“One must see everything,” says the great, cunning French novelist Raymond Queneau in his masterful Exercises of Style, a book of 99 retellings of the same short story. There’s always more than one way to see something, just like there’s always more than one way of interpreting a brief, something Berlin-based graphic designer Polina Joffe learned early on in her career.
As a student in London researching the dynamics of visible language and the relationship between word and image, Joffe took heed of Queneau, translating his ideas into design. She used typography and layout in an attempt to “see everything” and communicate a multiplicity of meanings—not just the plot you’d like to see. It’s a methodology she later applied at her first job out of school, working in-house at UK’s Tate galleries, and it now informs her freelance graphic design practice in Berlin, where Joffe works on identity and branding projects for a mostly arts and culture clientele.
But no matter what client or what job she’s tackling, an emphasis on the written word is what drives Joffe. When she begins a new brief she starts by writing down buzzwords and then focuses on drawing out the visual equivalents. It was after first reading Franz Kafka’s In the Penal Colony that these typographic, or word-based, explorations first began to take shape. Kafka’s gruesome narrative describes the use of an execution device that carves the sentence of a condemned prisoner into his skin over the course of 12 hours, eventually resulting in his death. When Joffe first read it, she was struck by the story’s dark, slow-burning, Biblical heft and typographic themes. Her first editorial interpretation of the work, 12 Hours, was made of 12 Bible-shaped books—each representing one hour of the machine’s work. The first book is a series of lightly pierced holes, in the second the holes pierce a little deeper, and by the 12th book, the pages are deeply cut, representing the final fatal hour of the machine. The wordless books retell Kafka’s story through an evocative, silent language of their own.
The best stories have more than one meaning though. A second editorial interpretation celebrated the dark humor and playful, satirical weight of Kafka’s words: Joffe took thin Bible paper, formed it into French folds, and colored the insides with jubilant hues. A series of piercings underlining Kafka’s text then playfully reveal the color if caught in the right light—further evocation of Queneau’s philosophy that there’s always more than one way to read a text.
Joffe’s most recent work for fashion designer Feng Chen Wang, which she did in collaboration with Warsaw-based Kamil Korolczuk, was also devised through her typographic, word-based thinking. For the look book for Wang’s latest collection, Joffe wrote down the words she felt best described the clothes, like “hospital,” “white,” “bold,” “man,” and “zippers.” Then she transformed this into an editorial language of space and stillness. She chose a plasticky paper stock to evoke materials you’d find in a hospital (like rubber gloves and IV drips), and there’s an understated sense of cleanliness that permeates the pages.
For Wang’s branding, Joffe and Korolczuk invented a kind of false typography for the logo. A block with chiseled forms could be a Chinese symbol (referencing Chang’s heritage) but also references the choppiness of her understated designs.
Thinking typographically, finding the moment where language and visuals blur and intersect, and deriving an alphabet from the mood and words that define a client is Joffe’s approach—a doctrine developed during personal research, now applied seamlessly to client-based projects.