Over the past weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Marian Bantjes—an extremely talented and intuitive graphic artist from Canada—give a design talk at the new Chicago Design Museum. If you ask me to think about female graphic designers, her name is always the first one to come to my mind. Her work is unique with a handmade quality, which I greatly enjoy. She incorporates patterns and typography, two things I love, and together, they make an impact on my eyes and my mind so strongly I don’t know what hit me. Pure Inspiration (you’ll know the difference between that and Influence in just a bit)! Ever since I laid eyes on an image of her business card, I was drawn in to her and her work.
And then I saw the poster she designed for Michael Beirut’s Yale Architecture lecture series:
And then I saw this image of text Bantjes made out of sugar for Stefan Sagmeister‘s book, or series of little books, “Things I have learned in my life so far”:
I fell in love with her craft.
It was exciting to see the talented woman behind these beautiful works and get a true sense of Bantjes’ character and personality, which are equally fantastic. She began her presentation by introducing herself, her home, and her workspace. They are all beautiful! She lives on an island off the west coast of Canada, surrounded by nature, and works in a lovely, dimly lit and nicely decorated studio. Everything about her home looked so cozy and so perfect for sketching and writing. After her introduction came one of two very significant elements of her presentation. The first important element was the difference between Inspiration, Influence, and Motivation. Bantjes made sure to clarify the difference between these words because these words are often the foundational questions posed to an artist. She stated that when people ask, “What inspires you?” they often mean, “What are your influences?” When people respond with, “Money,” they are really answering, “What motivates you?” What inspires Marian Bantjes? She said, “Anything, any where, any time.” Inspiration is unpredictable. You may walk down the street and see a statement scrawled onto a building and smile. That is inspiration. You may step into an art gallery and see that one piece of work that takes your breath away and holds your gaze for much too long. That is inspiration. You may see a young boy fall off his bike and a young little girl help him to his feet and feel warm inside, thinking how sweet and beautiful. That is inspiration. It is something that exists and instantly triggers your mind to stop, your heart to flutter, and your conscience to take note, leaving an impression.
Bantjes mentioned that her influences range from past experiences, artists and designers of the past like Paul Rand, and Islamic illumination, which she considers, “the best in the world.” It is clear that her work is influenced by Islamic calligraphy and geometric art, but she is careful not to mimic that style directly. She has her own methods of using curvature, geometric grids, mathematics, and hand-lettering that produces something very individual. Bantjes also collects or remembers things that she likes, but do not specifically influence her. Such things would be a humorous poem she recited for the crowd on Saturday that is about a dentist and the feeling of the work he performs on someone’s mouth and a statement printed on wood that reads: YOU ARE CAUGHT THINKING ABOUT KILLING ANYONE YOU WANT, made by none other than Jenny Holzer.
The second significant element of her presentation that is the basis for her entire work is about the role of art in design, and yes, art plays a role. As designers, we know that when we produce something for a client, it must have a concept, be logical, have some sort of reasoning behind it; it cannot just be beautiful, but it must be beautiful and have a point. If it is simply artistic and appeals only to emotions, it is not accepted; it is often shunned. Marian Bantjes’ response to this was, “It pisses me off!” She is all about craft and complexity, intuition and ingenuity, joy. There is a role for art in design. During her talk, she quoted the oft heard statement, “Practice safe design: use a concept,” to which she responded with, “I have been practicing ‘unsafe design.’ Only until she began bringing her artistic craft to her design work did she find that she created pieces of satisfaction and personal individuality. Her artwork is blended with common design principles and it’s what makes Bantjes the prominent visual artist that she is; her creativity is unique and deserves the recognition.
The field of graphic design wasn’t always about left-brained principles of concept and reason, but it included very artistic elements. Bantjes showed a couple of examples of this type of design. One of the images she presented is the one pictured below on the left, created by Swiss designer Josef Müller-Brockmann; it is a simple, yet artistically composed poster based off of the mathematics of music; it has a concept, but it is very visual and fun; it appeals to emotion, as well as to logic, to the right side and to the left side of the brain. Another designer she presented is Paul Rand, famous mostly for his logotypes and simple illustrations, and less known for his artistic work, displayed in magazine covers and various advertisements. One of his magazine covers is pictured below on the right. If you look closely, you can see his signature towards the bottom right corner. Bantjes was sure to point out his signature because it is unheard of in this day and age for a designer to sign his/her work, especially annual reports, which Rand did. She asked, “Who would hire Paul Rand today?” Only the adventurous, those willing to think outside of the box. I think even the adventurous would cringe at the thought. I quite like the idea of designers signing their work and I think that maybe it shouldn’t be so unheard of any more.
For Bantjes’ final portion of her presentation, she showed us various examples of her work, including design pieces that were ultimately rejected by the client. One of the pieces she showed was a beautiful poster created for a band called The National. The poster has three different views; each view can be seen under a specific type of lighting. The image on the left is how it looks when it is viewed in daylight, the image in the middle shows the fluorescent pink ink really well and is how the poster looks in Black Light, like at a concert venue, and the image on the right is what you would see in the dark, the elements printed with glow in the dark ink. Awesome!
Another piece Bantjes showed us is a text piece she did for a VIBE magazine article about Jay-Z. VIBE asked Bantjes if she could create something in glitter, and this is what she produce:
Absolutely beautiful and very Jay-Z-esque.
There was so much work that Bantjes showed and I regret that I cannot display all of the images for you here. You will just have to check out her website or do a simple Google search to witness the vast array of beautiful and well-designed work. The pieces I particularly enjoyed during her presentation were the rejected pieces. Even when they were rejected for one thing, she still found a way to use them somewhere, some how, even if just for herself.
I would like to end with some statements and paraphrased quotes that caught my attention and might possibly grasp other people’s attention as well, maybe they will be inspiring.
“Sometimes you get paid to do dumb things.”
Bantjes showed us an image of a logo she produced for Benetton. She referred to it as some “swirly shit attached to normal letters.” We all laughed and she said that sometimes we just get paid to dumb things.
“I think process is overrated.”
She is not interested in process. She does not sit somewhere and sketch out ideas. All of her process occurs in her head.
“Avoid the obvious.”
Bantjes likes to “work against what is expected.” Think outside the box; make something look unnatural in a natural way, or natural in an unnatural way.
I cannot do work for companies who use text that is “detrimental to our intelligence.”
She mostly works with text, so she cannot stomach working with something so meaningless and stupid. Some people refuse to work with tobacco companies and the like; she refuses to work with companies who use pointless text.
“Design needs artists.” It needs people who love to doodle. “‘Design is not a place for doodle’ as an idea is wrong.”
If you are in the Chicago area you can check out some of Bantjes’ work on display. Her work is displayed along with the wonderful Wolfgang Weingart and John Massey posters. You will find some of the work I mentioned earlier, such as her posters for The National and her Seduction poster for the Yale Architecture lecture series, as well as this beautiful piece below, Influence Map.