Print pundit Anna Haas appears to have done a tour of the graphic design capitals of Europe, before settling in what must surely (at the moment, at least) be its stylistic epicentre: sleepy, snowy, tightly gridded Switzerland.
Before that, she spent time in Belgium, Germany, and The Netherlands, as well as New York, and along the way Haas honed her sense that graphic design shouldn’t be all the deliverable or the deadline. Instead, she relishes in experimentation and process. Her travels took her to places that shared that belief: an internship at HORT in Berlin, an MA at Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, The Netherlands.
Her time at HORT in particular made a marked impact on how she approaches her work, both on a conceptual level and in more practical terms. “It was really nice to be with a mixture of recently graduated people and more experienced young people out there just trying stuff out, it was like a playground,” she says. “Their approach is really playful, but on the other hand they know what they want to do and how they try and sell it to the clients.
“They can be very strict with a client or sometimes even say no if the client just wants to have something other than what they’re proposing. That other stuff wouldn’t be HORT though—it wouldn’t be the work they do, or what they’re known for. It taught me to believe in your ideas: even if the client doesn’t believe in them, you don’t have to bend for them all the time. Sometime the client is right, but sometimes you just have to believe in what you’re doing.”
Last year was largely spent in a kind of creative utopia, playing about with personal projects in New York thanks to that Swiss Design Award. Given out each year by the government, the recipients were offered either a cash prize or the chance to have a six month residency overseas. “I was mostly doing research and working on my own stuff there, and the stuff you never have time for—learning programs, drawing a lot,” she says.
The award was given for existing work, with no stipulation that more had to be created after it was granted. Surely that must be both wonderfully liberating, and incredibly daunting? Free time is all well and good, but there’s certainly some truth (perhaps for creatives more than most) in the saying that the devil makes work for idle hands.
“It was super scary at the beginning, because we’re always working for deadlines, clients, and end products,” says Haas. “I really didn’t want to have something at the end as we always do that. So it was very freeing and very scary.
“Compared to Zurich there’s a lot going on in New York, and it was more important for me to take everything in and not work too much. If I get started on something I know that I would just work on that and I won’t see the place I’m in, so that’s why I didn’t want a project that has to come to an end after six months.”
Now back in the relatively sleepy Swiss city since January, Haas works on projects including editorial design, visual identities, digital design, illustrations, and poster design for clients across the art, culture, and commerce sectors. Among her impressive client list are Die Zeit, Wallpaper*, Kunstmuseum Bern, and Der Spiegel, though the rest of her projects are overwhelmingly culturally-based commissions for small clients. “I’ve never really worked for big companies,” she muses. “It’s not that I don’t want to, it just happened that way. Most of my work is in the cultural field and my clients mostly range from museums to curators, and I often work with the artists in very close collaboration.
“Mostly people come to me with a bunch of images and some kind of idea how they want to have their book, and what it should feel like, and we figure things out together. I’m mostly looking for those sorts of collaborations, but it doesn’t make it easy. Sometimes it would be easier to just get a brief and work in your studio and print off the PDF and that’s it!”
We get the sense that screen-based detachment from projects isn’t really Haas’ style though, no matter how appealing the idea of pixel pushing and hitting “print” might be. “I mostly do everything on paper, so if I do a layout I print out everything to get a sense of the materials. I really have to be able to put it on the table or the wall, and if I do illustrations I cut everything out of colored paper. Working with my hands is super important for me—I’m very tactile. That’s why I work a lot with book design, as it’s creating something you can hold in your hands.”
As well as working on client work and personal design projects, in 2014 Haas founded the Illustratoren Schweiz association, and also teaches at the department of visual communication at Lucerne University of Applied Science and Arts (HSLU) on a poster design module each winter. While she loves teaching, especially in the short-term, quick-fire, modular way Lucerne works, her concern is that design students today are already working with the shackles of the professional design world. In short, there’s not enough time to play.
“I understand that sometimes an end product is what’s needed, but it’s something that I feel like students always have to do. Most educational programs don’t let them try out enough—it’s frowned upon if they don’t come up with or finish a project—but that doesn’t mean they didn’t do anything, maybe they did even more than some others.
“This way of working is already like it is in real life. Sometimes I feel that students are trying too much to have a certain style or direction too early on.”