Work in Progress
by Ponto

Interview w/ Sophie Demay

Sophie Demay — Sophie Demay is a graphic designer based in between London and Paris. Her practise is focused on publication, exhibition design, curating and collaborating within an open Design practise. In February of 2011, she has co-curated the exhibition Open Books and is currently lecturing as an associate lecturer at London College of Communication. She was also part of Department 21 and Parallel School.

Interview via skype at 12am on 13 December 2012


It seems that nowadays the definition of Design has been expanded to areas that once seemed beyond the purview of Design. By moving away from idealized concepts, and towards the complex reality of behavior, Design has achieved not only a relational form but also transdisciplinarity. Since nowadays boundaries seem to be more waterlike, how can you define different kinds of Design practise? Is it a set of skills? Background? Context?

I didn’t know how to answer that question so I looked at ‘Forms of Enquiry’ exhibition when they explored the links between Architecture and Design. To curate this exhibition they had to classify what design is and different types of Design, so they came up with a quite relevant classification. The first was how the designer interacts with the given space which can be the space of a book, exhibition or any environment. The second was the mode of production, when the designer actually becomes, or has, a really important role in the production line, when he either becomes a publisher, an editor, a writer or even a curator. And the last classification was methodology; what they called ‘graphic design as a way of working’, so using design to work collaboratively, to think about theoretical texts or conceive interventions in a special space. I think it is quite an interesting perspective because it defines the interface, production and methodology which is something interesting to start with.

Collaboration can perhaps be perceived as something socialist in the sense that it requires the understanding of the user. Do you think that by trying to make design more aware of society’s needs we are in a phase of a new understanding of the designer’s role also?

You said that collaboration can be perceived as something socialist but I would say that it has more to do with politics.

When you are working within a group the first questions that arise are hierarchy, decision, power, and you need to define the rules. Who gets to decide? What happens if one person doesn’t agree? Do you need a referendum? Do you need a consensus? If one person doesn’t agree it means that no one should do anything, or do you need to have a majority? All these questions are really the basis of a political system where more than one person has to make decisions. In that sense working in a collaborative group is more political than socialist.

And in regards to people that are outside the studio. The collaboration with the client or audience for example.

It obviously depends on the client or project but most of the time you don’t really collaborate. One thing that I find important is the question of timing. For example, if you are called at the last minute to design a catalogue for an exhibition you don’t have a lot of time and power to change things, you are not really involved in the decision making.

However, if they decided to hire a designer beforehand and allow the designer to actually choose the photographer that they want to work with, the way that they want to document, choose the way that they want to archive something — in that way the relationship is completely transformed. This still might not be necessarily a collaboration with the client, he doesn’t need to understand all the concepts and the role you need to take as a designer, but having the designer in the very beginning of all the questions — as how to write the book, how to photograph, how we are going to print it, budget we need to allocate— that would be a much more interesting way of working together because you get to decide and think about [the project] with them and in that sense this would be closed to collaboration.

In the first issue of Bulletins of The Serving a Library, Dexter Sinister came up with a new idea for a foundation course proposing that the Bauhaus method is outdated. Do you share its opinion?

I think the Bauhaus method was conceived within a special context so it obviously responded to their time. While I was a student at the Royal College of Art, the school direction changed and they were trying to find a new head for the Communication Department. After a lot of interviews they chose five finalists. These finalists had then to present their proposal, first to the students, and then to a special board. Will Holder was one of the finalists and he arrived with a letter to the Rector, and he wrote as he does, very performative. In the lecture of the presentation he proposed to make two sabbath years with no course, no teacher and just to have workshops for inviting people from all over the world. With it, the RCA could then define actually what’s really needed in a MA.

Obviously he didn’t get the job but I think that it was more a statement, I don’t think he was hoping to getting it but perhaps it would be interesting to reproduce that letter. I think by taking over the rules, the systems and everything, it would help us to understand what the industry and the people really need and think. It would be amazing if it could happen somewhere.

Nowadays it has been common for young designers to initiate their own projects. Some of them seem to be successful enough to mold their practice in order to have an audience instead of a client. What’s your thoughts on self-initiated projects?

I think it is really important that we are in charge, and that our Design has a voice. I think we need to be responsible of the content that we want to share. Self-initiated projects are really important to define who you are. The projects that you do on the side are actually feeding your own practice. If it is the curation of an exhibition, a magazine that you want to publish every six months, these are ways to also force you to understand what you are interested in and share it with others, and becoming a statement of who you are. For me it is quite important for every critical designer to initiate their own projects and that’s something that is common here in London, it seems easy to do it, I don’t know why—it’s an energy, a simplicity.

Do you think that by doing self-initiated projects this could also target the clients that you want to work with?

Exactly. The best way to meet people, and bring together people that you care about or find interest in is to actually produce your own project. It is also again this question of relationship and hierarchy, if you for example organize an event and you invite someone that you are really fond of— because you invite and you propose an interesting context to your meeting or encounter— it means that you are on the same level somehow and it’s quite interesting and important to start a relationship in a kind of fair level. Obviously all of those events that you organize will bring people that are interested in the same things as you, so it’s good to build a network of friends or even possible clients. I would say that the best way to find a job is to actually create your own.

In a transcript of a dialogue about Redesigning (Graphic) Design Education workshop available for download on Martinez & Trees studio website, Joshua Trees says that by creating pathways in school the negative side to it is the overspecialisation and the positive side being the sense of community.
However don’t you think that right now the sense of community is more likely to happen in a transdisciplinary environment like Department 21? What’s your current position on this theme?

