ED Conference 2008

The 2008 edition of the European Design (ED) Conference took place between May 16 and 18 at the Södra Teatern, in Stockholm. Following Athens in 2007, the Swedish capital was this year’s host city for this one-of-a-kind celebration of European communication design.

If the conference venue moved from South to North, its fifteen speakers came from all corners of the continent – from Porto in the southwest to Moscow in the northeast, from Bergen in the northwest to Thessaloniki in the southeast – but also from its very geographical centre, which is located, according to the most internationally accepted calculations, 26 kilometres north of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Not many of us Europeans know this, and other locations have claimed the title for centuries: from Dresden in Germany to Krahule in Slovakia or Frauenkirchen and even somewhere in Telemark, in southern Norway! The notion of a geographical centre for the continent has shifted during the continent’s history, together with the perception, or interpretation, of what Europe and European actually means – and not only geographically.

Does, or should, a European Design Conference address issues such as this? Should there be a main theme or an issue to it? ED-Conference’s unique format asks invited speakers to elect one particular project they have worked on and, following a short introduction to their work, develop a case-study presentation. This allows the audience to see and hear some of the facts, figures and stories behind some of the best work done in Europe today, something other design conferences fail to deliver. There is therefore no need for a ‘central issue’ or a ‘larger picture’ to be introduced. However, is there something that can be said from the sum of all these parts? Here are a few notes on all of the speaker’s presentations:

GoldStudio, Denmark
Ole Lund is GoldStudio’s founder, creative director and the head of the studio’s soon-to-be-opened New York office. Grafitti artist Marco Pedrollo will soon head the Copenhagen branch, after seven years with the company. Both came to Stockholm to show how GoldStudio adopts a freer, less conventional and more ‘artistic’ expression in their projects for commercial and cultural clients. However, they didn’t talk about GoldStudio’s philosophy, work and clients on their own; they allowed other people to do it for them. Part of their ‘Art vs. Design’ presentation consisted of a video showing three of their competitors – a fashion stylist, a musician and a graphic designer – discussing and evaluating some of their work. This expressed, in Lund and Pedrollo’s view, more about GoldStudio than what they actually could say about themselves. This video was a clever and refreshing strategy not to show so much the work, but rather to share some comments about that work and in the process bring peer evaluation to the stage. It was yet further proof of how GoldStudio is permanently breaking the advertising and visual communication industry’s own rules, something you can only do when you have been working in the business for a long time – like Lund – but at the same time have surrounded yourself with people from various artistic fields, benefiting from their skills and world views.

Laboratorium, Croatia
The founders of Zagreb-based studio Laboratorium, Ivana Vucic and Orsat Frankovic, presented one of the most consistent talks of the conference. Under the title ‘Packaging ego – or how to dig identity for creative clients’, they showed examples of how often the designer’s work is really about ego management. From the individual egos of ‘creative clients’ to the ‘collective ego’ of a cultural institution, from the ‘multiplied ego’ of an artists’ collective exhibition to their own self-promoting ‘designer ego’. Some of their work for artists and the cultural sector, such as Kristian Kocul’s conceptual monograph or the catalogues for The Croatian Association of Artists show a deep belief in collaboration between designer and client. This understanding of collaboration is fundamental when you are creating work from other people’s creative output, and in Laboratorium’s case it is this understanding which allows them to question the very notion of authorship of the ‘end result’. In the case of blablab®, Laboratorium’s product label, that sense of dialogue and collaboration between designer and client/user can also be found: from the ‘Growing Xmas Kit’ to the ‘Everlasting Adhesive Calendar’ and the ‘PriesTshirt’, the user is always invited to complete the products and add meaning to them. In the end, Laboratorium’s job really is, as they say, about ‘communicating what the client wants to say’.

