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TED2010

Marian Bantjes: Intricate beauty by design

February 12, 2010

In graphic design, Marian Bantjes says, throwing your individuality into a project is heresy. She explains how she built her career doing just that, bringing her signature delicate illustrations to storefronts, valentines and even genetic diagrams.

Marian Bantjes - Designer, illustrator, typographer
At the intersection of word and form, Marian Bantjes makes her art. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm going to begin by reciting a poem.
00:16
"Oh beloved dentist:
00:20
Your rubber fingers in my mouth ...
00:22
your voice so soft and muffled ...
00:25
Lower the mask, dear dentist,
00:29
lower the mask."
00:31
(Laughter)
00:34
Okay, in this presentation,
00:36
I'm going to be putting the right side of your brains
00:38
through a fairly serious workout.
00:40
You're going to see a lot of imagery,
00:42
and it's not always connected to what I'm talking about,
00:44
so I need you to kind of split your brains in half
00:47
and let the images flow over one side
00:50
and listen to me on the other.
00:53
So I am one of those people
00:55
with a transformative personal story.
00:57
Six years ago,
01:00
after 20 years in graphic design and typography,
01:02
I changed the way I was working
01:05
and the way most graphic designers work
01:07
to pursue a more personal approach to my work,
01:10
with only the humble attempt
01:15
to simply make a living doing something that I loved.
01:17
But something weird happened.
01:21
I became bizarrely
01:24
popular.
01:26
My current work
01:28
seems to resonate with people
01:30
in a way that has so taken me by surprise
01:32
that I still frequently wonder
01:35
what in the hell is going on.
01:37
And I'm slowly coming to understand
01:39
that the appeal of what I do
01:41
may be connected to why I do it.
01:43
These days, I call myself a graphic artist.
01:47
So where my work as a graphic designer
01:51
was to follow strategy,
01:54
my work now
01:56
follows my heart
01:58
and my interests
02:00
with the guidance of my ego
02:02
to create work that is mutually beneficial to myself and a client.
02:05
Now, this is heresy
02:09
in the design world.
02:11
The ego is not supposed
02:13
to be involved in graphic design.
02:15
But I find that for myself,
02:18
without exception,
02:20
the more I deal with the work
02:22
as something of my own,
02:24
as something that is personal,
02:26
the more successful it is
02:28
as something that's compelling,
02:30
interesting and sustaining.
02:33
So I exist somewhat outside of the mainstream
02:36
of design thinking.
02:38
Where others might look at measurable results,
02:40
I tend to be interested in more ethereal qualities,
02:43
like "Does it bring joy?"
02:46
"Is there a sense of wonder?"
02:48
and "Does it invoke curiosity?"
02:50
This is a scientific diagram, by the way.
02:53
I don't have time to explain it,
02:56
but it has to do with DNA and RNA.
02:58
So I have a particular imaginative approach to visual work.
03:01
The things that interest me when I'm working
03:04
are visual structure,
03:07
surprise
03:09
and anything that requires figuring things out.
03:11
So for this reason, I'm particularly drawn
03:14
to systems and patterns.
03:16
I'm going to give you a couple of examples of how my brain works.
03:19
This is a piece that I did for
03:22
The Guardian newspaper in the U.K.
03:24
They have a magazine that they call G2.
03:26
And this is for their puzzle special
03:30
in 2007.
03:32
And puzzling it is.
03:34
I started by creating a series of tiling units.
03:36
And these tiling units, I designed
03:39
specifically so that they would contain
03:41
parts of letterforms within their shapes
03:43
so that I could then
03:46
join those pieces together
03:48
to create letters and then words
03:50
within the abstract patterning.
03:52
But then as well, I was able to
03:55
just flip them, rotate them
03:57
and combine them in different ways
03:59
to create either regular patterns
04:01
or abstract patterns.
04:03
So here's the word puzzle again.
04:06
And here it is with the abstract surrounding.
04:09
And as you can see, it's extremely difficult to read.
04:12
But all I have to do is
04:16
fill certain areas of those letterforms
04:18
and I can bring those words out of
04:21
the background pattern.
04:23
But maybe that's a little too obvious.
04:25
So then I can add some color in with the background
04:27
and add a bit more color in with the words themselves,
04:30
and this way, working with the art director,
04:33
I'm able to bring it to just the right point
04:35
that it's puzzling for the audience --
04:38
they can figure out that there's something they have to read --
04:41
but it's not impossible for them to read.
04:43
I'm also interested in working with
04:48
unusual materials
04:50
and common materials in unusual ways.
04:52
So this requires figuring out how to
04:55
get the most out of something's innate properties
04:57
and also how to bend it to my will.
05:00
So ultimately,
05:02
my goal is to create something unexpected.
05:04
To this end, I have worked in sugar
05:09
for Stefan Sagmeister,
05:11
three-time TED speaker.
05:13
And this project began essentially
05:15
on my kitchen table.
05:17
I've been eating cereal for breakfast
05:19
all of my life.
05:21
