How did you become a graphic designer?
Philippe Apeloig By chance. When I was younger I was interested in drawing, in contemporary dance and in theatre. I took classes for many years, thinking I would become a choreographer, a director or a set designer. But I was too shy, I decided not to become a performer while still attending many concerts, plays and dance performances. I envied those in the theatre who seemed to have a special relationship to others, an emotion to transmit, a message to communicate. I chose painting and writing as a way of replacing those first passions. I enjoy manipulating images and words, developing ideas, reading and writing. I am very comfortable in the world of books.
Graphic design brings together three things: communication, image and concept. My interest in printed form grew to encompass the form itself, as I became more aware of letters, not only as a vehicle for conveying thoughts, but as the raw material for creation itself.
My art school classes also brought me to graphic design. At the School osf Applied Arts, I had one class called “visual expression” – which I signed up for without entirely understanding what it was. I had chosen this class by eliminating certain others: interior design, textiles and styling. In the first year, along with drawing classes, we learned calligraphy and font design. My teacher, Roger Druet, was intrigued by my perfectionism in working on line and composition, and at the end of my second year he advised me to contact the Total Design firm in Amsterdam to set up a professional internship. So during the summer of 1983, I went off to Total Design, on the shores of the Herengracht – working as part of Daphné Duivelshoff-von Peski’s design team.
At that time, not many French people were venturing so far north to join a Dutch team, especially one so prestigious in the cultural context of the Netherlands. I was quite impressed with the other interns, who were English, Swiss, German and American. We checked each other out, we compared our various talents — and lack thereof. I realised I still had a great deal to learn, clearly my fellow interns had been better trained. I drove myself with a ferocious will to adopt their rigourous discipline as well as the working methods used at Total Design. I made myself useful to the designers, participating in several poster projects and working on the catalogues for the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam and the Heineken company’s annual report. I learned about the rich history of Dutch graphic design, a clever combination of tradition and modernity. I felt I really was in the right place at the right time, I loved the quality of well laid‑out typography that had been meticulously thought out, pure, informative functionalism, in other words the antithesis of the decorative and the anecdotal. The value of this kind of highly sophisticated graphic design seemed avant‑garde to me – and I was sure it could only improve the urban landscape and culture. From that moment on I became a hardcore admirer of Dutch graphic design.
Two years later, rather more seasoned, I went back to Total Design to do another internship, to finish my training. I had made my considered decision, graphic design was going to be my world. When I got back to Paris, I took more classes at the School of Decorative Arts, and while still a student, applied for a job at the Orsay Museum, which was still under construction. It was 1985, there was a competition — and the jury selected me.
And so I began my professional career.
What are your influences, your sources of inspiration?
PA I often look at the Russian constructivists El-Lissitsky and Malevitch, and while I was in Amsterdam for my two internships I discovered the de Stijl movement. I was also impressed by the paintings of Mondrian in his progression toward abstraction, as well as by the implications of his work evident in Dutch design. The work of Gerrit Rietveld, Theo Van Doesburg and Piet Zwart, respectively, was for me an absolute revelation, strongly influencing my interest in modern and expressive typography. Later, I was inspired by the rigor and diversity of the Swiss posters I saw in various books and magazines. And in France, the work of Adolphe Mouron Cassandre is one of my references, he was in my opinion a complete designer: a typographer, a poster designer, a creator of logos (his logo for Yves-Saint-Laurent is a classic), and even a set designer! Finally, in the United States I was impressed by the imaginative power and precision of Paul Rand. Other influences come from other art forms, from design, painting, abstract sculptures like those of Brancusi and Henry Moore, and of course from architecture – all of them come with me in my travels.
How did design become part of your artistic universe?
PA Graphic design is an art. However the fundamental objective of the graphic designer is to communicate. The artist, whether he is a painter or a sculptor, does not worry if he does not have an explicit message to deliver. The graphic designer applies his talents to the communication of a message or a piece of information that the client has asked him to transmit. In this way the vocation of the graphic designer is similar to that of the actor, who must create a character and communicate the writer’s words to the other actors and the audience, in the clearest, most specific way possible. His acting reveals his talent: if the text is incomprehensible and his interpretation of the role not credible, they say he is a bad actor, and the play is a flop. The graphic designer does the same thing in respecting the needs of his client. His job is to interpret them visually. If he changes either their direction or their intent by rendering them indecipherable, he screws up his mission. He must also take into consideration the reception of his images by the public. The virtuosity of a graphic designer consists of finding a visual concept which is the right one – because of its clarity, its originality and its ability to be memorised.
