Daan Rietbergen on personal projects, going freelance and what he learned at Studio Dumbar
After five years of learning his craft at Studio Dumbar come mid-2019, Daan Rietbergen launched his own independent practice in his home city of Utrecht in order to pursue his own commercial projects and continue his artistic explorations. His personal projects Nespor and Vimeto capture his love for geometric, grid-based forms. They have made imposing, graffiti-like appearances in multiple European cities and received widespread attention. We caught up with Daan to find out about everything he’s been up to.
EM Hey Daan. Can you tell us about your background as a designer?
DR I’ve been interested in typography since I was 14 years old. It started off with painting graffiti for years and after that, I studied Graphic Design at Gerrit Rietveld Academy and AKV St. Joost. Over the past five years, I worked at Studio Dumbar as a visual designer and I’m working as a freelance designer for a few months now. I try to maintain a good balance between designing visual identities and posters for clients and on the other hand personal typographic projects.
EM When did you know you wanted to be a graphic designer?
DR Before I went to art school, I wasn’t sure what to study and thought about architecture design, but after the first year of studying at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, I was pretty sure that it had to be graphic design. I had been working on letters in the form of graffiti for some years and despite the fact that graffiti was a big part of my life at the time, it still felt more like a hobby and not something I would be doing forever. Even while studying, graphic design was not such a big part of my life, but all that changed when I started working at Studio Dumbar full time. Typography became some sort of obsession I guess. In addition to designing things, I also began to collect all kinds of printed material like books, old typographic matchboxes and posters from designers I admire. I’m a real sucker for print.
I think the most valuable thing I've learned at Studio Dumbar is developing that personal style.
EM Looking back at your time at Studio Dumbar, is there one thing you learnt there that you feel has shaped the way you create?
DR At Studio Dumbar they encourage you to develop your own style as an individual. If you work with designers that have the same style or qualities, there’s not much to learn from each other and the output will probably be more or less the same. Art Director Liza Enebeis is very good at developing and utilising the individual’s qualities. I think the most valuable thing I’ve learned at Studio Dumbar is developing that personal style. Next to that, I have learned to make lots of ugly sketches first, until you have found an interesting route and then explore it, push it and fine-tune it until you have found the perfect graphic language. Perfect in the sense that it meets the client’s demand, but it also makes me happy. That search is always intense and I never really get used to it, but once you’ve found the answer it’s all worth it.
EM How did you find the transition from working full-time to freelance?
DR Really great. In recent years the focus has been mainly on designing, but now I am of course more responsible for all sorts of things next to design, such as acquisition, contact with clients, distribution, accounting and I actually like that balance. It gives me satisfaction to be involved in the entire process from acquiring assignments up to and including delivery. But the best thing is that I now have lots of time for personal projects. It gives me the energy to work on projects that come entirely from myself and about which nobody else has anything to say. These projects in combination with working for clients is for me the perfect balance. Although I like structure, it’s nice that every week is different and I can decide when to do what. The downside is the uncertainty of getting new clients, which can be stressful. And I also miss studio life sometimes, but on the other hand, I now work and collaborate with lots of other designers which is fun as well. Altogether I am very happy with my choice to go my own direction.
EM Has working in isolation changed the way you approach projects?
DR No, I don’t think so. I think the difference is that I now have to rely more on my own decisions because there’s no art direction from someone else. I see that as something positive and it’s good for my development. But I do think it’s important to get some feedback while you’re working. I often discuss projects with my girlfriend, Korinna van Balkom, who is also a graphic designer, and that always helps. When it comes to visual identity, I regularly ask good friends, who aren’t designers, for their opinion. I show them my designs, without giving context, to test whether it is communicating the right thing. And recently I started some freelance projects at other studios, so I’m not that isolated
EM Your first major commercial project since becoming freelance was for De Utrechtse Boekenbar bookshop. Can you tell us about that identity?
DR De Utrechtse Boekenbar is a small bookshop in Utrecht, The Netherlands, specialising in art books and independent magazines. The shop also hosts exhibitions, spoken word nights and book presentations, mostly featuring young local artists. It was exactly the shop that Utrecht needed and because Utrecht is my hometown I was really happy to design their visual identity. I’m always looking for a concept that’s very simple but visually very powerful. In this case, the graphic language is based on the concept of turning the page of a book. Typography becomes an image and despite the simple layout it’s very flexible and you can vary by using different words in different patterns, making it very recognisable. Tim van den Hoed, the owner of De Utrechtse Boekenbar, gave me a lot of freedom designing this visual identity, but also the right constructive feedback. I think a good visual identity is built on trust and good collaboration of designer and client.
When the typographic form is big and placed in public space, it comes to life.
EM How did you Nespor project come into existence?
DR Nespor is a special project for me. Like any other project, I started sketching digitally because I rarely sketch on paper. The result was a high contrast, grid-based bold typeface, with no ‘visual noise’. In that period I was not feeling very well and wanted to stay away from the computer and make physical work with my hands. So I started drawing the characters on paper, with fineliner and ruler, line by line, almost like a meditative way of working. When I felt restless, I tried to put every line on paper with great concentration. The drawings are therefore special to me because each drawing is made in a different emotion. For example, I have drawn some letters several times, and although the shape is the same, each drawing is different. Drawing the characters has retroactively determined and changed the shape of the letters. Then I started making the characters in public space, just like I used to do with graffiti, only now in a different style and taking more account of the environment and placement of the form. Such a large, sometimes aggressive typographic shape looks alienated in the streets. On a screen, the letter often doesn’t do it for me, but when the typographic form is big and placed in public space, it comes to life much more. Right now I feel it’s time to finish the Nespor project. I am therefore working on a large book that contains the complete character set, along with all the drawings and murals. This will be the last Nespor work. I guess.
EM How about Vimeto? Did it evolve from a similar place?
DR Vimeto was more of a follow-up project. Also grid-based, but with different rules. It’s is a variable typographic system based on horizontal and vertical strokes with the same weight. The majority of letterforms we see today consist of a small number of strokes, this, of course, is due to legibility. Vimeto is a typographic experiment, exploring the effects of legibility when the number of strokes is increased. With Nespor, drawing the characters with fineliner retroactively changed the characters. But with Vimeto, making these characters variable in motion, influenced the design process and letterforms in the end. Vimeto is also inspired by Chinese characters. Just like the Nespor characters, I place importance on individual characters having the possibility to exist separately, having the power to stand on their own, similar to characters within the Chinese language.
EM Geometry and structure appear to be important considerations in all of your projects. Why do those qualities resonate with you?
DR Yes, both became super important in my work over the last few years. Funnily enough, this was totally absent from my graffiti work from back in the days, when it was still very free and expressive. Designing a visual identity is also about coming up with rules and creating structure. I even get satisfaction from making guidelines for a visual identity that I designed, because everything comes together. All choices must be well-considered. I also see my typographic projects as some sort of visual identities. The placement, margins and white space are very important and I often place the characters on their own, so that it becomes a stand-alone form, such as a logo. I also set rules for myself when designing the characters. The rules I impose on myself sometimes outweighs the legibility which is an interesting fight.
EM What do you have in the works at the moment?
DR Lots of things. At the moment I’m working on a new typographic project called Krisan. It’s a variable typeface, which I’m also using to make motion designs for really big digital screens in The Netherlands, normally used for advertisement. Next to that a few new visual identity projects and in the coming weeks I’ll collaborate with some really cool designers and illustrators, so I’m super excited for all those projects.