What follows is a chat with Linda King (programme chair of Visual Communication Design at IADT) on the importance of ‘staying foreign’, being a bad intern (at Studio Dumbar), founding a pirate radio station dedicated to typography, and what I would read and listen to on a desert island.
Did you move to Holland as a child?
While I was born in the UK, my parents are Greek and they moved around a lot. I went to a British school in Greece, I moved to Paris [Parson’s] for college and then I did my post-graduate studies in London [RCA]. I worked in London [Pentagram] after graduation and then moved to the Netherlands.
What perspectives did those experiences give you?
Living in the UK had a big impact on me but living in the Netherlands more so. The way of communicating is very different here as people are really, really direct. The first year I moved here I suffered; I would show work and everyone would give an opinion – as everyone here is equal – and it was horrible. In England people have a sort of code when speaking and when they say something is ‘interesting’ you know it’s probably the opposite. If someone really doesn’t like your work they won’t tell you straight to your face, but if you learn the code you understand what is being said. When I came to the Netherlands I doubted everything I did, I thought I was a terrible designer and nobody liked my work. The first year was very difficult. But now I think I have become more Dutch than the Dutch. Now my colleagues say ‘Liza, maybe you should be a little more polite!’
So many of Studio Dumbar’s projects have been for the Dutch Government or various local authorities and it could be argued that the studio has visualised the infrastructure of contemporary Holland. Do you think that having cultural distance gave you a particular insight into how you could project ideas of Dutch or local identity?
I always say that in terms of working it is important to ‘stay foreign’. I really believe that if you are one step outside a culture you are able to see difference and it helps your design approach in terms of seeing new possibilities. Visiting the Netherlands you see things that people living here a hundred years won’t see, you look at everything with fresh eyes. I think because I moved around I’m always in this position of being foreign. I’m here in the Netherlands ten years and I’m not Dutch, I’ll never be Dutch and I speak Dutch with a terrible accent. But I try to keep that position as it’s important for designing that you don’t fall into the rut of doing the same things and getting the same answer. I’m constantly trying to see things for the first time. In the Netherlands they make these big statements that foreigners should integrate, learn the language etc. and while I think you should integrate, you should also maintain an outsider’s point of view in relation to design.
One noticeable quality in Studio Dumbar’s output is that the work is not formulaic. That must be quite difficult to achieve as there are many companies that have a standardized approach to designing.
With other studios you have a Creative Director and they very much have a signature style; that was my experience at Pentagram. The people that join us in Studio Dumbar are usually straight out of college and many of them are interns. We get to know them and it’s important that they have their own way of working and their own design visions. Our job is to try and push their talents as far as possible and that brings diversity. Again, it’s the idea of ‘staying foreign’ because when you are straight out of college everything is new and possible and you don’t know the limitations, but find these out quickly. When someone is 23 they might take twenty times longer to find a solution but that can be very exciting as their potential is unlimited. I think that is why our portfolio is diverse; we try to make everyone as independent as possible. Our designers usually stay five to six years and then go on to start their own studios.
When you were a young designer did you have a particular mentor that encouraged you?
When I was in art school in Paris there was a teacher there that always said: ‘It’s not about design, it’s about the way you live, everything you do is design’. He was important as he believed in me. Later on I had a friend who pushed me to go abroad, to go to London and study at the RCA, he also told me about Dutch design. When I was studying at the RCA there were few design books available and no internet. My friend told me that I should go to the Netherlands because that is where they were doing crazy design work and he really opened my eyes to see beyond Paris. Now I find the people here in the studio really inspiring. When we talk about design everyone sees things so differently and the discussions we have keep me going.
You started in Studio Dumbar as an intern and came back as the Creative Director.
That was never the plan! Actually my internship was not the best internship. I remember the first day as the worst day. They gave me this PTT manual, which is now considered to be very special, and I thought it was the most horrible thing I’d seen. I thought the design was all over the place, the illustrations were horrible and it was a manual. At the end of the day I thought ‘Seriously? I’m reading instructions about where to put a logo on a letterhead?’ But they were so proud of the project and I really did not see that. What I enjoyed most was the people and the culture but I was not an exceptional intern. However, I did get along with everyone and kept in contact and that was useful in terms of getting to know the company very well.
The kind of projects you undertake at Studio Dumber – many of which are governmental sponsored projects – is work that every citizen in the Netherlands knows very well. Do you feel a weight of responsibility about that?
Yes, of course, but I try not to think about it. It’s a bit double edged: if you think about it too much then you don’t do anything because you think ‘This is so much responsibility, how am I going to manage this project?’ In the studio we often forget how public the projects are and are reminded when walking around when see so many logos designed by Studio Dumbar: they are part of the fabric of the country. With public projects you become very aware that people care about their country and how public money is spent. They can react quite harshly and we can become the focus of such discussions because budgets are made public. As soon as the work becomes public everybody gets involved and it’s worse now with social media as it’s really easy to give any comment, educated or uneducated. In the beginning I found this quite hard to deal with as I didn’t realize the impact our projects would have and the reactions they would get. I now get worried if I don’t get any reaction!
