Born in the Netherlands, Robin Uleman specializes in editorial design that requires a distinctive character and identity work for people and organizations that have a story to tell. His aim is to translate strategic objectives into meaningful design solutions by creating a visual language that communicates in an authentic and intelligent way. Robin took some time out of his day to answer a few questions for AisleOne.
How long have you been designing?
Guess you mean by ‘designing’, designing and getting paid for it? That I’ve been doing since 1994, so that’s almost 14 years since leaving art school.
Who or what turned you on to graphic design?
Before turning my interests to graphic design I wanted to become a draughtsman or a car designer, but when I found out that a serious accomplisment of maths was required for the latter I settled for the first. Admittedly that is a naive choice growing up in the eighties; nobody needed a draughtsman, but I just happened to love drawing. The other thing that interested me was literature and history, so for a while I considered going to university, but then I had to let go drawing, a thought I couldn’t bare. When I was 15 I heard of graphic design as a professional occupation. To be honest, I only had a vague notion of the activities it encompassed, but from what I could understand drawing was part of it, next to dealing with language, storytelling, photography and alongside those basics came a lot of topics that could be a subject for a graphic designer, so all together it made great appeal. The fact that I could unify a couple of native interests in one profession made the choice. I no longer had to choose.
Who or what are your influences??
There are many, but when I stick to the graphic designer’s hall of fame—which is the easiest—I can say I’m inspired by Herbert Bayer, Herb Lubalin, Saul Bass, Paul Rand, Alexey Brodovitch, Will Burtin, Lester Beall, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Wim Crouwel and Karel Martens. The order isn’t fixed, but this is how my top 10 is structured at the moment, starting with Herbert Bayer as my number one. A shame there isn’t a proper book on his work around.
What is your favorite typeface??
To be honest, I find it hard to pin down one in particular, it very much depends on the thing I’m working on. The context counts, but in general I have a nack for typefaces that have a genuine presence, a distinctive character so to speak, like Akzidenz Grotesk, Avant Garde, Futura, Franklin Gothic, American Typewriter, Plantin, Clarendon, Arnhem… I’m not a big fan of type that is contrived, mannered or too neat. Apart from that, a likeable flaw or even a bit of clumsiness can be just the quality a job requires.
What is your favorite color palette to work with?
I like to use CMYK as it is, or when mixing I use very crude combinations, simply because I want colours to be solid, or at least have a solid appearance. In process print I often end up using the raw inks and their pure overlaps combined with a muted grey of some sort. Most of the time I choose one colour to play the leading role next to black. It’s all very simple. If I use PMS colours it’s either very bright, fresh, dayglow, together with black or very muted and subtle or a combination of these, not much in between I guess. In general I like contrast.
Can you explain your creative process from brief to completion?
Think my answer to this will be somewhat of a cliché. There is no recipe for creativity, and every project demands a different approach and therefore develops in a different manner. Nevertheless there are certain routines. Things simply wouldn’t work without them.
More specific: there are things that re-occur, like the number of stages a project usually takes to be completed. While cleaning up and archiving some projects lately I discovered a distinctive pattern in my computer files: most projects seem to build up to the constant amount of five consecutive folders, each of them containing between four to ten documents—regardless of the nature of the project, be it a poster or a brochure. Alltogether these five folders cover the digital part of design process—I say, digital, since I always start with drawing, which may not come as a great surprise. I very much need to have a hand on things to understand it. I love the screen and it’s possibilities, but sometimes it stupifies, then I switch off and move back to the drawing board, or I print the stuff I have and start playing with it, tearing it up, folding it in different ways until It tells me how to move on. Especially in editorial work I make a lot of rough mock-ups to understand the flow of things. Spreads aren’t just incidents, they relate. So it’s all about making things tangible: printing on different paper stock, making variations, cutting prints, folding them, all help to understand the true nature of the project. I guess, it starts with eagerness and curiosity, I just want to get my hands on the outcome—so drawing, printing and mocking-up all help to bridge the gap between briefing and the moment the stock arrives from the printer.
