SBook 6 Interview
May 2008

Melinda Furulund
Southhampton Solent University


In May 2008 we answered some questions asked to us by Melinda Furulund, student of the Southampton Solent University (UK). The interview appeared in issue 6 of SBook, an annual publication designed by Southhampton students, and published by Art Books International. Questions by Melinda Furulund, answers by us:

01. How did you first decide that graphic design was going to be your profession?

It wasn't really a matter of one single abrupt decision. It had much more to do with a gradually growing awareness, we think.
And punk was definitely one of the things that made us aware of graphic design. Although we were too young to participate actively in the original punk explosion (being preteens in 1977), we still feel the impact of punk on our lives.
As teenagers, in the mid-80s, we were completely absorbed by all kinds of post-punk movements: psychobilly, garage punk, new wave, two tone, American hardcore. What intrigued us was not only the music, but also the graphic manifestations of it: record sleeves, badges, patches, t-shirts, flyers, posters, magazines, band logos, mix tapes. We are absolutely sure that it was this whole DIY-culture that made us aware of graphic design, that stimulated our interest in it, and ultimately led to the decision to become graphic designers.

02. Who are you favourite designers/design-group? Do they affect your work, or how you work?

Our favourite designer is without doubt Linda van Deursen (of Mevis & Van Deursen). She was one of our teachers at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, and after we graduated she remained a really good friend of us. Linda is such a strong figure; she really is a role model when it comes to mentality and attitude. She radiates pure energy.
Mevis & Van Deursen really serves as an example to us, an example of how to run a design studio. Staying small and independent, constantly doing strong work, being totally honest. In moments of despair, when we are depressed and feel completely exhausted, we only have to think about Mevis & Van Deursen, and we feel instantly better. The mere thought of them being around is enough.

03. What influences you in today's society?

Well, what doesn't influence us? We are very much influenced by today's society. Reading books, wandering around in the city, watching movies, going to concerts and exhibitions, hanging out with friends. We often get ideas from the most unexpected sources: watching a documentary on Discovery Channel, misreading a sign in the street, stumbling upon a forgotten text on an obscure website. We are really gatherers of ideas, of impressions. We spend hours just thinking, watching, observing.

04. Being a well-known design company I assume you get a lot of job offers, what makes you decide which brief to work with?

First of all, there's a category of assignments that we turn down immediately, for personal reasons. For example, as two of us are longtime vegetarians, we don't want to work on projects related to the meat industry. This is quite a small category, but still, it happens. To give two examples, we once turned down an assignment for a restaurant specializing in meat dishes, and we also turned down a project that involved making prints for leather wallets. Things like that. But as we already said, this is quite a small category.
Secondly, there are the assignments that we turn down because of more general reasons. For example, we simply refuse to work for advertising agencies. We want to work for the client as directly as possible, not through layers of middlemen, agents, marketeers, communication people, etc. etc. The idea of a company hiring an agency that then hires us to do the assignment... we really dislike that. You sometimes hear absurd examples, of companies hiring consultants hiring agencies hiring studios hiring individual designers... It's just madness. That's one of the main reasons why we would never work for advertising agencies.
Thirdly, we aren't too fond of unpaid competitions (so-called 'pitches'). When people ask us to participate in an unpaid pitch, we reply with a standard mail in which we politely explain why we find the whole concept of turning design assignments into competitions very problematic. The world is competitive enough as it is; why turn design into a competition as well?

So, the three categories mentioned above are the assignments that usually get rejected almost immediately. But that still leaves us with a lot of other assignments to choose from. And this is sometimes very difficult indeed. It's a big gamble, actually.
Sometimes you have the impression that a certain client is nice to work with, so you accept the assignment, only to realize that your guess was totally wrong, leaving you in a nightmare of an assignment. Sometimes you accept an assignment you don't expect a lot from, and it turns out the best project ever. Sometimes you have to turn down a fabulous assignment, just because you are very busy working on some other assignments. Things like that.

So it's all a matter of judgment, timing and luck really. You sometimes have to decide very quickly. We made some really stupid choices in the past, turning down important assignments only because we were working on silly projects that actually went nowhere. We aren't really smart when it comes to strategic decisions we guess. But this clumsiness is a big part of who we are, so we don't really regret anything.

05. You have been associated with the band Sonic Youth, and other music genres, what music are you listening to now?

Sonic Youth is absolutely one of our favourite bands, but the only way in which we are related to them is the fact that we named our studio after one of their albums, 'Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star' (1994). And to be honest, it isn't really our favourite Sonic Youth album. That would probably be 'Daydream Nation', although we certainly like the older albums ('Bad Moon Rising', 'Evol', 'Sister', etc.), and we absolutely love 'Goo' and 'Dirty' (the SY 'pop' albums, so to speak).

There's a funny anecdote attached to 'Experimental Jetset'. We actually wanted to name our studio 'International Jetset', after a song by The Specials. But when we wanted to register our name at the Chamber of Commerce, they told us they wouldn't accept 'International Jetset', as it was too vague, not specific enough. So we then switched to 'Experimental Jetset', which turned out to be specific enough for the Chamber of Commerce.

