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//Freedom in a Group// – Sylwia Chutnik talks with Full Metal Jacket designers about creative freedom within a group and in the face of market expectations

Freedom in a Group – Sylwia Chutnik talks with Full Metal Jacket designers about creative freedom within a group and in the face of market expectations

Full Metal Jacket is a group formed by graphic designers: Jan Bersz (b. 1977, graduate of the Graphic Design Department of the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam), Jerzy Gruchot (b. 1976, graduate of the Graphic Design Department of the Academy of Fine Arts, Łódź) and Wojciech Koss (b. 1979, graduate of the Faculty of Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art and the Faculty of Graphic Arts, Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw). Since 2002, they have worked together in commercial design. They design publications (magazines, books, albums), CD covers, posters, graphic signs and animations, video clips, title sequences for film and TV. They have worked for, among others, TVP Kultura, Polsat, Film Polski, Helsinki Foundation, Ha!art, CSW Znaki Czasu in Toruń, Sony BMG, Prosto, designer Justyna Chrabelska, ‘Piktogram’ magazine and several theatres.

SYLWIA CHUTNIK: How do you organise your work: you are individual graphic designers, but you work together to create art. How does creative freedom work inside your group? Did you lay down any initial assumptions as to what this co-operation should look like?

FULL METAL JACKET: We first joined forces when we published the ‘Moment’ magazine at our own expense. It was a magazine about music, street art, graffiti and broadly conceived street culture, something that was very much up our alley in the early 2000s. Right then, it turned out that we had a similar aesthetic sensitivity – we have a similar take on designing and we understand each other well in this area. Besides, each one of us has skills that the others don’t. We knew we would complement each other well. When it comes to this total freedom you are asking about, we felt it when we worked on ‘Moment’. Unfortunately, we only managed to publish three issues – finances, of course – but it was a project that we could carry out with almost complete independence. We had a say in what kinds of texts to publish, we chose the topics, we designed cover art and the entire layout. We did everything just the way we wanted it to be. Although 10 years have passed since that time, we still meet people that appreciate what we did back then. Someone actually referred to ‘Moment’ as ‘protohipsterism’.

Let’s move from the macro scale, the magazine, where each one of you had the chance to find his own space and knock himself out, to the micro scale, for instance a CD cover, much more limited when it comes to designing space. Do you decide about everything together also within such projects?

What we do is meet and have a brainstorming session. Afterwards, we look for specific solutions. Sometimes each one of us prepares his own draft, consulting on the go with the others, and then we present several options for our client to choose. Sometimes one of us starts working on a project and then hands it over to someone else halfway. In this way, we can inspire each other and preserve a fresh outlook. Of course, it’s not as we never submit designs that have not been signed and ‘accepted’ by all members of the group.

Sometimes we accept certain orders not as a group but as individual designers. Of course this is not our main line of work, but even they we usually review each other’s drafts, we offer a lot of remarks or corrections.

When it comes to our group projects and their authorship, with time we stopped signing them with our names and, regardless of who actually prepared the design, we use the name Full Metal Jacket. In a way, this is similar to graffiti, where what counts is the quality of your ‘art’ and the status of your group, your individual name is not a thing you should try to advance. We are a team and that’s the most important thing to us.

What does this co-operation look like, technically?

Our desks are next to each other, so it’s really a co-operative. We spend more time together than with anyone else, including our families. You just sit next to someone and consult each other’s ideas. If one of us feels the vibe better, he is the one to continue working on a given assignment. We also know each other well enough to be sometimes able to say right off the bat who will be the best one to prepare a given design. This makes a lot of things easier and helps us organise.

You work for many different clients, from cultural institutions and commercial partners to artists...

