fr/en Max Kisman
Your work reflects an involvement with society, as your participation in Illustration Daily proves. How did you get into this particular field?
Everybody is somehow involved in society, more or less. Because all
the things you do will have an effect on the people around you. But you can have different goals (commercial, social, supportive or political). Actually, when I went to art school, in the 70’s, a lot of things were going on politically. That was the period of the Vietnam War and the Cold War. We were worried about the neutron bomb and the atomic threat. There were a lot of uncertainties concerning society. As students, we were conscious of the situation and more or less critical. That was one thing. During the course of graphic design, we realized that the work we were doing had a certain impact on the people you are communicating to, or are designing for or designing with. You could put a different angle on the information, especially visual information, just by changing one or more aspects. This is true for photographs, the way you take them suggests whether it is a representation of reality or not. Because it is about the point of view. If you try to take the same photograph from a different position, you will have a different angle. So different angles will change the interpretation of reality. The whole idea of the power of manipulation in communication is becoming a very big responsibility for anyone who is involved in the information process: what are you writing and what are you not writing? What are you showing and what are you not showing? Moreover, in the period before computers, photomontage was highly developed. There were very good examples of photo manipulations in the newspapers. I was becoming aware of this at that time. On the one hand, we had a teacher, Jan van Toorn, who taught social involvement and that philosophy. On the other hand, we had Wim Crouwel. So there were two approaches to graphic design: Wim Crouwel and the Swiss influence, and Jan van Toorn. The difference between the two was very much about the issue of one’s responsibility as a graphic designer. Can you say ‘I am not responsible, I am just doing a job, I set my letters and make beautiful things’? Or would you admit that whatever you made would have an effect on what it is used for? That is my background.
You describe the context. But to what extent did you decide which kind of projects you wanted to work on, in the beginning?
I started to work with a friend and we tried hard to give our interpretation
and translation to design problems. We were very involved in the design and editorial process. I think you could translate the social involvement into editorial engagement, because you are part of the editorial process. Design or layout is nothing more than the result of editorial process: what content will you select, use and how will you present it, in what order? It has to do with shaping the content. It is not visual yet, and then it is transformed into the design. You can say that the design is just the technical part, in my opinion, it needs to be part of the overall process and, as a designer, you need to be involved in the process from A to Z.
What is the role of a designer in our society?
His or her responsibility is to enable information to be accessible, in whatever way.
Do you have a duty to objectivity as a graphic designer?
I don’t have an objective point of view and I don’t want to have one. The context you are working with is not an objective situation, nothing is objective. Everything is an interpretation and a translation because there is no truth. It doesn’t exist. Actually, it doesn’t really matter. It is good to do it from your own subjective point of view and to have that commitment, because this is the only way to do it. So I think it is really important to give space to different ways to express opinions, whether you agree or disagree.
What nourishes you outside graphic design?
Music, art, travelling, language, my children...
About typefaces, in an interview with Peter Bil’ak in 1994, you said ‘There is no meaning in type design, all is decoration’. You appreciated in contrast graphic design which is ‘challenging, brutal and takes risks, which is not commercial and expresses ideas or emotions, which is involved with society’(1). Don’t you think that these notions can also be applied to typography?
Yes, well, all depends on personality. If you, as a person, are engaged, it would be reflected in the work you do, the choices you make. I think, basically, that typography is decoration for content. Because you need typography that helps you read more easily. Any choice of a type designer reflects the ideas about how information will be represented. I think that decoratively it shows a different identity and therefore directs the information. I haven’t really answered your question, I know…
Tijd, We love your, MaxMix-One… Aren’t these illustrative typographies in fact decorative?
I don’t really consider myself as a type designer, I am drawing letters. I make my own typefaces to establish a stronger identity for the product rather than using the cultural references of a typeface. These are display typefaces. I have never designed them as decorative forms, there is always a thought behind which pushes the limits of the letterform. That is why I wouldn’t call them illustrative typefaces.
You have a typographic background, how does it affect your illustrations?
I don’t see my images as illustrations, I see them much more as pictographs and ‘graphic pictorial symbols’. They have a stronger relationship to typography or graphic shapes than to illustrations. As for the link with typography, we can see, for example in the John Cale poster for Paradiso, a relationship between form and counter form that I exploited a little bit more later in the Tegentonen poster, with geometric shapes. These experiments express a sort of engagement in pushing the limits of typography and design. Another thing which is important in my work is the curved line. The only way to have the best curved line is by drawing by hand. This preoccupation comes from my type design teacher, Gerard Unger. So the relationship here with typography is also clear, in a way.
Your motto is ‘the complexity of simplicity’. It implies making choices… For example, to illustrate articles in the newspapers, you said that you were making ‘visual headlines’. Can you tell me about this aspect of choice in your work?
Sometimes it is pretty hard. For example, today I am working on an illustration on Syria for an essay in a financial daily. After reading the article I am always looking for opposite values, one or two, which I can use as a narrative of the image. I am looking for some kind of universal vocabulary, without illustrating it too much, or taking it too literally. Looking for visuals elements that can symbolize an interpretation. If you put the same image in a different context, it will be read in a different way.
Do you have any advice for a young designer?
It is very important to record your ideas, don’t keep them in your head: make, or draw or sketch. This will help you to develop and visualize your ideas and to discover your limitations. And you can use the limitations of your skills to develop yourself differently. Originality is linked more to limitations rather than the idea of possibilities. Exploit limitations into an advantage: if you know what they are, you can develop them into your signature. But what is very important is practice, every day and all day long, like professional athletes or musicians. You must practice your technical skills, but also know how to use them and what choices to make. Graphic design is only about making choices. Whether they are good or bad does not really matter. The fact that you make a choice is more important than the outcome of that choice.
(1) Max Kisman, graphic designer, by Peter Bil'ak, 2004, https://www.typotheque.com/articles/max_kisman_graphic_designer