Already a decade into the new millennium, what has graphic design learned and where is it going? Mark Penfold gets directions from some of its leading lights.
There's a long-overdue note of self-confidence surrounding contemporary design. It's not boastful but thoughtful; the work it underpins can have all the power of a tectonic shift but prefers subtlety.
Whether this means finding the beauty hiding in raw statistics or drawing out character with abstract portraiture, the underlying theme is diversification. With no powerful new technology to wrestle, huge culture clashes to mull or trends to overcome, the best of today's graphic designers are following their own creative paths. And the overwhelming sensation their work evokes is one of possibility.
Spur of the moment
What has most excited you professionally in the last 12 months? A favourite record sleeve perhaps, or a great poster? A film or animation? "Well," says Magnus Voll Mathiassen, "I have been to a ton of flea markets." Not exactly what you'd expect, but Mathiassen doesn't mind. In fact you get the feeling he quite likes it: "They might not interest other people, but I have been excited by plain, boring, mundane objects." He adds, "And I restored Italian road bikes from the '80s. Beautiful bikes." Danger, beauty, oil and the '80s - an unusual recipe for modern design stimulus.
For Monica Brand and Francisco Lopez, AKA Mogollon, the contest for the past year's biggest motivation is a tie between a dance piece and an audio-visual installation. "Both," says Brand, "are multi-sensorial pieces of art." The installation - Kurt Hentschläger’s 'ZEE' - sounds like something of an endurance test, being described as "a game of stroboscopic lights that produces a natural hallucinatory effect on the viewer." 20 minutes under the strobe, "and you're submerged into a world of fractal geometric and colourful shapes." It's the kind of work that could change your whole visual perspective. And that's just what Mogollon was looking for.
For other respondents, the answers are equally diverse. And on this subject, Mainstudio's Edwin Van Gelder has something interesting to say. Having been impressed by photographers Freudenthal & Verhagen's exhibition MASS - an integration of video, art, performance and sound - he observes that what he most admires is "how they're stretching the boundaries of their discipline." This spirit also inhabits Van Gelder's work.
In with the old
Despite these wide-ranging interests and cross-discipline tendencies, the goal isn't to be iconoclastic, it's to make something new. Interestingly though, that newness so often finds its way back to a classic format, in this case the magazine. Van Gelder's restyling of Mark magazine won him a Golden Cube from the Art Directors Club of New York, and Studio Newwork is now on issue four of its magazine Newwork. Designers Florence Tétier and Côme de Bouchony both also have magazines in the pipeline.
David Wall, one half of design studio Conor & David, speculates that this may have something to do with the growing power of the internet within sectors previously belonging to print. The web offers flexibility and reach, increasingly without the need to compromise on design. That means print has to justify itself in some other way: "When you're doing print work you can focus on really making something that's more memorable." The creation of a beautiful physical object itself becomes the goal - something that is not achievable via the internet.
The focus is on craft. 3D typography, screen printing and handmade objects have been everywhere over the past few years, and have helped to bring our attention back to quality. Anyone can pick up Photoshop and a digital camera and jimmy together a website. What they don't have is the ability to produce things of beauty, be that digital or physical. The return to making things by hand makes perfect sense in light of that.
But that's old news. "I think the handmade trend has crested and is in retreat," observes data wrangler Nicholas Felton. "The digital, programmatic and generative design is on the upsurge." To some extent Matthew Galvin of Inventive and Co agrees: "Right now I think things have settled. It's more about fusion now. I think we need to be thinking more in terms of how we understand all of the different disciplines and how they overlap and interconnect." It's as if the trend tide has receded, leaving a quiet moment in which to contemplate all the stuff that's been washed up.
The end of trend
Obviously this isn't the end of the trend. But it seems that trending may have lost some of its power - a natural fluctuation. After all, no truly great designer ever spotted a trend and thought, "Oh great, a trend, I'll copy that." The process is more like: "That's interesting, and fits with what I've been thinking about. I'm going to investigate this further." At the moment trends are numerous and short-lived, presenting many possible avenues down which creativity can stroll.