Apart from that, I more and more acknowledge the role that dialogue can play throughout the process. Asking the right questions and being responsive is of growing influence to my practise, the interaction with the people that happen to be my clients being an important ingredient. I like to involve them instead of treating them as an audience to a slick presentation. I prefer to work with them, instead of working for them. Also I’m more inclined to ask difficult questions instead of working around them.
When I started working, I was 25 and I thought I had to solve all problems by myself and superimpose my ideas upon the client, regardless of the thing he wanted to get accross, if people raised questions or made a comment, I thought I had failed.
Do you use a grid system when designing and how do you feel about them?
Grids are very handy, but should never be an end in itself. When I discovered how to use them I was thrilled with their possibilities; it created a well of opportunity which otherwise wouldn’t be explored. Grids allow you to make music and help to create rhythm and pace and be articulate at the various levels of understanding a lay out requires. Still I discover new possibilities with every project, but I stepped back from using them lately in the initial stages of the process, since they tend to stiffen as well. When exploring various ideas and approaches, grids can be quite limiting and there is a risk they keep you from making a powerful gesture.
There was a time when I still worked in Quarck that even first sketches were made with grids underneath; so eventually I found myself adjusting and changing and adjusting and changing… Fascinating alltogether, but it caught me up in the wrong kind of details too soon, but one could say I probably needed that laborious method to make grids my own. Today it’s second nature and I take a free approach.
Who do you feel is currently doing innovative work?
I don’t have a clue. To my opinion there is a lot of repetition going on at the moment. But then again, the level of that repetition can be quite high. In a way graphic design—or visual communication for that matter—has long passed the stage that things were first defined and invented, therefore It lacks a fresh view. That’s only natural.
At the moment our profession seems to be very self-consumed and busy refining and responding to codes, trends and fads that emerge as quickly as they disappaer. It’s hardly about ideas and new approaches. To me that’s a great loss.
The web supports that mechanism by prolifying the latest hit with an ever increasing speed, thus equalising all graphic design output to a thick stream of nice pictures that is appreciated and valued for the sensation of seeing it first. Flicking through a book or a magazine, visiting an exhibition, touching and unfolding, the context in which the project functions, let alone other subtle qualities like the use of material, space and pace, faculties that are part of a designer’s palette of expression are all left out, so that makes our judgement of what’s good or innovative very poor. All these overview books with the designers that make the world go round in 2008 leave out context and flatten our idea of what is good design.
I believe, true innovation has always stemmed from individuals that followed their own path and fascinations without losing the broader perspective. Styles have more or less become a library we can pick from to suit our intentions. In the end innovation will come from designers that are able to rethink these intentions and their role in society, perhaps partly as producers of content, perhaps as people that create new ways of connecting to people’s interests again. For that matter the fixation on trends is a dangerous one.
What are you working on now?
Just started working on a book about the work of Satyendra Pakhalé. He is a very interesting product designer. It’s our own initiative, so we also have to pull the project off in financial terms, which is quite a challenge.
What is your favorite color?
Same as with type, but I guess you could say I have a weak spot for yellow.
What is your favorite album?
Impressed 2 with Gilles Peterson. Rare, classic & unique modern jazz from Britain 1963 – 1974. At least, that’s what’s on the cover. Anyway, the music hasn’t gone stale since I bought it last summer.
What is your favorite movie?
I was very impressed by Capote by Bennet Miller. I appreciated it’s precise approach to all aspects of the movie. Saw it on DVD and also enjoyed the extra’s. While most of the time the supplied interviews with director and actors are about rubbing each others backs, these talks were truely interesting and inspiring. They confirmed that attention to detail in photography, sets, atmosphere and acting can make a difference. Love to take example to this. All ingredients are well balanced and the result could not be anything else than film. Think most graphic design—apart from some good exceptions—is lacking that intrinsic quality at the moment. I mean, most graphic designers are not using the full potential graphic design has to offer as a language in itself.
Intervista is a series of interviews conducted for AisleOne with some of todays top talents in graphic design.