Interview in Graphic Design Worlds/ Words

Interview by Maddalena Dalla Mura, published in Graphic Design Worlds/Words.

On the occasion of the exhibition Graphic Design Worlds (Jan 25 – March 27, 2011), Electa publishes Graphic Design Worlds/ Words (double edition: Italian and English).

The book brings together words and texts that have accompanied the great effort that has gone into organizing this event. It also compares the different visions of these worlds through the voices of historians and critics who have been observing them, studying them and spending time with them for years.

How did you start to work as an independent graphic designer, to run your business?

Harmen Liemburg: Running a business is not just a goal in itself, but a necessary means to function as an independent designer and work for various clients. I think I’m quite active as a ‘cultural entrepeneur’, but, as many other designers and artists, unfortunately I have little talent for the business part. In addition to that, I am a soloist by nature. Earlier I got a taste of what it would be like to be in an office situation. Instead of feeling obliged to show up at regular times because your collegues or superiors expect it, I like to decide when and how I work myself. I’ve decided it’s just not for me. On the other hand, when I collaborated with Richard Niessen, I experienced how much more energy can be created when you’re part of a team.

Beside the fact that you feel a soloist, is it important for you to have relationships with other people? Would you describe these relationships as a network?

It almost impossible to work without being part of networks. When you start out, it’s nice if you can to get advice from experienced collegues. Later on, it’s not enough to be talented, you need to connect to potential clients or find ways to get your own show on the road. In my experience, many jobs don’t necessarily go to the best people, but to those who will ‘show their nose’ at the right openings and parties. Being an idealist, I’m interested to have relationships that are honest and heart-felt. Through working and travelling, I am lucky to meet great people that I have really something to share with, but I realise that you don’t  have to be friends with everybody you work with. I don’t feel comfortable with this so-called ‘networking for networking’s sake’, but sometimes you just have to promote yourself too.

Besides other people’s work, it seems that travelling and working abroad are also an important source to you. Is this correct?

I am a curious person. I like to see new things, people, places. Travelling triggers new ideas and inevetably leads to a more nuanced perception of our complex world. So yeah, it’s important. But I also enjoy to be home in my own environment, and travel in my mind through books and other sources. So far, I’ve had several opportunities to work abroad for a longer period of time, especially in the US where I’ve been many times. Wherever there’s a computer, printer and internet, I can work, potentially. But it also takes energy to create an situation where I can really be productive. And besides, there’s few places where I can do my screenprints the way I’m used to. Apart from my little community there, this is one of the reasons why Amsterdam is still important to me as a homebase.

Graphic Design Worlds aims at bringing into light how designers use their languages and media to comment on the world or to design new worlds, in a way. Which one of these sides would you feel closer to?

I guess both. My work is full of comments and observations about the world, but the tone usually is very lighthearted and ironic. I don’t think I’ll ever do a hard core political poster. The subtleties can be understood if people are willing to spend some time with the work and really dive into it. The work I’m interested in myself, like Zeloot, Seripop or Mathias Schweizer, usually has a element of crazyness or maniacism. This is also why I take an interest in amateur or outsider art. I guess since I got involved, I developed a deep obsession with printed matter, and looking at it in all it’s variety is a world that doesn’t cease to exite me.

How would you describe graphic design in your own words, then?

Over time, it turned out that out I am less interested in graphic design as a problem-solving method for communication issues, and rather see the creation of printed objects as a goal in itself. But somehow, autonomous as the work may seem, there’s always some kind of announcement or message involved. I never work because I feel the inner urge to do something (like the stereotypical artist), there’s always a reason, an event, and thus a message involved. I also need a certain pressure, a deadline, to direct my time and energy to transform all collected materials and ‘loose ends’ into a specific design. I’m using graphic design as a means of expression, and hope that the work will keep it’s freshness also after it has served it’s purpose.

Not only you design your works but you actually produce them, especially using screenprinting. Where does this involvement come from?

When I was student at the Gerrit Rietveld academie, I was eager to try out the screenprinting workshop, but the guys in charge at the time were incredibly lazy and unwilling. This frustrating and disencouraging situation changed for the better when Kees Maas [graphic artist and printmaker] arrived at the school. Kees brought a completely different mentality. He always seemed to be willing to actively help and work with students, making things possible instead of throwing up barriers. I found this very stimulating. I quickly recognised the many qualities of screenprinting technique, and learned to get the most out of the tools and materials by trial and error. After graduation, Kees enabled me to continue working in his private screenprinting shop, which enabled me to develop further as a designer making dirty hands. Screenprinting has become my medium for expression and a major means to production and publish my graphic work independently.

What I like a lot about screenprinting is it’s flexibility. Once the design is finished and the films are produced, you get out of the computer and literally enter the world of ink and paper, which has its own rules. You can change your mind about colours and printing order, remove, or add elements, so the work opens up again, and allows for changes that usually make the final result better. It’s a very physical process too, standing up and running around sweating and dirty all day long, handling the screens and sheets of paper. After a full day of printing, I usually am pretty exhausted, and the only thing I want to do is to sit down and drink a couple of beers.

