NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 34

Face to Face

Reduction, Objectivity, and Humanization

Majid Abbasi

Tell us about the experience of working in Stuttgart with Anton Stankowski, one of Germany’s foremost designers of the 20th century.
I came to the Atelier Stankowski+Duschek (Karl Duschek was his longtime business partner) in 1982, straight out of college. It was my first job; well, an internship. The office in Stuttgart was small; we had only 10 people. Stankowski, who was already 76 at the time, but one of the freshest minds I have ever met, came every morning and made the rounds from one desk to the next. Everyone had to show his or her work of the day. Anton made comments, discussed aspects of the design and explained why this or that had to be changed.
He had a presence, an aura that was immediately noticeable. He ne ver said that he mentor ed any of us young designers, but the daily routine and instructions were the best teaching I could have ever had. Stankowski was not only a designer, but also a famous painter and photographer. In his photo archive were thousands of black and white ne gatives, painstakingly ordered and assembled according to categories. Imagine a time without stock photography. If you needed a certain subject, you had to photograph it yourself, develop the film and enlar ge the photo to suit your design, cut out parts, collage it, mix colour or add typography – everything was done by hand. Design was a craft as well as a thought process.

What have you acquired and learned from Anton Stankowski?
Stankowski+Duschek was the top design firm in Germany. We worked on large-scale corporate programs like the identity for the Deutsche Bank, Munich Reinsurance, the design and wayfinding for The Frankfurt Fair, Viessmann Heating Systems and created identities for entire cities. We also took part in competitions for international sporting events. For example, we created logos for the Olympic Institute in Berlin, Olympic Congress, Euro Basketball Championship and Germany’s bid for the Winter Olympic s in 1992 . As a y oung designer you felt like you are at the pinnacle of the world of design or in the eye of the storm if that describes it better. But ‘the Atelier’ was not only a design studio; it was always a place for education. So, on a more practical note, we all learned the trade, drawing straight lines and understanding why. It was real graphic design: colour (that we always had to mix ourselves or apply with a brush or ruler pen), shapes, type and composition. We learned through constant training how to find the best form that visualized meaning or a pr ocess that cannot be photographed. Sometimes we got a visual quest as homework over the weekend that we had to solve and present the following Monday. What Anton instilled in us was the feeling that you can change or improve the world through design, that aesthetic is not only eye candy but has a function in our liv es as any other technical function. Anton was always curious and eager to explore new ideas. This set the tone for the rest of my life as well.

When you moved to North America, you began working in one of the most prominent design agencies, Gottschalk+Ash International. They had four offices in Toronto, Calgary, Montreal and Zürich. Tell us about these two designers and the link between the four cities.
Stuart Ash in Toronto opened the doors to Canada for my family and I. He knew Stank owski from the AGI. Knowing that I was trained by and worked with Anton for 15 years, Stuart concluded that I must be good. Gottschalk+Ash International was focused on design excellence with a minimalistic, international style – in short a continuation of the experience at Stankowski+Duschek. The Calgary office was an offshoot from the Toronto office in order to cover the western part of Canada. Montreal was lead by Peter Steiner and Hélène L’Heureux, and Zürich was lead by Fritz Gottschalk and Sascha Lötscher. The Zürich office, however, was independent. We tried to work together on larger assignments, but to be honest, it didn’t happen very often in my time at G+A. But more importantly, the design philosophy was the same for all offices and therefore, combined; we had a strong influence on design in Canada. Fritz Gottschalk, whom I only knew from visits in Switzerland or in Toronto, was a strongheaded man with clear principles and discipline. Nothing that wasn’t excellent and innovative could pass his critique. Therefore, his opinion was always honest and put us younger designers in line when we became too indulgent in something that w as ‘also’ good. Stuart Ash by comparison was much softer, at least during my tenure, and attuned to the North American market. Both designers are design driven and see design as a business tool to create awareness, exposure and a unique market position. Good design means good business. Both men are design pioneers who started their career with the Expo 67, the event that jumpstarted Canadian design and the careers of many designers. For me, they exemplify a way of thinking about design and the role it should play in society and business; that design is for the betterment of our lives rather than a tool to increase sales, which is what it e volved into when marketing came between design and decision makers.

