→ On Dynamic Identities
→ Profile, Grafik 189, April 2011
→ The dilemma with internships
→ Interview with IDEA Magazine, Japan, May 2010
→ Cat food and striped toothpaste
→ Modernism — are we done yet?
→ Interview with IdN Magazine, 2009
→ Interview with Quotation Magazine, Japan, October 2009
→ PDF — Permanently Distracting Format
→ My Pink Heaven — Article in TypoGraphic, Issue 54
→ What makes designers so different from hairdressers?

On Dynamic Identities

Recently quite a few people asked me what I think of so called 'dynamic identities'. So here we go: I don't think there really is so much of a difference between static and dynamic identities. They have become a bit of a buzzword or a marketing gimmick. Often dynamic identities are not much else than an animated static identity. They wiggle around a bit like a nervous child with too much energy. Yes, clients seem to love 'dynamic identities' when they are sold to them by a smart talking 'strategy expert'. "Dynamic logos for a dynamic world". But is that really true? Is our world really dynamic and changing fast at all? My impression is society has become much more static. Everyone is just sitting paralyzed in front of their facebook page admiring their latest profile picture or hoping for as many 'Likes' as possible on their meaningless new post. Where are the big ideas or the drive for change in our society? Those dynamic identities have been dubbed 'democratic' systems. What's democratic here? They are even more infiltrating and the illusion of an 'experience' is just enhancing consumerism on a more varied level. 

Yes, our studio has created quite a few dynamic identities, maybe we have even been one of the first to do so. However, I think our motivations were in some cases slightly different or our opinions have changed. I am very skeptical of logos in general. Often we just could not decide on a final version so we used them all, or different methodes of production or materials demanded different versions. Yes, we are interested in a slightly more playful character but I think our goal is to get rid of logos completely at some point. I am interested in what I call 'decentralized' identities. Subtle identities that do not manifest themselves in a logo (static of dynamic) but in certain treatments of colour, texture, typography, etc. A world without logos.

I assume our demand for logos stems from religion and 2000 years of religious iconography. Religion asks the same questions as corporate identity does: Who are we? What do we believe in? Where are we going? What are our values? How do we want to be seen and treated by others?, etc. I am not against religion, quite the opposite, however, there are other ways of thinking and we should be more aware of the reasons why we are so fixed on centralized symbols that may or may not represent values or 'identity' in a wider sense. With my students I am working on identities without logos and different ways of thinking about identity aside from consumerism. Obviously at the current situation it is very hard to tell clients 'there will be no logo' in your identity. You should hear them screaming in despair. It seems to go against everything they believe in. Which is quite silly actually, either a product or service is much more than just a little logo, or it is nothing and the product or service maybe shouldn't even be there. Our world is full of unnecessary stuff and unnecessary communication. As designers we should always be aware of the fact that we are part of the problem as well as part of the solution. 

In summary: 'dynamic identities' are (or have become) in most cases just a fashion craze and we should question the term 'identity' in a much more fundamental way.

— posted by Holger

Profile, Grafik 189, April 2011

From Tom Dixon to a Hula-Hoop performer, this studio comprising an Irishman, a French and a German does work for a giddying range of clients. Robert Urquhart visited Mind Design and found a hard-working, have-a-go team nurturing a touch of eccentricity.

At first glance the studio at Mind Design could be mistaken for a bike shop—a row of gleaming racing bikes sit proudly on a rack as you enter. For some reason that I’ve yet to fathom, racing bikes, boys and graphic design all ring each other’s bells. The man in the saddle at Mind Design is Holger Jacobs, ably assisted by Craig Sinnamon and recent newcomer Claire Huss. Jacobs was born in Kleve, Germany and attended Saint Martins College of Art & Design before graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1997. After college, Jacobs followed up an interest in Japanese culture and headed to Tokyo, where he became art director at Tuttle Publishing. Although the romance of designing endless books on architecture only lasted a year, it was a rite of passage and a visit to a place that shared his personal design philosophy.

“I am from Germany, a very concept-heavy country, very much focused on the individual,” says Jacobs. “In Japan it’s often more important how you say things than what you say. My more concept-driven friends often accuse me of being a formalist but I don’t really see it that way. For me, form and content are ideally the same thing. I guess that comes from my interest in Japan. They call it Kata.”

Jacob’s interest in Kata (literally meaning ‘form’ in Japanese and used to describe patterns and movements used in Japanese culture, from tea ceremonies to martial arts) still bubbles beneath the surface. “I think when we design logos, or even just pick a typeface, we always try to give back a little bit of this lost expression,” explains Jacobs. “The Japanese have a more direct and, to a degree, emotional connotation or expression to symbols. Our alphabet is phonetic and purely functional.” However, when asked why he didn’t decide to start Mind Design in Tokyo rather than London, Jacobs cuts the romanticism in two. “It would have been very difficult twelve years ago. They still have very much of a corporate culture and, besides, I’m a typographer in a way. I can’t deal with Japanese fonts.”

Noticing that I’m looking around at the many models and maquettes on display in the studio, Jacobs offers an explanation. “We are very interested in craftsmanship and exploring materials to work with,” he says. “Often the ideas come from the materials. I guess this has to do with the fact that I always worked with architects. My first desk space after returning from Japan was in a small architecture studio, then I had another one in an interior agency, then a lot of influence came through working with Tom Dixon. I was always more interested in furniture than in fine art. There is the direct connection between form and function.”