In reality, the groups you mentioned are not that different at all. These clients expect very similar solutions. They commission publications, exhibition designs, visual identities or animations. But we designed, for instance, a comprehensive graphic identity for a new bar – including the website, menu and flyers; we also prepared a calendar for a shipyard and a logo for a music label. However, what is crucial for us is not the client’s profile but the co-operation mode. Obviously, it is better to work with clients that are more aware, especially when they decide to trust you from the very beginning. Someone knows our designs and therefore decides to co-operate with us – this is the most comfortable situation. In such cases we are more satisfied with the results of our work and our designs are simply better.

We are not an advertising agency, so most client come to us knowing what to expect. Of course, there are some exceptions. Especially when too many people on the client side want to have control over the final project. Sometimes there are some complications, for instance when we prepare a complete design for a publication and the text are not ready yet. The client approves a layout and only then gets the final texts. It turns out that the content does not match the layout and we are forced to reconstruct our concept.

In general, the final result usually testifies to the quality of co-operation between us and the client. We can tell.

To what extent can your artistic freedom find an expression within an assignment in which, for instance, the client prefers brighter colours and bigger logos?

Yes, our freedom is usually limited, because we have to prepare a larger logotype, but we are the experts and thus we are sometimes able to convince our clients that their vision is not necessarily the best. We just know our trade and we present substantive arguments to support our concepts. Unfortunately, there are cases when clients who have nothing to do with graphic design just know everything better. We had a situation in which we just gave up on fighting for our vision and we submitted the design in the form that our client had created. In that case, we expressed our artistic freedom by not signing the project.

Obviously, since clients pay for our work, we always need to account for their expectations to some extent. However, we cannot allow for a situation in which we would be treated as mere tools that are proficient in some graphic software.

If you were to paint a picture of a typical Polish client, what would it look like?

Thanks to the specific nature of our work, we don’t usually deal with the typical client. Most of the people who contact us know what we do and how we do it. The concept of a typical client seems very broad. We did have orders such as a fantasy book cover or a medicine ad. However, we do try to, within reason, choose clients who operate more or less within our circle of interest. Typical clients usually go to advertising agencies. For instance, we almost never work for big corporations. Not that we are opposed to capitalists on principle; it’s just that the exorbitant costs of large campaigns are better absorbed by big agency structures. No one will turn to three guys sitting in a room at Belwederska Street, when they can choose a big company. Corporate clients are afraid of taking the risk of employing a niche graphic design studio. On the other hand, quite often it is the agency that employs an artist and knows very well what it wants. They create the campaign and hire a particular, recognisable artist to carry out their vision.

So, there comes the time when the final draft is ready. What does the meeting with the client look like, how much flexibility can you afford? Do you fight for your concept?

For us, graphic design is also a lesson in assertiveness. It is quite difficult indeed. Sometimes it kicks in too late, when you can no longer go back. We never say: no, end of topic. The truth is that the economic situation does not allow us to stamp our feet, even if sometimes we would so much love to do it. We usually feel that we have put so much time and effort into a project that it would make no sense to give up. And the competition is growing.

Lack of designated decision makers – or too many of them, for that matter – is also a problem. Sometimes there is an entire pack of people: sponsors, partners, and everyone wants to have a say. The struggle for a bigger logo begins.

Actually, logotypes and their positioning on posters are a huge topic in the context of freedom. This is a separate job and we sometimes laugh we should charge additional money for it. Quite often, logotype positioning takes up almost half of our work on a poster. We explain that the design will look better if, for instance, all logotypes have just one colour and size, but this is where the question of brand promotion comes in, so aesthetic values are, unfortunately, on the backburner. It doesn’t always look so well. In our opinion, it is a typically Polish phenomenon: you make a poster for one event, have 200 logotypes and 100 people attending. This logo battle simply does not make any sense. Posters used to be beautiful. Now they are like a garbage bag – these images disrupt the composition.

You said you sometimes see a red light and nevertheless go further and further. At what point are you able to accept and artistic compromise?

Let’s be careful when using the word ‘artistic’ in reference to graphic design. If someone wants to be an artist, there are other ways. We don’t do many strictly artistic projects. Our first concern is whether the project is actually legible to the addressee. It has to be professionally executed.

