Lars Müller: Develop a Global Visual Language
Lars Müller, born in Oslo in 1955 and a Norwegian citizen, has been based in Switzerland since 1963. After becoming a graphic designer in Zurich, extended travels, and a one-year assistant position with designer Wim Crouwel in Amsterdam, Müller established his studio in Baden/Switzerland in 1982. In 1983 Müller published his first book and, as Lars Müller Publishers, has produced some 800 titles to date. From 2013 to 2015, Müller was the international president of AGI Alliance Graphique Internationale.
Q = 特赞Tezign
A = Lars Müller
Q：Why did you choose book design after you graduate?
A：So you go far back. I always like to communicate. I like to communicate with people, translate to people, explain to people, to make others understand what someone want to say. I became a graphic designer at first, because I can do more visual communication. Since I was working with graphic design, I can enjoy visual communication, like color, image, and more, then I can decide the way they work, and what material is most appropriate to communicate. Later I discovered that book is the only printed medium that is meant to last. Everything else will become trash tomorrow, and is only promoting the product for the time. However, the book will last for a long time, in your culture you have books that’s hundreds years old, they were really carefully made, and now became collections in the library. I was attracted by the book because it’s so valuable.
You cannot become a publisher by position, you can only become a publisher by experience.My decision is to design books, publish them, and then after years, I can become a publisher. Today, I can say that I’m a publisher, and can also publish the books that other people designer. My rule has changed, I still like to design, work with content, and control everything by myself.
Q：How many books you have in your company?
A ：My first book was published 33 years ago. I think I have produced around 700 to 800 books since then. I may have designed 500 of them. In the PSA’s show there were 100 books that I designed myself.
Q：During your desing process, do you usually contact the writers first for their opinions?
A： This is something I see changed over the years, that the relation between design and content has changed. Today, design seems is not depending on the content anymore. I always try to understand the content before I design. But today, maybe designers never read. As a designer or a reader, I’m curious to learn about content, I will read, I will look at images, I will discuss with the author. For me, the design concept grows out from the conversation, and it also gives author more confidence about what I will come up with. When I win trust from the author, it means I will also have more freedom on the design. It’s all about communication, it’s about finding a common sense, a friendly common sense on the eye level.
I published a book called Who Owns the Water. I initiated it, I wanted to do a book about water, because it’s such a basic source for life. Because I’m not a specialist, I’m just a citizen who’s worried about this social problem. I searched for specialists in science and politics, I gathered them together and discussed how to make a book that’s for everyone, to explain the importance of water. They work on all the content for the book, and I searched for the visual language for images how to express the topic. It’s about the balance between design and content. It’s me participating in the content because I’m the publisher, and the client.
I really dislike if there’s a weak content with excellent design. That only happenes if a graphic designer is commissioned to design the book, with no inference on the content. They would never oppose their clients. They are polite, they are also lazy because they don’t read. To me, only if you can understand the content, then you can find the right solution. And sometimes, I feel designers are isolated by their own choice, they are living in a very small cage of design. My advice today is you should stand out if you are professional, you should be curious, you should develop an interests, which means you have to read read read.
Q：You’ve designed loads of books, have you ever experienced struggles of bottleneck?
A： I don’t search for fancy ideas. I’m never afraid that I won’t have an idea, because there are always ideas. What I love the most about being a designer is that your project starts with a sketch, there’s nothing there yet. I start searching, start having ideas, small sketches and notes, think about how can I solve the problem, how can I visualized a content. Of course I represent a European modernist believe in design education, for me it is always idea form, because you need an idea first then you can design. The idea contains the structure about how you want to translate the content into visual image. This has to do with your understand of the content, if you know nothing, so you won’t have any ideas. If you know a lot, you will try to create an image for the complexity. I call the search for idea surfing.
Some ideas are smart, some ideas are stupid, maybe some are funny, out of these series of ideas, I make the selection, and choose the better one. What I love about Chinese culture is that you have these amazing characters, you can play around with it, and combine different parts together to create a new content. I’m amazed by that. I would say that in another life, I would love to be born as Chinese. You guys have such a rich culture, and I really love it. Ok so you have these different tools, and you make 2–3 selections from all these ideas, and develop them further. I call this the second stage of diving. In this stage you try to discover the visual potential for your idea. It’s searching for form, you search the transformation between the content and design. Sooner or later, you will get a favorite, that’s the process of design.
Q：Have you ever designed books written in Chinese?
A：Your question for me is actually how would I adapt to different cultures in reading and writing. I have no experience with Chinese contents, designs or types so far. But I do have some experience with Arabic and Japanese contents.