You worked in museums from the very beginning. Why did you choose cultural communication?
PA It was an obvious choice. I had barely finished my studies and yet I was hired as a graphic designer at the Musée d’Orsay. (The museum was not yet open to the public). Even before it opened, there was a competition to help determine its visual identity, which was won by Bruno Monguzzi and Jean Widmer. I inherited a logotype and a set of well-written graphic guidelines which allowed me to express myself quite freely. The principal constraint was that we had to use the font chosen for the Musée d’Orsay, called Walbaum. I tried to create images without compromising the initial graphic mindset. By the way, I have always gone to museums and exhibitions. I am a perfect city dweller. I communicate that which I know best. Museums, publishing houses and festivals are the organisations for which I work most often.
Even though cultural communication does not usually have access to large budgets, it is still stimulating to participate in cultural projects which resonate with my own interests. It is a chance to enhance the expanse of one’s knowledge in the work, to follow the intellectual progress of scientists, artists and editors. I am less at ease when I must resolve purely technical problems, such as the execution of different kinds of signage. I also do not like giant projects requiring long meetings and overly detailed administrative followup.
How about advertising?
PA French graphic designers are rarely called upon by the big advertising agencies who think they have a monopoly on creativity for the masses. Advertising people tend to think graphic designers are elitists and they look down on them. They think they are capable of creating, but the graphic poverty of their production speaks for itself.
How do you find your ideas?
PA I observe, I record what I see every day in the street, in museums and in books. My ideas flow out onto the paper depending on the subject, the question which is asked, and the speed with which I must come up with the answer. Sometimes my ideas come to me rather backhandedly. I imagine a certain composition, then through the drawing process another one becomes clear. To make an idea communicative, precise and concise, it is necessary to reduce, to leave behind what appears at first to be indispensable. I find a fine balance between sobriety, simplicity and complexity. Sometimes I think I am not minimal enough in my compositions, that I still have too much in them. When I begin a poster, I lay out construction lines which will serve as support for the text. In addition to the pertinence of the concept, I take into consideration the structure of the page. In the next step, I break up the rigidity of my composition. I like it when a poster gives the illusion of movement. There must be an impression of spontaneity, even if the result is really a product which has been precisely and minutely detailed. I also dislike working with known quantities, those that are already ossified. This explains my constant hesitation, my temptation to do and redo things. Most of the time I start from a text, from typography, and I continue with images. I use the editing techniques from film editing, I carve my ideas into pieces and then reassemble them in a different order. I manipulate them until the composition is right and it is strong enough to fix itself in the visual memory of the public. The development of ideas is a very complex labyrinth.
How is it dealing with commissions?
PA I don’t like it much, but I can’t avoid it. Presenting my work is a test. At the same time I am stimulated having to deal with someone else’s opinions. I need the commissions in order to work. I need an interlocutor to whom I must both present and defend my work. I enjoy the process of persuasion but I hesitate a great deal before showing a project. I need time to look at it myself, until the moment a solution appears which convinces me. Sometimes I also reveal the developmental process to my clients, stage by stage, explaining methodically how I am working. Of course, some of my research is not worthy of being shown, I keep that stuff in my workshop. Sometimes those pieces reappear, at which time I develop them fully and eliminate all unnecessary sketches and draftings. When I feel I can go no further, the project is finished.
I willingly accept constructive criticism from my employers, those who have commissioned my work – but not if they try to tell me what I should be doing. I maintain a good relationship with those who are interested in my approach and do not impede the flow of my ideas, in fact they stimulate those ideas. Unfortunately it is too rare an occurrence. When a client is afraid of taking risks and asks everyone what he or she thinks, he only reassures himself, if that! Trying to satisfy everyone he pleases no one, and the result skews far from the initial idea and eventually engenders bitterness, disappointment and frustration. The relationship between a graphic designer and his client is a delicate one, built on mutual comprehension and a respect for the skills of each person. The client joins in the creative process with the clarity with which he lays out his commission, and by the confidence he has in the graphic designer. If he intervenes constantly he slows down the creative process. Too many constraints kill the imagination.
