An interview with Philippe Apeloig

Writer Ayse Kongur met French graphic designer Philippe Apeloig pictured, photographed by Christian Lartillot) at his studio in Paris. In this first part of her interview (the second will appear in the March issue of Creative Review) she asks ‘Why did you become a graphic designer?’

I never wanted, or chose, to become a designer. I approached design through the field of art – through paintings. I am still very inspired by all kinds of painting, not just contemporary paintings but old masterpieces. My dream was to paint and to work in the theatre. I had no real feeling or sensitivity for graphic design. That came later, when I started to study art.

I learned graphic design through Dutch design, mainly. A major revelation occurred while I was doing an internship in Holland. Though my focus was painting, I had chosen to do my junior year internship at a design studio, Total Design. I was encouraged to go there by one of my teachers, Roger Druet, who taught calligraphy at the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. Calligraphy, of course, is central to graphic design. I didn’t know anything about Dutch design or typography, but I discovered everything there. What really attracted me to the Dutch sensibility was the use of abstraction. I had long loved it as a child, and I realised that you can use this art of abstraction commercially. So, I suddenly understood what design meant, what it meant to use typography, to design a logo, to care about shape and colour, to pay attention to the quality of the printing and binding. It was so rigorous, so methodical. It was a total modernist approach, and that’s what I like.

Perhaps living in Paris prevents us from understanding the time we are in. We live so much more in the past, in history. When I arrived in Amsterdam and worked at Total Design, I felt that I was in the present, in modernity, which I enjoy so much.

You have compared the work of a graphic designer to that of an actor, or a dancer. How is designing like acting?

Graphic design is the interpretation of a message constructed by one group to reach another. The designer’s artistry and skill facilitate that communication, often on a mass scale. In this the graphic designer is similar to an actor playing a role on stage. Both, professionally speaking, must deliver memorable experi­ences and emotionally engage with their audience. I don’t think most people expect to encounter personal expression in graphic design. They view it as the art of communication, and as a commercial art. Commitment to the client is the first and foremost priority, although that shouldn’t mean that the designer’s person­ality must disappear. The message, though, is paramount.

When designers try to express them­selves just for the pleasure of doing graphic design it can become difficult for them to attain the level of fine art. Fine artists have different sensibilities and worldviews. They express themselves and operate through other channels. For me, the work of a designer has to be functional. Without that underlying principle, design can become decorative, a bit old-fashioned, trendy. That said, I don’t mean to say that graphic design is not – and cannot aspire to be – art.

Your work is full of apparent motion, as if the design is on the point of moving or changing.

I am interested in the stage, in the art of theatre, in stage design, in dance. It’s natural that I seek to bring movement into my design. It’s extremely interesting to design a unique, two-dimensional image that will be reproduced many times. Though I cannot bring literal movement into a static, flat object, I enjoy creating a sense of speed and fluidity within the finalised design – something on the move, unfinished, in progress. The opposite is also true. I am equally drawn to ‘frozen’, in-between images that suggest one story as having occurred just before that moment, and another after. I have used such images to create posters as well as logotypes.

In working with text, I try to move it in space, to activate it within the visual field. You can overlap or rotate it, and so many other things. There are tremendous computer tools now that let you play with letterforms, but you must strike a balance. While you need to be free in your approach, it is important to maintain readability, otherwise the effect can become decorative. Decoration, which I’m not really   inspired by, is too easy. But the idea of bringing movement inspired by dance, performance, theatre, and film into graphic design is an intriguing challenge for me. All these things can be brought into design, but one must not overlook the real, life-inspired meanings behind them.

Your work for The New York Times shows the results that can be achieved by animating typography.

Well, I’m definitely enthusiastic about motion graphics, about all you can do with it, because it creates a link with what I most loved from childhood – theatre, contem­porary dance, movies, and just watching people in the street. All this movement I find fascinating. If you are a theatre director, you have to deal with actors and many other people to create the work. With software, a designer can do it alone. I need technicians to make motion graphics work, because I don’t know all the software, but that’s not a problem. What we finalise is always exactly what I designed. For me, the motion graphics I design are like choreography. With the music, they are really dancing type.

I believe that it was in Los Angeles with April Greiman that you first started using computers in your work?

