Hugo Hoppmann talks to until recently London based Graphic Designer James Goggin about life, work and his move to Arnhem, Holland. They meet at ECAL in Lausanne.
HH OK, so we are on now recording. James, the last months must have been quite adventurous. You moved with your family to Arnhem to teach at the Werkplaats, and you started teaching regularly at the ECAL. I wondered if you are still happy with the decisions, and how has your family managed to cope with the changes? Must have been quite a big thing …
JG Yes, it was very dramatic… quite a big decision to move. Also the move away from London where I spent most of my children’s lives …
HH Were you born in London?
JG Well, for me personally it was not such a shock to move, because I was actually born in Australia and my parents were Australian. My father worked for a Swedish company, so when we were growing up the company moved us every two years to a different country. So I grew up in Australia, Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand, Germany, Wales … we moved around a lot. Myself and my two sisters, we swore that when we grew up, we would never move anywhere; we would stay in one place for the rest of our lives, because we were sick of moving. But somehow for myself, I love travelling, and I have always loved Holland and thought about living there. So when the Werkplaats asked me to teach it wasn’t a totally crazy idea for me to move there. We had imagined living in Europe, my wife and I had already talked about leaving London and living somewhere else. When it came up it seemed like a good opportunity. For the girls it was a bit tough, because they had to join a local school and learn Dutch, but they have handled it quite well and they are really enjoying it.
HH Basically it’s the same situation for them now like it was for you when you were at their age …
JG Exactly, now I’m putting them through the same thing my parents did to me …
HH But you know how it is, that must be nevertheless quite helpful in this situation!
JG Yes, I think it’s been useful that I had the same experience — now I understand what they are going through, whereas for my parents it was as new for them as it was for me. My daughters are understanding and speaking a lot of dutch now — a lot more than me. (Laughs) I’ve been bad with Dutch, haven’t had enough time to learn.
HH Did you start a course?
JG I met a really nice local retired language teacher and he started to give me lessons, but it was terrible: every time he arranged to give a lesson, I had to email: “Oh, I’m sorry, I have to go to London!” or “I’m in Switzerland!“. It became impossible, so my wife has started to take the lessons instead. (Laughs) And now she’s teaching me. But it’s hard: at the Werkplaats everyone speaks English, so it’s not the ideal place to learn Dutch.
TEACHING AT ECALHH How did the relationship to the ECAL come up?
JG It’s been a quite long relationship actually, with a big gap between the first visits and with what I am doing now. But I was very fortunate: right when I graduated from the Royal College of Art in the summer of 1999, Nicole Udry was a very good friend of mine, studying in the year below me. She knew that I was interested in teaching and she communicated that to François (Rappo) and Pierre (Keller). When they came to London to meet all the big designers (GTF, Fuel, etc.), Nicole suggested to them that they should also meet me. So the connection with ECAL is really thanks to Nicole for proposing me and also thanks to Pierre that he was actually willing to meet this new designer he had never heard of.
HH You were quite young then!
JG It was right after I graduated, I met them at a hotel in Kensington and told them about my work and my ideas I had for teaching. They seemed interested but I didn’t expect anything would happen. I was therefore surprised when a few months later, one morning, very early, I suddenly got a phone call: “Hey James, it’s Pierre Keller! — You come in two weeks? — OK! good! Bye!” (Laughs) It was like a three-week ‘residency‘, the students were working on a live project for MUDAC’s new Identity, which was still being built, and I was asked to work with them in Bussigny for three weeks. That was my introduction to ECAL. For me it was a big decision because I right after the RCA I was working three days a week at publishers Random House, designing book covers in the literary fiction department. At the same time I was starting my studio. I designed books that I really enjoyed reading, but I had some problems with the editors. They sometimes seemed to find it annoying that I spent time reading the whole book before I would design the cover. I was very idealistic and felt that I should read the book before designing the cover (Laughs). I expect all the other designers they had so many books to design, that they didn’t have time to read them all before working on the cover. Anyway, because of Random House, I had to make a decision. I couldn’t just suddenly leave for three weeks to go to Switzerland and still keep that job going, so the decision to come to ECAL was really a final decision to quit Random House and start my studio properly. When I came back from ECAL, I would have to start finding my own work.