What do you think of public commissions?
PA They are an excellent field of action, how could it not be? I was offered the chance to begin working in one of the most beautiful museums in Paris, the Musée d’Orsay, which was tasked with creating the museum. They trusted me and made me share their enthusiasm. I was barely 23, and with them I felt free in my work. I now realise what a great opportunity that was. I have had others, for example when Pierre Rosenberg, the director of the Louvre Museum, asked me to design the museum’s publications beginning in 1996. He had seen my work when I applied to the Ministry of Culture for a grant to go to the Villa Médicis. He was president of the jury, and we saw each other in Rome. He challenged me to rethink the graphic conception of all the Louvre documents, which definitely needed something new, since the last competition to define its corporate image was way back in 1989. And in another domain, which isn’t a public commission – I cannot forget the vote of confidence I got from Alice Morgaine, the editor in chief of Jardin des Modes, when she asked me to become the artistic director of the magazine – after she had interviewed me for over two hours.
But in France, those giving the commissions (mostly cultural institutions subsidised by the State or regional communities) think of graphic designers as service employees, whose mission is not to create but to execute. They seem not to be aware that graphic designers are above all creators, which confirms their artistic talents. They tend to forget or ignore this. Anyone positing that graphic arts are not art does not recognise their work product, and certainly does not respect the quality of that work.
The communication directors of companies and state institutions suffer from a fundamental lack of knowledge of the culture of the image and of typography in particular. Their concept in terms of communication is limited to checking out the positioning of their logo, of those of their partners and others. They spend too much time organising competitions, writing consultation dossiers and detailed contracts, irrespective of the work to be done, even if it is on a small scale, ranging from greeting cards to the creation of an entirely new branding logo. Administrative and legal details frequently overwhelm artistic considerations.
Graphic designers are constantly asked to work under mediocre financial and organisational conditions. Proofreading texts and making up for the editors’ delays is often more their job than applying their imagination. And overachieving is not encouraged. Graphic designers are asked merely to repeat themselves in a mechanical fashion, which slowly kills their creative sense and energy. Believing that the graphic production generated in situations like this is commensurate with what the designers aspire to — would be a mistake. The archaic nature of the commission system and its administrative bulimia beats out artistic quality. There are some fine creations, of course, but they do not happen by chance or because the clients want them – they are the result of a long exchange between the clients and the designers, who show great dexterity in avoiding obstacles.
Your analysis is so dark! What about the future?
PA Graphic designers don’t have many other terrains in which to work beyond those of the communication departments of national and regional communities. The profession needs to be developed. Along with this sad analysis, there are nonetheless a few reasons for optimism, in this beginning of a new era, where the imagination is supposed to be empowered! The all too few personal initiatives deserve to be defended.
I maintain excellent relationships with clients who allow me to create freely and who are respectful of my work. I am thinking in particular about the Fête du livre in Aix-en-Provence, and also the October in Normandy Festival. Their support is and has been important. I am also involved with and very supportive of galeries which show work by graphic designers, of those in the press who are interested in us, and also of other graphic designers who are organising in order to be further recognised.
What do you think about the contribution of new technology in the profession?