Furnituremaker and design-brand superpower Tom Dixon has been a regular client of Mind Design for some time, and the studio has produced several catalogues as well as working on identities for some of the interior design spaces that the Dixon brand extends to. One such project took place last year, entitled Circus, a restaurant/bar with a twang of burlesque about it in London’s Soho. “The idea was a venue where performers perform on the table. It was quite wild,” muses Jacobs. “Flexible logo systems have become a bit of a trend but here it was needed because there were so many applications for it. For the bar we made card games with illustrations of animal heads and human bodies, and we finally found a place for disco foil—we’d spent a long time waiting to use that.”

Speaking about the difficulties of working on an identity for interior spaces that are often in development alongside the design work, Jacobs draws on another job that they collaborated with team Dixon on: The Paramount, an exclusive club in the top three floors of Centrepoint, a Richard Seifert-designed, mid-Sixties concrete-and-glass towerblock that hovers over Tottenham Court Road just up from Soho.

“We based our design on the building itself,” says Jacobs. “The process was a game of ping-pong between us and the team at Tom Dixon. The terrifying thing about designing identities for raw spaces is that there really is just the raw concrete shell—there is nothing.” The two design teams changed direction often, but in the end they brought it together, adding flourishes including a copper motif that Tom Dixon had used in a sculptural form in the reception area to pin the menus in the restaurant together. “We were very influenced by Op artist Victor Vasarely,” recalls Jacobs of the final designs. “There is always this play with obstruction [in his work]. It suited the mood perfectly.”

Projects with Dixon have been an important part of Mind’s output, but to focus only on the exclusive penthouse world of the Dixon tribe would be an injustice—the real story of Mind Design is focused on a much more down-to-earth work ethic and understanding of what it is to be a jobbing design studio.

“I guess we are more of a 1960s graphic design studio,” observes Sinnamon. “We are not into Arts & Crafts, although graphic design has emigrated in that direction… There is a lot of good stuff out there, designers working on cultural brochures, setting up their own publishing businesses etc. But we believe that sometimes commercial work is left too much to big marketing companies. We’ll work for anyone and we have clients from every background.”

But what about all the trappings of the brave new world of branding? The colour trends? The marketing hyperbole? “It’s not our world,” says Jacobs, “but then again, we don’t have the type of clients that would want this stuff. This is usually a committee designing for committees, isn’t it? No one wants to take responsibility. That’s why everything is backed up by trend-forecasting and research.” A refreshing view at a time when agencies are busting protractors to squeeze out another degree to add to their ‘360 service’. Mind Design has neither a Twitter account nor a Facebook page. One of the few links on its website is to the Bill Hicks stand-up routine where he invites the audience to “kill a marketing guy”.

“I think we are all pretty low-tech here in the studio,” states Jacobs unashamedly. “I still work in freehand and Quark Xpress. But if we would really need to produce something complicated we would find someone who can. Craig spends a long time dealing with manufacturing companies.”

“We make a lot of dummies and do things by hand,” Sinnamon agrees. “Maybe it’s one of the reasons why we don’t usually work with freelancers—if we need, say, some linocuts, we try it ourselves first.”

Mind’s enthusiasm for trying things out is clear to see by the extensions to the brief that they keep giving themselves. They must be the design studio from heaven for all the extras including branded interiors and working logo maquettes they bestow on their unsuspecting clients free of charge.

“Craig and I never really worked for another company so in our heads we are still in college,” admits Jacobs. “We try out too many things, which is often not very efficient and economically a bit of a nightmare. But that’s how it goes if you are equally involved with form-finding rather than in idea development: forms need to be tried out.”

It’s all quite endearing. “After a job I used to go and check that everything was still in place,” says Jacobs. “I’d take photos, try to correct the wear and tear and send clients emails if I noticed anything amiss.” Sinnamon interjects: “You can’t do that, though.” Jacobs, somewhat ruefully, concedes: “Yes, you have to let it go…”

With all the extramural activity and current chilly economic climate, times could have been tricky for the team, but reputation and going the extra mile on projects seem to have kept heads above water. “Last year was a funny year,” recalls Jacobs. “We got offered a lot of big projects but none of those materialised. So we did small ones and worked for our existing clients. It was nice, for instance, to work for Marawa, a Hula-Hoop performer. Before that we did the identity for a dentists’ practice, which was nice because we got to work on the surgery’s interior space.”

Being given the opportunity to extend the brief is something Jacobs clearly relishes when he states: “I hate those logos that are just stuck onto every surface in the same unimaginative way, but I guess that’s how a lot of companies approach identity design. They spend an awful amount of time working on the logo and then leave the implementation to someone else.”

With the dentists’ job last year, Sinnamon’s idea for extending the logo identity to wrapping vinyl around seemingly random objects in the surgery came from an initial idea during a telephone call with Jacobs who was in Japan at the time. It’s a good measure of the fluid process that the team share. “Craig called whilst I was in Japan,” explains Jacobs. “I was in Kyoto in some Zen gardens when I took the call and as he spoke to me about the project I was looking directly at some raking around stones. They immediately reminded me of teeth and enamel, so that’s what we did—we emulated these ribs around objects. It’s a good example of how ideas happen in a random way. There is no single right solution.”

Jacobs reinforces his commitment to this fluid approach to design when he adds: “I don’t think there is one right way of doing things in design. That’s why it’s fine if a design is totally individual and subjective. It’s only one of many possible ‘solutions’.”

