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Constriction

Features / Graphic Design

Beyond Pretty Pictures: Marian Bantjes on her life, work and her transformative personal story

First published in Printed Pages Summer 2014

Words by

Rob Alderson

“This whole beard thing is really blowing me away,” says Marian Bantjes. Sat in an interview room at the OFFSET Festival in Dublin, Ireland’s trendy young things have baffled her. “I’m looking at these guys and they’re in their 20s and honestly they’re the best looking they will ever be and they’re hiding their faces behind these beards. It’s so bizarre; I just think why are they doing this?

“I’m not used to it. The crowd I hang out with is much older so the design culture as I have known it has been very conservative. It’s very much a city phenomenon that I have heard a lot about, but I live on an island in Canada and we don’t have hipsters there. It took me a while to work out what makes a hipster, so seeing a whole lot of them all at once is really quite remarkable.

“I think every generation has their fashion things that are likely to be looked on with embarrassment in the future,” she laughs. “It’s very similar to the time of the punks; there were these really pretty people looking absolutely godawful.”

For someone once dubbed “the Michelangelo of Custom Decorative Lettering” (by Steven Heller no less) Marian is a warm and funny interviewee. She swears with a rare artistry and is thoughtful and articulate, occasionally questioning her own choice of words out loud and asking me to rephrase questions if she feels their context is incorrect. But above all she is forthright. “I have a very strong honesty streak and I don’t really see the benefit of hiding one’s mistakes. I think that making fun of yourself is often the funniest thing to do; taking digs at myself is something I do quite naturally.”

“I think that’s the thing about my book Pretty Pictures. I really wanted it to be a tell-all, to be as open as possible. In a sense the opposite of the title; I was thinking about students in particular when I wrote it and I wanted them to know that everything is not always perfect and we all make mistakes and sometimes we’re miserable and shit happens.” Pretty Pictures is the monograph she published in 2013; a stunning 266-page look back at her career since 2003. There is work for big name clients and pieces done for friends and family, stuff she is very proud of and stuff she is now embarrassed by. The index not only directs the reader to “Favourites” but also lists projects under the categories “Died” “Killed” and “Rejected.” That self-awareness cuts both ways though, and while she might dismiss one piece as “a terrible piece of shit” she commends her successes when appropriate too.

Of her T-shirt for the Speak Up blog which she admits “may have launched my career,” she notes simply: “It was bitchin’.”

Marian wrote and designed the whole book herself and is as comfortable with text as she is with images. In fact she’s pretty hard to pigeonhole, described variously as a designer, artist, illustrator, teacher, typographer and writer. “I don’t like having different plates spinning, but I like exploring different things. I like to move from technique to technique and try different ideas, and try different styles to a certain extent.

“That’s important because if I didn’t do that I would get bored but in the short-term it’s not a very good strategic move because clients tend not to know what they’re going to get from me. If I wanted to keep the money rolling in it would be much wiser to stick with something and be known for that. But once you do that it becomes even harder to change. Then change becomes a really big deal and freaks people out, whereas I think that people are slowly getting used to the fact that what they get from me will probably be unexpected. That’s what I want, but not always what they want.”

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Sugar typography for Stefan Sagmeister

Flicking through Pretty Pictures you are struck by this relentless experimentation. Her enthusiasm leaps off the page when she talks about creating typographic pieces in sugar for Stefan Sagmeister or using a ball-point pen to make intricate patterns on tin foil for New York Magazine.

But she didn’t always enjoy such creative freedom. Marian went to Vancouver’s Emily Carr College of Art, but dropped out after a year frustrated by the tutors’ insistence that she specialised almost straight away. One day she went into a second-hand book shop to get change for the bus and saw a small advert for a job in a publishing company. This turned into a 10 year stint as a book typesetter (previously, she admits in her book, she had no interest at all in typography).

In 1993 she and a friend started the design company Digitopolis and spent the next decade building up a portfolio of client work. But come the early 2000s she’d become “jaded and bitter.”

