“A rare case of a graphic designer who can think,” is the half-joking, all-affectionate introduction to Sara De Bondt, from Pentagram’s Marina Willer. Belgian-born De Bondt has quietly, diligently made a name for herself as an exemplary typography-led practitioner over the last 10 years, working mainly with cultural clients like MIT Press, the Barbican, and the ICA. Willer’s gushing comes ahead of a talk at the Pentagram London office, where we caught up with De Bondt to chat about “assholes,” balancing commissions and a publishing company, the signs of a bad client, and more.
De Bondt lived in London for 13 years, but since having two young children, has recently moved back to her native Belgium, to Antwerp. That 13-year stint was unplanned: she moved to the English capital on the off chance she might be offered a job, arrived with one suitcase, and soon found it to be the best place to build her career. Daniel Eatock is the man to blame. A friend suggested similarities in the two designers’ work, so she emailed him, only to be told “we’re not looking for interns.” “I’m looking for a job,” she replied. Eatock capitulated, and for a while, that was that.
As she grew in confidence and experience, De Bondt decided she was “fed up of having a boss” and adhering to rules that included, she jokes, only being allowed to use Akzidenz–Grotesk. However, her crisp, type-based, and deliberate style seems to flourish with limitations, be it in grids, color palettes, processes, or timeframes. “A production schedule can often influence the final result more than taste or style, it’s about the time you have,” she says.
Working to tight deadlines is certainly something De Bondt knows a thing or two about. As well as helming her eponymous studio, since 2008 the designer has also run non-profit publishers Occasional Papers with her partner. This means commissioning, editing, researching, and designing each of the books themselves. Oh, and she’s also studying for a PhD. How does she do it? “I don’t have any advice,” she says. “I’m not a good example. It’s kind of stupid I guess!”
Occasional Papers is a gorgeous little venture that aims to highlight unsung heroes of art and design culture. Among their previous publications are examinations of Ken Briggs, the designer of posters and programme brochures for London’s National Theatre in the 1960s and 1970s; John Latham; British Benedictine monk, scholar, translator, concrete poet and artist Dom Sylvester Houédard; and Richard Hollis, whose work characterised the aesthetic of the Whitechapel Gallery, and who at 80 years old decided he would design this recent volume of his writings. “There are too many books and exhibitions about the same artists and designers,” says De Bondt. “We want to publish books about those who are less well known.”
De Bondt frequently discusses the fracture in art and design history between those who are good at talking about their work, and those whose work is just good, but lack any marketing nous. It’s a problem that crops up in her own personal history: before starting her degree she was told that she was “too shy” to be a graphic designer. How does she think “shyness” helps or hinders her career? “You do have to get out there and defend yourself–people who are not so good at that have disappeared in history,” she says. “We didn’t want to make books that are just 100 business cards with beautiful images.
“We are always aware of the same famous blokes who were good at promoting themselves, so being able to sell yourself is really important in design. Some people are better than others, but a lot of designers I know are quite shy. You can be shy and then be sort of acting or playing when you go and see a client. I try not to be embarrassed about being shy and just be myself. I try and offset that sort of ego thing, especially today when we have too many of these bullies and assholes running the world. It can be good to be the opposite of that.”
It’s interesting she highlights the dominance of famous “blokes” in design history. A few years back, she worked with a colleague to collect and study statistics on the number of female and male design students, then look at the number of articles written about them, how many exhibitions they were shown in, and how many were AGI members. “It was really disgusting to see,” she says of the male-bias she discovered.
One of De Bondt’s favourite projects is her ongoing work with Weils, a contemporary art gallery in Belgium which has been a client for the past 10 years. For the designer, this relationship has been a pleasurable and fruitful one thanks to the faith that comes with a good client. “You need trust and clarity,” she says.
“Often you have to ask for a brief, but you need to know what people want, and have clarity on things like pay and good guidelines. Some projects drag on and on and on, and you just don’t have the energy anymore, but clients with an attitude aren’t necessarily a problem. Sometimes it can be fun to work with someone who has a big ego. The worst thing is just if people don’t trust you or believe in you: then there’s almost no point in doing it.”
Now that she’s balancing client work with working for herself, how does it all work being your own client? “It’s really hard to design for yourself, you get insecure. For a client you spend so much energy being all-singing, all-dancing, but if you’re planning and editing it all yourself you don’t have as much time to think about the design.”
If her work for Occasional Papers is the product of designing on limited time, it’s testament to De Bondt’s level of skill and diligence. Often minimal, always slick, and frequently challenging (one project for the V&A involved individually rusting each letter of the exhibition graphics), her work ensures her a place in a lineage of European design history which her publishing venture is helping to write. For De Bondt, shyness, as The Smiths pointed out, certainly is nice, and if the meek’s work is all as good as this, we’re happy for them to inherit the earth.