Another project that saw the team pushing the boundaries of their craft was the identity for TESS Management, a high-end London-based model agency. The team collaborated on a modular font system with Swiss typographer Simon Egli to produce a highly original and evocative identity. “I was really into Art Deco,” enthuses Jacobs. “It’s a wild party—the punk movement of the 1920s, they had less of an agenda than the flawless Modernists.” Jacobs was so swept away by his passion for Art Deco that he suggested to the studio that all future work should reference the period. It’s up to Sinnamon to rein in these escapades and he gently reminded Jacobs that they should view research on a project-by-project basis.

One of the best-placed people to comment on Jacobs’s dynamic passion is Julia Muggenburg, who first met him at his graduating show at the RCA and then went on to become his longest-standing client. Muggenburg is the founder of Belmacz, an exclusive high-end jeweller, and it’s obvious that both Muggenburg and Jacobs shared the same outlook on the creative process from the word go. “I need to work with an avant-garde mind like his to communicate my point of view,” says Mauggenburg, “… to show and celebrate that my work is utterly relevant and to get it to be understood clearly. Categorically he never fails to surprise me, In fact, I expect it now.”

The collaboration works—at the time of my visit, the studio is in the middle of a new campaign for Muggenburg. “We are designing the shop for Belmacz,” explains Jacobs, “so for that we redesigned the identity a bit as well. It’s all based on the idea of dislocation. Basically we were interested in where diamonds and the raw materials originally come from. And then how they travel and get more and more refined in the process. So we show a lot of raw materials that appear as cut-outs. If there is a shape missing on a printed bag, for example, it may reappear on a bit of stationery.” Without missing a beat, Jacobs continues, leaping from one idea to the next: “We are also showing images of big diamond mines in the toilet of the shop. Massive holes cut into the earth. Storytelling, I guess. We never do something just purely for decoration. There is always a story, but usually it’s quite direct and obvious.”

Obvious or not, Jacobs and the studio are direct and refreshingly simple in their approach, which Muggenburg sums up neatly as “understatement combined with a bonkers frivolity. Jacobs nurtures his obsessions with a keen and discerning eye. He has an astute understanding of the aesthetics, psychology and aim within each project brief, an understanding of every media and a strong sense of humanity.” In short, a tour de force.

— by Robert Urquhart

The dilemma with internships

We had many interns in our studio over the years and learned as much from them as they hopefully learned from us. We always treated them like everyone else in the studio and paid at least £350 per month (even at times when we were struggling). We followed their careers and are still in contact with most of them. Until recently I thought internships are good arrangement from which everyone benefits. However, nowadays there are so many student's, graduates, even post graduates entering the internship circuit that the situation has started to affect (and change) the design industry. Not necessarily for the better. So what is the problem with internships?

1) The industry is becoming dependent on interns.
Especially in difficult economic times design companies might recruit interns as a cheap short-term workforce. It is worrying to see how this has already developed in the fashion industry where there are sometimes 10 interns to 1 designer, working long hours and weekends. The other problem is that when the cost of 'staff' becomes less design agencies can charge low fees and undercut each others prices. It doesn't take long until even clients figure out how the game works. We have been asked to complete projects for ridiculously low fees where the clients have already suggested 'maybe your intern can do it?'. Those clients should approach graduates directly, not design studios. Without any overheads a few hundred quid might be ok for a graduate and could mean a first step towards self-employment. We all started like this.

2) Interns are killing off the very jobs they want.
I am not saying it is the interns fault, they are in a catch 22 situation. However, from a purely commercial perspective why should a design agency still employ a junior designer when they can have three equally qualified interns doing the same job for free? Many interns are far too qualified or have been doing their rounds for much too long. There seems to be real pressure on graduates too to complete as many internships as possible in order to increase their chances in finding a real job. This might not be about gaining additional experience anymore and becomes just a trade-off of adding another studio name to the CV in exchange for a bit of unpaid work. Especially internships of just a week or two seem completely pointless, what can someone really learn in a new environment in such a short time?

3) The colleges are not taking their responsibilities serious anymore.
Why do so many graduates still feel the need for more experience? Are the colleges not responsible for preparing students for 'real life'? Colleges nowadays are taking on far too many students in order to fund themselves through fees. Many courses have three times the number of students than they used to have 5 years ago but the number of tutors has not been increased. With that many students it becomes difficult to teach real practical skills, like designing grids, print preparation, etc. It is much easier to let students loose on developing ideas and concepts. Certainly this is an important point of studying but then again who needs so many clever little geniuses? In real life only around 20% of a project is developing the actual idea. I do not really see why design studios should compensate for the shortcoming of the colleges, neither should the colleges shift their responsibilities towards the design industry.

4) Small studios are not a training camp for the big world.
Most interns want to work in a small studio because they assume that those are more 'creative' and somewhere between art college and the big agencies. What they often forget is that small those studios hardly ever employ new staff and usually struggled quite a bit themselves to achieve their 'creative' status. All small studios started at some point with very little experience from nothing with just one or two semi-reliable clients. They took risks, made many mistakes, worked through quite a few bad jobs and put up with difficult clients in order to pay the bills. Instead of assuming that there is a shortcut to great creative freedom or a half-way house between college and the big world graduates should just be braver and start their own thing. It actually seems easier nowadays to find your first client than getting a full-time job. The more small design studios there are the better and we have always been happy to help if someone asks for a printer recommendation or how to structure an estimate. The sad thing is that many interns after they have done their rounds through the small studios end up in a big commercial agency because they need to earn money and those are the only ones hiring (and firing once the project finishes). In a way small studios come into a position where they are training the future staff of their own competitors who put profit before creativity.