Graphic Thought Facility, UK
Andy Stevens, who founded Graphic Thought Facility in London with Huw Morgan and Paul Neale, showed how the same client can go from big to small in 15 years. In 1993 they got one of their first jobs through an interior designer friend: a commission to create the identity for a Japanese restaurant in Brighton named Oki-Nami (Big Wave). Back then, GTF was a small studio of three with little work, so they dedicated all their time to defining an attitude to the whole environment – something that ended up being called ‘Japanese techno-rawness’. Exploring both the ‘exoticness’ and the cultural and visual clichés that were associated with Japan in the early 1990’s (from 1970s Japanese advertising to the first models of the Sony Walkman), GTF managed to create an identity that was, in Stevens’ words, both ‘ignorant and respectful’: a play on what could be expected of a Japanese restaurant (neon, manga, ideographic characters, origami) in a time when these concepts were not so common in the UK. The shop front’s neon sign – for which Andy showed an impressive amount of sketches and alternatives – became the focal point of the whole identity, and originated many of the restaurants’ printed materials, from menus to chopstick sleeves. In 2008, GTF were again called by Oki-Nami’s owner Mike Dodd to rework the identity for the upcoming relocation of the restaurant. Now also partly owned by a famous Brighton native, Norman Cook (a.k.a. Fatboy Slim), Oki-Nami had made a name for itself, so Stevens, Morgan and Neale – now directors of a much bigger and well-known studio which their anthological exhibition now running at the Art Institute of Chicago attests to – had a much harder job on their hands. Despite this, Andy estimates that they spent much less time in redesigning the current identity. For them, a restaurant logo is not a brand; not only is there less investment involved, but the client is more open (even if more apprehensive) towards change. In Oki-Nami’s case, change was of a subtle kind: through a reinterpretation of the essence behind the original neon sign, a more matured, settled identity was seen to meet the restaurant’s current needs and context. GTF was successful in recreating an identity that captures what Oki-Nami is now, in a time when sushi places are common, we all have internet, and Japan is less exotic than it was 15 years ago.

46xy, Italy
Letizia Abbate of 46xy talked about the Milan-based studio’s creative direction for two of the most important magazines in the history of design. Her presentation, titled ‘domus vs. Abitare. Make a design magazine’, compared the strategies behind the art direction for the two titles. First up, the ‘historical magazine’ domus. Founded in 1928 by Italian architect Gio Ponti, it has been a reference point not only for Italian, but also for global architecture and design. In 2004, the magazine’s newly appointed editor-in-chief, Stefano Boeri, invited Mario Piazza and his studio 46xy to head the magazine’s art direction. In Abbate’s own words, they had some tough acts to follow: the magazine editors and art directors included some of the most important masters of the craft. But following Italo Lupi’s mannerism, Alan Fletcher’s picturism, Simon Esterson’s neo-functionalism, 46xy wanted to recapture Ponti’s original and long-gone eclecticism. So a new, more choreographic approach to the magazine’s layout was needed, something that could encapsulate all the new forms of content that come into play in our contemporary (media) world, such as TV, cinema, the internet and all their new languages and narratives. During Boeri and Piazza’s collaboration between 2004 and 2007, domus radically changed the way a design magazine is, well, designed – from its story-telling three-page covers to a whole issue without a single word. In 2008, the same team of editor-in-chief and art director did it again: with the total makeover of Abitare, also  a historical magazine (founded in 1963 by Italo Lupi) on Italian architecture, design and visual arts but directed to a non-specialised audience. Boeri and Piazza have been exploring different ways to approach and understand reality through a magazine, exploring fresh narratives and projects. So both through a ‘designer and architects’ design and architecture magazine’ and a ‘design and architecture magazine for everyone’, 46xy showed how a magazine, and especially a design magazine, is not only about showing pictures and type, but can also be a ‘multiverse medium’, a ‘non-neutral container’ of content.

Gorilla, Netherlands
Since October 2006, a visual column can be found on the front page of De Volkskrant, one of the Netherlands’ main newspapers. This visual column, and the collective who puts it together every day, is called Gorilla, and in 2007 both were the recipients of not only the first ED-Award Jury Prize, but also of an ADCN lamp, a Dutch Design Award and a Reddot Design award. Gorilla consists of the Netherlands-based studios De designpolitie, Lesley Moore, and designer Herman van Bostelen. Representing the former and the whole collective, Richard van der Laken and Pepijn Zuburg came to Stockholm to talk about how Gorilla has been impacting on Dutch and international media. Reacting with words and images to the news of the day, Gorilla manages to comment on domestic and world issues in a direct, often witty, and always thought-provoking way. One of the most interesting aspects of the presentation was how, two years after its creation, Gorilla can now be seen as something larger than a small column in the corner of a front page. You can access all the Gorilla columns online on the newspaper’s website, place your comments on each of them, download the respective PDFs (all Gorillas are vector-based artworks), print them at whichever scale you want, make a poster out of them (or as many as you want), even order a T-shirt with one. Gorilla is now more than just a column, it is a platform for (visual) communication.

