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//How Much Experiment Can There Be// A reprint of an interview with Edgar Bąk from A Billion Things Around. Agata Szydłowska Talks With Polish Graphic Designers (Karakter Publishing House)

How Much Experiment Can There Be A reprint of an interview with Edgar Bąk from A Billion Things Around. Agata Szydłowska Talks With Polish Graphic Designers (Karakter Publishing House)

AGATA SZYDŁOWSKA: How did it start?

EDGAR BĄK: When I was fourteen I used to record night broadcasts with metal music. For more than a year I recorded them at night to watch them later. This one time I must have accidentally reprogrammed the recorder because it had registered a different broadcast. It was Saturday afternoon, everyone was in the living room, I put the tape in and instead of hearing metal music I saw a video clip with just a couple of looped sounds, running for twelve minutes. It was composed of fragments of hundreds of old films in which someone was answering the phone. I was dumbfounded. A new universe opened up before my eyes and I didn’t really understand it. I did not know what that was about. Some sort of electronic music, home-made video clips, deep underground, no sponsor, everything was completely amateur and just honest. It was the first video art I had ever seen, some loosely edited, abstract images and sounds. It was then that I decided to study graphic design.

What was the connection between these clips and design?

I realised that there was a world somewhere in which I could also affect people like that. I could make them feel what I had felt at that moment.

So it was not about communicating some particular message but rather about artistic expression?

Yes, it was about expression. The things I do now are also based on expression. I learnt that they had to function, be active, democratic. It is always a certain kind of expression.

So you are more of an artist than a graphic designer.

I started out that way but I never had the courage to become an artist.

Why?

I don’t think that art is that important in life. I may assume with some hesitation that it is, but it is a very personal thing to me. In order to be an artist, you need to be one hundred percent sure that what you do is meaningful. I am not. I have too much irony in me. Artists should not be ironic about their work. They claim that their works exist because they have to, because without them the world would be a sadder place. I don’t think that about my work and thus I have never become an artist.

What does graphic design mean for you?

Graphic design showed me that I could create functional items and at the same time tackle something more ambiguous. It means that I work in visual communication but I let my hair down a little.

Is this a compromise between a sceptical attitude towards art and a need for expression?

It is not a compromise. I just found a place in which these two elements work together. Compromise usually has negative connotations, something happens at the expense of something else. In my situation it’s different. It’s an area of activity that allows you to do both.

So where are the customer, the end user, functionality etc.?

Well, in the 1990s I hardly thought about the end user. I just felt the power of designing.

And now?

Now it’s the most important thing, absolutely.

I was a bit surprised with what you said about expression. Is this a good word?

Yes. You’re serious? You’ve seen my works, they are about... expression!

Well it happens quite often that I suspect some designers of wanting to express themselves but nobody admits that. It’s not fashionable. Expression is a thing of the past, where people considered designers to be artists with something of their own to say. Today we are more pragmatic: something needs to be made, fulfil some role, respond to a task, solve a problem, and then you get the end result.

Yes, you are right, but I think that people come to me also for expression. They want things to be done in a certain way, more or less the one I have followed so far. I provide them with products that carry a certain way of thinking. This is expression. In other words, what I do should have an effect on people, in one way or another. Both intellectually and emotionally.

This explains why you co-operate mostly with cultural institutions. They seem to be more open-minded.

Yes, I do think so. Or the solutions I have put forward resonate well with their audience. This is a good target group because in a sense it is close to my heart. We were raised on the same texts and fed the same myths. It’s a bit as if I were talking to myself. On the other hand, finished products attract new orders, still in a way similar. Fortunately or not, the projects in my portfolio are usually only the second or third version that I decided to propose. Quite often they are not the first drafts because those were deemed too radical. And our clients are usually right.

Why?

I still live this clash between a person that needs freedom of expression and a professional that makes something for clients and people in general. Clients are quite often right because my first draft might not have had the same impact.

They are too experimental?

Yes. And then there is the question: how much experiment can there be in graphic design? What is the sense of design? Is it a sort of mental masturbation? Why do people criticise graphic design as such? Will it make the world a better place?

You say that you identify with the target group of participants of culture because you use the same language. Does this translate into any particular visual idiom?