We have not fully decided where we stand on the subject of internships but felt the need to expresses some general concern in the interest of the interns themselves and the design industry. Many interns we spoke to had very positive experiences. In future we may only accept interns while they are still in education, or try to introduce real 'mini' jobs, or organize a regular pop-in portfolio day. In the meantime, while we are still making up our mind here some general advice for consideration:

- If you do an internship but you are actually after a real job always ask if there is a possibility of employment and clarify things from the start.
- Do an internship at a print workshop, an accountants office, a sign maker, learn really practical stuff that might become incredibly useful.
- Never work for free. Even if the studio is small and has little money there should be some sort of payment.
- Forget about internships, get real, find some clients, start working, start making mistakes, start enjoying your achievements.

— posted by Holger

Interview with IDEA Magazine, Japan, May 2010

In what field do you mainly design?
Everyone in the studio has a strong background in print design but we enjoy working in many different areas. In recent years we have focused on integrated design — combining corporate identity, print, web, signage and interior design. We like to collaborate with specialists from other disciplines and often work for start-up companies which allows us to be involved in every aspect of the project right from the beginning. 

What is your attitude or philosophy of design?
Our philosophy and approach is based on a passion for craftsmanship and typography. We believe that content and form are equally important and can not be separated. In corporate identity there is a tendency of developing an idea or strategy first and then finding a suitable visual form for it later. We often go the other way and develop ideas within the process of making. An accidental letter combination can lead to a great logo or a certain form can be an idea in itself. We purposefully avoid establishing a graphic house style but we do like design which is friendly and has a subtle sense of humour.

How do you refer to the history of modern graphic design?
The basics of design have not changed so much. A lot of work from the beginning of the twentieth century still looks fresh and contemporary. However, ignorantly we always thought the Bauhaus was the beginning of proper graphic design and everything before was just like floral wallpaper. Recently we have looked back a bit further and re-discovered Art Deco which had a great influence on some of our most recent work. 

What changes do you think happen in 2000s?
In the 90's 'information overload' was more a buzz word but in the last couple of years it really seems to have come true. The countless design blogs for example are a great source of inspiration, but at the same time can be quite distracting from the actual work. In day-to-day practice the influx of e-mails and pdf's often does not speed up a project but only make it harder to concentrate. We may be in danger of producing just entertaining and blog compatible visuals for a short attention span rather than more complex, long-term projects. A more positive effect is that design seems much more varied and less driven by one dominant style. 

What condition do you think graphic design in the near future?
Many small graphic design studios are working almost exclusively in the arts and culture sector. There is nothing wrong with that at all but in future it could be an interesting challenge to win back some ground in the commercial sector that is dominated by marketing and make ordinary consumer goods look better and more individual. The economic crisis might help since big marketing budgets have been cut and more creativity is a good alternative.

Cat food and striped toothpaste

David Quay has written a brilliant article on the Grafik blog which I couldn't agree more with. I often experience the area between commerce and culture as a bit of a battle ground. Clients are somewhere in the middle, often torn between the promises of an almighty marketing strategy by larger commercially driven organisations and the creativity of small independent studios. It seems many graphic designers have retreated into a safe zone of working almost exclusively in the art and culture sector. There is nothing wrong with that at all but I think in future it could be an interesting challenge to win back some ground in the commercial sector and to make ordinary consumer goods look better and more individual. The economic crisis might actually help since big marketing budgets have been cut and more creativity is a good alternative.

First Things First 2000 manifesto — an outdated concept

Modernism — are we done yet?

A few years ago I went to a college degree show and everything I saw looked absolutely brilliant. Next I noticed that almost every bit of type was set in Helvetica with large headings using heavy bars or other 'functional' typographic furniture. It was at the height of 'fake' modernism. 

You could argue it has all been done before (and probably better), but then again most design quotes elements from another period. In its reduction fake modernism often pretends that the design has gone through a very considerate process. There is something very exclusive about this 'club of hardship'. Years of moving tiny bits of metal in letterpress, heated discussion about the correct use of an n dash or m dash, kerning beyond what is visible to the human eye. The world of geeks.

Clients certainly love it. They sleep better when they know their graphic designer is up all night kerning and tweaking their business presentation for the next day. Modernism can be a good tool of commercialism. Claiming functionality its own it can be a good tool for almost everything. The Modernism exhibition at the V&A showed how equally well it worked as a style for communism, fascism and capitalism. 

In my ignorance I always thought the Bauhaus was the beginning of proper graphic design and everything before was just like floral wall paper or as annoying as heavily patterned carpets in a furnished flat that you can't get rid of. Even my coffee mug has the word 'Modernist' printed on it (in Helvetica of course). Ornament is crime, form follows function, less is more and all that. 

We have a graffiti on the studio wall that reads 'Ordnung and Sauberkeit' (Order and Cleanliness). Obviously a contradiction in itself as the medium graffiti usually represents the opposite, it very much expresses the ambivalent and maybe schizophrenic relationship I have with modernist design.

Day-to-day modernism often just feels like cleaning up someone else's mess. I told clients on many occasions: if we set this in clean structured type it will show all the logical problems and the inconsistencies that you are currently hiding in your messy word document. Modernism plays right into the hands of marketing: lets clean up your company, lets communicate your values clearly, lets get rid of the clutter and once things look clean and functional success will come automatically.

Recently I looked back a bit further, behind the sacred Bauhaus border and re-discovered Art Deco. A kind of romantic punk movement of the 20s, wild glitzy and short lived. Deco wasn't preaching a new world order it just wanted to have fun. 

