A long interview about design, art, creativity and freedom
An iterview from 2009, consequence of a nice talk with Martin Babic
What made you pick design as a career?
It was really a result of many things coming together at once. Ever since I was a young boy I’ve been doing creative things, so, I guess it was just a natural progression.
Regardless, you still went on to study it, right?
I ended up studying industrial and graphic design as well as art, but I originally planned to study medicine or economics because of my family. As a matter of fact, my applications were signed and sealed — but not yet posted — when a friend of mine invited me to a conference about industrial design, and once I got there, it just called out to me. It wasn’t artistic, but I could feel the creativity in the works I saw. On a complete impulse I signed my name to a list, and, as a result started studying.
In the middle of my first year, I got kicked out because there were 300 students fighting for 80 spots in the class and I failed the first assignment. Thankfully, I got another chance, passed, and went on to study Industrial Design for the next three years. I left before I finished my degree.
What was your first design achievement? Design or creation? What you were most satisfied with.
I’ve been taking classes in drawing and painting since I was seven, and enjoyed all the things I was doing. But, if you’re talking commercial satisfaction, that would probably have come when I was 17 and made a flyer for a disco club. I was really proud of the work, but, come to think of it, the guy who hired me never paid me, so I guess it was not really a commercial job after all.
Did you do graffiti?
No. I don’t like it.
I don’t like street art because I think it’s disrespectful. I don’t consider this to be art regardless of how much creativity goes into it. To be fair, I don’t really know because I haven’t tried to do it, but the idea of spoiling the overall environment with your own subjective view of art seems to be an act of disrespect to other people as well as to the city itself.
What is your understanding of design?
Design has a lot to do with the marketing and function of what you create. It’s not about your ego. It’s not primarily about your taste. Taste is simply not a mandatory item in design. Design is about achieving a goal. And, to me, that’s why it’s not an art. To me, design is the way you show the attributes or characteristics of whatever it is you want to communicate in the best way possible.
The purpose of design is to serve, more specifically, to explain and serve. And, if your subject has some extra values such as beauty, happiness, knowledge or poetry, that’s a bonus, as these are not the goals of design, but compliments and tools.
Regardless, these are all consequences of how you approach the idea of design.
So is it possible to say what the good and bad design is?
Well, what is good design?
First, you need to know what the design or the campaign wanted to achieve. You have different target groups, you have different ways to approach them, and you have different goals. If you know all these points and you know what the goal is, it is very easy to say if the piece of design is good or not. In real life you are often confronted with the fact that you don’t have all the information. A piece of design can look beautiful, but if it does not serve its purpose, it’s completely wrong. It’s hard to say when a design is good or bad, but it’s quite clear when it’s right or wrong. It’s not about feelings. It’s objective, which is what separates it from art.
Are there some rules that need to be followed?
Yes! There are rules. This is another thing that separates design from art. In design there are boundaries created by your clients, the market, and a lot of other different factors which are sometimes not visible, but they are there.
Are these rules also technical?
Of course. There are different sets of rules according to what you design. They are different for print, for web, for illustrations… It seems to me that with all the technology we have today you can create almost anything. I guess the key to good design is to know your limitations so you know how far you can go. As soon as you know your own potential and are able to understand the limitations of the task at hand, you can do a good job. This is often very hard for designers to understand.
You studied and worked in design in Argentina, Spain, Sweden and Czech Republic. Is there something like a variety of national design? Or is design more universal?
The basis of design are the same for everybody all around the world. But you have to adapt yourself according to the market you work in.
Could you be more specific?
The differences according to countries are more in the risks the clients are willing to take in order to make something new or advanced in the way they want to market their brand or service. In Sweden, there is much more freedom than in Argentina.
I am asking since you hear all the time about Swedish design, British design etc. Can you compare Sweden where you worked with the Czech Repubic, for example?
I would put Czech Republic, Spain and Argentina into the same group. Spain would be the closest to Sweden. As far as the comparison is concerned, I think that the biggest difference is in people. You asked about Sweden, in my opinion, Swedish people are self-controlled. They know what is wrong and what’s right. They don’t have to follow external rules that much. The society is absolutely different. In Sweden you wouldn’t have people throwing papers out of a car window simply because it is wrong, not because you would get punished for doing so. In the Czech Republic it’s not like that. This kind of perception of reality by society also gives you the values and power to criticize what is good and what is not good. So when you see a design then you can also evaluate it by yourself, you don’t have to follow some standards.
