Fill/Stroke
January 2008
Interview January 2008
Fill/Stroke Magazine

Fill/Stroke is a magazine designed and published by Mark Dudlik, Adria Robles-Morua and Tanner Woodford, all three based in Phoenix, Arizona. For the first issue, we were interviewed by Adria:

01. When you were a child did you always want to become a designer?

The actual concept of being a graphic designer was still far away when we were kids. As young children, we were already interested in putting images and text together: creating small comic books, drawing rockets and robots, writing vampire stories. But, especially in the minds of Erwin and Danny, the idea that there was such a thing as 'graphic design' was simply non-existent.
The fact that we grew up without computers might have something to do with it. Nowadays, practically every household has a computer, so children are aware of graphic design from a much younger age. But when we grew up, we had no clue just how these blocks of texts miraculously appeared in books and newspapers.

Marieke was slightly more aware of graphic design, since her father (Rob Stolk) was a well-known printer in Amsterdam. As one of the main founders of the anarchist Provo movement, Rob was involved in producing protest posters, and from there, he started his own print shop, which grew out to one of the main cultural print shops in Amsterdam. And Marieke's uncle (Swip Stolk) is actually a well-known graphic designer.
But still, even to Marieke, the actual thought of becoming a graphic designer never occurred when she was a young child.

02. What, if anything, from your childhood still affects your approach to design today?

It is still the same creativity, the same mentality. It's the same desire to shape your own environment. As child, your environment is still small: drawing tiny comic books in your bedroom, handing them out to your aunts and uncles during birthday parties. In high school, this environment becomes larger, photocopying small punkzines, and drawing shirts for your friends' hardcore and metal bands. After high school, art school becomes your environment. Then you get your first assignments, for example for a local rock venue, and suddenly you see posters that you designed all throughout the city you live in. Then you design a stamp, and the whole country becomes your environment. It's one continuous line. The main principle remains the same: trying to add something to your immediate environment. The only thing that changes is your environment; it becomes bigger.
When we are working on the graphic identity of an international art institute we feel the same excitement as when we were children, creating stuff in our bedrooms.

03. Would you elaborate on one project that changed your career?

In 2000, we designed the catalog for 'Elysian Fields', a group show curated by the fabulous Purple Institute.The exhibition took place at the Centre Pompidou. Next to the catalog, we also designed the sign system, all kinds of printed matter (invitations, press releases etc.), and a large mural that was part of the exhibition itself.
It was a huge deal for us. We worked really hard on it, and were really glad with the results. We were looking forward to the opening, hoping to get a sense of satisfaction from our work.
When the opening took place, we had the awkward sensation of feeling completely detached from the exhibition. Our work was featured prominently in the exhibition, people were enthusiastic about it, but we really felt disconnected, as if we weren't really part of what was happening.
That's when we realized that our position as graphic designers is very much that of being outsiders. We understood that we would never be able to really feel part of the project as a whole. Many designers believe that designing is about being engaged with the subject, but on that day, we felt something that was quite the opposite. We suddenly realized that, through designing, you are actually removing yourself from the subject; you are creating a psychological distance. Or at least, that is what we experienced that day. It didn't really change our career, but it did change our ideas about being a graphic designer. We became aware that as graphic designers, we would always remain outsiders, and we embraced that.

04. What mistakes have you made that you think others could learn from?

We made an awful lot of mistakes in our work, but we cannot really point out specific ones. Besides, maybe everybody should deal with mistakes in their own way. What we experience as a mistake doesn't have to be a mistake for someone else.

What we can say is that mistakes are inevitable. Graphic design is always deadline-driven, so even when you are completely exhausted, feeling sick or slightly depressed, or simply without inspiration, there is still this huge pressure to deliver. What makes it worse is that, in graphic design, when you make mistakes, you make them in public. A poster that you weren't really happy with will be hanging in the streets for weeks. A t-shirt that didn't turn out very well will be hanging in the stores for months. Some images will be floating around on internet forever. Some designers are okay with that, and see all those little mistakes and quirks as a quality in itself. But we are neurotic perfectionists, so when we make a mistake, it really feels like one.

The only advice we can give is to keep on keeping on. Every new project is an opportunity to correct your last project. Every individual project will contain mistakes, but hopefully, when you see all the projects together, as one body of work, all those mistakes cross each other out. In that regard, a really good motto is Samuel Beckett's "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."

05. Describe a project/person that humbles you.

To be honest, we really don't like the notion of being humbled. To be inspired is the opposite of being humbled. When we are talking to people whose work we really admire, like Wim Crouwel, or Linda van Deursen (of Mevis & Van Deursen), these persons never make us feel small and humble; they are doing the opposite. Their words energize us, give us the feeling we can do anything that we want.
This whole concept of being humbled is more a dark, romantic notion, recalling prehistoric man feeling small in front of the forces of nature. We have a more modernist outlook; we don't see our heroes as forces of nature, but as equals.

06. Any advice for students?

A good advice for students would be this: please, don't believe that there is a 'real world' outside of school. The older we get, the more we realize that there is no such thing as 'the real world' at all.