We all produce similar designs, not only in Warsaw but around the world in general. It seems that graphic design is very limited. When I got tired with a certain type of constantly recurring commercial design solutions, it turned out that everyone in my generation was tired. We all produce good projects but they are all similar. There is nothing bad in it provided that people keep thinking. Such are our times that everything is similar: music is just the same as twenty, ten, five or fifty years ago. Nothing new in fashion as well. Just look at us! We look like our parents. Starting with our shoes, we have nothing that comes from 2012. Maybe only your glasses are something that wasn’t there before.

Probably not. And you don’t have a moustache.

Not everyone sported a moustache. Everything looks more or less just as before. And the same thing applies to design. Of course I am generalising.

Where does it stem from? Is this some sort of a graphic design genie that floats in the air and colonises computers?

Good question. People always used forms that they already knew but they never had such easy access to them as the one that internet offers today. It is definitely important. A bold theory has formed in my mind. The iron curtain fell down and superpowers stopped competing about which one of them would be the first to reach the Moon or Mars. In 2011, space shuttles were retired from service. We have just as good as stopped talking about the exploration of the cosmos. As a result, there is nothing to feed our dreams of the future. This is the second reason. And the third: we seem to be increasingly aware of how much our imperial drive brought about destruction to everything we had conquered. We start to appreciate the things we have here and now, knowing that we don’t need to compete and always be the first. There is probably a lot more in it. When I go on the internet, I see a lot of things that seem to have been created by the same person. Maybe we mistake a certain style for design. Trendy fonts and colours are one thing, but ideas, narratives, story, this is something that builds the connection between you and your audience. Having a relevant, trendy style may indeed help you because it stems from a certain median of pop culture in which your demographic participates. Even so, when I read blogs I am very quick about fishing out the things that really work and are oriented towards the outside world from among mere aspirations. So yes, the idea always counts the most.

So modernism and the future orientation have come to a close and we now focus on the present, the past, the local. It’s not only about finding something new; you need to stop and take a look around. That’s the overall tendency. Warsaw, Zurich, New York – everyone goes for the same solutions. You as well.

Yes, absolutely. I was stupefied when I was posted on Trendlist. Such a grand scale really makes an impression. Only on reflection did I realise that you could list just about anything in this manner. However, what I feel is mine and it’s authentic. It doesn’t matter that five thousand people around the world feel exactly the same. What counts is that they are all authentic.

So it’s natural...

Of course it’s natural. To compare it once again to clothes... It’s like a Japanese sweater that is popular all around the world. Everything is everywhere.

So where’s the local in all of this?

In Senegal.

But let’s take for instance at the ‘WAW’ project. It’s embedded in the local, just look at the vernacular typography you used. To my mind, graphic design in Warsaw is a bit different than in other cities or countries, don’t you think?

Well, at this point, or actually it has always been like that, we are the most developed country of the former Eastern bloc and so we can use our heritage in a creative way. This is something that the rest of Europe and the world had never had. We are different in that we can go back to our 60s modernism and 90s liberty. Europe did not have such 1990s. They know nothing about wild capitalism. This is our strength. In relation to other former people’s democracies, Poland is so far ahead that it can look back upon its history with distance and sense of humour.

The 1990s, modernism, the local – do you refer to these terms deliberately? You’re saying that design is the same everywhere but we do have something different, something particular to us only...

That’s interesting because if I were to go to California, I wouldn’t know how to work. I would have to redesign my entire way of thinking, of perceiving reality. How do I refer to the 1990s and modernism? I wasn’t aware of that before but it’s an enormous force that you can incorporate and that resonates afterwards. We were all raised in the same culture. Some remember it better, some not so much, but it did shape us all. And that’s the energy that enables creation.

You once said that you and a number of your colleagues design in the way that you do because you were raised in Poland in the 1990s.

It was a powerful experience. We are still in the People’s Republic or remember the People’s Republic and at the same time someone mounts a street stall or a camp bed, starts selling meat and fixes their own prices. Even the beer boards in seaside resorts: this is something that you live in, whether you like it or not. On one hand you have MTV video clips and on the other you can’t help seeing what’s around you all the time. This is a unifying cultural code that we all know. We can’t go and pretend it’s not there and we would be unreasonable not to use it. It turns out that you can create a perpetuum mobile out of it if you approach it with some distance and sense of humour.

You have mentioned that you first like to work out the working principle, the system.

I am interested in situations in which I can follow the process itself. This is when the form is not as important as the language used to construct the model. Just like in programming, you first write the code and then it does something. I think I’ve been able to create designs that work like an equation with an independent result. I prepared the grammar and forms and the final result springs from there.

So how does this system work in practice?