And for that same amount of time,
05:23
I've been spilling sugar on the table
05:25
and just kind of playing with it with my fingers.
05:27
And eventually I used this technique
05:30
to create a piece of artwork.
05:32
And then I used it again to create
05:34
six pieces for Stefan's book,
05:36
"Things in My Life I've Learned So Far."
05:38
And these were created
05:41
without sketches, just freehand,
05:43
by putting the sugar down on a white surface
05:45
and then manipulating it to get
05:47
the words and designs out of it.
05:49
Recently, I've also made some
05:52
rather highbrow baroque borders
05:54
out of lowbrow pasta.
05:56
And this is for a chapter that I'm doing in a book,
05:58
and the chapter is on honor.
06:01
So it's a little bit unexpected,
06:03
but, in a way, it refers
06:05
to the macaroni art
06:07
that children make for their parents
06:09
or they make in school and give to their parents,
06:11
which is in itself a form of honor.
06:13
This is what you can do with some household tinfoil.
06:17
Okay, well, it's what I can do with some household tinfoil.
06:22
(Laughter)
06:25
I'm very interested in wonder,
06:31
in design as an impetus to inquiring.
06:34
To say I wonder is to say
06:38
I question, I ask.
06:40
And to experience wonder is to experience awe.
06:42
So I'm currently working on a book,
06:46
which plays with both senses of the word,
06:48
as I explore some of my own ideas
06:50
and inquiries
06:52
in a visual display of rather
06:54
peacock-like grandeur.
06:56
The world is full of wonder.
06:59
But the world of graphic design,
07:01
for the most part, is not.
07:04
So I'm using my own writings
07:06
as a kind of testing ground for a book that has
07:08
an interdependency between word and image
07:10
as a kind of seductive force.
07:13
I think that one of the things
07:16
that religions got right
07:18
was the use of visual wonder
07:20
to deliver a message.
07:22
I think this true marriage of art and information
07:24
is woefully underused in adult literature,
07:27
and I'm mystified as to
07:30
why visual wealth is not more commonly used
07:32
to enhance intellectual wealth.
07:35
When we look at works like this,
07:38
we tend to associate them with children's literature.
07:40
There's an implication that ornamental graphics
07:43
detract from the seriousness of the content.
07:46
But I really hope to have the opportunity
07:49
to change that perception.
07:51
This book is taking rather a long time,
07:54
but I'm nearly done.
07:58
For some reason, I thought it would be a good idea
08:01
to put an intermission
08:03
in my talk.
08:05
And this is it -- just to give you and me a moment to catch up.
08:07
(Laughter)
08:10
So I do these valentines.
08:18
I've been sending out valentines
08:21
on a fairly large scale since 2005.
08:23
These are my valentines
08:26
from 2005 and 2006.
08:28
And I started by
08:30
doing just a single image like this
08:32
and sending them out to each person.
08:34
But in 2007,
08:36
I got the cockamamie idea
08:38
to hand-draw each valentine
08:40
for everyone on my mailing list.
08:43
I reduced my mailing list to 150 people.
08:46
And I drew each person
08:50
their own unique valentine
08:52
and put their name on it
08:55
and numbered it and signed it and sent it out.
08:57
Believe it or not, I devised this
08:59
as a timesaving method.
09:01
I was very busy in the beginning of that year,
09:05
and I didn't know when I was going to find time
09:07
to design and print a single valentine.
09:09
And I thought that I could kind of do this piecemeal
09:12
as I was traveling.
09:14
It didn't exactly work out that way.
09:17
There's a longer story to this,
09:20
but I did get them all done in time,
09:22
and they were extremely well received.
09:25
I got an almost 100 percent response rate.
09:28
(Laughter)
09:30
And those who didn't respond
09:32
will never receive anything from me ever again.
09:34
(Laughter)
09:36
Last year,
09:42
I took a more conceptual approach to the valentine.
09:44
I had this idea that I wanted people
09:47
to receive a kind of
09:49
mysterious love letter,
09:52
like a found fragment in their mailbox.
09:54
I wanted it to be something
09:57
that was not addressed to them
09:59
or signed by me,
10:01
something that caused them to wonder
10:03
what on Earth this thing was.
10:05
And I specifically wrote
10:08
four pages that don't connect.
10:10
There were four different versions of this.
10:13
And I wrote them
10:15
so that they begin in the middle of a sentence,
10:17
end in the middle of a sentence.
10:19
And they're on the one hand, universal,
10:21
so I avoid specific names or places,
10:24
but on the other hand, they're personal.
10:27
So I wanted people to really get the sense that
10:29
they had received something that could have been
10:32
a love letter to them.
10:34
And I'm just going to read one of them to you.
10:36
"You've never really been sure of this,
10:39
but I can assure you that this quirk
10:42
you're so self-conscious of
10:44
is intensely endearing.
10:46
Just please accept that this piece of you
10:48
escapes with your smile,
10:50
and those of us who notice
10:52
are happy to catch it in passing.
10:54
Time spent with you is like chasing and catching small birds,
10:56
but without the scratches and bird shit."
10:59
(Laughter)
11:01
"That is to say,
11:03
your thoughts and words flit and dart,
11:05