“I no longer wanted to be a consultant on people’s marketing services,” she writes in Pretty Pictures. “I imagined myself on my deathbed looking back over my life, and I felt that I’d wasted it. I’d created nothing important or memorable or influential. I had lived in a small backwater of the design world, creating pseudo-importance from nothing, justified on the grounds that it was somehow ‘cleansing the world of ugly design’ and ‘contributing to the success of businesses.’ This was my mid-life-crisis.”

But unlike many, Marian had the guts to do something about it. Her partner bought her out of the business, she moved to Bowen Island and reinvented herself professionally, mailing out intricate promotional calendars and pressing posters into the hands of designers at the 2003 AIGA conference held in Vancouver.

She refers to it, tongue-in-cheek, as her “transformative personal story” – one she has told many times at conferences and to interviewers. Does she understand why people are so fascinated by it?

“I think it’s because there are so many people who are trapped in something they don’t want to be in, and unfortunately I think that’s very common in the design industry. Most people who go into design come from some kind of arts background, either they just like to draw or doodle, or they’ve been through an art degree. They go into graphic design and they get to do a lot of that, and it’s fun and it looks promising, and then they go out into the real world and unfortunately the way the vast majority of the way graphic design is practised today, it’s not like that at all.

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Laser Sailboat, [hotography by Benedict Redgrove

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AIGA Chair

“I’ve talked to designer after designer after designer who really wanted to be an artist and they’re not and they’re working in a way that is almost the opposite of what they imagined it would be.” Of course as Marian admits, making a change is only half of the story – it’s her subsequent success that really validates her decision. “A lot of people really want to break out of what they’re doing and then they want it to work out. That’s the fear – that they’ll break out of it and it won’t work out.

“I am sick of the story myself and usually don’t tell it any more but I got the impression that people were looking for me to give them permission to quit their jobs and go do whatever crazy project it was they wanted to do. I can’t do that. Everybody’s different and times and situations are different, especially for people who have houses and kids to support.

“People look at my story and they want to hear me say ‘Just follow your dreams and it will all work out,’ and it’s not true. It’s so variable. There are so many people who are trying to do what they love – what they do best – and not making it. What if I tell them to just go and do it, and they come back to me in five years, broke, their wife has left them, their kids are starving in the street…

“It does make me a little bit nervous. I try to tell people as much as possible – it usually doesn’t work out, I was lucky. But on the other hand I hate to say don’t try your dreams. It’s a really difficult thing.”

This theme of the disconnect between art and design is something she returns to again and again. In the foreword to Pretty Pictures, Rick Poynor sums up the significance of Marian’s dedication to aesthetics, to the artistry of her design. “She created these pieces during a period in which many graphic designers seemed uncertain what to do with the visual potential of the discipline, and grew to believe that visual style and effect were inherently a problem. Some beat a retreat back to the security of unadorned Modernism. Some allowed programmer-determined defaults to make the visual decisions for them. Some prioritised conceptualism over supposedly bankrupt aesthetics. Bantjes’ work showed that such thinking represented a failure of imagination and a loss of faith in design.” That faith needs to come from self-belief, and there is a place for ego in design she insists, “not self aggrandisement, but the investment of the self.”

“In North America it’s frowned on to have a personal voice in design,” she says. “What you’re supposed to do is be strategic. You meet the client and you come up with a specific solution, regardless of style. So in a sense you’re like a pair of hands, you’re using your creativity to problem solve but not to create visual works specifically.

“But graphic design has a history of coming from art. If you look at graphic design from its birth in the 1920s through to the 1960s and the 1970s, originally it was done by artists making advertisements, and they’re very, very beautiful. Eventually the role of the graphic designer emerged but those people were still functioning largely as artists; they were working with their hands. Even someone like Paul Rand – the god of the corporate design whatever – and yet his other work is very artistic, and he signed every piece. There were annual reports with Paul Rand’s signature on the cover. That’s absolutely unheard of today.