Labomatic, France
Pascal Béjean started day two of the conference with music. He skipped the studio’s portfolio introduction (only showing photos of their office before they moved in) and began talking about his case study, an ‘intégrale’ or anthology box set for French pop music legends Michel Berger and France Gall. For the sake of context, he played several of their songs from the 1970s and 1980s, and also some music anthems by – who else? – ABBA created at the same time. An unabashed music fanatic and collector, Béjean was not so much concerned with showing ‘a great spectacle of graphic design’ during his presentation, but rather with showing how for him, and for Labomatic, working with music is not about working for the ‘music industry’ – and all its marketing tools, tricks and product managers, whom he called ‘saltimbanques’ (circus performers) – but really working with the musicians, and sharing a part of their life in the process. The way he collaborated with France Gall (Berger died in 1992) on the box set was an example of this: going through years of photos, lyrics and memories allowed Labomatic to really create something special and unique, not merely a marketing stunt for an industry in crisis.

PetPunk, Lithuania
Gediminas Siaulys and Andrius Kirvela called their presentation ‘Surviving between an Eastern yesterday and a Western tomorrow’. The young Lithuanian duo started by showing images of life in Lithuania before and after 1990 – when the country became the first republic to break free from the Soviet Union. A mixture of vernacular imagery, consumer products and their own work, these images showed by Kirvela – and randomly interrupted by Siaulys’ jokes, comments and white board scribblings – included old and new toys, dodgy labels, 1920s posters, not-so-great clothes hidden behind much better graphics, animated traditional paper cutting motifs and a video for a Eurovision Song Contest act. All this culminated in their case study, an animated video for Vilnius, European Capital of Culture 2009. This playful video presents the Lithuanian capital not only as a peaceful town with ‘streets breathing in nature’ or ‘kind citizens’, but as a capital with the ‘floating spirit of creativeness’, using stuffed toys, live animal heads, paper type and a considerable amount of play-doh. As a young nation with a long history, which few people have visited, the organisers of Vilnius 2009 can play with  people’s perceptions of the city in this video using imagination, intrigue and humour. In this way, they wish to attract like-minded individuals – what they call experimentators – to come to their capital: curious, creative people, open to new experiences. Whether everyone in Vilnius identifies with this video we don’t really know, but if Petpunk are anything to go by, Lithuanians – fortunately – don’t seem to take themselves too seriously.

designersunited.gr, Greece
Following a hommage to the mayor of his hometown of Thessaloniki and a brief showcase of some projects, Dimitris Papazoglou of designersunited.gr focused on the studio’s redesign of Makedonia, Thessaloniki’s main daily paper and Greece’s oldest running newspaper, affectionately known as ‘the old lady’. For this job, designersunited.gr aimed not to totally change how the newspaper looked, but rather to redesign the Makedonia whilst maintaining the elements readers expected from the newspaper. So they looked to the past (both such sources as Papazoglou’s own newspaper fanatic grandfather and the more recent examples of failed Greek newspaper redesigns) in order to bring Makedonia into a new era. This meant the desired approach to redesigning the newspaper should be, as Papazoglou mentioned, ‘more architectural and less decorative’ – less revolution, more evolution. Also in his own words, ‘the final outcome (of a newspaper design) depends not only on the systematic methodology that the designer employs, but most importantly on managing the process itself, since interaction with journalists, cooperation with page makers, and training of employees are critical aspects in order to secure the newspaper’s longevity and prosperity.’ This notion of who-does-what, of content vs. form, of hierarchy, was essential for a newspaper where, according to Papazoglou, journalists used to sketch the layouts of their written pieces and hand them to the page makers. This meant Papazouglou himself ‘lived’ on the newspaper’s headquarters for a few months, implementing not only Makedonia’s new format (tabloid to berliner), new typefaces and a new distribution of content, but indeed changing the way the new design was understood, from the newspaper staff to its readers. Not only was this a remarkable achievement, but since the redesign Makedonia has had an impressive increase in sales.