PA They all interest me and involve me. The poster “Chicago, naissance d’une métropole” for the Musée d’Orsay was the first work I did with a computer. The word Chicago appeared in perspective, like a breeze blowing down the middle of the street. It even follows the curve of the street corner. The syllable “go” is deliberately provocative. The obliqueness of the photo accents the feeling of dizziness, as well as the image of the first skyscrapers in the history of architecture. Beginning with that poster, I became more and more interested in projecting the illusion of three dimensions in a two dimensional medium. The idea of depth and space fascinate me as well as the idea of stillness in movement. Computers help us to bring an architectural dimension to the text. New technology has also changed our way of working. Publishing and editing software, drawing and drafting and Photoshop — the speed and flexibility of computers has helped us create new ways of working. Creation develops differently, using audiovisual media for example. The massive power of computing has also brought about complex and daring innovations in printing techniques (which we also see in architectural work), as well as in animation and interactive applications. Is this then the death of the printed poster? Giant screens will replace our billboards. They have already begun changing the urban landscape in certain cities, like Times Square in New York where advertising is an enchanting futuristic spectacle. Finally, internet communication has made brutal changes in our lives as consumers of images, offering an unending source of information. Of course most of the sites do not deserve our attention or our interest, they are visual pollution. The existence of interactive masterpieces means that we may expect a new avant-garde to come out of the use of computers.
In short, new technologies will not change the creative process, which still depends entirely on the imagination of the designer. I am not attached to my computer, I often step away from it to work with a pencil and a sheet of white paper, allowing my creative mind to zigzag as it likes.
Looking at your work, I see that typography really does seem to predominate. Why is that?
PA I am more interested in the text than in the image. I can’t stand busy-ness or decoration. In my posters I try to obtain the maximum effect with a minimum of means in order to guarantee its success in communication. Illustration for me is secondary. It rarely attains the level of conceptualisation which typographical composition offers.
Typography is the essence of drafting: the balance between full and empty, light and shadow. Typography is a discipline half-way between science and art. It is an exact and arbitrary thing, functional and poetic. I like modern, experimental, even clumsy typography, it’s alive when it is a little gauche and fragile. In this case, the sensitivity of the artist blossoms and overflows in a radical or original way. The graphic designer who uses typography as a means of expression fully defines the idea of design: a fusion between form and concept. I leave the dry, boring stiffness to the technicians.
It is true that designing letters is still rather obscure in the eyes of the public. Most readers read without noticing the font of the letters they are deciphering. Typography belongs to the world of the non-remarkable, behind it is concealed an astonishing mass of work the reader knows nothing about. Fonts share our lives with neutrality, modesty and greatness, they are the raw material of communication, in the service of men and their exchanges. Confusing the reader with the text is to alter the reading process, forcing him to notice the presence of letters and symbols as shapes. Typography is not only a mechanism, the designer must attempt to make it clear, if not spectacular.
Creating a font is above all asking questions about its function. What will it be used for? How will it be reproduced? I believe that typography can also move away from purely utilitarian constraints. When I design fonts, I go beyond the functional aspects to make the font an abstract graphic element. I work with them using a nearly mathematical precision. Their massive silhouettes guarantee their readability even from afar, which is ideal for the composition of posters.
What is the social role of graphic designers? How do you see the evolution of involved visual communication?
PA This question often comes up whenever graphic design is being debated, and whenever we try to fully define the profession. Is social involvement inherent to the good quality of graphic creation? Are graphic designers invested with a humanitarian or political militantism? It is true that visual communication implies knowledge of the intent behind and the object of the fabrication of images. A graphic designer, like all other creators, is free to determine his own social responsibility, and the need to use his talent to defend his political ideals. Does that mean it is his duty? It is really more a personal choice. We cannot live in illusion, nor pretend to hold a monopoly on the truth, even less to try to awaken someone’s moral conscience. There is a general escalation in the world of graphic design, including those who create mostly moralistic or politically engaged posters. They are showered with awards and are usually printed for free, to unanimous praise. Personally I have always been wary of them. Most of the images do not have much influence socially and are not worth more than other approaches which do not share the same ambition. You can dedicate your career to fighting for noble and just causes, to awakening public opinion, to be “useful” to society by creating images. Or you can choose different commitments, slightly less media-friendly. For example, demanding the practical function of the design such that it facilitates the reading of certain documents. Or perfecting the technologies of communication between individuals. Making sure that the transmission of knowledge is offered to all without respect to money. My work is not a critical commentary on our society, it is a part of the cultural and artistic world. Several times I thought of doing political posters. However, no one has ever asked me to create any, and I have not created any on my own. I also am not looking to be compensated for my feelings or my reflections.