I started at the Musée d’Orsay with the Chicago poster. That was the first time I used a computer, because I saw the equip­­ment that was used at Total Design and I wanted to create a 3d effect. I wanted to create a feeling of vertigo with the typo­­graphy and with how I manipulated the photo­graph, which I oriented at a certain angle. Using a computer at the time was quite complex. We had to work with some heavy tools. I remember we had to use three screens, which I couldn’t manipulate by myself. I had to work with a tech­nician. Everything else, though, I did by hand and with a Polaroid camera.

When I arrived at April Greiman’s studio in California after leaving the Musée d’Orsay in 1988, I was extremely surprised – dismayed, at the beginning – to see that every­one, including April, were using small Apple Plus computers. They worked like secretaries at their key­boards. It took me a few months to realise that I couldn’t stay with April without learning to use the computer. It was not clear to me when I arrived that this would be an important tool. What is amazing about April is that she caught on immedi­ately. She understood that this tool would be the main tool for graphic design. She used it despite the fact that it was very low resolution. She started to experiment with it immediately, and she was definitely the first one to do that.

The only fear I have connected with technology is that one day the printing process may disappear, or change dramatically. I would feel sad about that because I am very attached to the printing process, with having an object in my hands – a book, a poster, stationery. I have a feeling that these things might disappear or change in the next few years. Young people don’t write letters anymore, every­thing is communicated via email. I don’t see them reading books very often either.

What appeals to you so much about poster design?

First of all, a poster is big, and it’s one image. I consider my posters as I would a painting. What I like in poster design is the quality with which they are printed. Mine are printed in silkscreen, with traditional inks that impart a subtle, velvety quality. A poster gives you a huge space in which to design. It’s an image to give to the street; nobody is ready to look at it, or waiting for it, or needs it. It’s not like when you go to a gallery or museum and you prepare yourself to see something. Here, you don’t prepare yourself for anything, you just need to capture attention, so it’s an interesting challenge. But what I like is the idea of building an image based on typography, based on a combination of shapes.

Could you tell us something about how your studio works?

Well, first of all, my studio is on a very small scale. People sometimes don’t realise that there aren’t many people to help with the work. It’s not work that I can perform alone, because there’s too much of it. But I truly enjoy working with people around me, young people, being surrounded by them. I feel I can transmit my knowledge to them and not just keep it to myself, that I can share my skill. My assistants and interns come from all over the world. I like them to come, but also to leave. The freshness of the studio dynamic is very important. The longest relationship I have ever built with one individual assistant has been three or four years. That’s just the way it has happened and works best for me. I find the right help in those who share their experi­ence openly and genuinely. This reciprocity nurtures me, and I hope them as well. I have no more than one or two assistants at a time, and I welcome interns. Maybe it’s not always easy for them to be here, but it’s also a real experi­ence in their lives.

The studio is fully integrated into my life. My life is part of my work. I live on the fifth floor, and the studio is on the sixth. The assistants, interns and I all have lunch together, and everyone uses the kitchen. It reminds me of what I  said earlier about similarities between designers and actors. The way the studio works is like a troupe de théâtre. We’re an ensemble, working together for a certain amount of time. The time we spend together is not only for business, but also life involvement – cooking, shopping, taking photographs. I like that way of working, but it’s strange in some ways. There’s no hierarchy, no secretary, everyone answers the phone, everybody receives the same email, they all have the key to my apartment. That’s the way it works.

How do you set about creating a new design?

When I’m beginning to create work for a client, I’m not sure what I will have to do. So I hesitate, a lot. I look for ideas, for shapes, for interesting new typefaces, and I look at colour. The first thing I do is pay attention. What do they do? Who are they? What do they expect? I start by documenting many things. I look closely at their environments. I talk to them. Slowly it evolves through images, drawings, doodling, sketches. Then I go on the computer. I print, I cut, I collage. My approach is, in fact, rather traditional, except that the computer is my main tool. At some point, I know that we  are getting very close to the final result. To make sure that it’s good, I may proceed with a printed example, a printing test, to make sure that it really is perfect.

Paul Rand explored the extent to which he could cut away the text and have it retain its legibility. Do you enjoy testing the limits of perception?

I’m glad you mentioned Paul Rand. He’s such an important subject for modern graphic design.