Christian Altmann, Propeller
Christian Altmann, a Swiss designer based in Stockholm since 2006, filled in for Fernando Gutierrez, who sadly couldn’t make it to Stockholm. Altmann is art director and graphic designer at Propeller, one of Scandinavia’s top design agencies – a creative group of product, interaction and graphic designers and design strategists – part of Design Communication, a leading global design group with offices in Gothenburg, Stockholm, Tokyo, Detroit and Munich. Altmann chose as his case study the Looflighter, a ‘revolutionary barbecue lighter’ that has been entirely developed at Propeller. A technology created by Swedish inventor Richard Looft, this electric lighter starts any barbecue fire within seconds, uses no chemical accelerants and saves a huge amount of energy and resources. Propeller’s job meant designing the lighter itself, coming up with the premium brand for it, and creating the graphics, campaign and packaging. Altmann’s presentation was strikingly different to everyone else’s, as it introduced the ‘consumer product’ dimension of graphic design, so often overlooked in design conferences. He also managed to bring a refreshing dimension of locality into the conference: you can actually buy the Looflighter in many places around Stockholm.

Henrik Nygren Design, Sweden
Out of the conference speakers, Henrik Nygren was the one who took the least time to get to the venue: his studio, located in a former brewery, is literally just a few blocks down from Södra Teatern. Distance, dislocation or displacement could however be said to be a recurring theme throughout his presentation, which did not focus on a specific project, but rather on the last 17 years of his career. Starting by describing how he feels to be in, and away from, his native island of Gotland, Nygren, who had no formal training in design, went on to talk about his unique educational experience with Paul Rand in Switzerland and on how he felt when he was made redundant from the agency he was leading back in 1991, at the height of his career. This life-changing incident meant he was on his own again, though as Nygren explained, a designer is never alone: he states one of the most important qualities of a designer’s work is ‘you are never alone, sitting in front of a screen. You must always work with others.’ And those ‘others’ can be located anywhere, so a set of rules, a work methodology must be found. The visual identity for Baltic, a cultural centre in Newcastle, which he developed entirely by faxing out instructions and guidelines, is an example of that methodology. Similarly, so are his two ‘false twin’ books and posters for Swedish architecture and design office Classon Koivisto Rune, the redesign of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet identity, or his solid, heavy box of six postcards for Gerry Johansson, Sweden’s oldest living photographer. A process he simply explains with a set of verbs: ‘plan, sort, refine, organise, calculate, create’.

Grandpeople, Norway
Magnus (Voll Mathiassen) and Magnus (Helgesen) represented Norway at the ED-Conference. The remaining third of Grandpeople, Christian Strand Bergheim, stayed in Bergen healing a broken ankle. As they say, Grandpeople hail ‘from a country associated with a type of Scandinavian modernism that conflicts with their perception of true Norwegian culture and mindset’. So a focus on contrasts and nature occupies much of their work which is mainly for creative industry clients in Norway. Their projects, developed for music festivals, cultural institutions and record labels, show an elaborate, decorative use of illustration and typography, through which they try to steer clear of what is often expected from ‘Norwegian graphic design’ – whatever that means today. The case study they presented, ‘Beast/Per/Music’, is a series of compilations by recording artists from Power Blytt, a new electronic music label from Bergen. They were commissioned to come up with an identity for it, however there was no money for promotion, no brief and no real direction from the label: it was a typical ‘white canvas’ situation. So they came up with their own brief, starting from clichés associated with the compilation genre, such as ‘face-on-the-cover’, recognisable type arrangements and what they called ‘light absurdities’. They then delved into Scandinavian nature (wood, stone, wildlife), Nordic culture (Viking and pagan motifs, traditional decoration) and came up with a series of ‘sculptures with personality’, odd three-dimensional shapes with jewellery, wooden legs and shiny bodies. Photographed in dark, mysterious lighting, these sculptures became the intriguing cover elements of this compilation, ‘combining the awkward music compilation aesthetics from the 70/80s with Norwegian fairy tales/myths’. This combination resulted in ‘a product that is strange, and that gives shelf impact that is directed at curious people (…) it is the ‘face-on-the-cover’ tactic, done differently’. It also encapsulates Grandpeople’s philosophy: ‘we don’t want to create stuff that promotes indifference’.