As far as we can infer, in your life there is no separation between work and private life, is it so

There is no distinction. Especially now my studio is at home, and I’m not in a relationship. I am not exaggerating when I say that my life is pretty much  dedicated to my work. The challenge is still to take a break from myself, get away from the computer and quit working once in a while. To a certain extent, this comes with being selfemployed, it’s no different than for a restaurant owner of a free lance photographer. But I must say that my personal life improved since I rediscovered sports.

Can you describe the process you follow in your work?

I never start from an empty sheet. My inspiration comes from elements that are already there. Usually commercial art, packaging design, traffic signs: common, vernacular graphics that anybody could see. I am constantly collecting ‘building blocks’ for new work, but I need the right occasion to actually put them to use. Usually I look for elements that somehow communicate with each other in such a way, that a storyline appearch. Be it often in a very open and associative way. By now, I have learned to trust my own working process. If the ingredients are good and if I spend enough time with the material then something good – whatever it is – should roll out… Through printing, I trained myself to take all the possiblities of the printing process into account while I’m designing. Using the colour of the surface, the layering of opaque and transparent inks, knockout, overprinting colours, etc…

My working process usually comes down to collecting elements that are, but in a loose way, connected  thematically to a topic. After that I’m transforming those elements into vector dawings that enable to construct a composition. I learned to work with vector software as a cartography student at Utrecht University. At the time I had a job in lab producing diagrams and maps for scientific publications. We’re talking about 1988, a few years after the first mac was introduced, so I’ve witnessed the transfer from analogue tools like photographic typesetting machines, technical pens and selfadhesive haftone sheets to Aldus FreeHand (first vector software, taken over by Adobe Illustrator). This first experience with graphics stills defines my awareness of detail and technical quality.

Anyhow, when all elements are in place, and the design is finished, everything is deconstructed, and split up into black and white colour separations. And then, after the films are made, everything is reconstructed again through printing, layer by layer. Up to film production, the computer is the most important tool, but I’m not a slave to it. In the end it’s a good marriage of digital and handcrafted tools.

You said that you have learned to ‘trust’ your own process. You mean that there was a time when you felt not sure about it?

My teachers at artschool said that my methods of working were too result driven. It took me a while to understand what they meant, but graduating with a experimental project finally opened my eyes. I have been through some maniacal periods when I was a student, during which I thought “What’s happening to me? Am I going crazy?, I can’t stop working”. Now I realise that this is part of being immersed in the making process itself, and even enjoy it. But I’m glad I’m not in that manical state of mind all the time!

So you are not afraid anymore, you find your own process and way to design and produce?

Yes, for me it is quite an achievement to understand how it works, and now that I do, it’s easier to accept that apparently this is the way for me. There’s still a lot to learn though, especially when I look at the works of others who seem to create with such ease. In a way, I am still in the process of liberating myself from the sense of precision I got from working as a cartographer.

Because of your approach, then, do you feel it as a problem when students immediately open the computer as they enter the class room?

Many people stay in the digital realm, working with pixels and low-res material, well, there’s nothing wrong with it, but there is a whole world beyond that. Even if you don’t want to become a printmaker yourself, as a designer you should at least have an understanding of physical qualities of reproductions processes and their distinct qualities. I like to bring these worlds together. As everybody else, I’m working with digital tools every day, but I just can’t help to find great satisfaction in physical results that you can actually smell, touch and feel.

So this is what you are trying to teach, to bring to students?

I think it’s important to stimulate students to look at other things than the computerscreen. I love Google too, it’s a fantastic tool and I’m using it a lot, but what pops up there is put there by human beings. It’s not the world. The physical reality is enlessly richer and more diverse of course. Students shouldn’t look for the solution inside the computer, but rather fill their brains with various types of information. Developing an attitude of curiosity is most essential I think, and I sure hope to make a contribute to that.

Being an independent designer, how important is the support from institutions, and how is it in Holland, a country that is renown abroad for having great design and for the public support in the arts and in the cultural field?

Well, there’s this sort of myth about why Dutch designers are so good, but I’m not sure it’s my job to explain about it. The fact that we have the Foundation for Visual arts, Architecture and Design has certainly made my life a bit easier. I am not saying that Holland is paradise in which the ‘manna’ comes falling from the skies. There’s a high standard. Unless your work is of good quality, you can just forget about getting access to that type of funds. But yes, the grants that I’ve received since graduation, enabled me to travel, execute projects and installations, and thus were an important contribution to my development.

How do you feel about the public of your work, do you feel a kind of responsibility towards people out there?

Since I’m working to stimulate others to look beyond their computer screen and develop an interest in other sources, I feel I should be completely open and transparent about my own working methods and sources. Usually, talking about the working process is more interesting and inspiring that the final product, so for me this is a natural attitude. You will never find me theorising about design, mystifying my personality, or talk about things that I cannot understand myself. My head may be in the clouds quite often, but I like to keep my feet on the ground.

January 26th, 2011
, Posted in Interviews