How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul

Interview by Adrian Shaughnessy. Published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2005.

Adrian Shaughnessy: You trained in Holland before moving to the USA. It is increasingly common for designers to move away from the country of their birth. What are the advantages?

Rudy VanderLans: After graduating from art school and working as a graphic designer with a number of design studios in Holland I became quite disappointed with graphic design. It was not at all what I had hoped it would be. Especially the idea to be working for clients that I had little affinity with made it very difficult for me to feel connected, let alone motivated.

So I moved to California to get away from graphic design for a while to study photography at the University of California at Berkeley. What I didn’t expect was that California at the time was a very exciting place to be for graphic design. The so-called “New Wave” with designers like April Greiman was starting to bloom, and CalArts was in the early days of its development as an experimental design hot house with Jeffery Keedy, Ed Fella and Lorraine Wild teaching there. And Henk Elenga and Rick Vermeulen of Hard Werken were out in L.A. All the misfits of graphic design ended up in California, and then the Macintosh computer was thrown into mix, and it all exploded. So it turned out to be quite advantageous for me to move, but it was a total coincidence that I happened to end up in the right place at the right time.

On the other hand, since to some extend your work is determined by your surrounding, a change of surrounding can do wonders for your creativity.

AS: When you look back at your education were there aspects that you didn’t appreciate at the time, but which you now realize have stood you in good stead?

RvdL: There were certain things I enjoyed less than others, such as the endless hours of calligraphy under the guidance of Gerrit Noordzij. I never in my wildest dreams imagined I’d end up designing type, let alone co-running a type foundry, so these exercises didn’t interest me that much. But I’ve come to realize that everything I was taught during those Noordzij classes formed a solid basis for understanding how type is structured. I never imagined those lessons would become so valuable to me.

That’s the thing about graphic design; there are so many different directions and possibilities within the profession that you better become as versatile as possible because you really never know what you might enjoy doing the most.

AS: You said that you wished you’d been taught theory at school. Emigre, in its latest book-form incarnation, is almost totally devoted to theory. How, in your view, does theory help the modern designer?

RvdL: I’m not sure if theory helps me to design, but it sure helps me to think critically about all kinds of issues relating to design. I think that’s the main purpose that theory serves.

AS: You are an example of a designer who is not content with just being a hired-hand. You are very modest about it, but there’s an entrepreneurial side to you. You are a photographer, a writer, an editor, a publisher and co-owner of a type foundry. This is not the typical career path of a graphic designer. Do you think designers who want to do meaningful work are going to have to more entrepreneurial in the future?

RvdL: Not necessarily. I think designers can do meaningful work for others as long as they chose to work for meaningful clients.

AS: How does the young designer learn about the business side of graphic design?

RvdL: By taking on as many jobs and clients as possible when you first start out and keeping your eyes and ears open. As a designer working for clients you’re often in the unique position to peek behind the scenes and get a sense of how others spend their money and run their businesses. Seeing how others were struggling gave me the courage to start out on my own.

But ultimately it was through the school of hard knocks that I learned how to run a business. That, and having a partner, my wife Zuzana, who has a terrific knack for detail and accounting, which is an absolute must. Bean counting is a mayor key to the success of any business.

What I learned from working for others was that there seems to be two kinds of ways to go about running a business; you either delegate everything, which means hiring employees, and you become a manager; or you do as much as you can yourself, which means you control nearly everything you do but your output will be limited by the fact that you’ll spend your days doing a lot of other stuff besides design. We actually enjoy the latter, and it has served us very well.

AS: When I go to design schools to talk to students I’m always asked how I stop clients interfering with work. I tell them there’s no easy answer. Do you have an answer?

RvdL: Yes, and I think the answer’s pretty simple. You have to listen very carefully to what the client wants, and be careful not to approach the project with a preconceived idea of what it should look like. In my own experience, too often I approached a design job wanting to use a certain font or a particular typographic mannerism, simply because it’s what I felt comfortable with at the time. But that wasn’t always what the client wanted. Design isn’t about squeezing square pegs into round holes.

It’s often said that as designers we should “educate” our clients, to make them see how they can benefit from our sense of style and good taste. But I think that we can learn much from our clients as well. It’s a two way street. There’s been plenty of projects that I’ve worked on that I initially hated because I had to compromise my preconceived idea only to realize later that the end result was better because of the client’s suggestions.

AS: Young designers seem obsessed with fame, or at lest peer-recognition. According to Neville Brody, this is the primary motivation for many young designers. What is your response to this trend?

RvdL: It’s only natural to be wanted and to be revered by your peers. There’s nothing wrong with having that ambition. Plus, fame usually translates into more people wanting to hire your services. So from that point of view fame can be quite helpful. But I would have no idea how you’d go about becoming famous. It’s not something you can force to happen. And obsessing over it won’t make it any easier.

AS: You place great emphasis on the craft of graphic design in everything you do. But in the media landscape we live in, the message is king; it doesn’t matter what the message “looks like” it only matters that it says it. What do you say to someone who says that there’s no point in learning the craft of design anymore?

RvdL: I’d say they should consider a career in advertising. That kind of a statement is difficult to understand for me. Doing graphic design without an interest in the craft is like being a soccer player without knowing the basics of ball handling. Everybody can kick a ball around, but without ball control you’re not going to be very effective.

AS: I’m a big fan of your three books on musicians and their landscapes. There’s something novelistic about the way you track these figures (Captain Beefheart, Van Dyke Parks and Gram Parsons) through the Californian landscape. Is this what the critics call graphic authorship?

RvdL: Yes, I believe that’s what they’d call it. But no matter what you’d call it, when you combine writing, photography, type design and graphic design, it places you in no man’s land. Graphic authorship sounds impressive, but it’s not a category that bookstores or art galleries know how to accommodate. So I’m just as happy if people refer to my work as graphic design or photography, or even art.