“Working in a bakery would be out of the question,” says Antwerp graphic designer Ward Heirwegh, who adores working with cultural institutions because they afford him the luxury of a morning lie-in. “If I wasn’t a designer, I’d be doing some other job where I don’t have to get up early.”

We get the impression it wasn’t extra snooze time that propelled him into the profession, though. His work is crisp, dynamic, clear, or as Heirweigh describes it, “conceptual, vivid, sometimes sloppy, but in a good way—a clean design that afterwards became a little dented.”

Ward Heirwegh, Meeting with my Banker, flag, 2016

It’s clear that a passion for the art world feeds into the work Heirwegh makes, not to mention the way he teaches his graphic design students at St. Lucas School of Arts. “I want them to have a formation and background in graphic design, but overall, an open attitude towards design and the world in general,” he says.

“Graphic design studies don’t necessarily prepare you for a future within design, but they also can be a step towards creativity in different fields of employment. It can be a skill set you learn, but also an outlook on life.”

Heirwegh’s work is a testament to his curiosity about the world around him, coupled with a typically Dutch approach to design, where rigid grids and typographic rules give a sense of thoughtfully investigated academic foundations. For Heirwegh, an interest in the more research-focused facets of design is essential. “I think it’s crucial, but… I try to keep my interest in graphic design as open and volatile as possible. My mind scatters quite fast, and embracing the diversity of our field is kind of working for me. That fairly academic approach is also how I am and what I stand for in life. I prefer for my design choices to have a background, context, and reason to exist, not just mere decorations.”

Ward Heirwegh, Et Cetera, identity and magazines, 2015–2016

Publishing platform Sleeperhold Publications bears much of the fruit of this multidisciplinary approach. Set up by Heirwegh in 2012, the designer acts as “curator, designer, translator, navigator,” which “allows [him] to be [his] own client,” and “try on different hats within the cultural field.” Sleeperhold works in a highly experimental and unusual way, distributing 10 (and only 10) “outputs” with no repetition. These comprise a photobook, a poster set, a deck of cards, a collection of short stories, and five vinyl records, making it at once a book publisher, printer, and record label (it’s on Resident Advisor and everything).

Each project is born from a process of collaboration with other artists, writers, designers, and musicians, and though most of the design work is Heirwegh’s creation, he sometimes teams up with fellow designer (and his girlfriend) Ines Cox. It’s easy to see what brought these two together, from even the most cursory glance at their respective portfolios, and their next collaborative project is creating the graphics for the Belgian Pavilion for the Biennale in Venice this year, which is showing work by artist and photographer Dirk Braeckman.

Ward Heirwegh, Bâtard Festival, festival identity, 2016. In collaboration with Ines Cox

When he can’t be his own client, Heirwegh chooses most often to work in the cultural field, but he’s quick to set limits on what the capacity of a graphic designer should be in such contexts. “We’re working with someone’s material: their art, text, photography… The position of graphic design has always been fluid and somewhat vague: between between creators and shapers,” he says. “We try to add another layer on top of what already exists. And how far we go with this sort of depends on the ‘click’ you have with the client. If you’re on the same wavelength you can build towards a terrific project, but if that wavelength is missing, that doesn’t mean that things won’t work out.

“In some projects you feel respected as a communication specialist. In others you’re kind of wondering why they hired you in the first place. Cultural clients have the advantage of being the most ‘human,’ and that can be a good and bad thing.”