I interviewed Massimo Vignelli once and he said that designing for a national airline was the most prestigious project a designer could do. Do you have any ambitions to redesign the KLM identity now that Studio Dumbar’s redesign for its subsidiary – Transavia – has been such a success?
I would not touch the KLM mark as it’s a really, really beautiful design by Henrion. I really admire it and the signature blue colour; it’s important KLM keep those. Of course there are some small tweaks you could do but to do a complete redesign is not something I would recommend. As a designer you usually want to mark everything with your own stamp, but with KLM it’s different, it has too much heritage and equity.
A lot of innovative Dutch design exists in relatively unexpected places, for instance the identity you did for VBMS, the power installation company. The project reminds me of Piet Zwart’s designs for Nerderlandsche Kabelfabriek (NKF) in the 20s and 30s and how he made the mundane look remarkable.
That’s an interesting observation because those are the kind of projects I find the most exciting as if you can achieve great results with a project like VBMS then you are the first to do so. It’s like you say, you have to look back a hundred a years ago to think of something that remotely resembles it and it’s interesting to see the logo now on their vessels and cranes. The VBMS commission also represents the opposite of how Studio Dumbar thinks about design. For example PTT Post is not just a logo it’s also about the visual language around its use. VMBS does exactly the opposite, it’s only about the logo, there’s nothing else! Gert [Dumbar] would probably hate it as it’s exactly the opposite of what he taught us…
Is there a project you are most proud of?
I am really proud of the identity for Alzheimer’s in the Netherlands. The process was not particularly easy in terms of finding the right balance because you are talking about a disease but you are also creating a mark for a foundation. So if you literally show the effects of the disease then you end up with depressing communications material, the potential effect of which is important to remember for patients sitting in a doctor’s office. So you want to find a balance and to find some optimism and hope in subject matter that is very heavy. That was not easy, it was long journey until we got the result we did.
Can you tell me about the Amsterdam Sinfonietta posters?
Every year or two a different designer from Studio Dumbar will design a series of posters for Amsterdam Sinfonietta; each designer has a different style and every year the designs change.
And yet together they are all recognizable as a suite of related posters. They remind me a little of what Josef Müller-Brockmann did with the Zurich Tonhalle posters: all very different but they all are recognisably part of a system. How many are produced each year?
Five or six and there’s about two months between each poster. It’s a hard task, every designer that joins says ‘I want to design a series of posters’, but usually they have to work here for a year or two first. It’s a bit of an experiment as not everyone can design a poster. The client is very open-minded and always saying ‘who is the next person?’, they get so excited.
Can you tell me how Typeradio came about and was that a hard sell for a programme that is about something visual?
It was a project we started 10 years ago. There are five of us: the three members of the type foundry Underware, Donald Beekman [of DBXL] and myself. Underware were invited to speak at Typo Berlin and they came up with the idea of setting up a temporary radio station at the event to interview the speakers and broadcast these interviews on line. However, they didn’t want to do any of the interviews themselves so they approached Donald and myself. I had just moved to the Netherlands and they heard that I was a designer that spoke English, as does Donald. It sounded like a nice idea, so we bought a transmitter, which are illegal here in the Netherlands but in Germany you can rent bandwidth. So we got the transmitter, researched the speakers, rented a van and went over there.
So it was almost like setting up a pirate radio station?
Yes, but in Germany it was legal. We practiced in Holland and that was a sort of like working in pirate radio. The funny thing was that we set up next door to the American Embassy and so I think you could hear us talking about typography on any channel that was nearby, but we got away with it! At Typo Berlin we interviewed different designers and broadcasted these live on line. We bought a lot of second hand radios and put them all around the conference – even in the toilets – tuned in to our station and people listened. The first person we interviewed was Stefan Sagmeister then Matthew Carter. We had no previous experience and I had very little knowledge of typography. I’m not a specialist in the area and we thought we should find a different angle. So instead of asking questions about kerning – boring things you can easily read about – we decided to ask more personal questions, things you wouldn’t know about designers and things you wouldn’t dare ask. Donald and I would ask about cooking, eating, cheating, lying and have a normal conversations. For the type community it was refreshing as suddenly they could hear Matthew Carter – their God – talking about his family. I didn’t know all these people or their status within the design community so it was so much easier when asking them these questions. We are amateur journalists who made a lot of friends and but probably enemies too!
That sense of irreverence comes through in Letters to LoveLiza [Liza’s on-line agony aunt and advice column] which seems to gently poke fun at the design community; was that the intention?
Yes, of course, nothing is serious there. The questions are always ones I ask myself or situations I have been in.
You clearly love books and I admire how you curate and categorise your book collection on Books LoveLiza. So if you knew you were going to be stranded on a desert island and you could bring along three books and three albums what would you bring?
Emm.. Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call for sure, but I’ll probably end up dying after listening to that! There’s also a Jay Zee album I like although I should probably be a bit more clever and bring a survival skills book. I’ll have to think about that and come back to you…
A week later Liza emailed Linda her desert island list: Nick Cave: The Boatman’s Call, Dean Martin: The Capitol Years, Peaches: The Teaches of Peaches, Homer: The Odyssey, The SAS Survival Guide, and a notebook.