Freedom is restricted for instance by certain principle of typography, for instance legibility. Quite often, it proves to be an impediment, because we work within a certain framework. We stick to these rules very strictly and it hardly helps us with the artistic vision, but then again, it affects the final quality of the design. We can be certain everything is executed well.

Contemporary design ideas may be pretty original, but it doesn’t automatically mean they are carefully executed. We are much more interested in good quality typesetting for a book than creating a one hundred percent artistic project. Graphic design is similar to architecture, only it’s 2D. You have to have a reliable foundation; otherwise there is no point in creating artsy projects. It is like a well-executed piece of craft.

There is currently a huge debate about intellectual property rights in the context of internet. Loans, copying – what is your take on that issue?

We often use internet resources to make our collages for video clips. The internet offers a lot of possibilities, you can use creative commons pictures, which is so much better than using archives like before. We can also buy a lot of stuff on the internet, for instance fonts.

When we started, there was not that much access to the internet. In those times, researching information was a nightmare job for art students. You had to do a lot of running around and searching. It is a whole lot easier now. On the other hand, we are witnessing the process of gradual unification. Graphic design from Japan or Oregon is slowly losing its distinct style. There are obviously designers that preserve their unique, not only local character, but we do see a lot of processing, of calques. It may be compared to the return of the stamp: modifiable, alterable, but with certain basic features.

Have you ever seen your own work on the internet, but modified, used in a different manner than you intended?

It’s happened for instance with the mermaid symbol designed for the Mamsam mug. We have seen it in at least two ‘adaptations’ of sorts. Of course you never know if it is just an accident or blatant plagiarism. Ideas go around, you can’t always be sure who was first to come up with a certain solution. Similar thinking patterns lead to similar designs. It happens to us sometimes – you design something and then someone shows you a similar product. The question is: did you see it some time ago and it just came back to you, unconsciously, or is it completely yours, invented from scratch. It’s difficult to say.

Are there cases when you agree to work for someone, tell them about your initial idea, and then this person implements it without your services?

We have heard it happens to others. There are situations in which the client is quite frank about it: ‘I commissioned one designer to do this for me, he did, and then I saw the result and decided I could do this by myself. Am I breaking the law?’ (laughter).

‘Ma’am, can we cheat?’

Exactly.

If you were to look at the market from the perspective of your 10 years in business, what would you say about its current state?

A lot has changed. Only the prices remained the same. There are many uneducated people whose greatest achievement was to learn some Photoshop or Illustrator skills. They call themselves designers. Software access is almost unlimited. In theory, anyone could do this. And this is frustrating, because these people not only ruin the rates but also, most importantly, the quality.

On the other hand, the internet has made many new trends popular, such as for instance clarity and simplicity in design. The clients are also increasingly aware of graphic design trends, they are open to new ideas and have greater knowledge. If you compare it with the 1990s aesthetics of ‘heaven can wait’ and relishing the possibilities of graphic design, we have definitely made some progress.

Our work also changed in that we now have bigger and more important projects. Quite often, we are responsible for the entire implementation process, including, for instance, printing. We are growing. There is always room for improvement. You learn something and then it turns out that you could be better. New publications, flow of information and people – everything is in motion.

We grew up in the People’s Republic, the reality of that era had a strong impact on our aesthetic sensitivity. Then we started our education – we were shaped by modernism, Swiss and Dutch design, with some of our favourite designers including Wim Crouwel, Karel Martens, Mevis & Van Deursen, Will Holder, Stuart Bailey, Cornel Windlin, Herb Lubalin, Saul Bass, Henryk Tomaszewski, Bogusław Balicki, Karol Śliwka and groups such as Norm, Experimental Jetset and Electro Smog. In general, we appreciate compositional clarity. Less is more.

Although all of us graduated from art schools, you need to learn the craft on your own. You are the only one who can decide whether to invest in your imagination and use a vast variety of resources.

Will this craft earn you a retirement pension?

No. In this respect, we are artists through and through!