Intervista: Experimenta


Experimenta is a design studio based in Wellington, New Zealand made up of Duncan Forbes and Elaina Hamilton. Their work has a subtle minimalist and modernist feel that is very refreshing and unique which focuses towards artists, galleries, museums, music and education. Duncan and Elaina took a moment to answer a few questions for AisleOne.

How long have you been designing?
As Experimenta we have been designing for about a year and a half now. So we havn’t been designing for very long and we are conscious of this but have a lot of confidence in our work. Simply put – we are learning as we go. Although one year in this business isn’t long we have been lucky enough that people have really liked and taken notice of what we are doing and this has led to us doing some nice work for great clients. We work regularly with a local art gallery who we are really starting to do some good work for now. We try to be pretty strict with clients, only giving one option with little to no compromise and reiterate that we are the designers and we make the design decisions. It’s a matter of the client trusting you and of course that needs to be earned. Doing this in such a small country and being a niche studio can sometimes be difficult. Our client base is so small here, for the type of work we are interested in doing, along with the budgets. You really have to be in it for the love.

Who or what turned you on to graphic design?
We both started out studying as visual artists, and sort of fell into design. Art school was a very confusing time and you really have to find your style and not be afraid of that. Carson and grunge was very ‘in’ at this time so it was hard to escape, some of it was so bad. This probably helped in forming the way we work which is very structured and neat. In saying that we have a lot of appreciation for types of design we could never do, the post-modernists, the new brutalists and are influenced by these and other movements.

Who or what are your influences?
Locally a few people at the moment. Our good friend Kris Sowersby from KLIM is a big one. Although our work is very different from each other we both appreciate good honest design. Sort of by proxy we critique each others work, sending screenshots via iChat just to show what we have been working on. He will send through a typeface design he is working on, and we send through different designs we have been doing that day. Critique is good; I think we both have good eyes for what works and we don’t really lie to each other. If it doesn’t work for us then we say so. Part of it is having the confidence to take it or leave it, not just get upset or have a ‘tanty’. Sometimes when Kris really doesn’t like something we have done, I know it’s perfect and we have hit our mark. Sometimes it’s the other way around.

Our other friends The National Grid are an influence, even if not a seemingly aesthetic one, Luke and Jonty do some great work and like us they are obsessed with design. Their work is so careful and thoughtful, we really like that. Luke said once that a lot of the best work happens on the design fringe. I completely agree.

Other designers we really admire are Catherine Griffiths who is a really organized, ‘go forth’ designer (she is organising a New Zealand design conference TypeSHED11 for next year that’s going to be pretty amazing), Neil Pardington: a legendary New Zealand book designer and we really like Inhouse’s stuff from Auckland.

Looking abroad we are very interested in Design history and are always reading about different movements and their reactionaries. The humanist Dutch type evolution interested us greatly and still does. Our work is more humanist than strict so we thought it was appropriate to name ourselves after Dutch designer Willem Sandberg’s Experimenta typographica. A publication that ran from 1943–1945 and started to break free of the modernist perfectionism.


What is your favorite typeface?
We only use a handful of typefaces at the studio. It might seem we are more akin to Sans, but this is not the case. We will usually use a sans for our the majority of design work, but when it comes to designing books we like to be more classical and depending on length will use a serif or mixed. We used Newzald on a catalogue a while ago and loved it. The Book and the Black weights gave fantastic contrast to the page. We recently acquired Graphik from Christian and it’s a beauty. I really love National and I’m wanting to put the Book weight to good use ASAP. Some typefaces that we don’t have that we really like are Brunel from Christian and Paul Barnes, Dada from Optimo is interesting, I wasn’t sure about it at first but now it has grown on me, Neutral from Kai Bernau, another I wasn’t so sure about, but after seeing it in print used well and reading about it, it is good to be wrong, Unica looks really interesting, I would like to see it in print. Lexicon and Trinite are also some of my favorites and although some type designers will hate me I just have a fondness for Helvetica. It can look good when used nicely. An updated modern version would be great though. Basically we take a lot of time to choose the right typeface for the job. This is a really exciting part of the design process for us, we love the stage where you get to try out different typefaces for the job.


