“We called ourselves Offshore Studio because we’re in Switzerland. But we’re also outside of it,” says its co-founder Isabel Seiffert, speaking both literally and figuratively. She originates from Germany, and her design partner Christoph Miler from Austria—both were drawn to Switzerland for the graphic design MA program at the Zurich University of the Arts in 2012. That’s where they met and began to collaborate, first on a research and design project about “Netzpolitic” (internet politics), going on to officially form Offshore Studio in January this year.
From a design perspective, Offshore swims against the Swiss tide, yet it is also inextricably bound to its asymmetrical-leaning current. From the Swiss school, the studio has adopted an appreciation for accuracy, typography, grids, and a systematic approach. To deviate, it’s drawn to unabashed color, it dabbles in chaos, and it incorporates digital techniques into the design process, whether that’s animation, 3D printing, or open source tools.
It’s a studio that’s not interested in sticking to one thing, place, or ideology. I don’t often use the term “boundary-pushing” and never lightly. But “boundary-pushing” is Offshore’s central occupation; both in terms of stretching the boundaries of the design sensibility it’s surrounded by in Zurich, but also through its concern with geography, globalization, space, capital, and migration. Proof of this lies on the studio’s website, where you’ll notice it has stock market data running across the top instead of a conventional bio. Seiffert and Miler have gained attention this year (and a nomination for the prestigious Swiss Design Awards) for their production and design of Migrant Journal, a magazine currently on its second issue that explores the many forms that migration takes, and seeks to break from the prejudices of migrants and migration through essays by academies, architects, philosophers, and activists.
The Offshore typeface Migrant Grotesk was designed for this journal of “migration in all its forms.” Organic shapes juxtapose hard edges, suggesting the disjointed, zigzag pathway that migrating people take as they move freely through open terrain and then come up against a strict wall. Among rounded forms, for example, a horizontal ascender of the lowercase “f” and the tails of the lowercase “y” and “g” create stark borders that evocatively divide the negative space around each word.
It’s a typeface that draws from geography and colonial history; its letters are like an atlas of the world that’s been arbitrarily divided by a ruler. How telling that “ruler”, i.e., “the one who rules”, shares its 14th century etymology with the instrument used for making straight lines. These kinds of connections are ones that Migrant Grotesk encourages you to make: at first glance, it’s an eccentric typeface; spend time with it, and you’ll uncover more meaning in the details.
“We want our designs to be meaningful, even if the meaning might not be visible to everyone,” says Seiffert.
Migrant Journal’s first issue was edited by urbanist Justinien Trillbillon in London, and laid out while Seiffert was in Copenhagen and Miler in Zurich. Its editorial design draws from the look of an atlas—a gold spot color navigates the reader’s attention across dense webs of infographics and maps, and a five column grid and variable text sizes allow for multiple layers of narration to develop in tandem.
The magazine’s most recent second issue is an exploration of the contradiction of the accelerating circulation of goods, services, money—in other words capital—and the restrictions imposed on the movement of people. Its seductive purple cover seems to articulate this paradox: it’s a vibrant, electric color, but also a historically imperial one.
“In a way, Migrant Journal is our calling card,” says Miler. “Our hope as a studio is to collaborate with more institutes and think tanks on information design; there’s a lot of important research around globalization, migration, cities, space, etc. that through neater presentation and approachable design, could reach a wider audience.”
Its form as a print magazine makes the object itself not just a calling card, but a globally distributed good that circulates. And through its distribution, connections are made and networks grow: it was after coming across Migrant Journal in a gallery in Paris that the curators of Europalia Arts Festival commissioned Offshore Studio to create the identity of next year’s event. The international arts festival, established in Brussels in 1969, is held every two years and celebrates an invited country’s cultural heritage: 2018 focuses on Indonesia, with a theme of biodiversity.
“We’re developing an identity that combines the textures of vegetation that Indonesia is home to, and the materials of a global economic system that capitalizes on these raw materials,” says Miler. This “clash” of materials is represented by various 3D illustrated objects, which twist together rough textures of grass or bark with fluid, slippery surfaces evoking plastic or oil.
“We came together to form Offshore because we’re both interested in how graphic design can be used as a tool for communicating socially and politically engaged topics—whether that’s migration or the politics of the internet,” say Seiffert and Miler. “We’re not concerned with graphic design that’s commercial and decorative. That’s why we want to stay small and remain in control; we want to focus our attention on projects occupied with informing.”