As for music we are currently listening to... A lot of different stuff really. From classic Sixties acts (Beach Boys, Love, Harry Nilsson) to Tropicalia (Os Mutantes, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso), from early Electronica (Silver Apples, White Noise) to Dutch Beat (The Outsiders, Het, Q65), from Sunshine Pop (The Association, Millennium, Sagittarius) to more contemporary bands (Yo La Tengo, Tortoise, The Make-Up).
One band we revisit again and again are The Zombies. There are days that we listen to all their records continuously, back to back. We also love all the post-Zombies stuff (Argent, Neil MacArthur). Listening to The Zombies is such a soothing experience. Their music is like honey dripping on soft velvet. We actually (and foolishly) believe that listening to The Zombies is good for your health. When your brain is hurting really bad, this music simply massages your mind.

The band name, The Zombies, is intriguing in itself. The zombie is a fascinating phenomenon, a subject that also pops up in graphic design from time to time. In the mid-90s, 'Zombie Modernism' was an actual insult, used by some American design critics to describe the renewed interest in modernism. While we actually think the word 'zombie' is not insulting at all.
In the 80s, a lot of our favourite bands (The Cramps, The Meteors) used zombie imagery in their lyrics, and there was this fabulous series of Sixties garage rock compilations, called 'Back From the Grave', that featured zombies on the record sleeves. On top of that, as we wrote earlier, our favourite Sixties band was actually called The Zombies. So when this phrase, 'Zombie Modernism', suddenly reared its ugly head, we were not upset at all. In fact, it sounded almost flattering. The idea of the zombie, something that will not die, that will keep haunting contemporary society, it's quite interesting really. When we think of it now, there's an intriguing link between the zombie phenomenon, and the whole idea of 'hauntology', a concept developed by Derrida to describe 'the ghost of the past'. In other words, we think of 'Zombie Modernism' as a compliment rather than an insult.

06. Do you make time to work with personal projects?

All our projects are personal. So to answer your question: we spend literally all our time on personal projects.

07. What is the difference when working on a personal project, rather than on a client-based project?

We don't make a distinction between personal projects and client-based ones.
True, every project involves certain criteria, certain outside forces: technical specifications, budgetary limitations, physical boundaries, the given context, an existing situation, the question whether or not there is a client involved, all kinds of deadlines, agreements, contracts, expectations, you name it. There are always criteria. But the way we deal with these criteria is ALWAYS personal.
And in our opinion, this goes for any trade, discipline or medium. Whether you are a writer, painter, designer, cook or plumber, you always have to deal with certain criteria, with forces from the outside. But dealing with those criteria is always a matter of personal decisions, of individual choices. That makes every project a personal project, and also a creative one.
Whether or not there is a client involved is just one of the thousands of criteria you have to deal with. In the totality of things, it's not even that important. To make a division of work based on whether the project was client-based or not, is the same as making a division of work based on whether the design was created in the morning or in the afternoon. It's not a very interesting division. Or at least, not a division that says anything about the degree in which the work is personal. Because there simply are no degrees of personality.

We have the same problem with the way some people use the word 'self-initiated', because, as we see it, all projects are self-initiated.
The moment you say 'yes' to an assignment, the assignment automatically becomes a self-initiated project. The decision to deal with particular clients, particular restrictions, particular limitations; that decision is ultimately an artistic decision. You make the choice yourself to say 'yes' to an assignment, and thus, the project is self-initiated. Whether the project involves a client or not.

All projects being equally personal – for us, this notion has a lot to do with what Sartre wrote about freedom. "Either man is wholly determined (which is inadmissible, especially because a determined consciousness, a consciousness externally motivated, becomes pure exteriority and ceases to be consciousness) or else man is wholly free". So, according to Sartre, you are either completely determined by outside forces (in other words, totally unfree), or you are wholly free. And since Sartre believed that it is impossible (for a conscious human being) to be completely determined by outside forces, his conclusion is that man is fully free.
In the same way, we think that either all projects are wholly personal, or all projects are wholly non-personal. And since we regard the idea of a wholly non-personal project as an impossibility, our conclusion is that all projects are wholly personal.

Sometimes people ask us whether we make our work for others, or for ourselves. Another distinction we don't really believe in. We are part of society, and society is part of us. If we do something for ourselves it will affect society, and if we make something for others it will affect us. It is one and the same.
Why this distinction between the personal and the societal, the idea that work is either self-expression or a service to society? We really don't understand it. In our view, self-expression is a service to society, and serving society is a form of self-expression. It's as simple as that.
We really think it's worthwhile to investigate alternative models, to question the classic dichotomy of self-expression and servitude.