What’s interesting with Paul Rand is that he was not only an excellent graphic designer, but a theoretician who was able to write about his own work and what graphic design means.

Testing the limits of perception? Of course, but I’m not the only one – it’s one of the essential goals of graphic design. Perception has two aspects: one, the optical – or maybe I would say the technical – view, the other the emotional, which has a lot to do with the unconscious.

You have to be very aware of how people feel and perceive your work.
On the other hand, those responses should not drive your work. I think it’s very important to deliver design solutions that surprise people.

Would it necessarily worry you if there were things people couldn’t comprehend without effort in your designs?

I’ve realised over time – especially after all the exhibitions I’ve organised and presented of my own and others’ work – that effort is necessary. I wasn’t aware of that until recently. Because I try to make sure that what I’m doing is accessible, even easy to understand, but sometimes I have the feeling that it’s not. I feel bad about that, because I don’t want to fail.

This is often true today, when it is especially difficult to bring a simple solution to a design problem. Perhaps they have already been made by the pioneers of graphic design?

People like Paul Rand. To reach that level of simplicity, of sobriety, is extremely difficult.

Do you sometimes wish that you had been more minimal? You have spoken of the importance of ‘negative space’ in design.

There is a duality – a dialectic – that exists between what is visible and what is invisible. When you are aware of the mechanics of perception, you understand that you have to use the invisible, ‘contra’ shape, the negative space. You have the letter and you have what’s inside, what’s around it. Graphic design is very connected to archi­tecture, because it’s also dealing with space. We do not expect an architect to create just a nice façade – that’s only part of his job. His main problem is organising space in good proportions, creating space that can be entered into but not felt. If you do feel it, in an odd way, something’s wrong. You shouldn’t seek to fill negative space, but to play with it, manipulate it. This is a very interesting part of design. It’s a kind of game.

You have spent a lot of time teaching, both in France and the US. What kind of teacher do you try to be?

Teaching is an experience you share with young people. Technique is one part of it, but students today understand it faster than you, so the best you can supply has to lie elsewhere. I was surprised – especially in New York – that the students became familiar with computers so quickly. What I offer is to teach them visual principles and share my insight into perception – what readability means, how to deal with typo­graphy, what good typography is.
I don’t expect students to become computer virtuosi. I would prefer to accompany them along a thinking process. Thinking means also making, which is why I felt sad recently while giving a workshop in California. I realised that many students don’t draw. They explain, they talk, they write. But that’s not enough for me. I was also displeased that as a teacher I had to make them write so many texts. To earn their diplomas they must research and write, but since the focus of their programme is art, not writing, they’re given little to no instruc­tion in doing this. At the end, they resorted to copying and pasting, resulting in a kind of soup of thinking – not their own thinking. I appreciated so much seeing a student come to me with a handmade collage. While it may not have been well-made, it contained so many sensitiv­ities, so much personality. That’s what I encourage students to do, to go into their own feelings, and understand that graphic design provides an answer to a question. It’s about communi­cating a message. 

Design practice has changed so much in recent years, and it’s still changing so fast….

It is, we cannot fight that. It’s here, it’s innate to the discipline. It’s much easier for me and many other designers today to just jump on a computer and start doing things. You can achieve something quickly that you think is good, because it’s clean and well-done.

Drawings are the link between the brain and the hand. A computer is just a sophisti­cated pencil. It’s not because you use a computer that the world’s going to be so much better. It’s hard to resist, though. I actually don’t think it’s a good idea to resist it, because it’s such a part of our lives. The tools are here, they’re part of the present, and they will evolve even more in the future. The trick is to avoid becoming their slaves – we should make sure we know how to use them, but not forget we have two hands, two eyes, and a brain. We must also apply those to the work.

Philippe, you had a philosophical education as well as an artistic one. Has that influenced your way of seeing the world?

I had a classical training. Reading Plato, Descartes and Spinoza taught me how to think, gave me a methodology for working through things. Studying philosophy, I discovered that the question could be more powerful than the answer, that doubt was useful, and I learned conviction. It provided me with a way to examine my past and choose my own life. It also helped me make distinctions that have served me in all areas of my life – to differentiate between what is banal and what is exquisite, to perceive what is at the centre and what is at the periphery. I would position myself at the periphery. I am two things at once, always: a designer, but not part of a broad consensus; attuned to conventional values, but a contrarian; of my family, but always leaving them.

