Since forming in 1977, the punkest of all years, Studio Dumbar went on to cement itself as one of the most influential graphic design agencies of the 20th century. Its distinctly off-kilter style—all wildly disorientating, often huge typography, and supremely confident logo marks—shaped how we view “Dutch” design, and proved that branding projects for big clients can be far from boring. As Creative Review’s editor Patrick Burgoyne summarized of the studio’s work ford VBMS (people who lay cables, for the uninitiated), their work can often be characterized by “No fancy patterns, no gradients or clumsy, literal graphic allusions… just great, bold type applied using a simple black and silver color palette.”
Dumbar himself retired from the agency in 2003, and in 2011 Liza Enebeis stepped in as the studio’s third creative director. For her, Studio Dumbar doesn’t have a particular “style” or approach, rather it prides itself on a non-hierarchical setup. “How we work here is relatively flat, we say we work like a pancake,” she says. “I’m the creative director, but it’s not my intention to say ‘this has to look like this’ or ‘this is my idea.’”
For all its quirky beginnings and resolutely unique, democratic approach to design, Studio Dumbar is now a global agency, with outposts in China and Korea. More recently, it was brought into the fold of digital agency network Dept. We’re told that the studio will “continue to operate under its own label and management, as a member of Dept’s network of agencies,” but what does this really mean for the cherished “indie?”
The most pressing change, for now, seems to be location. When I spoke with Enebeis last week, it was the morning after the big move to a new studio in Rotterdam, and the beginning of a shift for the agency from working in a room with only their 18 members, to sharing a much larger space with much of the rest of the Dept teams. “We were always used to having our own space, but now that we’re sharing with about 50 other colleagues there are different cultures coming together,” she says. “But we all have respect for each other’s work… there’s a lot more influences now, which means we have other people looking at design in a different way.”
The decision to become part of the Dept family wasn’t an easy one, according to Enebeis. She says that their reasoning for the merger was to allow Studio Dumbar to more effectively work with clients on their branding’s digital touchpoints. “Over the last few years the clients’ first question is always ‘What does our brand look like online and how does it behave,’” says Enebeis. “We’d always partner with another specialist, but we thought this was a good way of building that into the studio without changing our DNA.”
It’s not just Studio Dumbar that doesn’t want its DNA to change. Thanks to the visibility of their projects, as well as their skill—Dumbar’s designs grace both the Dutch national railway and police service—the agency has achieved that rare state of being both critically acclaimed and popular. Yet Enebeis is modest about being at the helm of such a renowned agency. “It makes me very nervous!” she laughs. “I try not to think about it otherwise you start thinking too much. You wouldn’t make anything at all if you just think about things like that, you wouldn’t dare.”
Enebeis cites “cost” as being one of the reasons her studio’s work has stood the test of time (the police identity, for instance, has been in place since 1994), but there’s certainly more to it than that. “A good identity has to transcend stylistic trends, but of course you can’t avoid them as we all live in the here and now, and look at what we see around us,” she says.
One way Studio Dumbar tries to eschew trends in favor of unabashed creativity is in its hiring process. “Most people who join are straight out of college, and I’m here to coach them and help them find their own voice,” says Enebeis. “The studio’s style is more dependent on the designers we have here than being down to one person leading everyone else. Why do we hire graduates? Because they’re right at the beginning; they’re completely free in their thinking. Of course experience is very good, but sometimes it means you take shortcuts or stop daring. When you’re straight out of college, everything is possible.”
If Enebeis’ energy and optimism are anything to go by—and judging by how friendly and open she is, they should be—we needn’t fear that Studio Dumbar’s work and attitudes will change, just because their office space and shareholders have. It seems to be a concern for the design team that’s secondary to thinking about what it should be thinking about: the boundless possibilities of the industry it finds itself at the centre of.
For Studio Dumbar, the time is now for huge changes in how designers approach branding, digital and the marriage of the two. “We’re really at the beginning: there’s so much more to be done with the behavior of brands online in relation to motion, and how with VR and AR the branding is almost invisible,” says Enebeis. “How does that brand make you feel? There’s a lot to discover. It’s an exciting time for everybody. Things are moving quite fast, and I’m looking forward to it.”