So you think that through design you can see the reflection of the society in which it works?
The society and the culture as well. And I’m not talking about usage of elements or typo, it’s more about the perception of reality and expressing it with the tools you have. Take a language as a tool for example. The Swedish language is really simple and clear. You don’t have so many ways to say one thing like in Spanish. This is reflected also in design. Something has to be clear and it is clear, it has to be flat, so it is flat and the same thing with fresh. There are not ten different meaning of the word fresh. Fresh always means fresh.
How is this related to design?
The Swedish language has just one past tense, and doesn’t have several tenses for the present. This does not limit your reality, but it does simplify it. So, when you need to create something, regardless of what it is, your result will also be simple. It doesn’t mean it’s bad… it’s not!
It’s simple. It can be more clean, more direct, more powerful. I think you can see it in the shapes of Swedish design as well as in Scandinavia as a whole.
When you create your free work, you consider yourself more as an artist than a designer?
Exactly. But I use design tools to create my artwork. Design is a means to reach a result, and that result is something I don’t know until I get there. The goal is artistic, the medium is design.
If I understand it right, design for you is just a set of tools to reach something completely different?
Design is a mechanism to process information and get a result. It’s completely different than art. When I create art, it’s more about perception, I don’t care what it means for you and I don’t know what it means for you. On top of that, it’s not important what it means for me. It is a secret. And you don’t have to know what it means for me in order to be able to understand it for yourself. Perception is for art, direct communication is for design according to the message you want to communicate. In art you don’t give a damn about that, about rules. You set your own world, your own reality.
You speak a lot about reality. It reflects also in your work. “Do you want to understand reality? Good luck!” is another poster of yours. How do you understand reality?
Since I remember I’ve been reading books, thinking for myself and talking to people. I’ve also travelled a lot and have talked with people around the world, trying to find the answers to my questions. I finally realized, a few years ago, that there are some questions you’ll never find the answer to – the problem with the question is the question itself, not the answer.
Some questions should not be asked, because we don’t have the capacity to understand and answer them. In short, there is no point in answering them!
So when you read about relativity, what’s happening in science, when you read what’s happening in philosophy, when you see around yourself in your normal life, the reality is very tricky.
What does reality mean, really? Your perception of it is absolutely flexible, foggy, elastic and relative. It is far beyond our understanding what reality means. I ask myself if there is something like objective reality? Or, if reality is just a composition of six and half billions of subjective realities which interact between each other.
I think that reality as a concept built by millions and millions of ideas we create in order to be able to understand that something is happening outside of our minds. The way we perceive what is happening outside of our consciousness. We try to cut it into pieces and make a rational image of it which we call the reality. But if you want to talk about reality as such, the reality external to the human mind, I don’t think it really exists. If we name it, we put it into our mind again. We label it. So I don’t know how to answer the question of what reality is.
Ok, In another work of yours you say, “This is not freedom, universal lie.” This is little bit more of a subjective topic. You are a creative person, you work in advertising. What is your perception of freedom?
I have a concept. We think in general that we think we know what freedom is and that we are free but it is actually not true. In our field, we are the creators of boudaries. We are illusionists. And these illusions become real when we start to communicate them. For example we often say: “This product is very good for you and you would be very happy with ‘it’” or “You would be complete with ‘it’”. I think people believe they are free because they can choose, for example. different kinds of mobile phones. But I don’t think this is freedom. Freedom is deeper. It is some kind of state in your mind that you will not achieve by choosing a different mobile phone or choosing a different job. Because anyway you would have to work eight hours a day or even more. This is a reality you are tied to, a reality from which you cannot escape. I can’t live a different way than society tells me, therefore, this freedom is not real. It’s an illusion. I can be free as long as I don’t change, don’t break any rules or any boundaries I was dictated from society.
So therein lies the irony of the concept of freedom. The only freedom you (or I) have, and I even doubt this freedom exists, lies in how you want to live and shape the limitations you already have. So when I wrote: “This is not freedom. Universal lie” I had in mind that we are trying to get it from outside. But I think we should produce it from inside.
The concept of freedom is something that is constantly moving and growing in your consciousness and your perception of the reality we were talking about before. It is not about the freedom to go to Italy for a week for seventy Euros or go out to the street and “fight for your rights”. This is the tip of a snowflake at the tip of an iceberg, it’s just the very beginning of the concept of freedom. We as advertisers produce a lot of tools and a lot of weapons to make this tip of the iceberg look like the full iceberg. This is where I see the problem.
