Atelier Brenda is a merged alter ego for the two designers: Nana Esi and Sophie Keij. They are based in Brussels and practice collaboration, research and role play focusing on graphic design and creative direction. Their approach to graphic design is formed by a combination of nostalgia, tradition, zeitgeist and method acting, performing with spatial design, dreams, spirituality and the ethereal and playful typography.
- N.E. → Nana Esi
- S.K. → Sophie Keij
Can you present yourself and describe your collective and practice?
N.E. We are Atelier Brenda. For some jobs we work with Amélie Bakker. The three of us form another group. Our practice is multiple because we are not only graphic designers. Firstly, Sophie and I started working and focusing more on spatial things: installations, decors and other 3D objects. It is only later that we developed more graphical works. But it might change again in a few years.
N.E. At the moment we mostly have music, arts and culture related work. As a separate practice I design a lot of record covers as well (Stroom). Sophie just finished two books also in collaboration with other people.
Overall we don’t do things following a straight path. But our common pattern is to try to do as much different things as possible. Otherwise we get bored.
So, you two are Atelier Brenda. And what about when you work as a trio with Amélie Bakker or someone else? Do you use another name?
N.E. We just call ourselves Atelier Brenda + Amélie Bakker. The reason why we sometimes work with three people is because when we finished school, we were already working and wanted to create a website to show the work we had already done. We were thinking of creating a platform for creative people. Such platforms already exist but we did not know any in Belgium. So we thought “OK let’s just find someone else who wants to work together on this platform.”
So we started out with a couple of people. Some were more motivated than others and in the end we were the three of us. We finished the website, put up our works and not long after that Beurschouwburg contacted us.
So you are a kind of effervescent and organic group. Do you have a specific status working together? Are you independent or is Atelier Brenda a VZW, a cooperative...?
S.K. No, I’m an independent.
N.E. I am for now working with Smart, but I’m changing to independent as well.
S.K. And you, are you independant or are you also working with Smart?
Sarah and I are at Smart but it’s not the case for every member of OSP.
OSP is a VZW/ASBL. After 6 years of being all different flies, totally independant in that way, we realized it was important to structure a bit. To ask subsidies, to have a common frame as a group, but also to start to think about what does it mean to be a collective from this angle. What kind of structure do we need? How can we become more stable and could we even become employee of our group? Just to be a bit more sustainable.
Actually, OSP started here in a way (in the Jan Van Eyck Academy), in the sense that it has been founded by Femke Snelting and Harrisson who made the first printparty here. Structurally it started in the frame of Constant VZW, which is an organization for art, media and digital culture, engaging intersectional researches in the frame of feminism, copyleft and Free/Libre & Open Source Software. Separetely, Femke and Harrisson were doing the graphic design for this organization and decided at some point, in order to fit Constant’s projects, that they should also work with the same tools and software they were talking about in the content they were laying out. For some time it was a working group within Constant. A lot of people joined year after years and at some point it became a separate project.
But for a long time we were just an informal association (Association de faits in French). And then we started our ASBL/VZW a few years ago.
What about you, would you consider changing your status and leaving the Smart system, to become independent or to create a common structure?
N.E. It changes from time to time. As a graphic designer, working in the cultural field with the budgets that are attached to it –especially when you work in collaboration with other people– dealing with those budgets and make everyone happy is not easy. There are sometimes creative ways of managing a budget or trading work but it’s fairly new to find comfortable ways of doing and fitting for everybody.
For the position that I’m in right now, I don’t believe in our current cultural and economic system. In our case in particular for small independents. People want more independence and need space to grow, work, fail, gain or reboot.
Independent of the independent status… (laughs)
N.E. Yeah, somewhere in-between. In the Netherlands for instance, when you earn under a certain amount per year, you pay less taxes. Here in Belgium the amount of taxes that you pay as independent is insane.
I don’t believe in it. They should look more specifically in ranges of yearly income that you make. Now if you earn 300.000€ a year, you pay somewhat the same taxes as somebody who earns 30.000€ a year.
OK. So you’re in the process or reflection for a better solution.
And how do you engage with your partners? Which kind of work relationship do you frame with them and/or do you set tools like contracts to commit with them? By partners I mean people who you work with, the ones that finance you. Commissioners, customers, clients, partners etc. In our case for example, we were interested to change a little bit the language and stop to talk about “clients”, “deadlines”… or this kind of service-like vocabulary. For instance, we rather talk about “collaborators” than “customers” and we wrote a collaboration agreement as a contract explaining the way we work.