I am aware of the tradition of the politically engaged poster, especially in France. I admire those who have consciously used images to speak to a period of time. I am thinking specifically of Tomi Ungerer’s poster “White power/ Black power” which was created in the United States in the 60s. The image consisted of the crudely-drawn bodies of two men, one black, one white, placed head-to-toe and munching exaggeratedly on each other’s feet. The drawing is deliberately rudimentary, which accentuates the aggressive aspect of the conflict existing between the white and the black communities in American society. I discovered this poster when I was a student and it still seems very relevant today.
I consider the question of political and social involvement in my work as a daily requirement, even if it is often imperceptible. I find it impossible to disregard my personal experience, as it affects my actions and how I react. How many situations, relating to my origins, my political orientations and events in my life — spark my revolt! I am however not an intellectual who decides he must intervene in political debate, nor do I publically take positions on the important problems of our time. I do not want to give lessons, to be the spokesperson for a cause, to pass judgment. I do not wish to change my personal indignation into denunciation. But my convictions appear quite naturally in my work.
For example in my logo project for the Judaic Art and History Museum, I was inspired by the symbolism of the seven-fingered hand painted by Chagall as a cultural and artistic image. If I design posters and am interested in typography as a means of expression, it is above all so that the work of graphic designers can be included in the art world. This printed work, in essence ephemeral, deserves to be recognised and survive the passage of time. In spite of its fragility, it deserves to remain in our collective memories, far from the media hullabaloo and the exacerbated egos of certain artists. This is why, by staying loyal to my ideals of independence, I do not want in any way to give up my freedom of creation, working for a party or “politically correct” organisations.
How did you come to like teaching, and what is your pedagogical approach?
PA As a student I respected and admired certain teachers. Two of them are still among my closest friends today. After I got my high school diploma I couldn’t imagine a future without continuing to study philosophical thought, or without the dialogue begun in class with our teachers. It was neither abstract or chatty, nor an intellectual entertainment, but an attempt to understand the world, and the men living in it. It was a discipline which allowed me to deal with the doctrines, the dominant ideologies, the pre-conceived ideas. Studying philosophy helped me to question my own existence and what I was to become, being fully responsible and a free thinker. Philosophy was also my realisation of the primacy of the cultural over the natural, more exactly an introduction to independence and immersion in active life. It was the same at the School of Applied Arts with my first drawing teacher. That is where I became interested in teaching. I admit that it is not my first vocation, but I feel it is essential to transmit my knowledge and my professional experience.
I began teaching type design at the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs in Paris in 1991 and continued teaching there until 1998. I filled out the team consisting of Rudy Meyer and Peter Keller, who were my teachers. My idea was to offer the students a way into typography using drafting and drawing as a base: free line drawings, looking at surfaces and letters, studying form and negative space. During my last years of teaching in Paris, Rudy Meyer and I worked together specially to make sure that typography remained a fundamental component of the curriculum of studies at the École des arts décoratifs for all four years of study. We didn’t want to limit ourself to merely technical skills, since typography is also a form of artistic expression. Incorporating the rigor and the skill imposed by this discipline, we also set up a series of basic exercises, emphasising the learning of historical, technical and creative elements of typography. The objective of our method was to help the students comprehend the structure of space, the hierarchy of visual elements, experimenting and the gradual discovery of all the parameters of typography. Our students needed to be technically solid in order to handle the techniques of typography, and they would move on from there to begin their artistic journeys. We added practical labs with computer software so that the students would also acquire practical experience and ease on their machines. We found that there were many gaps in this area: sometimes the students improvised their compositions at random, due to their lack of skill on the computer. Sometimes it worked but most of the time we were appalled by what we saw: misshapen letters, arbitrary choices of font, its size or colour, anarchic mixes, unreadable decorative compositions. The computer was dominating the students, not the other way around. It was our duty to teach them basic computer skills, not fancy effects with little to no future or interest. Fashion is always showing us what is “new” in the market and in its trends. We looked beyond such considerations. The sophistication of the software meant that all the technical training was taking time away from that which we wanted to use for exploring type design as an art form. The students were both curious and eager, our time together was extremely rich but we did not have the time to go into much detail with their concepts and ideas. It was a shame, since the culture of typography is immense, and unfortunately it is not well known in France, where teaching in the field now seems imperative.