Or maybe we should put it like this: there is no difference between the 'unreal world' and the 'real world'. Everything is the real world. Everything is a context in itself. School is part of the real world.
When we were students, we still thought that there was a 'real world' waiting outside of school. In a way, we ruined our school experience because of this. We couldn't wait to graduate, to get into 'the real world'. After we graduated, we realized our mistake. There is no 'real world' outside of school. The context outside of school is not more real than the context inside of school.

A good designer is constantly aware of the context he/she is in. And it is our experience, as teachers, that the best students are the students who realize that school is a very real world, a context in its own right. We wish we had that insight when we were still students.

07. What are the last five songs you listened to?

We recently bought the 'Odyssey and Oracle' album, by The Zombies, and have been listening to it non-stop the last couple of weeks. It's such a good album. We already had the complete 'Zombie Heaven' box set (which includes the full O&O album), but this particular reissue of 'Odyssey and Oracle' features some extra bonus tracks, so we just had to buy it.
The songs are so sweet, it's like pure honey. On top of that there are the lyrics, that give those songs a really surreal aftertaste. For example 'Care of Cell 44', that starts as an ordinary love song, until the singer casually mentions a prison stay. Or 'A Rose for Emily', which is extremely sad; it's almost an act of sadism from the lyricist, to confront the listener with so much sadness. 'This Will Be Our Year' is another favorite song. Such a good song to start the year with: "You don't have to worry, all your worried days are gone: this will be our year, took a long time to come". It's all so terribly beautiful.
So while we are writing these answers, we are listening to this CD, in repeat mode. We don't know exactly what the last five songs were, but to mention five random songs from the track list: 'Care of Cell 44', 'A Rose for Emily', 'Hung up on a Dream', 'This Will Be Our Year', and 'Time of the Season'.

08. Do you have any tips for managing your time, both during design, and the balance between design and the rest of your life?

To answer the latter part of your question: there is not really a 'rest of our lives'. Everything we do, we immediately relate to graphic design. Going to a movie, seeing a show, watching a documentary on television, hanging out with friends, even sleeping: it instantly becomes part of the design process. Always being alert for new ideas, new ways of looking at things. It's certainly not a 9-to-5 job; to us, being a graphic designer is a very conscious way of living our lives.
The fact that we are not only colleagues, but also best friends, and even neighbors, only adds to that. At times, we do feel like a gang, or even a cult. It is so much more than a job.

As for the first part of your question: we are really the last persons on earth to be advising other people on time-management. We are so bad in managing time, we can't believe we are actually professional graphic designers, rarely missing deadlines.
It is as if we concentrate all our rationality in the work itself, and then have none left for our own life. There is a really strange contrast between our work, which seems quite structured and clear, and the way we live, which we experience as absurdly chaotic and stressful. We have these long periods when we feel exhausted, almost lethargic, followed by these short bursts of hyperactivity... It's definitely not a good example of time-management.

09. How do you deal with plagiarism in the design world? It sometimes seems to be ignored/laughed at when in the classroom environment. Does this hold true for the professional life?

There are many ways in which a work can refer to the past: parody, plagiarism, quotation, homage, etc. What makes plagiarism different from all other methods (parody, homage, etc.) is the fact that other methods contain a kind of transparency: they are referring to the past in an open, honest way. Whereas plagiarism is about referring to the past, while at the same time denying it. It is an opaque, less open way of referring to the past. It is about showing something designed in the past, as if it were designed now.
(Although, it should be noted that all these terms are really subjective. What is a clever homage in the eyes of one person, is an act of blatant plagiarism in the eyes of another person, and vice versa).

What we find problematic about plagiarism is not the act of referring to the past itself, but the element of denying the past. In that sense, plagiarism has a lot in common with the 'cult of originality', the myth that it is possible to create things 'out of nothing'. Both plagiarism and the 'cult of originality' contain this element of denying the past.

As for the act of referring to the past itself: we think this is a necessity for progress. Other than post-modern critics, who see quotations as empty, ironic gestures, we honestly believe that referring to the past is basically a modernist, progressive practice.
We don't believe in a one-dimensional linear model of progress, in which everything that is new should immediately be followed by something that is even newer. But we also don't share the pessimistic post-modern model of progress, in which everything is just repeating itself, in gloomy cycles. Instead of that, we have a more modernist, dialectical idea of progress, in which the new can only be defined through a continuous dialogue with the past.
(This tension, between the old and the new, is already enclosed in the word 'modernism'. Other than some people think, the word 'modernism' has nothing to do with the future, but comes from the Latin 'modernus', meaning 'the time of now'. And how we see it, the 'now' has as much to do with the past as it has with the future. In fact, we see the 'now' as a synthesis between the past and the future, the surface where the 'old' and the 'new' collapse. In other words, in our way of thinking, the past definitely has a place in modernism).

We recently came across a few lines that strengthened us in that idea. It's from 'Socialism and Print', an essay by Régis Debray, published in New Left Review, issue 46, July/August 2007. We think it's such a beautiful text:

"The greatest modernizers inaugurate their career with a backward leap, and a renaissance proceeds through a return to the past, a recycling, and hence a revolution. (...) Behind the 're' of reformation, republic or revolution, there is a hand flicking through the pages of a book, from the end back to the beginning. Whereas the finger that pushes a button, fast-forwarding a tape or disc, will never pose a danger to the establishment".

