Spike Island

Reviewed: What to Expect from a Graphic Designer

Last year Spike Associates, a membership network of artists, curators, writers and other creative practitioners, have initiated a series of events on professional practice. They explore both critical and practical aspects of working within the arts with panelists from across the sector.

If you missed the fifth session on Tuesday 28 May, which focused on working with graphic designers, Jono Lewarne of City Edition Studio shares the main points of the evening's discussion:

What to Expect from a Graphic Designer attempted to answer some of the unknowns artists might have in working with a different kind of practitioner. Either solo or as part of a group, artists may be required to present or promote their work to an audience different to or in addition to the gallery visitor. This is where a graphic designer can help.

The format was a conversation between designers James Langdon and Robert Sollis (of London studio Europa) who described their respective practices and illuminated the conversation with case studies of book works produced with artists.

Both designers have worked extensively with artists, with their work sometimes even exploring territory that can be described as art. The actual role of designers is often fluid, but both agreed that it is useful for themselves to define themselves as graphic designers so that the people they work with can understand where they are coming from.

Sollis began by attempting to loosely group the work Europa does with artists. Three categories emerged:

  • working with artists in a traditional sense where they are given content to design

  • collaborating with artists to create a work with a shared authorship and co-ownership

  • working as ‘art manufacturers’ – producing an aesthetic for an artist’s idea by finding the appropriate visual language

Both described how relationships have evolved with their clients. As trust builds between the parties, the designer is better able to translate the artist’s work through similar thinking, but from a graphic design standpoint. A designer can supplement the artist’s input to a project or contribute something entirely new, helping them to refresh their perspective of their work.

Langdon spoke of his misgivings in the value of documenting art using traditional photography in his work. Is being completely faithful to the work the most worthwhile way of presenting it to an audience? Or is there a way to communicate through graphic analogy? For him, it is more interesting to intervene with a concept than to just represent it faithfully with a colour photo, a sentiment shared by Europa. Both are attracted by, and attractive to, clients who share this vision, thereby encouraging a working environment that is stimulating to all involved.

There are always difficulties and tensions when working collaboratively as both Langdon and Europa do with their clients. It can be difficult to adjust to working with another’s process. Interfering clients or working with prescribed ideas can provide difficult ground to negotiate. Langdon prefers to engage with the spirit of the work to create the best possible conditions for interesting work, confronting the tensions head on. Sollis spoke of entering an artist’s mindset to produce the work or even having a working method that has parallels with a certain type of art practice. As such, he and his colleagues have gained a reputation as a studio for adaptability,

Of course when a designer’s ideas are not wholly accepted by a client there are strategies to sell an idea. Excitement and enthusiasm for an idea can be infectious. The art of suggestion also plays an important role in supplanting ideas in another’s head.

Collaboration is not about always getting your own way, however. Both agreed that clients challenging an idea often leads the project to a better place. The commissioner of the work is often the expert, so it is the designer’s role to learn as much about the work from the client as possible in order to use their design understanding as best they can.

So there are other voices within this conversation between artists and designers. Curators and galleries play a role in shaping the designed outcomes. Curators often play a more important role when working with groups of artists to be represented in a publication.

Graphic design can be insightful, responsive and transformative. Or it can be passive. It depends on the conditions and the people involved. The best work will come out of the most enlightened, stimulating conditions. This seemed to be the message, leaving an air of optimism for the potential for artists to open up their work to new audiences or to familiar ones in a new voice via the interpretation of a designer.