Eric Beloussov of Moscow-based Ostengruppe came on stage with Ksenia Filatova and Maria Privalova, who helped with translation and presented a series of past and present Russian visual and graphic references, ranging from 1920s Aleksandr Rodchenko posters and Stalin-era propaganda to current boy band billboards. Ostengruppe’s case-study for the conference followed: their work for DOM, a cultural centre in Moscow, for which they created both the identity and, over the past five years, all visual materials (which include over 200 posters, CD covers, calendars, books and photo albums). Their aim for this project was to create ‘a style’ for DOM, an original, easily identifiable style that would clearly set it apart from mainstream visual communication in Russia. In Beloussov’s words, ‘we live amongst garbage’, and they wanted DOM stand for something else. DOM’s graphics, and particularly its posters, are according to Beloussov himself, ‘bold, daring and experimental’, and at the same time manage to both have the ‘look of culture’ and ‘aggressively invade public space’. To arrive at that style, Ostengruppe went back in history and found inspiration in Russian constructivism and futurism to create a prolific, noteworthy body of work that, many decades later, may not be exactly ‘a slap in the face of public taste’ (the provocative title of Russian Futurists’ 1917 manifesto) but can already be seen as part of Russian design history.

R2 Design, Portugal
Lizá Ramalho and Artur Rebelo began their presentation with a ‘zoom in’ into their universe, from outer space to Portugal, to Porto, to their neighbourhood, and finally to the detached house where their studio is found. They then went on to show some examples of their work, together with their own ‘found images’, showing how much the latter influences the former. From the five computers found discarded in the middle of nowhere which they used for a self-promotion poster, to the hand-written names on fisherman’s boats which they photographed, processed and used on the identity for a short film festival, R2’s work seems to be a play of elements from their own – almost vernacular – surroundings within a tightly controlled and detailed set of rules. Their case study, the ‘Unfinished Trajectories’ installation for Casa da Música, Porto’s main concert hall, is also an example of this play of elements. Commissioned to create a temporary installation for one of the rooms in the Rem Koolhaas designed building, R2 chose an access corridor, and a book, to translate what they consider an important aspect of the concert hall: the very architectural experience of being and wandering around inside it. First they asked people to answer questionnaires about their feelings towards each of the building’s spaces, and then organised that data according to disparate criteria (alphabetical order, scale, capacity, colour, number of characters, etc), creating unique, sometimes impossible itineraries and explorations of the space. Those trajectories were shown in the corridor and in a small book, which became seamless continuations of each other. From three-dimensional reality to two-dimensional printed page, and back again, like so much of R2’s work.

Kokoro & Moi, Finland
Teemu Suviala, one of the two founders of Kokoro & Moi (the other is Antti Hinkula), came to Stockholm mainly to elaborate on how their studio got its (new) identity. And we’re not talking about visual identity, his talk was really about how they got their name. Known before as Syrup Helsinki, a highly acclaimed graphic design studio with offices in Helsinki and New York, Syrup were the first graphic design studio to win the prestigious Finnish ‘Designer of the Year’ award in 2005. In 2007, Syrup Helsinki’s parent company, the New York-based Syrup LLC, was acquired by the international digital agency network LBI International AB, and the Syrup Helsinki founders acquired the whole share capital of Syrup Oy. All these mergers and acquisitions meant that Suviala and Hinkula could either grow even bigger or stay small. They chose the latter path, stayed in Helsinki, but needed a new name. So the long process of getting a new name began, one that reflects their own philosophy in design: ‘when you connect ideas that haven’t been seen together before you can create something unique and new. You have also a pattern for this which is 1+1=3. Usually it’s even more.’ This process of random associations of names and things, something Suviala also called the ‘superstupid’ approach, started outside the Bølgen & Moi restaurant in Bergen, Norway. It then went all the way to Yugo, their long-time client in Tokyo, from there to Totoro (the big, ‘huggable’ Japanese cartoon character) and somehow, a few unexpected steps later, ended up in their final name. ‘Kokoro’ is Japanese for heart/mind/spirit, ‘Moi’ French for me and also Finnish for hello/bye. The name reflects their location, their ambitions (half of their clients are international) but also their open, curious and enthusiastic state of mind.