We think that this tendency among some designers, to make this false distinction between personal and client-based work, is symptomatic for the society we live in, a society in which a strong distinction is being made between manual labour and intellectual labour. It's a division of labour that causes a great deal of alienation, frustration and stress. In the way we look at the world, we try to overcome this division, by constantly reminding ourselves that all manual labour has an intellectual potential, and all intellectual labour has a manual potential. In other words, in our view, baking a bread is an intellectual activity in the same way that writing a book is a manual activity. In our own way of working, we certainly try to investigate this concept of 'praxis', the synthesis of theory and practice in which each informs the other. Thinking as a way of making, and making as a way of thinking.
The plumber as a writer, the artist as a designer, the carpenter as a philosopher. All human activity as a platform for creativity. As Joseph Beuys said, "Jeder Mensch ein Künstler".

Trying to overcome all these false dichotomies plays a large role in our work. In our designs, we usually refer to the language of late-modernism, a language that is often seen as a purely functional, instrumental aesthetic. By using this language in a more personal way, we certainly try to dissolve the borders between the personal and the societal, between self-expression and servitude. In that sense, it is a purely modernist ideal we are pursuing: the synthesis of art and the everyday.

08. How did Experimental Jetset become a worldwide successful company?

Are we really that successful? Two years ago, we answered a similar question in an interview for the French graphic design magazine Marie Louise (published by Editions F7). This was our answer:

"We don't feel particularly successful. We have no money at all, while we are completely overworked. Most of the time we feel quite miserable because of the constant stress we have to deal with. There's only a handful of people that really likes our work. We fully realize that we are just a very tiny footnote in the history of graphic design.
The only thing that keeps us going is the feeling that, because of our combined influences, opinions and ideas, we represent a point of view that is truly ours. A point of view that is different from other points of view. If we would stop, that point of view would cease to exist, which is a thought that makes us very sad. So we have to keep going, we've got no choice".

Rereading our answer, we still feel this way. Although it might come across as a bit too pessimistic. We actually like the idea of being a footnote. We were recently reading the latest issue of Ugly Things, a magazine about forgotten bands, footnotes of rock history so to speak, and suddenly we realized we will probably end up the same way. A design group that only a small group of devoted people will remember. We are okay with that.

09. What are the key elements you consider when working with a brief?

We have a very classic 'problem/solution' approach, and somehow we are convinced that the solution can often be found in the problem itself. We see it almost as a riddle, or puzzle: reading (and thus interpreting) the brief, until suddenly all the pieces fall into place.

We always liked Wittgenstein's idea that there are no real philosophical problems, that everything can be solved within language itself, like a linguistic puzzle. In the same way, we are often trying to find solutions within the language of graphic design itself.

10. How did you get involved in the Helvetica film?

We knew Gary (Hustwit, the director), through a mutual friend (Mark Owens, of design studio Life of the Mind). Gary visited us once in our studio, where we talked a bit about Plexifilm (Gary's DVD label), and hardcore punk music (Gary used to work for SST Records, a seminal independent record label). He also shortly mentioned that he wanted to make a documentary: "a rock documentary, but about typography". We never expected he would pull it off, until a year later, when he visited us with a camera man and a sound guy.

First of all, we want to say that we think Gary did a really good job. What we especially like about the movie is the way it is built-up. It's a movie that follows a clear dialectical structure: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
In the beginning of the movie, Gary shows designers like Crouwel and Vignelli, the old-school late-modernist designers (thesis); then he shows people like David Carson and Paula Scher, people who clearly rejected this particular brand of modernism (antithesis). And then he shows designers like Norm, Build and ourselves, people who somehow try to sublimate these two conflicting positions, and are trying to find a third position (synthesis). In other words, the movie follows a logic that is very similar to our own way of thinking.

So we like the movie a lot, although we're not exactly sure about our own part in it. Somehow, we didn't manage to explain, in a few clear lines, our thoughts about Helvetica.
This is completely our own fault. Our thoughts about Helvetica are apparently too complicated (read: muddled) to verbally express it in just a few simple sentences.
As you understand, we talked with Gary for many hours, and he could only use a few minutes. So what we say in the movie is only a very small part of our complete argument.

Also, we were incredibly tired on the day of filming. And we were also really busy, that's why we decided that only one of us would answer all the questions, so that the other two could continue working. Maybe that wasn't such a good decision; in retrospect, it would have been better if all three of us would have answered Gary's questions.

What's also awkward is the fact that we're suddenly so visible. Before the movie, people didn't know which faces belonged to Experimental Jetset, and we liked it that way. We never gave magazines our portraits, or group photos. We really liked this anonymity. The movie sort of destroyed that. Suddenly people have seen our faces. We really don't like that; in fact, we find it almost disturbing.
We look so bad in the movie: our faces too big, our hair too long. And then our accent, the way we pronounce English: it's really terrible.
But as designers, we understand that the most important thing is the movie as a whole, and in the light of that, all this personal vanity stuff is completely unimportant. What counts is the result. And the result, the movie as a whole, is very good indeed.

Experimental Jetset
May 18, 2008

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