Lets leave the cleaning brigade and join the party! Unknown territory where we don't know anymore what things will look like before we start designing them. And if we can't think of anything we can always fill our designs with ornaments. Obviously that would be very unsophisticated but what's wrong with just 'pretty'? Especially in the bleak times of recession it feels like an act of liberation. Try telling your client we make it look 'pretty' rather than we are 'adding value and functionality'. Prettiness - it feels so wrong and yet so right again.

— posted by Holger (Craig might entirely disagree with this post)

Interview with IdN Magazine, 2009

Is there any special reason naming your studio as Mind Design?
The name was more of a coincidence. In college I was very interested in visual poetry and word games. I just liked the fact the word 'in' is inside the word 'mind' so it could literally read 'in mind'. I still find it fascinating how subtle typographic arrangements can alter the meaning of a word. My first job after college was to design a window installation for a chain of fashion shops. I worked with words on large blocks and the word 'mind' was on one of them. Just when I was standing on a ladder my accountant rang asking what I wanted to name my company. At the time I didn't expect to last very long as self-employed so I didn't give it much thought. The word 'mind' was just in front of me and I told him to call it Mind Design. We actually never liked the name very much as it sounds a bit too clever. Nowadays we use all kinds of phrases that include the word 'mind' on our stationary so that it becomes a bit more random. 

From your professional point of view, what makes a good identity work?
A good identity should be honest. It's like the face of a company, organisation or product and you do not want to be looking into a mask. Obviously it is nice when a visual identity has a certain design quality but this is very much dependent on personal taste and the fashion of the time when it was designed. I find it more important that an identity is applied in a consistent way. A logo on its own doesn't really make an identity and I would prefer to see a bad logo applied in a consistent way to a good one in a messy overall environment. Consistency doesn't mean that everything must be the same, it just means it should be consistently well designed and thought through.

The natural of identity has evolved greatly within these few years, it changes from being one single logo to an entire system. How would you respond to such evolution and do you foresee how far it would grow into?
Flexible logo systems are interesting and challenging for designers as they are more playful. They often work well for clients but not always. On the one hand they add more variety and move away from the rather stiff and authoritative aspects of traditional corporate identity, on the other hand they are much more difficult to control in their day to day application. We design many flexible identity systems but only do so if we are fully in control of their application, which is mostly the case with smaller companies. The last thing you want as a designer is the marketing department calling you every day asking 'which logo do we use today'? Even a single logo needs variations: a black and white version, often a version for small sizes, it must be saved in different file formats and colour modes. So one logo can mean ten different file formats; if you have five different logos the numbers can easily spiral out of control. Flexible logo systems either need a very detailed identity manual or the long term commitment of a design company.

What is the major difference you found designing an identity than any other design project?
Unless an identity is for a specific event or exhibition that has an end, they develop a life of their own. They almost become like children — when they move out of their family home, their parents are still concerned how they are doing. It is important to plan identities carefully and consider their possible applications in the future. Other design projects come back from the printer and they are finished. When they look good it gives you great satisfaction, but after a while we put them in our work archive and start to forget about them.

Would you care to elaborate the differences between identity and branding?
We never use the word branding in our studio. In my opinion it is something very different to what we do and seems more relevant to sales and marketing. Brand positioning always compares with what is already out there but we don't care too much about that. It also seems to be a very analytical 'one way' approach: if you want to achieve this you must look like that because your competitors already look like this... We have a more emotional and probably more random approach. I don't think there is one best 'solution' for an identity design. Something that I just happen to see on the street can give me an idea for a logo, if I would have walked down a different street I might have had a different idea. Focus groups don't work that way. We also put much more emphasis on craftsmanship. Often an accidental letter combination in the name can lead to a great logo or a certain form can be an idea in itself. Branding seems to develop forms out of ideas, we often develop ideas out of forms. With branding there also seems to be a tendency to overrate identity design. We work a lot for start up companies and if their product, management or service isn't good the best identity can't save them. 
What do you think is interesting and even magical about identity design that isn’t found in other type of design?
Identity works across different media (print, web, packaging, architecture, etc). I always find it fascinating when the different parts of a puzzle come together and suddenly make sense as a whole. Especially when a design shows variation and an individual approach to each application.

What is the common challenge you often face when you are designing identity?
The early stages of an identity development are the most challenging but also the most interesting. We often find it difficult to decide how far we should include the client in the process or when to stop. If we show all our sketches they might think we don't know what we are doing, if we show just one final version they may not value the amount of work that went into it. Its a funny thing, in a way the amount of work doesn't make the logo better, I think its really possible to design a good logo in your lunch break on a napkin but on the other hand when we are working on something really hard we often feel we want to show the whole process to the client. I suppose flexible identity systems still retain more of the process as well as different possibilities.

Interview with Quotation Magazine, Japan, October 2009

Please introduce yourself (background, educational, work experience, etc)
I am Holger Jacobs from Mind Design in London. I studied Linguistics and Graphic Design in Germany first and then decided in my second year to move to London. I graduated from Saint Martins College of Art, followed by a Master's Degree at the Royal College of Art. During my studies I was very interested in Language and Typography so after College I moved to Japan to experience a complete different language, writing system and culture. I worked for one year in Tokyo as the art director for one of Asia's largest publishers of foreign books. When I returned to London I was still completing the design of several books for them. Mind Design was not a planned company, it just started naturally as I was always too busy to look for a job.

What got you into design?
I originally wanted to become a painter and applied at the Academy for Fine Art in Düsseldorf, Germany. However, I wasn't accepted, my paintings where just too precise. Whenever I tried to do something spontaneous it just looked fake. Graphic Design was the natural conclusion, it allowed me to be creative but precise, structured and organised at the same time.