Why was Gottschalk+Ash International changed to Entro Communications? What was your role in this transformation? When Stuart Ash approached his early sixties, he decided to sell G+A Toronto/Calgary to DW+Partners, a subsidiary of St. Joseph’s Communications. St. Joseph, a large Canadian media and printing house in Toronto and Ottawa, had plans to acquir e a rooster of boutique design firms with various specialties. However, with the financial crisis in 2008 these ideas f ell short and only DW+Partners and G+A had become part of St. Joseph.
With little incentive from the mothership, G+A soldiered on with me at the helm of the design team , however it became clear to me that this could not go f or long. With three children in higher education the need to have a stable future became apparent and urgent. As hard as it was, after 12 years with G+A I decided to jump ship and accepted an offer by Entro Communications to join their team as principal creative director. Half a year later, I got a call from management at St. Joseph asking if Entro would be interested in buying G+A . Indeed, Wayne McCutcheon and Andrew Kuzyk, the two partners of Entro saw a perfect fit and that’s how Entro and G+A merged at the end of 201 1. My role was and is the integration of the two firms.

Apart from design, have you any other interesting experiences in art. I believe that you are so much influenced by Stankowski. Am I right?
As I mentioned before, Stankowski was a painter as well (and so was Karl Duschek, by the way). Not only was he an artist, but for him the traditional boundaries between art and design do not exist. This idea lives on in the Stankowski Foundation that he founded in 1983 which aims at emphasizing art and design as a unit y and at overcoming the separation of free and applied art and design. Being surrounded as a young designer by his art and expressing interest myself, Stankowski asked me if I would like to paint for him. As the layout was always geometrical and constructivist, it was like painting by numbers. He prepared a hand sketch and even mixed the colours at the beginning. That is how I learned to paint with acrylic on canvas. I enjoyed it so much, the Zen-like liberating process of applying colour on a surface, that I kept it going ever since. The action was supported by theory as Stankowski explained the reasoning behind an arrangement, the emotional value of colour and how colours react and influence each other. He was a ‘public’ person too. At his studio or in his home, many artists, intellectuals, architects, writers, teachers or business people came by and we young designers were often around helping out or just listening. The thrill was tangible; the sense of b eing in the centre of a cultural exchange was breathtaking at his ‘salon’.

How can the relationship between design and art be explained? Where is the boundary between them?
This is always a hot topic. For many there is a clear separation between art and design. Art has to be free. The artis t just has to please himself in or der to find his style, form or expression, but the designer is a serviceman that controls his art and needs to think in the heads of others, the client’s head and the consumer’s head. The artist does what he wants, the designer wants what he does. The artist hates compromise, the designer must work with it. The artist works free, the designer has deadlines, objectives, and costs. And the antagonism could continue. Stankowski not only eliminated these discrepancies, but elevated these to each advantage. The fusion of art into his design concepts gave him more certainty where others just produced pleasantries, eye candy. His works were of exemplary quality, but not necessarily reproducible by others as they needed a great deal of training, knowledge and experience. Nothing is left indifferent or hidden in his designs. The clarity of colour and form in his art and his designs have left its mark in our world’s indiscernible flood of information. The electronic age of our times, however is building a different world. If you thought like him you could learn a lot. It was the best schooling I could ever have.

Could it be said that you have a sort of German education and mindset in design? Is it true? This is why the process-based logic and applied aspect of design are distinct in the projects you have undertaken. How can the balance between aesthetic and applied aspects of design be maintained?
I studied graphic design in Germany at the College of Design in Würzburg and practiced graphic design for the first 15 years in Germany, which was at the time, still grounded in objectivity, form follows function and grid systematic before post modernism broke loose. My approach to design is certainly based on this foundation, but I would not describe it as minimalism where everything is taken away until only a dogmatic formalism is left over. To the contrary, the solutions that I tr y to achieve can be quite baroque and voluptuous, even chaotic, if necessary. Without aesthetic we cannot survive, we would merely scape by. Aesthetic, as I see it, therefore has a functional value, not unlike the functional value in math or science. If a design is not aes thetically pleasing the eye will not rest and investigate further. It is the key to opening the mind, a f orm of energy that is s timulating a response from the viewer. Once this connection is made the rest has to be displayed in an organized and hierarchical manner.

The three aspects of reduction, objectivity, and humanization are frequently seen in your environmental designs. Could you describe these three elements?
By Reduction I mean reducing a graphical element to its simplest form. The more straightforward and elementary a picture is, the easier it is to visually p erceive it. For that reason, I use whenever I can, basic constructivist forms for the formal realization of a task.
Objectivity implies supporting information by argument and not by arousing emotion. Geometry is inherited over generations. We instantly see if something is wrong in a picture even though we often can hardly express why. In my paintings, and as often as I can in my commercial design work as well, I use cons tructive basic elements that are arranged with a twist or in an unusual combination. These images do not pr etend to be anything else than colour and form, they don’t lie. That’s the beauty of concrete art.
By Humanization I mean the aesthetic component of a painting or print. A piece without beauty confounds human sensibility: it is incomplete. The aesthetical or ‘emotional’ element is imposed through the choice and placement of color; in the layout, which is ordered by an underlying grid.