HH So this was actually a very good trigger …
JG Yes, that was really what pushed me to start! So I was always grateful to ECAL for taking this risk of inviting me then. And the MUDAC teaching/residency situation was kind of odd: half of the students were asking me like: “How old are you?”. I think I was younger than most of the students! (Laughs) And it was also my first big test to do a lecture about my work. I had a proper Kodak slide carousel because it was in the old days, with all my work on slides, no laptop. This makes me feel old now! To assist with the MUDAC identity, I actually kind of set another project. Rather than working only on the identity, we made another project called “The City is a Museum”, investigating the notion of the city itself as a museum, asking if there were certain forms of curating present in everyday life eg. in shop-windows, how people park their cars, or how the markings on the road are painted. The students responded with very nice projects, and one of the students at the time, Philippe Desarzens, ended up producing the official poster for MUDAC through his work for my project, kind of a white block around the building. With this parallel ‘Museum’ project I had worried I was wasting the students’ time and that they weren’t doing the ‘real’ identity work so I was very pleased in the end that Philippe’s project was actually used for MUDAC, even though it was for me a kind of a side project to get the students to think outside of specific logo and font-making. That built confidence in my teaching as well as enjoying the spirit of working at ECAL.
HH And afterwards?
JG After that I came back a couple of times to give workshops or lectures. For example, I ran a workshop here that was called “Start Your Own Country”, dealing with the idea of nationality, sense of place and cultural identity. Switzerland was an interesting place to ask these sorts of questions, given that there are three, four different languages, regions. We had interesting outcomes with flags, national costumes, mobile homes, etc. Then I became progressively busier with my studio and lost touch a bit with ECAL. I did however continue to have a good connection with students coming from ECAL for internships with me in London. There is a long line of interns from Jacques Borel, Julia Gorostido, Yann Do and various students I keep in touch with from teaching in 2000: Philippe Desarzens, Niels Wehrspann, Gregor Schönborn, Aïsha Enz, etc. Also connections with Angelo (Benedetto), Nicole (Udry), Gilles (Gavillet), all the people I met here from that time. So finally when I was asked to come to be a visiting teacher again, I was very pleased to accept, and happy to be involved more regularly again.
HH It’s interesting to now after all this years — with you yourself also being a lot more experienced now …
JG Exactly ten years after my first visit.
HH I wanted to talk about the project you were giving us, the ‘Broadcast‘ project. What’s the idea behind? And: How do you come up with a student-project-assignment like this? And what’s the aim behind?
JG It’s quite difficult thinking ahead for one year, about how can I make a series of projects that will progress from a starting point. I always wanted to have a logical progression for the projects but I also wanted them to be totally different. And I’m also quite spontaneous the way I teach, often the project I’m giving has to do with something I’m personally interested in myself at a particular point in time. Something thing I really enjoy about teaching and giving lectures is that for me it’s a form of personal research that relates to my practice. It always has something to do with topics I’m thinking about or issue that affect my work. So I’m always learning a lot myself with these projects, not only in writing the brief but also from the results I get. And I’m always surprised by what I get back from the students. I often have, maybe without totally realising it, a fixed idea of how I think the outcomes might be. This becomes apparent to me when I start to see the results of the students and realise that it is actually quite different from what I expected. It’s always a very pleasant surprise, because it’s a different interpretation of a loose set of instructions I have given. Some people do work with issues that I had planned in the brief, without specifically asking them to, and then there is an equal amount of students who come back with something totally unexpected. The ‘Broadcast’ one in particular is a project I thought about for quite a few years. Every now and then when I’m working I find myself thinking randomly of certain project ideas that pop into my head and if it seems like a good idea for a project, brief or a workshop I write it down. I have a file on my computer where I just keep these notes … it’s often just one line, like a question or statement which I think could turn into a project later so if I’m asked last-minute to go and teach somewhere I can often go back to this list. Often projects come from my own personal experience as a student. What I’m relating to when I’m teaching is remembering what the kind of projects were that I liked doing or I wished I could have done when I was a student. At that time I was always wishing to make projects in the real world. I was getting sick of all these fake projects that only your fellow students would see: it goes up on a wall, you get a mark and that’s the end of the project. I was always really interested in the idea of giving that you could do a project that existed in the real world and would affect real people. So for the ECAL project I thought that this would be a perfect time to do this, after the issues we discussed in our former projects. I thought a project where the students actually force their work into the real world, provoke a