disconcertedly elusive at times,
11:07
but when caught and examined --
11:09
ahh, such a wonder,
11:11
such a delightful reward.
11:13
There's no passing time with you,
11:15
only collecting --
11:17
the collecting of moments with the hope for preservation
11:19
and at the same time release.
11:21
Impossible? I don't think so.
11:24
I know this makes you embarrassed.
11:26
I'm certain I can see you blushing.
11:28
But I just have to tell you because
11:30
sometimes I hear your self-doubt,
11:32
and it's so crushing to think
11:34
that you may not know how truly wonderful you are,
11:36
how inspiring and delightful
11:38
and really, truly the most completely ..."
11:41
(Laughter)
11:44
(Applause)
11:46
So Valentine's Day
11:52
is coming up in a couple of days,
11:54
and these are currently arriving
11:56
in mailboxes all around the world.
11:58
This year, I got, what I really have to say
12:01
is a rather brilliant idea,
12:03
to laser cut
12:06
my valentines
12:09
out of used Christmas cards.
12:11
So I solicited friends
12:14
to send me their used Christmas cards,
12:16
and I made 500 of these.
12:19
Each one of them is completely different.
12:22
I'm just really, really thrilled with them.
12:24
I don't have that much else to say,
12:26
but they turned out really well.
12:30
I do spend a lot of time on my work.
12:35
And one of the things that I've been thinking about recently
12:38
is what is worth while.
12:41
What is it that's worth spending my time on
12:43
and my life on in this way?
12:45
Working in the commercial world,
12:48
this is something that I do have to struggle with at times.
12:50
And yes, sometimes I'm swayed by money.
12:54
But ultimately, I don't consider that a worthy goal.
12:57
What makes something worthwhile for me
13:00
is the people I work for or with,
13:03
the conditions I work under
13:06
and the audience that I'm able to reach.
13:08
So I might ask: "Who is it for?"
13:11
"What does it say?"
13:13
and "What does it do?"
13:15
You know, I have to tell you, it's really difficult
13:18
for someone like me to come up on stage
13:21
at this conference
13:24
with these unbelievably brilliant minds,
13:26
who are thinking these
13:29
really big-picture,
13:31
world-changing, life-changing
13:33
ideas and technologies.
13:36
And it's very, very common
13:41
for designers and people in the visual arts
13:44
to feel that we're
13:47
not contributing enough,
13:49
or worse, that all we're doing is
13:52
contributing to landfill.
13:54
Here I am; I'm showing you
13:56
some pretty visuals
13:58
and talking about aesthetics.
14:00
But I've come to believe that
14:04
truly imaginative visual work
14:06
is extremely important in society.
14:09
Just in the way that I'm inspired
14:12
by books
14:14
and magazines of all kinds,
14:16
conversations I have, movies,
14:18
so I also think,
14:21
when I put visual work out there into the mass media,
14:23
work that is interesting, unusual,
14:26
intriguing,
14:29
work that maybe opens up that sense
14:31
of inquiry in the mind,
14:33
that I'm seeding the imagination of the populace.
14:36
And you just never know who
14:40
is going to take something from that
14:42
and turn it into something else,
14:44
because inspiration
14:47
is cross-pollinating.
14:49
So a piece of mine
14:51
may inspire a playwright
14:53
or a novelist or a scientist,
14:55
and that in turn may be the seed
14:58
that inspires a doctor
15:01
or a philanthropist
15:03
or a babysitter.
15:05
And this isn't something that you can quantify
15:07
or track or measure,
15:09
and we tend to undervalue things in society
15:12
that we can't measure.
15:14
But I really believe
15:16
that a fully operating, rich society
15:18
needs these seeds coming from all directions
15:21
and all disciplines
15:23
in order to keep the gears of inspiration
15:25
and imagination
15:28
flowing and cycling and growing.
15:30
So that's why I do what I do,
15:35
and why I spend so much time and effort on it,
15:38
and why I work in the commercial, public sphere,
15:42
as opposed to the isolated, private sphere
15:45
of fine art:
15:48
because I want as many people as possible
15:50
to see my work, notice it, be drawn into it,
15:53
and be able to take something from it.
15:56
And I actually really feel that it's worthwhile
15:59
to spend my valuable
16:02
and limited time on this Earth
16:04
in this way.
16:06
And I thank you for allowing me to show it to you.
16:08
(Applause)
16:11

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Marian Bantjes - Designer, illustrator, typographer
At the intersection of word and form, Marian Bantjes makes her art.

Why you should listen

Organic, logical, complex, beautiful: Marian Bantjes' illustrations draw on her deep relationship with letterforms (she was a typesetter for ten years). With flowing lines, filigree and generosity, she plays in the space between a and b and c. Her illustration work has appeared in Wired, Wallpaper, the Walrus and many other magazines and newspapers worldwide, and once took over Saks Fifth Avenue top to bottom.
 
She's also a blunt and funny writer on design and other matters, an advocate for self-reinvention, self-education (and formal education) and continuous self-appraisal. She works from her home on an island near Vancouver and sends legendary Valentine's Day cards.

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