In graphic design, Marian Bantjes says, throwing your individuality into a project is heresy. She explains how she built her career doing just that, bringing her signature delicate illustrations to storefronts, valentines and even genetic diagrams.
At the intersection of word and form, Marian Bantjes makes her art. Organic, logical, complex, beautiful: Marian Bantjes’ illustrations draw on her deep relationship with letterforms (she was a typesetter for ten years). With flowing lines, filigree and generosity, she plays in the space between a and b and c. Her illustration work has appeared in Wired, Wallpaper, the Walrus and many other magazines and newspapers worldwide, and once took over Saks Fifth Avenue top to bottom.
She’s also a blunt and funny writer on design and other matters, an advocate for self-reinvention, self-education (and formal education) and continuous self-appraisal. She works from her home on an island near Vancouver and sends legendary Valentine’s Day cards.
0:12 I’m going to begin by reciting a poem. “Oh beloved dentist: Your rubber fingers in my mouth … your voice so soft and muffled … Lower the mask, dear dentist, lower the mask.”
0:32 Okay, in this presentation, I’m going to be putting the right side of your brains through a fairly serious workout. You’re going to see a lot of imagery, and it’s not always connected to what I’m talking about, so I need you to kind of split your brains in half and let the images flow over one side and listen to me on the other. So I am one of those people with a transformative personal story. Six years ago, after 20 years in graphic design and typography, I changed the way I was working and the way most graphic designers work to pursue a more personal approach to my work, with only the humble attempt to simply make a living doing something that I loved. But something weird happened. I became bizarrely popular. My current work seems to resonate with people in a way that has so taken me by surprise that I still frequently wonder what in the hell is going on. And I’m slowly coming to understand that the appeal of what I do may be connected to why I do it.
1:43 These days, I call myself a graphic artist. So where my work as a graphic designer was to follow strategy, my work now follows my heart and my interests with the guidance of my ego to create work that is mutually beneficial to myself and a client. Now, this is heresy in the design world. The ego is not supposed to be involved in graphic design. But I find that for myself, without exception, the more I deal with the work as something of my own, as something that is personal, the more successful it is as something that’s compelling, interesting and sustaining. So I exist somewhat outside of the mainstream of design thinking. Where others might look at measurable results, I tend to be interested in more ethereal qualities, like “Does it bring joy?” “Is there a sense of wonder?” and “Does it invoke curiosity?”
2:49 This is a scientific diagram, by the way. I don’t have time to explain it, but it has to do with DNA and RNA. So I have a particular imaginative approach to visual work. The things that interest me when I’m working are visual structure, surprise and anything that requires figuring things out. So for this reason, I’m particularly drawn to systems and patterns. I’m going to give you a couple of examples of how my brain works.
3:18 This is a piece that I did for The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. They have a magazine that they call G2. And this is for their puzzle special in 2007. And puzzling it is. I started by creating a series of tiling units. And these tiling units, I designed specifically so that they would contain parts of letterforms within their shapes so that I could then join those pieces together to create letters and then words within the abstract patterning. But then as well, I was able to just flip them, rotate them and combine them in different ways to create either regular patterns or abstract patterns. So here’s the word puzzle again. And here it is with the abstract surrounding. And as you can see, it’s extremely difficult to read. But all I have to do is fill certain areas of those letterforms and I can bring those words out of the background pattern. But maybe that’s a little too obvious. So then I can add some color in with the background and add a bit more color in with the words themselves, and this way, working with the art director, I’m able to bring it to just the right point that it’s puzzling for the audience — they can figure out that there’s something they have to read — but it’s not impossible for them to read.
4:44 I’m also interested in working with unusual materials and common materials in unusual ways. So this requires figuring out how to get the most out of something’s innate properties and also how to bend it to my will. So ultimately, my goal is to create something unexpected. To this end, I have worked in sugar for Stefan Sagmeister, three-time TED speaker. And this project began essentially on my kitchen table. I’ve been eating cereal for breakfast all of my life. And for that same amount of time, I’ve been spilling sugar on the table and just kind of playing with it with my fingers. And eventually I used this technique to create a piece of artwork. And then I used it again to create six pieces for Stefan’s book, “Things in My Life I’ve Learned So Far.” And these were created without sketches, just freehand, by putting the sugar down on a white surface and then manipulating it to get the words and designs out of it. Recently, I’ve also made some rather highbrow baroque borders out of lowbrow pasta. And this is for a chapter that I’m doing in a book, and the chapter is on honor. So it’s a little bit unexpected, but, in a way, it refers to the macaroni art that children make for their parents or they make in school and give to their parents, which is in itself a form of honor. This is what you can do with some household tinfoil. Okay, well, it’s what I can do with some household tinfoil.
6:27 I’m very interested in wonder, in design as an impetus to inquiring. To say I wonder is to say I question, I ask. And to experience wonder is to experience awe. So I’m currently working on a book, which plays with both senses of the word, as I explore some of my own ideas and inquiries in a visual display of rather peacock-like grandeur. The world is full of wonder. But the world of graphic design, for the most part, is not. So I’m using my own writings as a kind of testing ground for a book that has an interdependency between word and image as a kind of seductive force. I think that one of the things that religions got right was the use of visual wonder to deliver a message. I think this true marriage of art and information is woefully underused in adult literature, and I’m mystified as to why visual wealth is not more commonly used to enhance intellectual wealth. When we look at works like this, we tend to associate them with children’s literature. There’s an implication that ornamental graphics detract from the seriousness of the content. But I really hope to have the opportunity to change that perception. This book is taking rather a long time, but I’m nearly done.