I actually think that creating pathways you are not over specialising yourself you are blocking your practise and what you would be capable of. I think the problem is in how collaborative projects are organized by school. They are usually in a very specific context and outcome-driven and that was something that we were trying to fight with the Department 21. In that way what we tried to do was to reconfigure a kind of collaboration that will arise by working close to each other and not proposing any specific direction, client or project. By working close to a sculptor or a painter you then realise that you have working methods in common and more important, interests in common. So we were trying to rethink what collaboration is based on.

One of the answers that we found was that to make it happen we need a space and that’s why it is called Department 21, because there is 20 departments but none was interdisciplinary. Department 21 was then this unique department where everyone could work surrounded by different practices.

In the article “Interdisciplinarity” by Bianca Elzenbaumer, Polly Hunter and Stephen Knott, in the Department 21 book, wrote that a postgraduate level of study should be about how the one specialisation fits in the wider context. How did Department 21 informed and positioned your practise today?

One of the first rules of Department 21 was that it only happens if someone was doing something about it and if you are not doing anything, nothing is happening. The focus was in the responsibility that you have as a student which is taking part of your learning process, being active. The two years that I was involved in the Department 21 really influenced the way I now think about Design. To make things happen you need to provoke them, you need to be active, so I would say that responsibility is very important. I believe that you are responsible of your own career, your own future, the people you are meeting; and being pro-active, doing things all the time, going to talks and organizing them, it is really, for me, what I learned from Department 21. And also, that it is not that difficult to make things happen. We, for example, had no money, we only had an interesting project. We were calling and asking amazing artists or curators to come in and give a talk for free, because we didn’t have money, and it happened just because the project was interesting for them and it was a good project that they wanted to contribute. It is actually simple to create a community when you have a good project.

In “QUESTIONS/QUESTIONS” you and your group mention “working alone but as a group”. Could you explain what you mean by this and how does it work for you?

That was the project that we decided to do for the final show at the RCA and it was called Table of Contents. We had a quote of Brian Gillick that says: “The them and us is me and us and us and us and them and them”; I believe this reflects our interest for open-relationship and, more importantly, the context in which we were producing things: we were students at the time in a specific area, which was the RCA, and in a specific context, which were the dates, the year and the people that we were surrounded by. And that context and the people you meet actually really defined what we were doing. We were really interested in creating a specific context for it to happen and to also talk about the content we dealt with for two years. We had also a quote from a text by Celine Condorelli that says “One way of addressing the question of how to live together is through what we may or may not have in common. (…)”. In that same text she also talks about the context, the common, established relationship and ownership in the everyday life. We were really interested in creating that group to present ourselves as part of the context, as part of the continuum practise. In that way, we ended up doing what we were doing because we met each other, we collaborate on things so we wanted to credit what we did as part of a working group, that again is part of a relationship.

Was it a kind of critique to the way that the work is presented in the graduation show and in Graphic Design exhibitions itself?

Yes, in the article on Question/Questions you have that first paragraph which was sent by the head of communications department saying that kind of be ready with your business cards, smile, have questions, be ready and things like that.

Very business like.

Yes. And the first thing we did was really trying to think in the way you present yourself in a final show. Everyone was making a big deal out of it, since you were supposed to be ready and get the job of your life and amazing people were supposed to come… But we all knew that we were not looking for a job. We all knew that we wanted to be self-employed, and we also wanted to do a project that would be our own statement about education. Specially because we really disagreed with Neville Brody’s view on education, who was appointed as the Head of the Department.

We also wanted to make a statement saying that we were not advertising ourselves as business opportunities. We just wanted to think about the context where we were evolving, and the best thing we found was to actually put what we produced in those two years in context and relation with other things: like references, movies, books, articles. Basically, what you do in your special time, what you do as part of your graduate show is actually part of all the things you read and all the people that you encountered… so we wanted to credit all those things. Giving a context to what you do. And it’s the same for you. For example you are not doing it just to “hey, let’s think about collaboration, hey, let’s think about economy in self-publishing” you are also aware of these questions, you have read texts and people have helped you formulating your thinking now. So it’s important that they are credited on a bibliography — and that’s what we had; we had a giant bibliography with films. However, no one understood it and the press came in and was confused because they thought it was a bookshop; and obviously the text we wrote was not precise and completely broad, so even the Head of the Department got confused about what it was.

We were only five and obviously we had a lot of space— so actually having a room for ourselves was problematic because it became this huge structure in a dead empty room and they didn’t know what to do with it but it worked. It worked because I’m talking about it with you and because we talked about it in different books so maybe it might not have worked immediately, because no one understood it except for course people that were in the same kind of mind-frame or with the same questions as us. But it was really, really funny to see the press and people being completely lost with what it was and not mentioning it because it was something they didn’t understand.

I agree with you, I think most of the people go to graduation exhibitions to see “nice things”.

People come to a show looking for trends or “innovations”, always new trends, innovation, typefaces, something new; but we were actually the only ones that produced something new for the exhibition. We produced a structure, a context and some content. Other people only displayed the work that they had done in the past, and one of our questions was to produce something specially for the exhibition, and not to only display something that belonged to the past, so it was quite funny. But the question is: when you have a show try to force yourself to produce new things – it’s really important.

It also goes back to the question of production and I think we should think about exhibitions, events, diploma graduations as a mean to produce something new for you. If all the shows displayed new things — if all shows in Graphic Design had a budget for production rather than framing, rather than printing a book, but actually to allow students or designers to produce a new work — that would be really amazing because it is giving a budget or money to help people produce things that it is not for a client, but can be for something more experimental, production, tools…; and that’s something that I try to make it happen with my exhibitions. When I have budget to produce things, the exhibition doesn’t look at what happened in the past but actually looks forward to the future and allows things to happen, because one part of the production budget is allocated to designers: for them to think about a question, or something — and that’s really important.

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