S.K. It depends on every partner, no? For one client it’s very loose in a way. Because they text, use WhatsApp or call you. It’s almost a personal relationship.
N.E. With one client team for instance, we don’t use emails anymore but Slack, different social groups and dropboxes. We always try different methods and tools with them. The group is always changing there as well but now we have only contact with one person and she is amazing.
This institution often proposes to its artists or partners to work in situ offering a working space. In general, I guess working in the same location than your partner also shape the work relationship, doesn’t it?
N.E. The whole process is positive but it doesn’t only depend on that. The budget can also have its effect. Working at the same place makes us take decisions together more easily. For instance, it often leads us to commonly decide to alter design and prices, this is convenient for both parties.
We changed our prices because things were changing all the time through the year. Different formats, content and communication items. For example, advertisement changed to posters because there was more content than originally planned.
So does it mean that you are constantly changing your type of contract or offer?
S.K. We can already feel the amount of changes from the way they review what they need in term of communication.
N.E. Actually I would prefer a more transparent collaboration, where we could know what’s the total budget and see together with them what is possible to do within those constraints.
So, what’s in the contract then concretely?
N.E.Kunstenpunt provides basic contracts and we used one of those in the beginning as a template.
N.E.If we look at the contract for another client for example, it’s organised this way:
- what the project is about
- how long the collaboration will last
- what the payment will be
- how much percentage
- when do we stop
Did they asked for it, or was it you?
S.K. They asked for it. But when we do long term projects it’s just a necessity.
Yes it is, but we conducted four deep interviews until now and you are the first one who really have a contract on paper.
S.K. I think the most important is securing yourself during the proposal phase. Because you know some problems recur with collaborators or clients, which is normal. People sometimes act as if everybody reacts the best way with the others, but there is always something, little conflicts. Not like extremely negative but there is always a conflict in a way.
Do you mean that some people are surprised about the total invoice?
S.K. Or they are surprised when they realise they can’t send you a 6th correction phase and still pay the original price for the work.
N.E. These are the things we put in the contract. We also try to include extra expenses if necessary.
N.E. Sometimes it’s part of the job and sometimes not. And sometimes work is planned and sometimes unexpected. So sometimes there is still a little bit of surprise on what will appear on the invoice.
S.K. I already had some arguments when extra invoicing. Some projects have many partners and if some of them don’t communicate well or do their job it could end up with two extra full weeks of corrections.
So how would you have dealt with it? Because it’s sometimes difficult to say “no” to extra corrections.
S.K. Sometimes putting energy in a conflict is not going to change anything, so you just do it. In fact you can see it quite fast if they will cross some lines. That’s why I put so much emphasis on the proposal round because the more you talk with the client in the beginning the more you get an idea of what the scope of the work will be. And you can already predict a little bit. Like a booklet with a lot of text, you know already there will be many corrections rounds. So you make sure that it is already mentioned before in the quote and most importantly to make them aware of it.
N.E. In some situations you take a step back and ask yourself how much attention and effort you are willing to put in that work. At some point it became too much and I started to read some sort of jargon that I could use in our invoices to clarify extra work that comes when the communication is actually not well organised.
Of course changes are possible. And of course sometimes you need to see a design to realize if the path chosen is working or not. That’s understandable but as a designer you have to be dealing with several clients at the same time. You have to manage, to juggle, and so each person has to take their own responsability.
So in these cases you take a lot of effort an time on communication and mailing during the work as a way to regulate.
S.K. But then the more you experience the more you can do in advance. Although you don’t always want to be too restrictive in the beginning otherwise it can become too oppressive for the client.
Do you feel there are differences between an institution and other partners like artists? Are there different profiles of clients or commissioners?
S.K.Yeah for sure. I actually like cultural houses because they let you free in a way. I don’t like to work with somebody for whose things are too personal because often they become too directive.
If I come back to the initial question which was “how do you engage with partners, how do you call them ‘clients’ or ‘collaborators’”, it seems pretty clear that you call them “clients”… Or would you make a distinction and not put everyone on the same level.
S.K. Now I’m working for artists who are also friends. I get a little amount of money and maybe sometimes I don’t. I don’t call it a “job”, I call it “just doing it for a friend or something”. But often, at the end they insist to pay me something and I tell them to give something that they think is worth the process. It could be money or a trade with something else. It really doesn’t matter but it’s nicer. Because talking about money for a work so personal to them, they will suck your blood and maybe you’ll get 200€ for a big amount of work. I’d rather have this distance and trade something else.
I can show you an example of a contract.