reaction and document that reaction that would be an interesting balance of theoretical thinking — how does my work fit in the real world — and practical application of such questions. This is a fundamental question in graphic design: how does your work operate in the ‘wider‘ world, not just in a graphic design bubble — operating on weblogs and in design magazines — but design aware of its social, political and economical context. So for the broadcast project I thought: why don’t we do a project where everyone has to force themselves into the real world? It’s a bit of a challenge, documenting the question, why you are doing it, what the reaction has been. This is often a missing part of graphic design: you make a project and even as a professional you don’t even get real feedback, you don’t hear how many people read your book or what people thought of your poster in the street — you don’t know if it really made an impact. So setting a project where people actually have to do reasearch and document the results, and what the reaction has been, either statistically or some other appropriate way, kind of for me starts to answer a lot of questions about graphic design — and hopefully it’s fun as well! (Laughs)
WORK ETHICS & HABITSHH I combined my personal project which is the magazine with yours. Fortunately it fitted in nicely, it also worked good as we already discussed even before your assignment about these kind of questions how to deal with distribution and broadcasting. How to reach a lot of people. How to spreads your message to the world. But also I chose to combine the two projects because of the nearly impossible large amount of work we have to do, with a lot of different projects and on top of it a bunch of personal projects — it’s hard, at the same time I’m really enjoying it — I can’t imagine only having my school projects and I have always something on the side or some jobs … some of them are quite personal sometimes, but I really like to combine them because then you have another feedback from more experiencde designers — just another context. I wondered how you cope with a lot of projects in parallel and at the same time … Because I think it’s really a challenge to stay focused. Do you have certain strategies or kind of a ‘work ethic‘ for yourself, habits …?
JG It’s something I just continuously thinking about or continuously trying to formulate. This question is one I often ask other designers. And it’s something that actually doesn’t get spoken about a lot so it’s a very good question. I’m constantly striving to find a better way of working because I always feel like I’m too busy and I’m not focusing enough on each project. Particularly now that I have a responsibility for the Werkplaats Typografie as course director where I have to take care of day-to-day things, in addition to being a kind of studio manager because WT operates studio as well as a school. So I have to keep track of projects in the same way that I keep track of my own projects. But the idea with my role at WT is also to think ahead of what the school could be doing in the next few years and trying to bring in different types of projects or teachers or themes to be explored. The same with my studio. My situation right now is that I’m working at the Werkplaats but I also still run my own projects: at the moment I’m working on two books plus consulting work with the Tate in London. Then I have articles I need to write for two different magazines and I’m also working on personal projects — for example on a book I will hopefully publish with Rollo Press and other things I’m just thinking of … (Laughs) And of course I had to prepare for my ECAL visits every month as well. Always too many things at once. I think any designer who is curious with an intellectual interest in lots of different things cannot help but work on many different projects. It is natural that you work on your school projects while also making things like this magazine or running your own club nights or doing other things … that is just instinctive. I get surprised if students AREN’T doing lots of projects, both school and personal, at once.
But it also requires skill to say no to projects. A friend of mine, London artist Francis Upritchard, was even joking about running a course for friends of hers addressing this particular graphic designer problem of working on too many things: a “No Course” teaching people to say NO! (Laughs) For me it’s always the same: I get interesting projects, with people I admire, even now I’m still honoured when asked to work on a project. So at times I would find myself saying yes even though I couldn’t possibly physically do the project. It took me some time after starting my studio to realise that it is often better to say no to project, rather to let someone down. But somehow I still find myself always being too busy. Part of the reason for my move from London to more academic work at ECAL or Werkplaats was to have more time to read and write and do research, to focus and be more selective about my commissioned projects and not work so much all the time. But somehow this year I’ve been actually busier than I ever was in London! (Laughs) Finding the best way of working is a constant mission but in one way, the older I get, the more I realise that perhaps this is just my character. I’m always going to be like this no matter what situation. I often talked with my wife about moving to New Zealand, leaving everything behind, just living in the countryside and maybe building a house for us to working on our own things. But even then I would probably start travelling and find myself taking projects in London or in LA. If you have broad interests, that’s just part of your character and you naturally end up working on many different things. And, crucially, one then enjoys being busy.
