“I design what I feel and what I feel is what I design,” says Belgium-based graphic designer Bruce Vansteenwinkel. His personal work “usually starts from an emotional or even personal point of view and the visual style comes secondly,” he says. Moving away from the sterility and pure visuality of much design, Bruce’s projects tend to be centred in human interest and personal identity – both his own and his collaborators’.
Growing up, Bruce wanted to be “anything, really”. Because of his wide and eclectic range of interests, he tells us: “I could see myself becoming a fashion designer but also a psychologist. As long as it involved people.” Bruce’s investment in people, their unique qualities, their unique experiences, remains the focal point of his work today. His enthusiasm for knowledge is equally prominent. As he puts it, “I love to read in on things. Books about philosophy or psychology usually make me tingle. In the end I’m designing for people so it’s important to know, or try to know, how they think and work.”
The design concept, for Bruce, takes precedence over aesthetic purpose. Although he concedes that he is heavily influenced by European modernist design, he asserts: “I don’t like to design things simply for decoration purposes. I like to give meaning to things, even if they are very stylised. I think that that’s why most of my designs are all about bold colours, typography and simple use of imagery.”
Even in his commercial work at Stoëmp Studio in Brussels, Bruce’s principal preoccupation is with creating a design that reflects a sentiment or particular spirit. He states: “I really want to know the brand, their market, what they represent and how they see themselves. After that it’s concept thinking. I think in systems and not so much in style. I think that branding nowadays is a dynamic thing instead of a static logo and typography. A brand should breath and move.”
It is in his self-initiated projects, however, that Bruce can truly pursue his zeal for understanding people on an emotional, personal level. He speaks of this work as “a form of therapy, or a way of celebrating the beauty of things. I’ll make a poster about someone or something if I feel like I want to celebrate that person or moment.” One such project, Birds of a Feather, takes the form of a collaborative book. “I asked people online to send me the most valuable photo on their phone and tell me why they chose it,” he says. “The response was overwhelming. I chose 50 people – some of them I knew, others I didn’t know at all. Everyone shared something personal and I feel like I got to know all of them.”
As well as using graphic design as a way of connecting with people and manifesting a kind of community based on the mutual sharing of stories and memories, Bruce also examines himself with introspective, self-exploratory projects. His thesis work, buitengewoon, deals with the very concept of the self and how this intersects with the notion of a personal brand. The concept arose as a result of, “on the one hand, working on branding projects and seeing the evolution of brands to become more human, and on the other hand meeting all these people – influencers, models, Instagram models, design influencers – that have built entire brands around themselves.”
In the world Bruce envisions through the project, which includes a book, a film, and “Bruce” branded stamps, “everyone is a brand and has their own brand guidelines created through a website. The assets and style are defined by your personal traits such as age, gender, occupation, living situation, political preference. For example, I am a 23-year-old gay male living in the city and those factors define my logo, pattern and colours, which you see in the video. In this universe, the only things you see, eat, drink, do, watch or read are determined by your specific branding.”
Currently working on two projects that focus on grief and personal loss, one taking the form of collaborative memory and the other a tribute to the person he has lost, Bruce is carving out a place for graphic design as a form of empathy and human connection.