Of course, I did more art education than philosophy, let’s be clear about that. But I had the chance to do two years of philosophy. For me, the most important influence was existentialism, a humanist and totally secular approach, against all kinds of dogmatism. The year I studied philosophy was the year that Jean-Paul Sartre died. He, along with Simone de Beauvoir, made a very strong impact on our generation, on the way we see the world, how we have to be engaged and concerned with what’s going on in life. I’m very surprised today that the young gener­ation is so attached to religion, to God, to the church, the mosque, the synagogue. For me, God never existed and I have absolutely no time to care about all those stories. We are on earth one time, one shot, and that’s why I really strive to enjoy life. I’m very aware that life is short and there is so much I want to do. Of course there are sad and sordid aspects to life, but I try to enjoy the better part of it, to stay in touch with what being alive means in a positive, deep sense.

Sometimes I have the feeling that I am here to live for others, that I must live twice as much, because there were people who couldn’t live at all. I feel that I am here to address, very personally, their loss. I am a child of Jewish immigrants and Holocaust survivors who came to France from Poland. But, unlike my parents and grandparents, my own heritage is one of ‘no transmission’. We grew up in a world that was totally different from theirs, one in which our ancestral homes, communities, languages and borders were never within our grasp – because they had disappeared into a black hole. The only way you could try to reach them is through literature. This doesn’t affect the way I design, but it does affect the way I organise and live my life. This is a very signifi­cant issue for our generation. Because we can address this so freely and without fear, we represent a great deal of hope.

Do you ever find it difficult to create a space for thinking creatively?

For me, as a graphic designer, I cannot live outside of a city. I have to be in big cities. I like the energy that comes out of them, I like the noise, even the dirt and grime. I like the fact that they are places where humans have to struggle to live, to compete. I don’t like super-clean or super-sanitised environ­ments, or archi­tecture. You have beautiful architecture and ugly archi­tecture. Cities embody a kind of chaos, which is a thing of beauty.

That said, I also like to feel protected. My apartment and studio are on a high level, and we have double-sealed windows. If you opened them you’d be amazed at how noisy it is. I feel safe here, and sheltered from the chaos and cacophony that at the same time I love – I cannot imagine living in the country­side in a house, having nothing to hear but the wind or the birds. I like the fact that the city is moving all the time – there’s a new store opening here, one closing there. It’s incredible to be able to walk out of this building, not take a car, and find something I need – it could be bread, it could be a specific paper for work, it could be chocolate. It’s extraordinary how it’s all accessible, and that you share it with all kinds of other people, not just designers. The urban environ­ment is, for me, the best one in which to create. It’s like being in a nest on top of a tree. Sometimes I realise that I haven’t gone down to the street or gone outside for two or three days, and that’s fine.

You have also described yourself as a traveller.

I remember as a child someone gave me a book about Marco Polo and his trip from Italy to Asia. I was fascinated by this character who left everything and went far, far from home. But he returned, bringing back all that he had seen, all of his experi­ences. Later I studied Ulysses at school. He was another fabulous character for me. I loved the Odyssey, the whole notion of travel. Travelling is amazing today. It’s so easy – you take the plane, fly for a few hours, and land in a totally different environment. Tomorrow you could say, ‘I want to live in Australia’, and just move there. It’s not impossible. But there was a time when it was absolutely out of the question, to even think
of it – physically, politically.

Some of the first philosophy that I encountered was that of Claude Lévi-Strauss. We were reading his Tristes Tropiques. It was one of the most incredible books I have ever read. It asked us to reconsider our world­view, to consider where the ‘centre’ is, or if there even is a centre. And what does it mean to think, to write, to smell, to hug, to behave? Because we live in a specific way, we can’t assume that everyone else should live that way too. Lévi-Strauss said no one culture is more advanced than another – each is unique, and there’s much to learn from every one. That was a very important book for me, and one of the things that motivated a trip I took after I left school. I was 18 years old, and I decided to go to Brazil for a few months. There, I realised that nothing is written in stone, everything can be different. That’s what’s so fantastic – to open your mind, to open your vision. Travelling is a gift.

Part two of Ayse Kongur’s interview with Philippe Apeloig will appear in the March issue of CR. See

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