You can argue about taste.
An interview with Dirk Laucke for
Novum, World of Graphic Design

Following a degree from the Hochschule der Künste Berlin and five year’s working in agencies, Dirk Laucke set up his own studio in Amsterdam. The multiple-award-winnig solutions he created there are beautifully clear and often surprising in the detail. Bettina Schulz talked to this creative about his career and his understanding of good design.

How did you come to start up
your own studio?

During my third year at the Art School I set up my first design office together with a college friend. Looking back I can see that this early start into independence was in many ways a fiasco. We had a number of clients, all with faith in us, but the printed results of our work really did not do justice to our talent and our ambitions. I was aware that we had made many mistakes, but wasn’t sure exactly what, so I decided in 1994 to seek refuge in a large, respected agency. My choice fell on Total Design in Amsterdam, where I hoped to learn the tricks I needed to carry a job through from idea to final result without losing the thread in the problem, the design or the technical implementation. And I did acquire just that knowledge. Of course not during three months work experience, as I had hoped at the beginning, but after five years working at Dedato, another large design agency in Amsterdam.

What kind of work did you do there?
What were the main influences on you
and the way you work?

During the five years at Total Design and Dedato I worked almost exclusively on key accounts. What I noticed was that with these multinationals, the design decisions were often insincere and motivated mainly by company politics. A designer has to learn to hide as far as possible the contradicting and unimportant requirements of a product. I remember a job from a major international group for headed letter paper on which twelve logos were to appear in hierarchical order, from top to bottom, and from large to small. Designing for large clients was often more a business of »casting a form for logistic issues« than making content visible. The letter paper was in 2000 and it was the catalyst for me to set up my own studio, where I could dedicate myself to the complex issues of smaller clients. Absurdly my first client was Akzo Nobel, a company with 60,000 employees worldwide.

What was it you did for them?

I received a commission from their paints department to design a book about colour trends for the coming year. In the end this book made it into the final selection for the »Best Verzorgde Boeken«, the most beautiful books award in the Netherlands. Despite the size and complexity of this company, we managed to design books of very high quality for them. That is thanks primarily to the internal organisation at Akzo Nobel, which enabled us to work with small groups of people who had the authority to make decisions. I am convinced that the surest way of producing a bad product is to ask as many people as possible for their opinion. You’re much better off if only one or a maximum of two people are involved in the decisionmaking.

Maybe also that heads off any possible clashes
to do with personal taste?

The Dutch divide our specialism up sometimes into two categories: »Vormgeven« and »Ontwerpen«, which translated means roughly form-giving and designing. Form-giving is mainly about the exterior and it aims at producing products that look good. As a young designer I was involved in that too. I think that’s absolutely normal. Most of my trainees are interested in doing »great« work. The problem is that »looking good« and »great« are attributes from the world of good taste, and this world is shaped by all kinds of factors but not through own insight. And, contrary to what most people say, I very much believe you can argue about taste. With colleagues and with clients. But no clients are willing to spend money on this debate. Nevertheless it is my honest opinion that most of my clients do have good taste. And what’s more they realise that this doesn’t make them into good designers. That’s why they come to us for advice and in my answers I try to always present plausible reasons, based on content, for the decisions I make.

What is the philosophy of your studio?

From all the above, I have derived two guiding principles, which should help point my work in the right direction. First, we can argue about taste. And secondly, it’s better to have a bad idea of your own than to steal a good idea from someone else. Concentrating too much on whether something looks good is risky, because you might end up just reproducing things you’ve seen or things that have already worked. In my view this is a form of plagiarism. A studio that simply copies will end up with big problems when it comes to developing its own profile. It becomes indistinguishable in the crowd. Apart from the fact that there’s no reason to develop ugly things, we think it’s important for a product to have integrity, in terms of both content and visual design without any tricks or sleight of hand. Good design in my opinion is measured on how easily it is understood, on the honesty of its concept. For that reason I never try to process too many good ideas in a design. One well worked out idea, easy to grasp even if seen only in passing, is for me better design than a fireworks display of spectacular ideas. On the other hand I am an opponent of too dogmatic ideas about design. Design should never reflect the design, but the posed theme. Clients are generally not so interested in design that is self-referential.