The name of the Dutch art director Christian Borstlap’s practice, Part of a Bigger Plan, is the perfect encapsulation of his career trajectory. From art school reject to celebrated art director who consistently produces work that is visually surprising, quirky and innovative, Borstlap’s development does indeed seem to have been part of some master plan.
Certainly, the ultimate goal was always to become an art director, to work in advertising, the sector that would allow him to pursue his passion for creative ideas while making a comfortable living. “Back then I was sure I wanted to be an advertising art director – for the same reason I’m doing it today: it’s great to make money with something you love to do,” he explains.
On the other hand, as is often the case, the journey from teenager who loved drawing to art director and founder of his own agency was rather more serendipitous than pre-planned.
“Looking back, it’s all down to random happenings,” he says now. Having studied economics and communications, Borstlap ended up as a visualiser at a small advertising agency called Office around 1998, and he then quickly moved on to become art director. “Maybe in the end it can be an advantage having studied something different from what designers usually do,” he says now.
Working for Wallpaper*
One particularly fortuitous turn was that his illustration portfolio landed on Tyler Brûlé’s desk at Wallpaper*, and a fruitful collaboration ensued. Borstlap did illustrations for the magazine and also worked on advertising campaigns for the likes of Selfridges and Adidas for Winkreative (“I’m a bit ashamed of [the style I had then]. Looking back it’s a rather passé style – very vector-based, old fashioned.”).
It was an interesting time, Borstlap says, “because I was working internationally – it was great and I found out that visual language is understood internationally – and that’s what I still like to emphasise now”. He then joined KesselsKramer in 2004, which he still cites as a major inspiration for “their approach to communications and the way they’re organised”. He worked there for four years, further honing his trade, before eventually setting up Part of a Bigger Plan, which is now spectacularly located in a former diamond grinding house at the Amstel in Amsterdam.
Another milestone in Borstlap’s career was a project for Dutch postal service TNT Post, in collaboration with children’s charity The Children’s Stamp, which promotes children’s education around the world. Borstlap designed a series of stamps based on the idea of ‘things you don’t learn from a book’ – such as ‘together is better’, ‘trying is the same as learning’ and ‘something boring can be beautiful, if you look at it upside down’. These were drawn in a minimal, but sweetly humorous style. He also decided to produce an animation (below) to bring the stamps to life. “Stamps are a bit old-fashioned, and are not really an outgoing thing. I felt the project needed something to be sent into the world, to get the idea across,” Borstlap explains. That animation was the first video he ever directed, and ended up winning a D&AD yellow pencil.
Now, four years on, many of his projects involve animation and video – last year, he created around 12 films. “I was always interested in film making; it’s so different from illustration – there’s a whole atmosphere you can create and a whole world. I like that there are more dimensions to a film,” says Borstlap.
Going it alone
Setting up his own agency in 2011 was of course the next big leap, but the desire to go it alone had been building for some time. “It had something to do with being in control of everything. In a larger agency you don’t see the process which goes on before the creative work, which is talking to the client and talking through the brief. I always felt an urge to control that a bit more. And your main job is to make concepts, then you’re supposed to give your idea to someone else, such as photographers, illustrators, directors, for the execution. At a certain point my hands were itching to pick up on that part as well. Now I’m doing both.”
Part of a Bigger Plan remains boutique – with only one designer alongside Borstlap. Therefore, that control he mentions is still very much a priority. He has a simple and clear way of working with clients, he adds. “There’s a bit of ‘take it or leave it’ somewhere – although until now it’s been more of a ‘take it’. But then it’s an equal relationship – like a collaboration… That’s also why I like to keep Part of a Bigger Plan small – I want to have the possibility to work with different people with different skills.”
Borstlap’s creative ideas usually grow “very organically” out of that relationship with a client, he adds. “It saves an enormous amount of time to understand the client well before joining the drawing board.” The nature of some of his clients also helps. For instance, “with a fashion brand, you have to understand not only with your head but also your heart, so it’s a bit of an intuitive process”.
That intuition has brought a kaleidoscope of styles and executions to fruition. Recent animations include the entertaining film for Louis Vuitton’s new online personalisation service, Mon Monogram; a short animation for the same client, but in a distinctly different style, to promote the brand’s new bag charm release; and a black-and-white animation for Nowness celebrating the launch of online men’s fashion portal Mr Porter.
Another hallmark of Borstlap’s output is an inventiveness of execution. For example, the Mon Monogram film was created with real ribbons, while the online commercial for the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup was created with 40 litres of Amsterdam tap water – the animation is made from ink illustrations being washed away by flowing water. “It’s always interesting to discover a new technique,” he says. “The films, they’re never routine, even in the small details you can always discover things, which often happens in the collaboration with the animators.”
Borstlap doesn’t like to think he has a distinctive style, citing Milton Glaser’s quote “style is not to be trusted”. He describes his process as simple, “It always starts with what should be communicated, and then I try to think of the best way to tell that – it’s a matter of form following function,” he says.
Nonetheless, there is consistent theme of visual innovation or wonderment in Borstlap’s work, which is no accident. “Clients need to produce work that surprises, because people have to look at your content, and like your content,” he says. “It’s in the client’s interest to have a bit of a surprising element that you haven’t seen before. If it becomes routine, the idea is not right.” Those forward-thinking clients are not just from the fashion sector. For instance, Borstlap has recently created an online video for the Rijksmuseum’s new open-to-all online collection, with the animation welding together more than 210 illustrated artworks from the collection. He is also currently working on projects for beer brand Grolsch’s Film Works initiative which promotes independent film, and an exciting project for designer Herman Miller.
Neither is his work just limited to animation and illustration. He recently produced a sharp new identity for the GeldMuseum in Utrecht, and when we spoke he was finalising a giant typographic laser projection for the re-opening of the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum in April.
What all his clients have in common is an understanding that standing out is important and a willingness to push the boundaries a little. “The good thing is that people only approach me because they like the work, and that makes life a bit easier,” adds Borstlap. “I was never more trusted than I am a now.”
As for his beloved advertising industry, Borstlap believes there is a lot of creative work being made – although print and outdoor advertising contains an enormous amount of bad design, he reckons, and could do with a bit of a shake-up. He particularly enjoys that some clients occasionally cut out the larger agencies and work directly with photographers and directors.
Even though agencies still make good campaigns, this development of direct access is “really interesting for me”, says Borstlap, as it makes the entire process more transparent. And the biggest highlight of his master plan, so far? “Doing what I love to do for a living,” says Borstlap. “It’s corny, but true.”