For instance, this is like what a proposal looks like, then we have the price breakdown and then in the end the terms where we always include: “Expenses you may incur and that are not included in the base fee are printing costs, license for typefaces, travel expenses…”. Sometimes it’s more defined, here it’s more general. This outlines the general terms of the proposal and if acceptable, this proposal will be submitted as a written form of agreements… Then “All prices are exclusive”, that’s also important especially with foreign clients.
There is also asterisks detailing some prices. Sometimes we don’t have all the information at the beginning so we try to think about it in advance. We specify formats. Sometimes we don’t know how many items or formats they want so we put different prices.
Sometimes we also include the pitch rounds: if there would be no agreement about the design and we feel that maybe they want to work with somebody else or they want it differently then we just charge a minimum for a pitch.
Do you mean that you also plan the contract termination?
N.E.Yes, it’s nice that they know they can back out of this if they want.
You said that you were giving a lot of importance in the making of the quotes, pitch rounds and calendars. Is there any other tool you have in mind? Tools that could help you formalize the relation between you and a client?
N.E. I really like emails but a lot of people don’t. Because you can structure better, information are easier to find back and you can keep track more easily.
When you encounter a problem, for example a too high amount of corrections, did you already think about how you could have solve the problem maybe by editing the contract? Or other tools that you could have used to avoid that?
S.K.Slack is a tool that avoid the endless emailing for example. Otherwise it would be insane.
N.E.But in a way what general attitudes towards collaboration and partnership is a tool. We say “clients” because you have to take distance. Otherwise, it takes a bigger charge on your emotional and your financial and so your creative energy. You have to take that distance. Just for yourself but then, our philosophy of working with others is as warm and personal as possible. We don’t like when the relationship is stuck or rusty. It’s just the paper way of doing the proposal and the invoice that is the business side, but when we discuss it, in real life of course it’s more of a warm gesture that we do.
And this is also a tool!
Yes indeed it is also a tool.
Just to give an example, we often work with a tool where editing can be made collaboratively, with several hands at the same time. We demand our collaborator to be involved in the process of creation so we develop some platform where they can interact and so change, make their own corrections by themselves. It’s of course also part of our open source philosophy to ask them to be involved and this is also why we don’t call them “clients” but more “collaborators”.
This doesn’t mean that it works all the time in the making of a good collaboration. But small tools like these concretely ease some annoying moments like corrections for example.
And there are different approaches. Luuse, one of the other collectives we interviewed, have a technique for website work. At the beginning, instead of starting to make an offer and then discuss for hours about the yes’s and the no’s, they ask their client to organize and structure all the content they have as if it was the website. So it’s already a switch of mind for their commissioner, to think of structure before thinking the design. An then, they –Luuse– decide if they want to work on this project or not.
N.E. Yeah this is what we did with some clients, an example is Het Bos, a cultural institution in Antwerp.
Great. So did you ask them beforehand too?
N.E. I think they were already working on it naturally because they’re also a team and it was kind of necessary for them to do that. But anyhow we think it’s a very good way of working. If they think about it themselves before, it’s gonna be nicer for everyone and I think the result will be better.
N.E. And what was the reaction of these collaborators? Does it depend of which customer it is?
With Luuse? I think it was something quite concrete. I think it was for an artist for whom they develop a tool that generate the website directly from its work directories. In this sense it was helping a lot that the artist would edit the content.
N.E. But could you see a system like that working for a bigger institution? To make them more engaged in the process? For instance the corrections, is it like the way of working with an online software as you talked about?
Not necessarily with software I think it can also be methodologies in general.
N.E. When you say “methodologies”, you say in a way of design thing?
S.K. Or like on a Wikipedia page?
I can give you a concrete example from other interviews. Their contexts were a little bit different but… They are working with institutions but decided to never be in direct contact with institutions but always work with artists or curators who are in direct contact with those institutions. So they always have a proxy because they think that person is better at negotiating with the institutions than themselves. They build a relationship with that person and at the end they always work with that person. This is almost a manager in a way.
So yes, there are many possible tools to use, but you have experimented already a lot.
N.E. This was something that was really necessary. It always has been a big advantage when Sophie and I were together because it was safer in a way than if you have to start by yourself. But on the other hand, if we would have worked by ourselves, maybe it would have been more of a challenge to talk with other people in the field to see what their experiences have been. For instance, when an assignment comes in, you could ask around, in some kind of group: “Did somebody have already worked with this client? How was it? Do you have any tips? How much would you ask for this and this? Etc.”