I had a chance to make a book, which contains both Arabic and English. Arabic is written from right to left. So we have to make the book attractive so that the readers can respect another culture and language, but at the same time feel comfortable with their own language. This is super challenging, and I believe the same challenge comes to China now, as you want and need to communicate to the world and push China forward. Our alphabet is so simple and only contains 26 letters. So how to bring the complexity of Chinese to the simplicity of western language becomes to a challenge. Designers are the professionals, which are requested to develop a new visual culture which is able to communicate in a global dimension.
In the PSA exhibition, I sometimes asked people why are you interested in my work, why did you invite me to Shanghai and what can I offer you. The response was that they want to know how does a western publisher and designer think and translate his contents into a visual language, which can be understood in China. So they actually analyze my concepts, and at the same time, I am interested in understanding the structure of visual communication in your culture. Once we understand each other, we are able to combine and create something which can be understood by a wider audience. That’s why I believe that all the designers should work on communicating to the world through global visual language.
Q：In an interview, you said that you used to worry about the digital media, but now you are not. What made you change your idea?
A：I am a publisher. I focus on books. It’s my business. But we must train ourselves to step out form the niche. Everyone is challenged to look outside his or her own professions.
I am a movie addict, and I love to watch old movies though I don’t always have the time. I love French movies from the 60s and Italian movies from certain period. I don’t like Hollywood because I thinks it’s like a mass manipulation machine, which is for consumption and to satisfy low desires or low needs of people. It’s not reflective, and it’s not using the medium to reflect. The Hollywood movies are not artistic and have no values to me.
But video art uses the moving images or digital media to express contents and beauty. I am very fascinated by that as it is far away from my own filed of profession. But I try to understand how do we deal with the fascination of the moving images. For me, the book contains still images of a moment, but the films involve a sequence of images. It’s a time related medium.
To go even further, I would like to mention the Zurich Art School next to my studio. They have a game design department and students there create new video or computer games. I always thought that’s silly, as nobody has to play all day. But now the computing tools are used in a very smart way such as to educate children or even to educate elderly people about how to behave and how to maneuver. Game design, which is started as an entertaining tool, has now becomes to something very important and useful. Probably, it’s the same in China. That’s why I say a designer cannot stand still and say “oh, I am the guy of the book.” The book is my prefer too and it’s where I have all the prestige, so I do well. But I have to combine my knowledge with the new development in the media world. You are still interested in books, but you are representing the digital generation. We need to learn from each other and inspire each other because the future is the fusion of all these devices.
We have two worlds now: digital and analogue. I promise you that your best day will be the combination of these two. You use your digital devices (laptop, computer and smart phone) to manage your day, to communicate with friends, to write emails, and when you come home at night, you can relax, sit down and spend 1 hour reading in the analogue world. During this multi-sensual experience, your entire mental systems re-coordinate. The digital world is fragmented, while the analogue one is continuous in real time. I think the future lies in the combination of the two.
Q：As the previous president of AGI, how does AGI affect the development of graphic design worldwide in your opinion?
A：Almost all AGI members are involved in education and teaching. Many of them are very important and influential teachers. Obviously, we all care about what is the future of our professions, how do we hand over to the next generation which may need to adapt to new media and what are the core beliefs we have in visual communication.
During my period as the president of AGI , I tried to emphasize the idea that we need to work on or develop further on what I may call a global visual language. It’s like the money, which has adapted to all the currencies in global economics. Different currencies like euro or dollars have adapted to a worldwide economic system. There is money flowing everyday. Similarly, we can take exchange of information as visual currency. There should be a common currency, which enables us to understand each other. The world tends to fall apart if we don’t create a common denominator, something that we can all believe in and rely on. For example, how do you visualize “peace”?
A：Obviously, a pigeon has become a global symbol for peace, which many people agree with. If you research where the idea comes from, then you may find out the pigeon has a little olive leaf on it in ancient Europe. Olive leaf is a symbol for life in many different cultures as the olive tree is healthy and lives long. The information links as a peaceful world is the place where people can live. Today we’re facing more complex situations. How do we exist visually and cross-culturally as global concerns. This concern starts to grow in AGI.
When I come to Shanghai, I have sleepless nights. It’s full of new impression, and I try to connect my experience and knowledge. When I came back to Switzerland, I found that I’ve changed and I see things different with the new experience. I would say AGI is proud to assembly some of the best designers in the world. We discuss at a high level from contents to images, how the transformation has been made and how can we teach this to students. Our teaching methods are changed much more efficiently. Maybe we can create an AGI academy to teach students in the future. Maybe some of the AGI members can come over to Shanghai to teach the best of the art students there. I am obsessed by this idea. We should find a way to bring together the experience of designers from different cultures and let them talk and teach in fusion.
Today, we can not only meet in person, but also meet online and do online teaching. It’s possible to use digital media to get closer. It’s always analogue and digital.
Interview | Ziling, Julie
Translate | Julie, Luona