Please tell me about Mind Design. When did you establish it? What do you create?
The studio is still small but has grown gradually with the amount of work since I started on my own about 10 years ago. Today we are five designers and occupy quite a large and comfortable studio in London's East End. Our projects have shifted from mostly book and print design design to corporate identity. We are very interested in integrated design solutions that combine corporate identity, print, web, interior design and architecture. Personally I see typography as the basis of all our work although we actually work a lot with images and in many different media. We would never call ourselves 'branding consultants' although it could be argued that that is essentially what we are doing. The difference may be that our approach comes more from an interest in craftsmanship and the production process rather than branding strategy. We always consider the execution and implementation of a design already in the early sketch stages.

Who are your clients?
Our client list is very diverse. Most of our projects come through personal recommendation. In recent years many of our clients seem to come from the interior, architecture and fashion sector. Among our most regular clients are the British interior designer Tom Dixon and the jewellery company Belmacz. We have also worked for the Finnish furniture company Artek which was founded by pioneer modernist Alvar Aalto. At the time I was given access to the Artek archives and it was fascinating to study early modernist fonts that were used but never digitalised. Recently we designed the overall identity one of Londons most fashionable clubs, Paramount. At the moment we are just finishing the re-branding of the model agency TESS which represents many international top models. The contact came through the casting director of Prada whose identity we designed previously. We often work for start-up companies and entrepreneurs as it is important for us to be involved in projects right from the start and in every aspect of it.

What do you think is most important in design?
There are different aspects, which when they come together make a good piece of design. Design is not art, it is commissioned work that has a function and a purpose. It should do more than just demonstrating how clever the designer is. For me it is important that design has a certain friendliness or a touch of humour. Often the idea is somehow already there in the product or subject itself and just needs to be brought out. I like simplicity but I also enjoy experimenting and playing with form. You just need to know when to stop. When it goes wrong design becomes just decoration. I am not afraid of design ideas that are totally obvious if they are well executed. It is better to have something with a basic idea but well designed than something overly clever and badly produced. A composition or certain shape can be an idea as well. Typography is very important, we spend an enormous amount of time in the studio just tweaking details or ragging text.

I try to avoid following design trends, they never fit the project we are working on at the time and the results age very quickly. In working practice it is important to listen to clients but also to know when to ignore them. I never read a brief (well I skip through it) as I find it more important to get to know the person or company behind the project. Written briefs are already affected by all the limitations of language, they somehow all read the same.

What you think of the present design industry worldwide?
I don't think design has actually changed so much. I look at a lot of work from the beginning of the twentieth century and find it incredibly fresh and contemporary. We are just much more aware of design nowadays and there seems to be a lot more of it. When I was studying there was no internet and I knew perhaps of 20 designers or design studios that I looked at for inspiration. Now my bookmarks include around a thousand links and thats just from the last couple of years. But still I find that design feels very local to me, I can often tell if a piece of work comes from an East or West London studio. Influences and trends spread very fast and it is important to see where they are coming from and who or what started them. Our studio is very international, my colleagues come from Ireland, Germany and Switzerland and we have had other designers and students working with us from all over the world. They all bring a little bit of their own culture and influences with them.

What are your future plans?
We like new challenges. I always enjoy something I have never done before. We gained a lot of experience in many different areas of design in recent years and would like to apply this in larger and more complex projects. It would be nice to do more international work, especially in Germany and Japan, countries we have a close connection with. We intend to stay a small studio with low overheads as we want to concentrate more on work and less on administration.

PDF — Permanently Distracting Format

Thank you Adobe for inventing a file format that may force me into early retirement one day. I still remember a time when there was a clear divide between designers and clients: designers were on Mac, clients on PC. The world was good. Then Pdfs changed everything, now the client is just a mouse click away, always behind you demanding regular updates. Pdfs may have been invented to make work easier but they have actually caused the opposite. 

So what's so bad about this border breaking file format? 

1. Pdfs put the client in the control seat and gradually reduce the designer to a mere executional role. As it is so easy to see a design on demand why not ask the designer to send over a couple of versions in different colours, the logo bigger or smaller, landscape or portrait, and then take it from there?  Pdfs have reduced work from a focussed process of making educated decisions to a chatty debate of often pointless trial and error attempts. Of course we designers are guilty of putting up with this practice but often we have no choice. Which brings me to the next point.

 2. Pdfs make lazy clients and lazy designers. The client may think: why send a full and properly thought through brief including all technical specifications when its so easy to see what the designer comes up with first? The designer may think: why try to resolve this project if I don't really know what the client wants, so lets just send over a quick pdf with a couple of rough versions and wait for feedback first. I do not even want to mention the dreaded text corrections here but it works by the same principle. Lazy client: why send a properly checked and proof-read text when the rough version can be seen in the actual layout first? Lazy designer: why spend hours on ragging and fine-tuning text when there are rounds and rounds of pdf approvals ahead? When work becomes a never ending process of alterations not only stress levels increase but the overall quality most certainly suffers. I know in the days of photo-setting every text change was charged for by the letter, now that would be an idea.

3. Pdfs de-value design and the design profession. In the old days a presentation was a big deal, everything was printed out and mounted on board, nicely displayed on the wall. Clients just knew that a lot of work went into what they were about to see. There was a tense atmosphere of importance in the room, discussion was face to face and decisions were made on the spot. Of course this type of presentation still exists but more and more designers are being asked to send over just a pdf of a certain stage in the project. There is no control of how that is viewed on the other end. The client may sit in the noisy pub checking your lovingly fine-tuned typographic layout on the mini screen of a blackberry. Of course the next e-mail will be: Can you make it all bigger and the colours don't look right to me. There also is a psychological difference in the value of something that has been printed and has a physical presence or something that is just a small icon on someone's computer screen. 