Colour plays a significant role in designing the signage and wayfinding systems in your works. Where does this role stem from? Is it a result of your artistic attitude, or is the functional aspect important?
My exposure to colour through art-making has enabled me to experiment with colour. I have no hesitation using colour. Often people, even architects, are afraid to use colour because they have not been trained long enough in colour. You can learn the scientific makings of colours, the colour wheel, Helmholz, etc, but it doesn’t give you the emotional value of colour and how colour reacts in combination with other colours. I am by no means an expert in colour, but I am not hesitant to learn everyday. Another aspect comes through the exposure to different cultures in my travels. Very early I experienced how different colours are used and embraced in other cultures. My travels to Africa, for example, have influenced me a lot; for example, the red earth, the colorful clothing and the different hues of green in the tropical forest. So I use colour as a s trong differentiator and identifier in print as well as in wayfinding. From a functional aspect, I can guide or attract people in a building through colour. I can use colour to r emember things, like a level in a parking garage. I can create a welcoming or warm atmosphere, can calm areas down or agitate others just by how colour is selected.

You have many experiences of working with architects. Where is the common ground between architectural design and environmental graphic design?
I joke and say, wayfinding and environmental design is the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ in architecture. And indeed, it is the last layer that helps to make the building readable for the user and allows the owner to e xpress a certain ‘voice’ in which he communicates with the audience, which can be remarkably different between, for example, a theme park, a sports arena or an airp ort.
We as designers have the difficult task to fit in and yet stand out from the environment. I love collaborating with architects and developing solutions that are integrated and yet surprising and inspiring. Only if we gain the trust of the architect we can truly develop great wayfinding for environments.
The body of my work in recent years shows more and more the combination of graphic patterns and images for visual concepts in the environment. These designs support wayfinding as they function as landmarks in a building, but they also add a poetic and reflective atmosphere in our technology-driven world. While the concepts are mostly simple and based on geometric forms, the effects in the environment are often surprisingly refreshing and unexpected. They are a visual contribution to the humanization of our built environment, elevating the experience of the everyday citizen from unremarkable or baffling places to pleasurable and engaging ones.

Could you please talk more on the visual identity design and wayfinding system of Frankfurt Trade Centre in 1992? It was almost three decades ago.
Stankowski +Duschek were brought in after Landor in San Francisco developed the visual identity for the Trade Centre, Messe Frankfurt. However their logo of the tumbling boxes was too aggressive as the boxes cut into each other. We moved the boxes away from each other but maintained the overall notion of the movement, the various sizes and the 4 distinct colours – the form still exists unchanged today.
The brand Messe Frankfurt should stand out from the specific trade shows (almost 150 per year! Not to mention concerts and events) therefore we decided that all tradeshows will only feature wordmarks.
The system for orientation, developed mainly by Karl Duschek, Horst Schick and Matthias Kneusslin, is strikingly simple and powerful. It is focused around the user. The information panels are divided into a colour field and white panels with type. Red is for visitor informa-tion, green stands for services like restaurants, blue is for parking, yellow for install and de-install information and grey for internal services. As typeface we choose Univers 55 and 65 by Adrian Frutiger. The same font that was used for the Olympic Games ’72 in Munich. (Besides, our office almost exclusively used Univers in our designs.) We chose a modular system for all sign panels based on the smallest unit of 150 x 150 mm. The pictogram system for the Messe Frankfurt is referring to the ERCO system developed by Otl Aicher, which was extended with unique symbols for restaurants. The clarity and simplicity of the system provides visitors with the necessary information and orientation at any place on the campus. That it is still in use, almost unchanged, proves its great design and versatility.

You work at Entro Communications as Principal Creative Director. You are mainly specialized in branding and signage and wayfinding systems design. Why are you focused on these fields?
Entro Communications is a fusion of G+A that developed brands and printed communications as well as wayfinding projects. Entro however almost exclusively delivered wayfinding solutions for a large variety of clients from airports to cultural institutions. Through the merger, we are now in a unique strategic position to cover the whole spectrum of communication from 2D to 3D to digital. Only very few companies can claim that expertise. With that experience we can ‘translate’ a brand from print to a 3-dimensional logo on a façade of a building with adjustments necessary due to the constraints and opportunities (like illumination) of materials, structural considerations, permits, etc. Equally interesting are our solutions for branded environments where we enhance a program or workplace with large scale graphics and sophisticated wayfinding elements. I personally like the challenge to create something that lasts and has a positive impact on people, be it the design of a logo that becomes better and better with time or a graphic in a building in order to add a poetic and aesthetic value. If we create something that is unexpected, even surprising, without using platitudes or commercial waste, that is for me a contribution to peace and culture in our world.

