Imagine you’re standing in front of a poster on the subway, and as you step forward to inspect it more closely it suddenly roars back at you. The next day you see an ad at the bus stop that explicitly warns against touching it, which of course you do straight away, only to receive a huge, angry puff of smoke in the face. No, it’s not a scene from Alice in Wonderland, just a typical poster by Trapped in Suburbia, an experimental design studio in The Hague that approaches identity and editorial commissions with an acute sense of play.
For them, posters are way more than rectangles of paper that hang on walls. Instead, they’re interactive platforms with lively, unconventional personalities of their own. For example, the studio’s “Shy Poster” closes up like an introverted child when it senses that someone has approached; its “Heavy Petting Poster” purrs like a cat when you stroke it; and its “Can’t Touch This” print contains ink made from gunpowder, hence the aforementioned explosive results of getting too near.
These poster-based experiments aren’t just fun pranks. Trapped in Suburbia are big believers in bringing experience design to 2D print-based project, csites a Confucius quote to explain its lively approach:
Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.
Designer Richard Fussey explains how this age-old pearl of wisdom informs the Trapped in Suburbia trio, which also includes Karin Langeveld and Cuby Gerards. “We want to create work that involves people in a physical way,” says Fussey. “A lot of design simply represents ideas, but we want to embody them.”
Combining new technologies with traditional graphic design formats, like poster design, is the primary way the studio achieves this. And as anyone who has tried to teach young children will know, real understanding happens when information is linked to a game, hence Trapped in Suburbia’s predilection for whimsical and playful concepts. The studio discussed this philosophy in detail in its 2015 monograph, This is Experience Design, which is accompanied by a record.
“We believe that within everyone, even the most serious person, there’s a curious, excitable child,” Fussey continues. The “Sound Poster” series, of which there are currently four very different, distinct versions, are particularly effective at drawing out the inner kid. Whenever the posters are displayed in galleries around The Hague, Fussey attests that “wild dancing is not uncommon.”
For an exhibition called “Graphic Happiness,” Trapped in Suburbia designed not only the identity and spatial layout of the show, but it also built a giant, interactive ball pit (an homage to the fact that The Netherlands is below sea level). Fussey says every single visiter got involved. “We even had the consul of Shanghai diving in!” Play is vital to the studio’s approach because it creates memorable moments—swimming in a blue pool of plastic balls in an art gallery isn’t easily forgotten.
“In a world full of representation, creating work that tries to closely embody an idea means you receive a far more honest and real experience,” says Fussey. “People relate to honesty.” For me, Trapped in Suburbia neatly exemplifies the desire for witty thinking. In Phaidon’s newly revised A Smile in the Mind, author Beryl McAlhone contextualizes the pervasiveness of a “tongue-in-cheek” approach, suggesting that playful branding first became popular after the 2008 economic crash. McAlhone sees the trend as a response, one that emerged from the fact that large companies needed to reflect a sense of openness and honesty to consumers who suddenly became a lot less trusting.
But Trapped in Suburbia take a transparent sense of playfulness to the next level, transforming its design work into products that resemble toys or clever pranks, like the matchbox book and notepad with pages that can be scrunched up into sport balls, perfect for aiming at a wastepaper basket (above). And at a time when there are a lot of people interested in interactive digital experiences, Trapped in Suburbia have found a way to retain a sense of physicality while still taking advantage of technological possibilities.
Most impressively, however, is the way the studio has elegantly—and engagingly—married distinctly 21st-century thinking with good ol’ reliable print. I only hope Trapped in Suburbia’s concepts will spread beyond gallery walls, and that I’ll soon be walking down the street to the sound of musical posters.