I created the ‘Surowy’ zine in this way, also the visual identity of Sinfonia Varsovia Centre[1] works with this model. Sinfonia was designed as a space for multiple activities. Of course it is to a large extent the seat of an orchestra, but the building was to be reconstructed so that it could host art exhibitions, organise concerts, lectures, meetings, screenings or house a sculpture park. This open-end form determined my choices: it was either a simple, somewhat austere logotype or something really elaborate. Then there was the question of how to put some discipline into an intricate project. How to make it work, be recognisable and have all the features of a functional visual identity and at the same time symbolise this broad spectrum of activities? People had to remember the logo and sense the general message: we do a lot and everyone will find something to suit their taste. Finally I designed a grammar and a set of symbols by assuming that some forms may mean various things in various contexts. The more interpretations the better. I prepared a dozen elements in a network, so that they were easy to compose afterwards, and divided them into four groups. You could project them onto a chart in which one line would describe the relationships between whether a given domain of art was more temporal, changing or static and visual. The second presented the same relationship in a more material, sensual manner. Through the first one, we charted the perception of the given art or domain, while the second one painted its physical image, i.e. whether something was immobile or not. In this way I could roughly assign various arts to various groups, like theatre, based on time and movement, or sculpture, based only on time, or photography and painting, both static and visual, etc. In the next stage, I put the logotype, which incorporated these forms, through an algorithm. It evolved and adapted to the space it had available or the context in which it existed. It spread out through the entire poster and cumulated in the left-hand corner, just like a shoal, on letterhead. The same process happened in space, within the building itself, and on all print-outs and posters.

Tell as more about ‘Surowy’.

Fashion is a difficult area, based predominantly on style. In this case, the task was quite easy in terms of design: I had to create a coherent fashion magazine from the material provided by several dozen course participants and winners of the Poznan Art and Fashion Festival competition. Everything was supervised by Hania Rydlewska and Marcin Różyc. As an art director, I had to tackle the exceptionally diverse material I had at my disposal, put it all together. I came up with the idea of a simple, black frame and its variations. We were able to include or exclude its sides and this gave us a rich repertoire of simple forms. On the one hand, they were a strong accent at the beginning of each article, on the other they were varied and worked well with the pictures taken by the group of interns headed by Kuba Dąbrowski. They were also responsible for the rhythm of the entire magazine and, as an algorithm, formed the cover. It is just a group portrait of various personalities that got together to create something new. We overexposed the whole magazine and overlapped the black elements that formed part of article headlines. In other words, the cover was not planned ahead, nobody designed it, it was a sum total. What counted most was the process. And well, that was all this festival was about, wasn’t it?

You are also designing the visual identity of the New Theatre. What is it based on? Do you allude to the previous image or rather ignore it altogether?

I decided to start from scratch. This is one of the projects in which the object to be described is not that easy to capture. On one hand, a single, tell-it-all sign is hard to obtain, and on the other having a defined identity is crucial. I adopted a different approach than in the case of Sinfonia Varsovia Centre, although this institution also organises a wide variety of events. It’s a theatre first and foremost, but for a long time it will also be a place that stimulates the life of the city through many subtle activities. Let’s take for instance the ‘Do It Yourself’ series, where experienced people teach us some unique skills. How to put it all together under one clear, simple sign? The shared feature that both the theatre and these sessions have in common is the stage. If we were to describe it in as abstract and general terms as possible, it is either a simple plain or its outline, the limits of this place. And hence the outline, the simplest gesture of circumscribing, of limiting, a description – this is what the logo of the New Theatre is all about. Two thick, vertical lines with an inscription in the middle.

How do you transpose this image onto other elements of identity?

The idea is simple: if something needs to be highlighted, I use a line. It works when something is below and in front of something. We can imagine it spatially: something is in front of, behind, below, from, to, between. And the logotype is flexible and capacious.

Of course in this type of projects, just as in the case of Sinfonia Varsovia, there must be one, unchangeable sign. The New Theatre identity encompasses a whole range from a simple sign to all the unpredictable situations that will take place one day.

It seems that this approach is becoming more and more popular: don’t design one logo but a modifiable system to answer various needs. Like the White Cat Studio and the Netia logo.

A fantastic example of visual identity. I think we are starting to understand in Poland that a brand is not just its logo but people’s approach towards what is branded. If the audience is to feel something, it may feel it in a broader sense. Not only when they see the same sign each time.

At the same time, does a cultural institution even need branding?