10. At what point does inspiration become imitation?

That fully depends on the intention of the designer. Is she/he really out to make a exact copy of something that was created earlier, or is the intent to tell a completely new story using some already-existing elements?

Regardless of the answer, we do believe that there is no such thing as an actual copy. In the act of imitation, there is always something added. In copying, there is always an element of transformation, of recontextualization. This is inevitable.

To better understand cultural phenomena, we often look at rock culture, because it is such a perfect scale model of modernism in general. And when we look at rock culture, we see that innovation is often rooted in imitation. Take for example The Beatles, who started out as four white kids, literally copying (covering) black rhythm & blues, music that had been around for decades before The Beatles were even born. And yet, in the process of translation, from black culture to white culture, from the US to the UK, something was added: these old musical forms gained new meanings, new dimensions.
And even though The Beatles, after becoming aware of this effect, started to become more and more innovative, they have always stayed true to the principle of imitation. In fact, as late as 1973, Chuck Berry sued Lennon over the composition of 'Come Together' (1969), which was basically a rip-off of Berry's 'You Can't Catch Me' (1955). Lennon admitted, and the case was settled out of court.

11. Where do you work on your projects?

We work in our studio; since a couple of years, we have a really nice space, in the west of Amsterdam. Before that, we were working from Marieke's living room (in the east of Amsterdam), which was also a very good place to work from.

12. What's your biggest complaint about the industry? Is there anything you'd like to see more of? Less of?

The industry that is built around graphic design (the magazines, the awards, the institutes, the critics, the weblogs, etc.) is a world of its own, and it can be quite a horrible place. There are exceptions, but in general, there is so much sarcasm and bitterness around. Critics writing cynical pieces for an audience that is already cynical. Graphic designers ripping each other apart, without any sense of solidarity. Institutes working hard to streamline the image of graphic design, so that it can be sold to the business world as 'innovation'. It's a world that seems built on an actual hatred for graphic design.
It's best not to focus too much on the industry side of graphic design; it's just not very healthy. It's better to realize that the actual essence of this thing called graphic design is the designer itself. It starts with the designer, and it ends with the designer. That whole industry that is built around it is just a by-product.

When we think about the state of graphic design itself (not the industry around it), we are actually very optimistic. It seems that there are really exciting things happening. When we look at the students that have graduated from the Rietveld Academy the last couple of years, or the stuff that is being shown on websites such as ManyStuff, VVork and FFFFound, we get the feeling that there is something quite interesting going on.
It's almost a punk/DIY explosion of graphic design: bold geometric forms, bright colors, large sheets of printed paper, experiments in folding. People proudly displaying posters that they made, by simply holding them in the air. Work that is unapologetically graphic.
When we were students, in the beginning of the 90s, graphic design was in a very different state. There was a coldness in the air, a certain darkness. American critics were preaching the end of print, the death of modernism, stuff like that. You felt almost ashamed to be a graphic designer. It was such a stifling, reactionary period.
Now, after ten years, we have the feeling that the frost is out of the air, and the sun has finally break through. When we look at all these young students, shaping their immediate environment in such a concrete, direct way, we feel really happy.

13. What is the best interview question you could ever be asked?

This very question. And we would be answering it the same way as we do now.

14. Is there anything that you're afraid of regarding the future?

Not really. We are sometimes quite surprised when we hear people describe these times as scary. In our memory, the '80s were much scarier. The fear for nuclear war was so real, you could almost cut it with a knife. The atomic bomb was everywhere; not only in underground culture, but also in the mainstream. Every pop song seemed to be about nuclear war: 'Dancing with Tears in My Eyes' by Ultravox, 'Two Tribes' by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, 'New Frontier' by Donald Fagen, etc. There was this brilliant Dutch pop band called Doe Maar, who had a huge hit single called 'De Bom' ('The Bomb'), a song so popular it could have been our national anthem in the '80s.
Books, comics, movies (especially 'The Day After', from 1983), television series: everything seemed to revolve around nuclear war. Punk fashion became increasingly post-apocalyptic, in a Mad Max-like way. Splatter movies ('video nasties'), very popular around that time, were showing mutants, zombies and cannibals, all pointing to a post-apocalyptic future. Even the day-glo accessories, worn by the New Wave kids, seemed to refer to nuclear radiation.
When we were lying in bed late at night, and a plane flew over, our first thought was, "this it it". We can still remember (or maybe it was our imagination) overhearing our parents discussing where to take us (the children) in case of a nuclear war: the shelter in the park, or the subway. In other words, we were 100% certain that the bomb would fall. We were scared beyond belief. But instead of the bomb, the Berlin wall came down, and suddenly the whole threat was gone. It almost felt like an anti-climax.
Compared to the post-apocalyptic nightmare we were expecting, everything else seems like a picnic. Today's fear for global warming will never come close to the fear we felt for nuclear war. But at least, nuclear fear did give us some very good pop songs.

Experimental Jetset,
Amsterdam, 22.01.2008

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