year there we had a teacher who was so bad that I considered giving up the school. And then he was replaced by another teacher, and for me, he was so inspiring that it was a joy. He talked a lot about music, fine arts, literature… I learned much more from him about literature than I did from high school. And he was the first person in my life, besides my parents, who believed in me. Because I was dyslexic, I always had the feeling that I was doing things badly, and then suddenly, there was a person that said ‘I like what you are doing’. That is unbelievably stimulating, having someone that trusts you. And I believe that it is important that you find someone who trusts you, so I was lucky to meet him.
What does education bring to you?
Being a teacher is perhaps also helpful to me. It is the best learning process you can have, to be still in contact with young people, to see how they are making decisions, daring to do things differently. I believe the main thing in life, also for a designer, is to dare to do something. Sometimes you have fantastic ideas in your mind and you never do anything with them, but you should, because then you have an experience that you couldn’t have had if it had stayed as just an idea. That is what young people are able to do and that gives me energy. If they dare to do something, why not me? Teaching is an exchange, and I have the feeling to get more out of it than them!
Do you have any advice for a young graphic designer?
Yes, follow your desires and your instinct. It is not enough that some else believes in you, but that you have to believe in yourself. That is the main problem, and I hope you manage it. And I believe that in life — but also in design — you need to understand your own principles: what do you enjoy doing and what makes you different from other designers?
(1) Printed Matter, Hyphen Press, 2010, pages 195-196