I think that anyone who wants to communicate something in the modern world has to try to be quite unique in their expression. Branding helps your audience save time as they do not need to familiarise themselves each time with something new. They already have a certain intuition, a capital.

What will the posters look like, then? Will you work on each one separately or is there a sort of a template?

The New Theatre’s policy assumes that each event should be serviced by a different designer. What I proposed constitutes the backbone, albeit quite often invisible, of everything that comes out of their factory.

For several years now, you have been working on the visual identity of the Krakow Photomonth. How did your preliminary ideas changed? Is there any permanent element?

Ever since I started there has been just this one idea actually. It had a grand entrance on the first poster and then was developed over the years. 2012 was exceptional in that it was the ten-year anniversary of the festival, a point of departure for that year’s identity, and on the other hand this edition was more ‘for the people’ when compared with the previous, very curatorial event. We did not come up with any single, bonding idea, but we were able to feel that this festival was for the audience. We turn the lens around, the addressees are not passive people that just follow a predetermined path. They define the shape of the festival.

How did you solve it when working on the identity?

The 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ brought back the grassroots, human and emotional way of communicating. It turned out that societies had a voice. Like never before, people were keen on expressing their views through photography. This last visual identity was to a large extent like a ‘blank page’ through which people could show what they liked to see during the festival, what annoyed them and what they loved. The poster was a sort of an empty space that encouraged interference.

And what role did other elements play?

The concept was well thought-out: from the group of brand ambassadors to technology, through events preceding the festival etc. I know that there is a cost-friendly, economical way in which, using our technical resources and sponsors, we can launch a communication channel.

It’s more of a marketing concept than design.

Yes, definitely. I prepared it together with Krzysztof Białkowski.

I think that when there is not so much to design, the concept of grassroots involvement may actually be translated into a poster. What about other elements of identity? Were they untranslatable? Or was it that you decided not to include them in the visuals?

I am aware that graphic design will not take care of everything. It is indispensible but on the other hand it is just a part of a broader band through which you reach people. What we do is called visual communication; there are also other channels. Branding is the best and the most effective when everything works together. This last time we worked in a bigger team and I was just one of the elements.

You have said that we had an outbreak of grassroots, civil involvement. Not just the ‘Arab spring’ but also other movements: the indignados, Occupy, etc. You think that people started communicating through photography. I would venture that they also use design, which took a very special place in this context. There were slogans written out on cardboards, posters made in the street. I think that these movements will finally have their impact on design. You didn’t want to use it? To tread this path?

It wasn’t about simple mimicking, about using a style that had been created elsewhere for completely different ends. What I concentrated on the most was the general strategy: how to communicate the festival, not just what the poster should look like. The poster has a certain function within a certain scope and I realise that its final design is not all that important for the way in which people will perceive the whole festival.

So graphic design is off stage?

It is usually somewhere in the background. There is a lot of interesting things that were not created on a computer. They are concepts or ideas. This is what I like the most right now.

Is this still design or has it evolved into something else entirely?

Let’s call it communication.

You have said that when it comes to posters, what is more important for you is some dose of originality, whereas systems may operate with virtually the same visual elements.

This is a trap that comes with working on big systems. The bigger something is, the wider its scope, the more the designer has to consider the audience, which is not always as well-versed in aesthetics as he or she is, may perceive the design language a bit differently and may come from various environments, countries and cultures. This is why you need to be very careful when choosing the common denominator. You need to agree to some form of unification – this is a question of effectiveness, as important as graphic education and implementing one’s own intuitions.

So what happens if someone sees the New Theatre identity and says, ‘Well, Edgar was here’? ‘Surowy’ had similar elements, didn’t it?

Nothing happens, just as I don’t take an issue with Trendlist. I realise we live in a time where all forms repeat themselves. The whole communication is about speaking through shared forms, to oneself and to others. We want our message to be understandable both for the communicator and the receiver. If a project is to resonate with our times and with what people perceive as emotionally positive, it needs to use a certain set of forms. It has always been so! The exceptional individualism of designers is a myth. We have always served something or someone. We are not artists. In our times, we need to redefine our understanding of who a designer is. Everything changes and yet we still cling to twentieth-century mythologies. Graphic design has a certain limited number of forms and combinations. Never before has anyone needed such a great number of individual, small brands as we now do. It is only natural that we are running out of forms. We need to accept that. As I have said before, the story and the idea come first.

[1] A team project by Edgar Bąk and Robert Mendel.