I often wonder where the trust in the profession is gone and why clients feel the need to be so involved in projects and pdf-updated at every stage. To a large degree its our own fault but then again working practice is changing everywhere and there is competition among designers. Its so much easier to keep your client happy at all times than telling him just wait and see and trust us that we are doing the right thing. How many hours have been wasted explaining clients that Pantone colours look different to what they see on screen, that cutter lines will not show on the final packaging or that there is no double space after a full stop. Just let us get on with things, we are professionals.

4. Pdfs are a way of avoiding responsibility and personal decisions, they can be sent to anyone in no time. Client may send them over to their business partners, husbands or wives, their friends and relatives, and worst of all, other designers for 'professional' feedback. Your instant focus group on the loose. "I showed it to the cab driver on the way home and he didn't like the colours." People who know nothing about the project suddenly become part of the debate. Another common habit, equally practiced by designers and clients is to copy everyone in on a pdf e-mail just to spread out the responsibility. "Oh sorry, this came out all wrong in print but didn't you see pdf version xxx where i copied you in? You should have noticed."

5. Pdfs just cause more work. Bollocks to fast digital efficiency. More debate, more discussion, more e-mails (some clients seem to confuse e-mail with Twitter) equals less time you can actually spent on a project. And less concentration. Projects are split into little mini-pdf stages which results in designers working on many different projects at the same time, not focussed on any of them and constantly interrupted by e-mails. When things get stressful often more time is spent explaining the client when the project project will be finished than actually finishing it.

We have tried various ways of dealing with pdfs and the daily flood of e-mails at our studio (Not just in our interest but also in that of our clients): Not sending pdfs at all, only sending pdfs once a day at a certain time and leaving an extra day in between each adjustment, charging for every pdf, etc, etc. Nothing has worked. I guess we just have to put up with this distracting file format but at least we are aware of the evil we are dealing with. 

— posted by Holger

My Pink Heaven — Article in TypoGraphic, Issue 54

“Hello, can I make a friend with you? Don’t you open up your mind?”, I was asked by a panda bear with big round eyes, looking at me from a piece of Japanese stationary.

I became interested in everything Japanese while studying Graphic Design at the Royal College of Art. By chance, a few months after graduation, someone offered me to work for a Tokyo based publishing company that specialises in English books on Japanese Culture. So I went for nearly a Year to Japan. Dealing from 9 to 5 with all aspects of traditional Japanese culture, from ‘Art of Bonsai’ to ‘Zen Architecture’, I spend most of my time after work and on weekends researching a complete different aspect of Japanese life: The obsession with cuteness.

In London, I already made friends with popular Japanese cute characters such as ‘Hello Kitty’ and I had a collection of mini photo stickers that showed my face in various frames decorated with teddy bears and strawberries. Like most Westerners I have a love-hate relationship with all things we usually classify as kitsch, so I was interested to find out why it is so popular in Japan.

In my first week in Tokyo I went to visit ‘Kiddy land—the epicentre of cuteness—a 5 floor department store filled with all kind of cuddly stuffed animals and pink plastic toys. The name ‘Kiddyland’ doesn’t seem appropriate, as most shoppers are actually high school students or women in their early twenties. “Cuteness” has no age limits in Japan and being a ‘cute housewife’ or a ‘cute grandparent’ is a desirable way of living in Japanese society. The advertising industry even features the ‘cute businessman’ with a little pink elephant attached to the antenna of his mobile phone. Being surrounded by little screams of excitement “Kawaii!” (the Japanese word for ‘cute’) I really wanted to find out what it is, that makes young adults totally excited over a pair of ear warmer in rabbit shape or a pink toaster, that prints ‘Hello Kitty’ on the toast. The question is probably wrong from the beginning. In a way everything can be classified as cute (I even found a piece of pink plastic shit that can be attached to a mobile phone antenna), as long as it is not aggressive and can be understood immediately without further explanations. Japan is not the country were you should ask too many questions, it is more important to understand things intuitively. Cuteness is something everybody can agree on and it creates a feeling of security in a group. The word ‘kawaii’ can dominate entire conversations between Japanese, but in a way it is a form of avoiding issues and not making any personal statements.

Cuteness is a big industry in Japan, were consumerism has no negative connotation at all. Popular cute characters help to sell everything from toilet pater to pocket beepers, instant noodles to feminine protection. The principle seems simple: make it pink and fluffy with big eyes and it will be a commercial success. Company logos are usually bold with round edges and even banks print kitten and rabbits on their books and cash cards (which might help to forget about the economic crises). The popularity of cute characters is carefully measured by magazines such as ‘Cutie’ or ‘Charadepa’ (Character department). I wasn’t too surprised to find out that even the ‘Teletubbies’ are about to enter a top position in the cute charts, despite the fact that nobody in Japan has ever seen them on TV.

Undisputed winner in the merchandising world is ‘Hello Kitty’ or ‘Kitty-chan’ as she is called by her fans (The word ‘chan’ is usually added to the names of small children). Kitty-chan loves baking cookies, collecting hair ribbons and is a national superstar that makes about 100 billion yen profit a year. I asked a few Japanese why Kitty is so popular, the answer was always the same: “kitty is pritty”. Sanrio, the company that invented the character in 1976 is currently running 127 directly managed stores and more than 3000 affiliates, selling Kitty products all over Japan. Kitty-chan has its own theme park (Puroland), its own newspaper (Strawberry News) and certainly its own fan club. Last year the popsinger Kahara Tomomi went on television and declared that she loves Kitty-chan more than anything, which nearly doubled the sales in the following weeks.

