Ghent-based designer Corbin Mahieu talks trust and honest simplicity

In the first instalment of a monthly collaborative series with Onlineprinters that sees us shine a light on the country’s graphic design talent, we discuss intentions, inspirations, ambitions and production with Ghent-based designer Corbin Mahieu.

At its core, how would you define your studio’s artistic intentions and vision?

Whenever I’m meeting a new client I always try to explain my approach on design to them first. Nowadays, I speak of ‘honest simplicity’ and about adding conceptual layers or abstraction to the design. These terms sound very sophisticated, but are in fact the opposite. Not every layer in a design needs to be easy readable but therefore it doesn’t have to look blatant or chaotic. Most clients today want to catch people’s eyes through the most exaggerated looks or fully packed and easy-to-read information. But because every client thinks this way, the results tend to be counterproductive. Being honest with your product and not polluting your communication and design is the better way to go. In terms of colour, a lot of my designs are stripped down to black and white, simply because adding colour sometimes doesn’t add any communication value to the outcome. I like using colour when it fits the concept/story or when it suits the system, for example when working in series.

As a designer, you don’t always have to create what your clients want to see.

Can you talk to us about your approach in general? How do you organize your studio and its workflow? What tools do you use?

A few months ago I bought a house that has an office space. After a few months of renovating I currently work from my home studio.

Can you discuss the internal dynamics of your studio? Who does what?

Currently my studio is a one-man business, although as soon as my studio renovation is complete I would like to accept more interns.

What are the challenges you face as a graphic designer working in Belgium today?

That must be finding the right open-minded clients in a country that is as small as Belgium (or even Flanders). I like to experiment with and develop my vision and skills on design, which means that any client who holds the same ambitions and is able to trust a designer is an ideal one. Another challenge these days is the budget shifts in cultural institutions. Developing and designing communication has become the lowest priority for the management and therefore it’s held down most of the time. These challenges are a good learning school for the young designer, though, showing you how to work with a limited budget and how to communicate with your client. The biggest problem in Belgium – or even in design in general – aren’t these challenges but is rather the approval of unpaid pitches. There’s more and more commissioned work where clients assume that It’s standard to ask the approach of multiple graphic designers, unpaid. Once they’ve received all the designs they usually select one designer that receives the assignment and payment, meaning they don’t recognise or don’t consider the payment of all the other unapproved designs. Not many professions deal with this kind of competition. Could you imagine asking an unpaid pitch to multiple furniture designers and selecting or paying just one? And then there’s the big difference between both professions: a furniture designer can later go on selling his unique products, yet a designer is unable to use his unapproved design afterwards, as they’re made keeping the concert and content of the assignment in mind. Most designers don’t gamble too much on these pitches. And it’s not just the fault of the client, the designer holds just as much responsibility about the collapse of his own profession.

I like to experiment with and develop my vision and skills on design, which means that any client who holds the same ambitions and is able to trust a designer is an ideal client.

To you, what role should graphic design occupy in the community?

There are several viewpoints on graphic design in society. Alongside its communication value, I like to think that the stimulus behind a design also triggers or has an effect to the viewer’s eyes, which means that, as a designer, you don’t always have to create what your clients want to see. Instead, it’s more worthwhile to show them the added value of design, one they didn’t know about. A more personal answer to this question revolves around my own aesthetic tastes: graphic design should counter the visual ‘shouting’, prevalent in everyday design. I’ve always thought of graphic design as a profession and as something that plays a role in our society, that should be approached with seriousness. The designing process should be fun, though, while playing with the idea and – mostly – the forms themselves. For me it’s a constant quest to find the right outcome, and most times I’m just fascinated by how different forms can co-exist on a simple sheet of paper.

On a more personal note, how does your everyday inform your work?

Walking or hiking in visually stimulating cities or even in the calmness of nature always helps me find ideas. Watching movies, exploring art or daydreaming during a lecture also gives you the right appetite to create something new.

What were your first introductions to graphic design?

My grandfather was a painter and my uncle did the same studies as me, at Luca School of Arts in Ghent. As a child I was drawing all day and wanted to become a cartoonist when I was older. It was only in high school that I fully started to appreciate graphic design. Luca School of Arts is a college that gives you the freedom to experiment. The first year they critique your view on design and art and in the following years they guide you to find and formulate your own artistic solutions.

Who were the first clients that took a risk on you?

As a young designer it always feels encouraging to find a client with whom you share ambitions and ideas. This results in a collaboration where you don’t need to compromise and bridge the gap between creative differences. I must say that I have a similar bond with most of my clients, also because it’s this kind of partnership that I am looking for. I’d like to give Designregio Kortrijk a special mention here. A creative platform, they were one of my first clients. Because of its strong cultural network and the trust they showed for my views, they’ve been the most respected and nicest clients I’ve ever worked for. We’re currently also working on a couple of large, progressive projects and collaborations in the Kortrijk area, where I’ve moreover been given the trust to have a more directorial influence.

Who are some of your main clients today?

I have worked with or for the following clients: Designregio Kortrijk (Cultural Platform Kortrijk) Campo (Art Centre Ghent), S.M.A.K. (City Museum of Contemporary Art Ghent), Trendwolves (Trend&Marketing Agency Ghent), DeMorgen (Newspaper), Roots of Minimal (Music Festival Ghent), Fuse (Club Brussels) Buda (Art Centre Kortrijk), LUCA (School of Arts), Urgent (Radiostation Ghent), City of Kortrijk, City of Ghent, Sentimental magazine (London), Wired magazine (San Francisco) and a new nightclub in Antwerp called Trans.

What work would you say you are the proudest of?

I would like to design more publications in the future. I’m still very proud of my first fully-self designed publication for Designregio Kortrijk called Open Design for the Future 2015, which also has a very unorthodox cover, showing the trust I received from the client.

Who would you say are your design mentors?

I studied graphic design at LUCA in Ghent and therefore my mentors, friends and colleagues are Jan&Randoald. After my studies at LUCA and before starting my own practice I worked with them in their studio for a couple of years. I also did an internship at Zak Group in London, where Zak Kyes and Grégory Ambos inspired me to develop my own view on design today. Apart from these mentors there are many more artists, friends and designers that have influenced me over the years, which is also why I try to attend as many lectures or get-togethers as possible.

What does success look like to you?

Having the space and time and, mostly, the trust of clients to help them find the right graphical outcomes, without losing sight of my own visual intentions.

What would you say to the budding graphic designer just about to open his own practice?

Be critical and honest to yourself but also to the people your work for and with.

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