Erik Spiekermann, Germany
For a graphic designer audience anywhere in the world, Erik Spiekermann needs no introduction. The recipient of the first European Design Hall of Fame Award in 2007, he was invited to deliver the final presentation of this year’s conference, and it sure was something to remember: Spiekermann is a fast-paced speaker, and his breathtaking talk spanned over 35 years of his career, from its highest points – the worldwide recognition of his Meta typeface, for example – to its lowest points – his departure in 2001 from MetaDesign, the worldwide design consultancy he founded in 1979. If nothing else, Spiekermann’s career is proof of how wide-ranging a designer’s career can be. Huge, high-profile clients like the German Railways, Bosch, Audi, The Economist magazine or the Berlin Transit Authority mean that Spiekermann’s work ends up not being finished products, but rather sets of instructions or guidelines, which take years to implement and require patience, diligence, dedication and ultimately, time. One can take only so many notes at a Spiekermann talk, as it is ripe with humorous insights – even though ‘you can never judge a people’s humour if you don’t speak the language’, pearls of wisdom – ‘design is what your clients have, you design corporate designs’ – and a few life lessons – ‘design is a verb: it is how we do something’ and ‘design is a noun, it is what we do.’ As with all of Spiekermann’s talks, there was a feeling of a generous sharing of experience with the audience, and at the same time an irrepresible excitement about what he does, and about what everyone in the room does. Spiekermann always seems to have so much more to say about graphic design, but there never seems to be enough time.

This year, there were perhaps two recurrent topics in the presentations. The first, well expressed by Thierry Van Kerm, the conference’s Master of Ceremonies,  is the so-called ‘design job miracle’. Many of the speakers seem not to have a difficult time getting clients; they just seem to appear or call up. So is word-of-mouth, or even serendipity, more important to the design profession than self-promotion? Petpunk got a phone call out of nowhere from Vilnius Capital of Culture, commissioning them to make the animation video they presented. Grandpeople said you can eat ‘stale bread’ and live frugally, but should always manage to send out your work to magazines and books, as ‘clients tend to show up’ after seeing your work. In the case of R2, designing a poster for an architecture party led them to work on many identities for architects and even an architecture triennale, and jobs for architects still keep coming. Sometimes, you don’t even need a client to see your whole portfolio; Komoro & Moi got a call from Mattel after they saw only the seconds-long hand-written intro to their website. Client miracles, however, don’t always happen, so you need to keep your practice going: Henrik Nygren and Erik Spiekermann, who know a thing or two about expanding and reducing the size of their own practices, shared some insights on this with the audience. If for Nygren ‘it’s important to have enough work to say no’ but at the same time ‘keep it real’, for Spiekermann ‘the best new clients are old clients’. So in the end what really matters is doing your job well, as you will be famous for what you do best, regardless of how many publications you are in or how many distinctions you earn.

There was also a sense of flux, of constant motion, in most of the speakers’ presentations. Although everyone converged in Stockholm for these three days, many speakers talked of how their work is done remotely, in transit, or for a distant client. Teemu Suviala had just arrived from New York, touched down in Helsinki airport, picked up his wife and baby son and flew straight to Stockholm. Ole Lund is constantly back and forth between New York and Copenhagen. Christian Altmann is actually Swiss, but lives in Stockholm. Erik Spiekermann is German, says he’s based in Berlin but actually must live in hotel rooms, judging from the itinerary he has on his blog. Gorilla is made up of three studios based in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht. R2 admit to doing most of their thinking on their three-hour drives from Porto to Lisbon to meet clients. Graphic Thought Facility have now their own retrospective show, the first graphic design exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. So if anything can be learned from three days of ED-Conference, it is that, like the conference’s host city, the many centres of European graphic design are constantly changing. The new ED centre in 2009 will be shifting to Zurich.


May 26th 2008

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