When I saw a poster in the Tokyo subway announcing a ‘Hello Kitty’ fair (welcome to Kitty’s town) I couldn’t resist going there for the total ‘Kitty experience’. It took place in a big hotel so visitors from all parts of Japan could stay for the whole length of the event. I have been queuing for one hour to see Kitty performing in a ten minutes live show (The highlight was, when she picked an apple from the tree). Young couples were taking photos of their children in a perfect pink environment all under a giant blow up Kitty displayed from the ceiling. Looking at the endless number of Kitty goods exhibited, I found that there is virtually no product of daily life that has not been reproduced in matching pink style, from computers over entire kitchen fittings to cars, but the most paradoxical thing I discovered was the Kitty cat cage.

The Japanese obsession with infantile cuteness seems disturbing for a westerner. The post ministry has recently released new stamps with Miffy the rabbit, a character from pre-school children books and on government videos cute creatures warn about the dangers of earthquakes. The idea of an organised conspiracy comes to mind. ‘Big brother is watching you’ only that he is called Mr. Friendly and wears a pink hair ribbon. A society that is busy figuring out if pandas or rabbits are more cute this season is certainly not very critical and easy to control. In Japans male dominated and hierarchical organised business world, cuteness is certainly a way of escaping the stress, but it is also an important aspect for the judgement of someone’s personality and social adaptability. Especially young japanese woman spend a lot of their time and money trying to fit in the cliche of a cute person. They often work in minor positions in a company as so called OL’s (Office Ladies) and many Japanese men are very comfortable with female colleges that are ‘petty in pink’ but no serious competitor for their own career ambitions.

It seems too easy to judge the Japanese obsession with cuteness from a western point of view as a mechanism of brainwashing and creating uncritical, social adaptable individuals. In Japan nobody has a problem with it and after all it’s just fun. Many Japanese believe that all bad influence comes from abroad, which has probably some truth in it; only a Westerner can see something negative in a cute cuddly toy. In a way it reveals our own way of thinking, being over critical, over rational and suspicious about everything that is too unsophisticated to be identified with. Even if the cute phenomenon has a strong commercial side it reveals many aspects of traditional Japanese values like a demand for harmony and respect for each other in a group.

Strangely I found that many of those values are expressed on japanese stationary. Every department store has a huge selection of stationary. From a graphic design point of view it is impressive to see how much variety can be achieved by modifying the established cute theme of flowers, strawberrys, cherry blossoms, hearts, check pattern, teddy bears, pandas, frogs, kitten and bambis. But the actual fascinating point about Japanese stationary is that it usually comes with words and phrases which are ment to express the dreams and hopes of teenagers. Those sentences are mainly in English because it is considered as more fashionable than Japanese. In most cases the translation has been made straight from Japanese which creates a strange mix of meaning, often combined with hilarious grammatical mistakes. Over the time I have copied different phrases from more than 300 Letter sets. Taken all together they draw a picture of an innocent dream world often mixed with complete nonsense. Here a few examples: “I was very much pleased with nature's blessing. Refreshing nature to you.”; “The sky looks beautiful - clouds appear whiter than usual”; “Don't you think the secret of having a refreshing time everyday and living happily is always being gentle and warm.”; “My mind's become round and peaceful—Have you become mild and genial?”; “The dream world is in dreams”; “In recent days dreams have increased one by one, I like myself”; “Hamu - chick—this dream is more fit to than expected” (‘Hamu’ is short for Hamster)

The best place in Tokyo to meet teenagers infected by the cute virus is Harajuku, an area entirely specialised on trendy fashion and accessory. Especially on weekends it is a popular meeting place for everybody dressed in pink, and carrying bags with Kitty-chan or Winny the pooh. In Harajuku it becomes clear that cuteness is a lot more then just a style, it is a philosophy in itself. It has its own language (sunday panda / rabbit cloud / pocket animal / candy bear / strawberry king / Aloha friends etc.) and certain ways of behaviour (for example sitting with your feet turned inside to suggest a child-like expression)

Teenagers are in constant search for little variations of the cute scheme. Every detail will be recognised immediately (for example when Kitty wears a flower instead of a ribbon) Only insiders can tell the differences between all the cute fashion labels or for example distinguish between an ‘Uru Uru’ panda and a ‘Tale’ panda. (The later is more flat and supposed to be lazy.)

— posted by Holger

What makes designers so different from hairdressers?

This is from an e-mail I sent to our printer a long time ago as we often share the frustration of delayed payment. The credit crunch made the subject very relevant again (there even is a similar film on You Tube now — someone may have stolen my script). I never quite understood why some clients think that as soon as creativity is involved the rules of payment are different to those applying to other services. All that designers want is to be paid fair for their time like everyone else — carpenters, plumbers, cab drivers or hairdressers.

Unfortunately, compared with hairdressers it often goes like this:

Can I get a haircut? I will not pay for it today but go home first and show it to all my friends. If they like it I may come back tomorrow and pay half of it. If I find a girlfriend within a week because of my new haircut I promise to pay the rest. Next day: My friends basically liked it but they criticized how you cut it around my ears. Can we fix that as part of the original agreement? Two days later: I met a nice girlfriend now but she hated the haircut and introduced me to her friend who is also a hairdresser. So I won't pay you I am afraid but I gave your address to a friend who also needs a haircut and knows many other people. This will be great for your future business but you don't have to thank me.

— posted by Holger

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