“I think that we have to get over this idea that design has to be strategic and that it has to be conceptual, which is not to say that it should never be strategic or never be conceptual. I think that it really is ok to be visual, but currently that is a no-no. People say over and over again, ‘Design is not art, design is not just looking good,’ and I say fuck you, it is too – or it can be.”

One thing she’d love to see is a renewed focus on craft in design education. Marian is one of the few designers I’ve heard talk about the physical pain she goes through creating certain pieces, but that kind of commitment is essential. “I’ve known people who hire design students coming out of four-year programmes and they don’t even know how to begin the process of building something. They’re all concept; they’ve all come out as ideas people but without the actual craft ability to make something happen.”

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Valentine’s Hearts, 2011

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Grapes poster for The Grateful Palate/R Wines

Similarly she is desperate that we stop trying to codify inspiration, as though it’s something universal and able to be mimicked.

“It’s a leap. You can’t really say ‘Now I’m going to go look for inspiration,’ – you can go trolling for other people’s ideas and appropriate them but you can’t really look for inspiration.

“I have this little mantra, or rant, that there’s a difference between inspiration, influences and reference material.Usually when people ask me what my inspirations are they are looking for either reference material or influences, and the ones who are looking for reference material are the least imaginative. They’re basically saying ‘What are the books that you look at that I can look at so that I can do what you do?’ which is total bullshit.”

Paradoxically this criticism of the design world is rooted in her love for and belief in the discipline. Of her last days at Digitopolis, she says: “I thought I hated graphic design, I certainly hated graphic design the way we had been practising it.” But through the Speak Up blog – first as a commenter then as an author – she found the opposite was true. “I found this crazy website and I started to get involved in it, and found that I actually didn’t hate graphic design, that I was really actually very passionate about it, and that I knew a lot about it.”

Speak Up is sadly now defunct but the archives are still available online and it’s well worth immersing yourself in Marian’s articles where this tough love is ever-present. Nowadays her voice, her insights and ideas are more in demand than ever. Online you can read countless articles, watch her TED talk (which she begins by reciting a poem about dentists) and appraise her work. She admits having such a prominent public profile is strange.

“I don’t feel like that person, I feel so small and like a little country bumpkin doing my little stuff. I really do. And then there’s this other me that’s out there – I find it very weird.” In fact when she wrote Pretty Pictures she hoped to draw a line under the 10 years between going freelance and the book’s publication. “My intention was and is to never speak about this body of work publicly again,” she said. “Everything I’ve ever had to say about the specific work is here: the details, the anecdotes, the stories. It is done.”

“I think that we have to get over this idea that design has to be strategic and that it has to be conceptual, which is not to say that it should never be strategic or never be conceptual. I think that it really is ok to be visual, but currently that is a no-no. People say over and over again, ‘Design is not art, design is not just looking good,’ and I say fuck you, it is too – or it can be.”

But the requests keep on coming. “I have really mixed feelings about it. I find it very flattering, certainly, being asked to speak, so I say yes as often as I can without destroying my life. And when people are being fan-y, I get a kick out of it – it’s very small time fandom in the world of fandom.

“But on the other hand I have to admit that I find the constant demands on my time incredibly annoying. It’s really nice if somebody writes to me and says they like my work and that’s it, but when they want me to follow up, or look at their portfolio, or do this and do that, I find it really cumbersome.”

She is so inundated by requests from students that she tells them to “pretend I’m dead” and use the mass of information that is already out there about her. But Marian doesn’t take anything for granted.

“I am always aware that there will come a time when nobody asks me questions, when nobody is doing a project on me. One day some student is going to say ‘I’ve dug you up from the past and decided to do a project on you’ and I’ll be like yay! So it’s just a matter of being appreciative of what you’ve got.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote there are no second acts in American lives. His thoughts on Canadian lives remain unknown, but Marian Bantjes seems to disprove his theory. Her second act has been an inspiration for thousands of people, but if Pretty Pictures is a full stop – and if she is sick of telling her “transformative story” – then it may be time for Act Three. And that is a tremendously exciting prospect.