One of your recent works is the interior graphic design and signage system design for Public Health Ontario. How did you manage to combine the role of type, color, pattern, and image in this project?
Indeed this design is very rich in colour, pattern and imagery however each in its proper place. Public Health Ontario (PHO) occupies 4 floors in the new MaRS Tower in Toronto. Most of the spaces are laboratories to examine water probes, blood samples, bacteria, etc. Typically these spaces are very technical, cold, confusing and visually uninspiring. Diamond Schmitt Architects, known for cultural developments like the Four Seasons Centre of the Performing Arts in Toronto and the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, in charge of the design of the PHO spaces, wanted to change that. They created an impressive relief made out of metal tubes in different sizes and length with an iridescent colour disc inlay along the feature staircase that stretches over all four floors. The tubes, from a distance, resemble microscopic images of virus and bacteria rendered in a dot pattern. As the strongest visual element in the space we clued in on that and used for the sign plates, like room signs, four different iridescent colours, one for each floor, and imbedded a subtle dot pattern as well. Sign panels work on one level, colourful gels applied in overlapping vertical stripes on glass in meeting rooms and offices work on a different level. Finally, for the main emergency room, the command centre of PHO in case of a major crisis, like a viral outbreak, the client asked us to integrate the image and timeline of the former leading scientist during the SARS outbreak. We fulfilled their wish by applying a large scale photograph rendered in dot patterns on the curtain wall of the boardroom. The timeline was mounted on an adjacent wall using colourful dots as markers. With so many different design elements in play the most important thing is to organize the system so that the elements don’t compete but complement each other.
Typography is of secondary importance as it mostly just identifies rooms. However, for the alphabetical order of bench signs that indicate the rows of laboratries, we rendered the letters in a fuzzy dot pattern.

I would appreciate it if you could explain a bit your recent big design project, Daniels Spectrum, the prize it collected in UK, and its concept. 
The Daniels Spectrum, a cultural hub in Regent Park, an area in Toronto where mostly immigrants from Africa, Asia and South America as well as indigenous people from Canada live, has received numerous prizes for its design and program. The prestigious Civic Award (UK) is just the latest in a row of many awards. Why is that?
Because the facility, its design and program have significantly contributed to the community and improved the lives of many in Regent Park. Artscape, a non-for-profit organization that makes space for creativity and transforms communities, approached Entro for this project. The question was, how can we make the new immigrants feel welcome and at home in Toronto and Regent Park? How can we foster the notion that the Daniels Spectrum is a place for them to express their identity through art, music, dance and performances? At one point, Tim Jones, CEO of Artscape, said “why don’t we put the flags of the countries where the people immigrated from on the building.” My response was that this would be boring and too conventional. But the idea of flags resonated. We looked at different ways of how flags can be rendered. At the end we synthesized the colours of all flags into vertical stripes. The flags loose thereby their characteristic, but there is still a regal expression that the vertical stripes have. We then aligned the abstract flags one after the other to create long bands of colourful vertical stripes and placed these bands along the façade. Immediately, the stripes signaled to passerby’s that this is a different building than all the others around. I knew from my own experience through traveling that people in more southern areas of the world have a much richer colour sensitivit y as we in the so called developed countries. Therefore we applied colour in a much stronger way than typically for a cultural building. This is especially visible on the south side of the performance hall. There we applied the colour stripes rhythmically along the white f açade of industrial siding. Even on the inside the colour bands continue from the outside and wrap the entire ground floor in a continuous ribbon of colour. The success was instant.
The colour bands became such a strong identifier that Artscape decided to use the colour bands for their identity as well. What more can you ask for?

Majid Abbasi

is design director of Studio Abbasi active in the international community, based in Tehran and Toronto. He leads a variety of design projects for start-ups, non-profits and educational organizations worldwide. Majid actively contributes to the international design scene as an instructor, jury member, curator and writer. He has been editor-in-chief of Neshan, the leading Iranian graphic design magazine since 2010. Majid has been members of Iranian Graphic Designers Society (IGDS) since 1998 and Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) since 2009.

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