7:57 For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to put an intermission in my talk. And this is it — just to give you and me a moment to catch up.
8:14 So I do these valentines. I’ve been sending out valentines on a fairly large scale since 2005. These are my valentines from 2005 and 2006. And I started by doing just a single image like this and sending them out to each person. But in 2007, I got the cockamamie idea to hand-draw each valentine for everyone on my mailing list. I reduced my mailing list to 150 people. And I drew each person their own unique valentine and put their name on it and numbered it and signed it and sent it out. Believe it or not, I devised this as a timesaving method. I was very busy in the beginning of that year, and I didn’t know when I was going to find time to design and print a single valentine. And I thought that I could kind of do this piecemeal as I was traveling. It didn’t exactly work out that way. There’s a longer story to this, but I did get them all done in time, and they were extremely well received. I got an almost 100 percent response rate. (Laughter) And those who didn’t respond will never receive anything from me ever again.
9:38 Last year, I took a more conceptual approach to the valentine. I had this idea that I wanted people to receive a kind of mysterious love letter, like a found fragment in their mailbox. I wanted it to be something that was not addressed to them or signed by me, something that caused them to wonder what on Earth this thing was. And I specifically wrote four pages that don’t connect. There were four different versions of this. And I wrote them so that they begin in the middle of a sentence, end in the middle of a sentence. And they’re on the one hand, universal, so I avoid specific names or places, but on the other hand, they’re personal. So I wanted people to really get the sense that they had received something that could have been a love letter to them. And I’m just going to read one of them to you.
10:35 “You’ve never really been sure of this, but I can assure you that this quirk you’re so self-conscious of is intensely endearing. Just please accept that this piece of you escapes with your smile, and those of us who notice are happy to catch it in passing. Time spent with you is like chasing and catching small birds, but without the scratches and bird shit.” (Laughter) “That is to say, your thoughts and words flit and dart, disconcertedly elusive at times, but when caught and examined — ahh, such a wonder, such a delightful reward. There’s no passing time with you, only collecting — the collecting of moments with the hope for preservation and at the same time release. Impossible? I don’t think so. I know this makes you embarrassed. I’m certain I can see you blushing. But I just have to tell you because sometimes I hear your self-doubt, and it’s so crushing to think that you may not know how truly wonderful you are, how inspiring and delightful and really, truly the most completely …”
11:48 So Valentine’s Day is coming up in a couple of days, and these are currently arriving in mailboxes all around the world. This year, I got, what I really have to say is a rather brilliant idea, to laser cut my valentines out of used Christmas cards. So I solicited friends to send me their used Christmas cards, and I made 500 of these. Each one of them is completely different. I’m just really, really thrilled with them. I don’t have that much else to say, but they turned out really well.
12:31 I do spend a lot of time on my work. And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about recently is what is worth while. What is it that’s worth spending my time on and my life on in this way? Working in the commercial world, this is something that I do have to struggle with at times. And yes, sometimes I’m swayed by money. But ultimately, I don’t consider that a worthy goal. What makes something worthwhile for me is the people I work for or with, the conditions I work under and the audience that I’m able to reach. So I might ask: “Who is it for?” “What does it say?” and “What does it do?”
13:14 You know, I have to tell you, it’s really difficult for someone like me to come up on stage at this conference with these unbelievably brilliant minds, who are thinking these really big-picture, world-changing, life-changing ideas and technologies. And it’s very, very common for designers and people in the visual arts to feel that we’re not contributing enough, or worse, that all we’re doing is contributing to landfill. Here I am; I’m showing you some pretty visuals and talking about aesthetics. But I’ve come to believe that truly imaginative visual work is extremely important in society.
14:08 Just in the way that I’m inspired by books and magazines of all kinds, conversations I have, movies, so I also think, when I put visual work out there into the mass media, work that is interesting, unusual, intriguing, work that maybe opens up that sense of inquiry in the mind, that I’m seeding the imagination of the populace. And you just never know who is going to take something from that and turn it into something else, because inspiration is cross-pollinating. So a piece of mine may inspire a playwright or a novelist or a scientist, and that in turn may be the seed that inspires a doctor or a philanthropist or a babysitter. And this isn’t something that you can quantify or track or measure, and we tend to undervalue things in society that we can’t measure.
15:12 But I really believe that a fully operating, rich society needs these seeds coming from all directions and all disciplines in order to keep the gears of inspiration and imagination flowing and cycling and growing. So that’s why I do what I do, and why I spend so much time and effort on it, and why I work in the commercial, public sphere, as opposed to the isolated, private sphere of fine art: because I want as many people as possible to see my work, notice it, be drawn into it, and be able to take something from it. And I actually really feel that it’s worthwhile to spend my valuable and limited time on this Earth in this way. And I thank you for allowing me to show it to you.