So everybody would be in this kind of cloud where there is no kind of competition because there’s transparency. Creating a kind of community and some kind of organism that’s sustainable and actually supportive for each other. We’re not really part of a group, we know some designers by now and some with whom we have a little bit more of a personal relationship. So you can still ask some tips and it’s actually really nice but it doesn’t happen enough I think.
I guess you also have a part of research in your work, aside or within the commissioned work you do. How do you deal with that?
N.E. We’re doing research within the projects of making a new identity for a client. So we’re researching a lot about the institute and its history. The other part of this work is to make a design that reflects the school’s future. They really want it to be as sustainable as possible, so we’re looking at how to go sustainable and think about elemental, good choices, being more aware and responsable in general.
There is not really a real discourse about ecological graphic design concerning paper, inks, ways of printing, data usage, server systems, etc. Our starting point was the manifesto of Sara de Bondt in 2009. And now 10 years later we see that some things were mystified.
It’s quite hard because it means working on this identity starts with a lot of restrictions.
It’s a lot about print, isn’t it?
But I guess it would be good to include the digital as well.
S.K. Yes, being concerned about clouds, hosting system, etc. There are online systems where you can measure the carbon emissions of websites. You just enter a website link and then you see how much every click uses. A few companies are working on that, like the website of Ecover or in the U.K. now, there are big companies really working with ecological design. It’s all about finding ways of not using too much data, not too many scripts because it uses a lot every time you visit and you reload a website, or using light fonts, etc.
N.E. But you can go super far in this, you can have those basic frames that already requires a bit of research to connect everything together for instance. We went to Sweden to Munkedal where they produce Munken Paper, it was really interesting to see, first of all because we understand this material better now.
Now we are working in a more methodological way where we work from bottom to top and because there is no clear discourse about it means, that the aesthetics that will come out of it already have their meaning. It’s not like we have to convince people from outside that the design is fantastic. We will think it’s a great achievement because we are able to make compromises.
But the outcome might also be very interesting.
N.E. Yeah, but I mean more that this is not the main concern. It’s more about what are the inclinations and how far you can go in it. For instance, in the North of Europe, people prefer more off-white paper color while in the south of Europe they rather have more bright paper. But if you want to make brighter paper, you have to use more bleaching or chemicals or add a little bit of blue ink in it. Red and blue inks are not so sustainable compared to yellow for example. Sometimes you think “let’s go for this paper” but then suddenly you realize it will have to come from a far location and then maybe you’ll better use another local paper. In fact the desicion-making is really difficult if you just started doing the research about that.
S.K. It’s like that about everything. Like every little product that you get and it’s very hard for a customer to know all the steps behind. A lot of data is not available.
Prices are also obscure, when sometimes it can be cheap to do it ecological, some other times, it can also be expensive. Then you also have the waste of the paper and the binding decisions. You can make ecological decisions on the paper but the end object might be stapled. There’s a lot to be done actually.
So research on ecological practices in graphic design. But is this something that you initiated before being here?
N.E. We were actually talking about it, but we hadn’t started anything yet. This gave us the opportunity to have time for it and implement it into our tasks. So to answer the question of research, we take the assignments as an opportunity to do research, that’s why we were very fortunate to work with projects that also interests us.
Are there moments when you asked for subsidy or dedicate time to actually work on a specific and personal research? In fact, being here in residency is almost that, no? You’re working on their identity but at the same time it’s also having days here dedicated to other things.
N.E. Yeah… in an ideal situation. Pushing everything in three months is quite short. But we make the best out of it because we’re really happy to be here. Although it would be also nice to do a residency apart from doing an assignment.
We could think about being subsidized but it is another world and it requires a lot of writing and energy and disappointments. (laughs) Because it’s not always sure you’ll get it.
Yes it is a lot of energy to get it but it’s good opportunity to really disconnect to give you the chance to focus on something specific. Also, maybe being in Maastricht is not far enough to disconnect, I have the feeling like if you’re less than 400/500 kilometers you just keep in touch with the everyday work you should do being at your original place.
S.K. Yes you have to be somewhere where you don’t have 3G! (laughs)
Far enough to say to anybody you’re working with, that you’re not going to be there. In Maastricht you can say “I can pass by.”
Or you stay in Brussels and you say you went to Brazil and you don’t tell anyone! I know somebody who does that!
One last question. Can you briefly talk about a collaboration that did work and one that did not work? What made it work or did not work?
N.E. Overall, we really have great relationship within our projects. This has been a process of trial and error for sure. I guess because we manage to set a safe working distance with our client weither they are involved artists, instututions or even friends.