In the United States I realised I could not teach in the same way. I realised how delicate and priceless the teaching and learning process is, and I changed my pedagogic programme. American students are totally open to new things, they take their studies very seriously and bring a freshness and vitality to the art schools there. They don’t have the opportunity to live in the same cultural and intellectual context as do their European counterparts, which is why the university experience is so important for them, it offers them an intellectual approach to life. The students find their inspiration largely from within the consumer context and through new technologies, which they have easily mastered. The fascination with new technologies in the USA means that sometimes ideas are not well-developed and the conceptual approach of some design is more important than its formal structure. In the current economy the students know they will find good jobs in multimedia. In fact this is sometimes their principal objective. They optimistically invest in achieving technological perfection and their work product is spectacular. The competition for graphic design of websites is stiff and it gets more and more so in the country of the “star system.” However between the concerns for one’s career and the desire for fame, I still think there is room for critique and taking the time for intellectual reflection.
My role as a teacher in the USA is to help the students acquire the right technological skills as well as communication, cultural and artistic sensibilities. I also want to set up a dialogue about ideas and methods of working in the teaching of design.
You have often chosen to live abroad. What do you expect from your traveling?
PA To travel is to live quickly. Traveling motivates you to step outside ourself. In another time I might have been a great explorer, discovering the world. Heroes like Ulysses or Marco Polo fascinate me. And think of the painters who went to explore other civilisations like Gauguin. I am also moved by painters or writers whose work is created in exile. This is one of the reasons I enjoy creating posters for the Fête du Livre in Aix-en-Provence, where they specialise in foreign literature. Each project is like an invitation to travel. I like for my professional orientations and my life choices to match. Traveling is a re-creation as well as a change in situation. Traveling means getting rid of useless clutter, and I become so much more receptive to the unknown, to exploring.
Perhaps I felt the need to feel like a foreigner to create? Transported into a different way of life I am even more aware of the singularity of my ideals and my opinions. I step inside another form of existence, and my ideas come from these movements. The input I receive when I am away from France, in moments of separation and isolation – enriches my life.
You lived in LA in 1988. How was that first trip to California and why have you recently installed yourself in New York ?
PA I went to Los Angeles at the end of 1987 to work with April Greiman. I had seen her posters, and the quality of her typographical composition, and I wanted to learn more. I did not realise I would be exploring the use of computers. I was fascinated watching American designers spending their days staring at their monitor screens, their hands tapping on their keyboards. At that time, although I was rather hostile to new technology, I was seduced by what I saw, and I decided to learn how to use a computer in my work.
Today my choices have changed. For a long time I dreamed of being part of the New York art world, its rhythm and pace. The contemporary art market is skyrocketing, generating an amazing vitality in all the creative domains. I find that design moves more in New York than in Paris, where the designers have to justify every line with their clients. I feel that I have found in New York a framework for my work which will favour its growth and development. For me, New York is the first large city of the “new world” as well as the last great European city. The city asks many questions but does not answer them, it represents hope, incertitude, expectation, instability and constant transformation. To live in New York is like living everywhere and nowhere, it is like floating somewhere out in space.
I have been living in New York since September 1999, when I began teaching at the Cooper Union School of Art. I don’t know how long I will continue to live there. It isn’t that I have broken away from my life in Paris, where I have many professional contacts, and of course I am frequently back in France for work. But in each moment of our lives there are times when we must live through exceptional situations. Those we experience as adults are neither as brutal nor as immediate as those we lived through in our youth. I am measuring the time necessary to find a new direction in my creative work.
The almighty power of science and technology has at least done one thing, it has eliminated almost all boundaries. Thanks to the internet, text, images and voices circulate freely. One can work on one side of the Atlantic without physically having to be present. I will never be able to leave my professional commitments in Paris. French culture, both classic and avant-garde, are fundamental references for me. And I love to share them. Cultural exchange, European thought and American dynamism – that is how I see my future. Living in a foreign country is to accept that we cannot take anything for granted. We must go toward the unknown, nothing is finished, over. In an active life there is no serenity, life is a process of continually starting over.