SELF-MOTIVATIONHH How do you motivate yourself, what’s your driving force. When it’s early in the morning — what’s the kicker then for you to start the action?
JG A lot of it is pragmatic: just responsibility, having to get things done. I’m constantly aware of keeping people waiting, I get too many emails, then I am late with all those emails. As some ECAL students know, everyone that emails me gets a reply a month later, usually right before I’m coming again to ECAL … (Laughs) But an equal amount of it is of course is just the basic enjoyment of the work I do, and the variety of that work. If I’m working hard completing and sending a project to print for London early in the morning before cycling to the Werkplaats, I’m still very grateful that what I do for a living is work that I like. You don’t question it, you just do it. I find strange when people who are not designers ask: “how are you creative?” or “how do you think of ideas?” — these kind of questions I just don’t really understand. For most of us it is simply an instinct. You just do it.
HH Since this interview is for my magazine, we already talked about it, the name, the manifesto — and that it is risky and maybe a failure to do this but we are interested in just doing it, and shipping, and not worrying about mistakes. We don’t want to get blocked be thoughts of criticism by others but rather doing our thing no matter what. When it’s a mistake it’s a mistake and you will learn from it. The name ‘Better Mjstakes’ actually comes from a quote I found on the web which goes: “Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow” — I wondered what mistakes mean to you and what you think of the concept in general.
JG I can see parallels with the theme of your magazine and the way that I work. An example might be with my writing. I have always planned to keep writing as a part of my practice but it’s something that I don’t see myself at being naturally good at. On a basic level writing is useful if you have criticism for or ideas about something and you want to express that in some way: these are reasons why I have tried to write. But in the past I often didn’t publish things because I thought they weren’t good enough. Kind of a fear of making mistakes, or saying something in print which you might later realise could have been written better. So I relate to what you are talking about: the idea of just getting a magazine out and doing it has been the same thing for me with writing. The more I actually had the confidence to go ahead and publish something — even though I’m wasn’t 100% certain about it’s quality — the more that helped me with becoming a better writer. Writing is an ongoing, evolving process, open to constant revision and rethinking. It is the same with giving lectures. Early in my career, I would say no to giving lectures because I wasn’t confident. But in the process of giving a lecture, you find yourself editing it live and making mental notes on how to improve it. So when I you give the same lecture somewhere else it can be improved based on previous experience and feedback from the audience. Writing, teaching and lecturing as a form of ongoing editions and revisions. Graphic design practice itself then also starts to work in this way.
HH I really liked the lectures you were giving here. I discussed them afterwards with my classmates, and I think it’s a really good thing and I was interested in your view of the ‘medium’ lecture. And how you start and what the process is like. How you manage to build up a lecture?
JG That’s been a part of my work that I have always really enjoyed and one I think that I’m still constantly improving. I don’t feel like a ‘natural’ lecturer or anything but somehow the lecture is often the most suitable medium or format for a project or ideas to be realised. A collection of material that I’m researching or issues I’m concerned with can often best be communicated with a talk rather than making a publication or a poster because it’s temporal. It’s something time-based and happens directly, live with an audience, so you have that direct feedback which is, as we mentioned earlier, something that you often don’t have in graphic design in general. It’s always been useful to me not only in terms of realising projects I’m interested in like research on colour and pop-culture, exploration of history or connecting differences and simularities between art and design. I learn from doing research myself and hopefully when I give these lectures it raises questions or informs students so they learn as well. It’s the same with a semester project brief — it’s not only for the students but also for me. And that’s for me the ideal: learning in the process of teaching.
HH Thank you for the conversation, James!