Most minor movements won't be missed once they have coughed up their last: "I'm quite happy people have started to get bored by the whole papercraft trend," laughs Côme de Bouchony who has noticed in its place the influence of a Dutch style that is more appealing with its "over-prints, monochromy; a kind of reinterpreted classicism." Meanwhile, Edwin Van Gelder has watched the rise and plateau of 3D typography and now sees it being supplanted by geometric shapes combined with photography. "Designers are moving towards less rigid and more playful designs," he adds. Florence Tétier is of a different mind altogether:
"Geometric shapes, I'm tired of them already!" Her big thing is the link between fashion and design. "And I am sure the '90s are going to make a great comeback this year," she says. "Or at least I'll try to make them hot again!"
Matthew Galvin can't help adding a little irony to the proceedings. "The trendiest thing to have nowadays is a blog or a fixed-wheel bike," he says. "Or a picture of your fixed-wheel bike on your blog." The one prediction that has the feel of authenticity comes from David Wall of Conor & David and concerns typography and the web cosying up thanks to services like Typekit and typotheque.com. "They're developing things there's long been demand for," says Wall. Type's public profile is about to get a leg up, it would seem.
This multidisciplinary approach is nothing new, but technology is now at a stage where it doesn't just make cross-media creativity possible, it makes it easy. That is both a good and bad thing, according to Matthew Galvin. "It has led to tons of 'flaky' graphic design and lazy graphic designers," he says, "but it is a massive opportunity as well."
As Monica Brand puts it, "Good designers seem to be looking for authenticity rather than tendencies. The work of our favourite designers - like Pierre Marie or Antoine+Manuel - is usually more personal than current." And remember, times have been lean. To maintain a personal outlook rather than seeking the safety of the crowd at times like this speaks volumes of the confidence these people have in their craft.
This self-confidence in both their work and adoption of new technologies means that designers are also reaching an increasingly broad audience. "I've noticed a lot of designers getting better at promoting themselves," notes Nicholas Felton. Going beyond advertising their personal brands and skills to clients, however, many designers have set up their own online shops to sell goods directly. And it seems that the bigger clients are beginning to appreciate that smaller studios can offer something special. For these clients, remarks Florence Tétier, "It's more about seduction and having their company liked by people, rather than showing that they have money." This equates to fertile ground for creativity.
So, though a difficult economic climate means less work in the creative sector, it also has a positive effect in showing who really has steel; training the spotlight on those who do take the opportunity to create expressive work and to explore new ground. "This," observes Edwin Van Gelder, "freshens and wakes up the whole discipline." And now that it looks like the worst of the economic downturn is over, be prepared to see designers breaking out of the blocks.
The five to watch
Graphic designers promising to shake up the system
01 Nicholas Felton
In a world overrun with information, it's hardly surprising that people love Nicholas Felton. His ability to draw insight and even beauty from the data we are deluged by is rapidly becoming a necessity for anyone trying to make sense of the modern world.
02 Côme de Bouchony
An alumni of ESAG Penninghen, Paris and the Willem De Kooning Academie, Côme de Bouchony now lives and works in Paris. His output spans media and defies easy categorisation but is never short on ideas or class execution. He recently exhibited at the Kemistry Gallery in London.
03 Studio Newwork
Upon graduation from New York's Fashion Institute of Technology in 2005, Ryotatsu Tanaka and Ryo Kumazaki set up a design practice. Later FIT classmates Hitomi Ishigaki and Aswin Sadha joined them, and the name Studio Newwork was adopted. Newwork magazine was born in December 2007.
04 Magnus Voll Mathiassen
As co-founder of Grandpeople, Magnus Voll Mathiassen has worked on some stellar projects and gained international recognition. Now he's left that all behind and set out on his own again. "It is very liberating," he says. "Since I set up the studio I have been focusing on simplifying things, avoiding decoration. Not minimalist, but letting the faÃ§ade just tell the story."
Monica Brand and Francisco Lopez chose to name their studio using Spanish slang, with 'mogollon' translating to 'plenty'. Blending media to produce work that has artistic value as well as commercial punch, Mogollon brings an abundance of creativity to the table.