Resurrecting darlings: Ines Cox’s design self-reflections

The Antwerp-based independent graphic design studio’s head honcho Ines Cox (1987) is rightfully celebrated for her abstract, geometric type-based designs. Primarily centred around all things editorial, print and visual identities, her portfolio hosts an impressive mix of both independent and commissioned works in a short space of time. Ever the busy bee, she’s got a hefty year planned ahead, from Peter Jellitsch’s upcoming art book, a new visual identity for Antwerp’s graphic design festival Us by Night, a Dutch translation of Derrida’s The Truth in Painting, a series of flags for a festival in Le Havre, to a lecture at Bern’s Typoclub. From childhood games with a copy machine, to finding inspiration from her students, the unrelentless visual visionary talks us through her portfolio.

What role should graphic design occupy in the community?

When working on commissioned projects, it’s important for me to find the balance between beauty and functionality without making (too many) compromises. Next to that, I like to think that, as a designer, you create time-stamps — a graphic work that is made at a specific moment in time. When confronted by a “new” invasive culture, such as the current digital evolutions, we should always keep an open mind. Instead of turning our heads away, we should eat it, to see how it tastes, and digest it. Appropriating is, in my opinion, an ideal gesture of engagement. I like to integrate visual characteristics of our contemporary way of (digitally) communicating into my work, telling a visual story about our current times. As Ben Schwartz says on the Walker Art Centre’s design blog The Gradient, “In looking at Ines’ work the traces of virtual architecture reveal themselves as both odd and familiar out of their original context. They become artifacts of our current era, traces of her process, and a timestamp as to when the work was made.”

Can you talk to us about your approach in general?

Most of the time my design process starts with some small scribblings and drawings in a sketchbook I carry on me at all times. As is the case at the very beginning of  any commissioned project, while talking to the commissioner and digesting the given challenge. After that I start working digitally, with no constraints, trying almost everything that comes to mind. Slowly I shift my direction towards one specific idea, distilled from my sketching process. Meanwhile, I’ll also start to put an actual presentation together. Of course, it’s constantly changing, but it also helps me to create a clear and logical story.

How do you organise your studio and its workflow?

You could compare my artistic practice to a triangular construction. Once a week I teach Typography at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. I’m now also a resident artistic researcher since 2017: I’m halfway through a two-year practice-based PhD. Most of my time goes towards commissioned work within the artistic and cultural field, where I share a studio space with four other designers. Being a teacher, a researcher and a professional designer at the same time generates interesting connections: these three aspects of my professional life influence each other immensely and help me to stay sharp.

What tools do you use?

I’m a maniac in documenting my design process. I feel it’s necessary to make (almost) every step of the process physical, that’s why I try to print as much as possible. Comparing compositions and eliminating ideas become easier when I can actually put them next to each other on my table. When a project is done I carefully archive all these sketches and prints. I now have about 20 ring-binders full of sketches, test-prints, dummies and unused ideas — I call them my “darlings” (cfr. Kill your Darlings). When browsing through this archive I see all these souvenirs of different thinking processes. Sometimes I’ll find inspiration in them for other projects, something I like to think of as a “resurrection”: some (design) ideas get a second life.

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

It’s a one-woman-show: apart from a few exceptions, I do everything myself. And that’s a conscious decision.

Can you pinpoint a person, or a moment, that was instrumental in making you want to become a graphic designer?

I like to think that it started with the arrival of the copy machine. My father is an accountant who works from his home office, and since I was little I loved to play “office”. I was making piles, walking around with folders, making fake phone-calls with my sister while maniacally marking, stapling and perforating. Then I discovered how the copy machine in my father’s office worked. I started copying random objects, manipulating the darkness of images and making my own printed matter, mostly fanzine-esque. A few years later I realised that what I liked doing could also become my job, so off I went to art school.

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

A difficult, not so lucrative, system for self-employed people. It’s a challenge, but I’m not really complaining.

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

My admiration goes out to all the visual artists that work with presentation and representation — key factes of graphic design, in my opinion. Next to that I just try to have a curious and attentive eye for everything around me.

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

W139: a space for contemporary art in Amsterdam who reached out to Lauren Grusenmeyer and I to design their bi-monthly newsletters. We were still students then so it was very exciting for us to dive into the “real world” while still being in an student environment.

I like finding self-reflective meta-levels in design — a poster design that says something about poster design, for example.

Who are some of your main clients today?

Some recent clients: Mu.Zee, STRT Kit, Belgian Pavilion Venice Biennial, Borger, Us By Night, Peter Jellitsch and Frederik Heyman.

What work would you say you are the proudest of?

At the moment I like to look back at the publication project done for STRT Kit. As a platform providing support for visual artists working and/or living in Antwerp, it’s a sort of residency program where young artists have the time and space to work intensively on their artistic practice. STRT Kit invited me to co-curate and design a publication to conclude their 2016 program. After meeting all of the individual artists, we started to question the format of just one archival publication. We decided on a method focussing on the artists’ practice, rather than the story of the institution itself. The simple decision of producing five individual publications, instead of one, proved to be the ideal answer. By doing so, the artists would have a (smaller and more personal) document that functioned as a specific representation of their artistic practice. To create a visual unity between these individual stories, I established certain  parameters: each publication had to be the same size, printed on the same paper and have the same typeface used. Next to that, I proposed a line drawing to each artist that, for me, represented the content of the publication. This again created a unity between the covers while simultaneously allowing for more freedom inside. One could look upon these as five unique artist editions. Finally, the publication is wrapped in a plastic cover which features the institution’s credo as well as a text regarding the publications’ aim. I was interested in finding a way to physically bind everything together  while functioning as an introduction in itself; hence designing a text spread on a plastic bag. When folded it becomes a cover, wrapped around the five different chapters. We’ll start working on the 2017 edition soon.

Who would you say are your design mentors?

I really enjoy looking at work designed by (my) students. Most times they’re constructed in a fictional environment and carry a certain element of experimentation and freedom, especially on the medium itself. I like finding self-reflective meta-levels in design — a poster design that says something about poster design, for example. Something which is more common in a school environment. Teaching is also learning.

What does success look like to you?

Being able to say no.

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

Working without compromising generates more uncompromising works.