What is your favorite color palette to work with?
We usually work in black and if necessary will add colour. We have been finding lately we have been using primary colours a lot, but getting things looking good in black is important to us. We recently had an informal lecture about Frutiger/Roissy from a old Swiss designer Erich Alb, who gave us the formula for ‘Swiss’ black: 100% K, 60% B, 20% R. He was a crazy guy but he made us smile with his enthusiasm. There are a lot of different subtleties that can be achieved in the one colour, we like to think the same about our work.

Can you explain your creative process from brief to completion?
The start of our process is research. This usually starts with going to book stores, libraries, reading through our studio library, talking, maybe a visit to some galleries if we feel the need. All the obvious steps. We then get really stuck into drawing. We are real advocates of this, not just a few sketches, but really exploring ideas on the page. Everything changes when you take it to the computer anyway but by working an idea through on paper it helps the work to retain a sort of tangible integrity right through to the production of the object which is hard to develop solely onscreen. We usually figure out a rough grid on paper, then work it out on the computer, which gives us more freedom to make it more complex/simple if needed. We only ever present the client with one solution. If the client doesn’t like the solution, we don’t just re-jig it, we start over with a new concept. We are pretty strict with this. We feel that the designer should be making the design decisions and not the client – after all that’s what we are getting paid to do. We would never show the client two options, then have them mash the two together, or show them 10 designs based on the same theme so they can choose, that’s just wrong.


Do you use a grid system when designing and how do you feel about them?
Our work always ends up with a tight grid underneath it. It just makes sense to us to do this. We usually work out some sort of grid in the drawing stage then really flesh it out on the computer. We have a couple of really good grid books (rather than a whole lot of bad ones) that we have learnt a lot from. However, it is no use having a ‘grid for grids sake’ – it has to help the idea and remain as a subtle undertone. In our work we don’t like to overstate the grid rather give clues and hints to it when appropriate.

Who do you feel is currently doing innovative work?
If you mean who is pushing new ideas/new methods, we think studios like vier5 have introduced a sort of ‘new brutalism’ to graphic design that we are interested in. We have definitely seen that filter down to design we see locally too. Rick Poynor pointed out that when the post-modernism ‘grunge’ craze came through in the 90s, you obviously had these designers who embraced/invented the style who were the masters of it, but also that suddenly you had designers who bad work suddenly looked good. We should be aware of this with a new brutalist style too. I think dotdotdot – although quite different – foreshadowed some of this design as well.

What are you working on now?
We are insanely busy, which is great for having been open for just over a year and a half. We have one more show for the Adam Art Gallery this year and I think there will be posters, a catalogue, and signage. Right at this moment we are working on an arts journal called Hue & Cry which is pretty much finished so we are now designing some A0 posters for the opening launch based around the work of Brion Gysin and his cut up method.


What is your favorite album?
We both have very different taste in music. I usually arrive early in the mornings and listen to either Mozart or Meshuggah. We like the Battles album and listen to mostly contemporary stuff while working (Deftones, Wu-Tang, anything from Mike Paton – Peeping Tom, Fantomas) and like searching for new music to listen too. Our favorite albums at the moment would be Arcade Fire and the Kings of Leon in terms of playcount on iTunes.

What is your favorite movie?
Recently we really enjoyed Southland Tales. Too many ideas for some, but we love complex hard to navigate films. Collectively our favorite is either Vertigo from Hitchcock, or Blow-Up from Antonioni. Both pure brilliance. Both Directors had amazing vision. The art direction is so different to anything you would see now – true masters of their craft. The parts in Vertigo where Kim Novak’s character has seemingly returned from the dead were so surreal for me. I wasn’t quite sure what was going on – I was so lost in the character. I wish I could have my graphic design work in the same way.

Intervista is a series of interviews conducted for AisleOne with some of todays top talents in graphic design.


4 thoughts on “Intervista: Experimenta

  1. Wow. I’m so glad you were able to do an Intervista article on Duncan and Elaina. I’m really a big fan of what they are doing in NZ. It’s great that a novice like me is able to be directed to valuable sources of inspiration through this site, daily. Keep it up Antonio.


  2. ah, great interview! I found their website about a year ago (I think through typophile) and I have found their work really fresh and inspiring.

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