Cutting through the earnest, self-aggrandizing, sub-TED talk motivation guff of traditional design agency bios, Lennarts & De Bruijn take a somewhat different approach. And the results, folks, are hilarious. “Text about all our achievements and other relevant things,” their ‘Info’ page reads. “Triggering words to get new assignments and more incentives to work with this amazing studio.”
And you know what? It probably works. Humor in copy means an underpinning of humor in their work and approach, and that’s never going to be a bad thing if it’s executed brilliantly. “We like to be bold,” say Max Lennarts and Menno de Bruijn, the studio’s eponymous co-founders. “Humor is one important ingredient in doing so, and we also believe it can be one of the best ways to get to people, whether that’s for our website, personal work, a commercial campaign, or a new identity.
“We take our job very seriously, but ourselves not so.” As such, their bio is, “exactly what we want to communicate: honesty, humor, being different, critical and inviting people to work with us, while at the same time critiquing designers that DO take themselves too seriously.”
That sense of wry wit and playful self-awareness imbues both their project work and their superb site design—an all-singing-all-dancing affair that includes a rather awesome moving ticker-tape of little yin-yang style icons, hearts, and unexpected missives like “RIP Mondrian” (more on that later.) Bonkers, yet brilliant. The site was created by the designers themselves “with a good foundation created by Cargo Collective,” and carries lots of sweet little hidden meanings. “The yin-yang icon explains how we have a different attitude and approach sometimes, and how this combination can be complementary and actually very positive towards a more interesting and strong result,” the studio explains.
“We take our job very seriously, but ourselves not so.”
Lennarts and De Bruijn met studying graphic design at the Royal Art Academy in The Hague, The Netherlands, and as with many successful partnerships, they were friends first and business partners later. In their final year, they decided to work together by asking all the departments in the school if they could design their graduation campaign. “We ended up working for two departments for a year and created their graduation campaigns, as well as graduating ourselves at the same time,” they explain. “A bit naive, but it gave us a head start when we founded Lennarts & De Bruijn right after we graduated.
“So to be honest, we had no idea if it would work out or not, there was no real strategy. It’s probably also the reason why it worked… we just did it. Another reason why it works is the differences between one another. We keep each other in check and enthusiastic. Being a duo that’s stronger together than apart is a very comforting feeling.”
The studio is still just the two of them, occasionally bringing in an intern, and they work in a shared studio space with other excellent Hague-based creative types like Elkeen, Studio Office, Iris van der Zee, Glitterstudio, Victor van Swieten, and Annija Muižule. From this apparent hub of excellent ideas, Lennarts & De Bruijn turn out a superb line of poster work, along with identity, animation, illustration, and branding projects, mainly for cultural clients—such as print materials for Amsterdam-based gallery initiative Nieuw Amsterdams Peil, posters and animations for club nights and arts events, and the identity for A Print Factory, which is an on demand print sale that travels to art fairs around the country.
“The people working for cultural institutions tend to understand the things we do better,” say Lennarts and De Bruijn. “Also the budgets are often lower so they have to guarantee you more creative freedom. The organizations are often smaller, or at least the people we have to deal with are.
“It never really works if there’s a lot of hierarchy, people, and steps in the process. It works the best if it’s a small team of people who are allowed to and capable of making decisions. If that’s the case it doesn’t really matter if it’s a cultural or commercial client.”
The studio’s poster work is particularly strong, and chimes nicely with the new drive for designs that work just as well in motion as in print. Lennarts and De Bruijn taught themselves animation (very well, it seems), yet are loathe to make a design move just for the sake of it. “Our goal is always to make it into a nice and interesting poster, both when it animates as when it’s a still,” they say. “The interesting thing about a moving poster is that you can communicate way more and create different compositions. And we also noticed that something moving gets your attention. It can be subtle or outrageous, but the animation’s moving parts should come from its content.”
Much of the studio’s work is rooted in conceptual ideas that seem more traditionally sited in the world of fine art than commercial graphic design. So how do the two coexist? “Context and content is often key in our projects,” says the studio. “We always develop a concept instead of just a design, so automatically you think of a bigger picture or gesture, and we try not to be limited in our thoughts and means. In this way there´s a lot of space for different disciplines to come together.”
“Being a duo that’s stronger together than apart is a very comforting feeling.”
They attribute that approach largely to their education at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, “where conceptual thinking is key,” and as well as the fact that they feel like they’re living in an exciting time for graphic designers where they can “determine what ‘graphic design’ can be or is.”
To us, as outsiders, their work seems to be in the tradition of great Dutch graphic design studios before them—Experimental Jetset, Studio Dumbar, et al.—in its boldness and subtle sticking up of a middle finger to the man while also working for him. But the pair sees their work as much a product of their school, as their country: “We would not consider ourselves Dutch Design, but we do see ourselves as ‘Dutch Designers.’ It’s probably more the work ethic and approach than the visuals or aesthetics.”
Lennarts and De Bruijn make sure to constantly flex these conceptual muscles through self-initiated projects, such as the aforementioned RIP Mondrian, an Instagram-based grumble about the “overkill of Mondrian in the Netherlands this year.” One of our favorite of their off-the-wall ventures is the deliciously disgusting Doner Kebab T-shirt. This design (sadly not for sale, at least for now) came about when they DJed at the club PIP Den Haag “in a Kebab Shop Stage thingy.” They explain, “We decided to come a bit overdressed to compensate for our bad, bad DJ skills (switching between songs on YouTube). During that night we got so many questions on where we bought it so we thought, why not?
“It was the first and last time we could call ourselves DJs and even that would be overstating. So we made the shirt. Again, we didn’t really think it through, we just did it—made a stupid commercial for it and then it took off. We are still being contacted by people around the world asking if we still make or have them. We don’t, but maybe in the future?”
As for what else the future holds, Lennarts & De Bruijn characteristically glance at a horizon slightly to the left field. “Real programming, sculptures, balloon animals, you name it. But maybe fashion or furniture design is something to dive in to,” they say.
“We don’t only want to discover new disciplines, we also aim to strengthen the disciplines we already have. We want to become specialists in doing a lot, not in one thing.”