How do you get to this inner freedom?
In order to reach the deeper level of freedom, you don’t have to break the rules of the concept of freedom you’re given from society. You have to create and process the idea of freedom inside of yourself. This is the way to get away from society’s standard of freedom. It’s personal. It’s not a revolution. It’s not about going out and killing people to change the order of the world. That simply doesn’t work. The only way to change freedom, or, the perception of reality is internal.
You, and what you can achieve with your open arms. This is your reality. No more.
What’s happening in Africa, or anywhere else in the world, even though it is important is not “it”. It’s you and your open arms – the things you’re able to handle yourself. This is your freedom. What you do with this open space is your own issue. Usually you’re on your deathbed when you realize this, but that’s a different issue (laugh).
Do you have moral issues with what we’re doing in the ad industry?
Well I wouldn’t sell drugs or weapons. Sometimes I have problem using concepts like “freedom” or “happiness” in order to sell tampons. Maybe it can make people more happy to have a better brand of tampon, I don’t know. But on the whole, I wouldn’t demonize the advertisement, nor would I demonize the industry. We’re selling to people who are supposed to be cognizant enough to know that we’re trying to get into their heads.
Do you often question your work?
All the time! It’s good to ask yourself questions, but don’t get lost in them. Always be aware that what you’re doing is not 100% the right way to do them. Your decision on how to do what you do is just one way to do it out of millions. If you can make yourself aware of this, there is always room for improvement – for the better.
Summer skechts it’s a nice part of your work. Do you often wonder in your imagination?
I’d say it is a kind of research in my imagination. I do it on a daily basis. It’s like a reflex. I think your brain is a muscle. So it’s the same as if you go to the gym, you lift a lot of weights or run for an hour without getting exhausted. It works the same with imagination. With the kinds of illustrations you’re asking about, it’s a kind of an escape from day to day pressure to give my imagination some exercise, to keep working out. I love finding a space in my imagination, a happy place, where I can develop different types of worlds and characters. It’s a game for me and I enjoy it. It’s proportionally inverse to reality. Reality is not shut in my head. The beauty I can imagine is much bigger. So I try to compensate and balance in my head what is going on around me.
So you have never had problem with creativity. You have never been stuck?
I don’t think it has happened to me. When I get the information, the idea comes. It doesn’t mean I come up with great ideas all the time – in no way is that true. I think that creativity is very much linked to what we were talking about earlier – about being open and questioning yourself all the time. If you do this without insisting on the fact that your ideas would be amazing and without pushing yourself that you have to be the best one, then you get the idea you were looking for. Because you are free. You set yourself free. You don’t always think: “I have to be the best. Everybody has to love my idea.”
Do you manage to do it?
I often present my ideas as they are. And the consequence is not in my hands anymore. I focus on creating ideas and not on what is going to happen with the idea if somebody accepts it or not. It’s the same as if you want to talk to a pretty girl. You often wonder what she’s going to say if you tell her she’s beautiful. And often you don’t say it. But if you focus on saying it, you can’t really know what will happen afterwards. It’s up to her. The odds say that you’ll probably go to bed alone, but at least you’ll be in peace with yourself, knowing that you dared to do it. With ideas and creativity it is pretty much the same, you come up with something you think is good, present it, and wait for the response.
So this is the right attitude?
I don’t know if it is the right attitude for everyone. It works for me. And I sleep in peace, because I always try to do my work the best I can.
I am paraphrasing another poster of yours which says: “Creativity is the result of the right attitude.”
I believe so. I think that a lot of concepts that we create in society are taken as a cause and effect. For example happiness. You don’t choose to be happy. Happiness is an effect of your attitude. Creativity is an effect of your attitude. To be accepted by others is an effect of your attitude. You cannot push someone to accept you. And that’s difficult because you feel that you’re responsible for it, and that the consequence is your fault.
Listening to you I get the impression that you think that the biggest problem in the work we do is the human ego.
Yes. Especially in being creative. If you’re an artist and you want to be egocentric, great… It’s your fuel. In design, you cannot do that. Use your ego while you are creating something, but once you’re finished with your work, forget it. Ego is great to help you produce amazing things, but makes you completely blind once they’re finished. Don’t cease to be egocentric, but to use your ego as a tool, and stop it at the right time – kill it when it needs to be killed.
Interview by Martin Babic