Intricate Beauty by Design

Marian Bantjes is an internationally recognized designer, illustrator, writer and typographer. Her career began as a book typesetter until she co-founded and ran her own graphic design studio, Digitopolis, and then branched off to work on her own as a graphic artist and letterer. She spent 20 years working in graphic design and typography before she decided she needed to revitalize her methods, and change her motives. She realized that she wanted her work to be more personal, engaging, and joyful.

. According to Marian, most designers believe that allowing one’s own ego to be involved in one’s work is heresy. The most popular method of contemporary design is to remove as much personal bias from the process as possible, and use extensive research and iteration to cater exclusively to the client or audience. That’s why we put so much emphasis on empathy and user testing and scenarios and mapping. Usually, designers want to feel and experience exactly what their user is feeling and experiencing, and let that be the driving force behind their inspiration.

Marian has chosen a more anomalous method of design thinking. She decided she needed to start creating for herself. She started drawing on her own individual interests and tangential curiosities. She followed her heart and let her ego take the wheel, and remarkably, this is when her work started to gain international recognition. Marian has found that the more personal she makes her work, the more compelling it is. She believes that her work is now so popular because of the intent and creative spark behind the production. From what I can see, her passion and labor and obsession are clearly evident in all of the final pieces. She creates for the sheer joy and discovery of the thing.

One primary example of an exclusive and laborious project that she provides in this lecture is her annual valentines. In 2005, Marian began producing valentines in large quantities to be mailed to a privileged few each year (By few, I mean a few hundred friends and family). Each batch has an original concept, design, and message. One year, she hand-illustrated 150 different personalized designs. On another occasion, she composed and calligraphed a mysterious love letter with no indicated recipient or sender. Each of Marian’s valentine concepts are intended to have a different emotional effect on the receiver.

Marian is inspired by surprise, visual structure, and pieces that make the viewer work to figure things out. This leads her to create intricate patterns and puzzles that rely on visual systems. She also loves to explore unusual materials, or try to use common materials in unusual ways. She’s worked with pasta, sugar, tinfoil, fur, tape, needlepoint embroidery, nuts and bolts, coins, and flowers to create complex and dynamic typographic compositions. Her work is original and unexpected because it often makes the familiar strange. Her method is figure out how to let the material be expressed to its fullest extent, and allow it to speak for itself while also bending it to her will. I personally agree with this approach, and am a firm believer in letting whatever material I’m working with drive the form of what I make, instead of trying to force it to do something that it doesn’t want to do. I find that things go a lot more smoothly when method and material get along smoothly with each other.

Of course, creating such elaborate systems and delving into the will of a material is extremely time-consuming. Marian’s work is extraordinarily labor intensive, and requires a huge amount of energy and investment. She must investigate what is truly worthwhile. When examining her ideas, Marian asks herself, “Does it bring joy? Does it have a sense of wonder? Does it invoke curiosity?” She defines “wonder” as experiencing an overwhelming sense of awe or delight that inspires irrepressible inquiry. She believes that wondrous art is crucial to the sustainability of any functional society because it “seats the imagination of the populace.”

My favorite quote from this entire lecture is “inspiration is cross-pollinating.” What Marian means by this is that you never know who is going to take something from your work, or what they’re going to take. All knowledge is inter-disciplinary. In this way, your work could influence an author or a scientist or a musician. It could plant a seed in the mind of another human being, a fundamental emotion or concept, so powerful that it grows into a whole new creation in a completely different medium. “A functional society needs these seeds coming from all directions to keep the gears of inspiration turning.”

Marian believes that visual wealth should be used to enhance intellectual wealth more commonly. When we think of imagery and illustrations to supplement cerebral content, we most often consider children’s books. However, Marian argues that graphic visualizations should not be limited to kids’ literature. Everyone can benefit from visual stimulus and associations.

This TED Talk taught me that no amount of money could replace the pure, unadulterated joy of making a thing, even an absurd thing, just because you’re curious. It is important to keep exploring and following your heart so that you don’t get stuck as a designer and keep making the same thing over and over again. I learned that you can and should draw inspiration from any and every part of your life, not just artistic or design-oriented disciplines. I learned that the best work is driven by an insatiable curiosity that causes you to scrutinize every aspect, every material possibility, and every piece of history or information about an idea. I learned that it’s all right to be a little bit neurotic or obsessive about your work. You just have to keep doing what makes you excited. I learned that intrinsic motivation will lead to extrinsic success, because that innate joy and earnestness has an inherent emotional and intellectual appeal.

All images are sourced from Marian Bantjes’ portfolio at